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A Decade of Increased Understanding

By Dane Petersen, Georgetown Alumni Online managing editor

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When Imam Yahya Hendi arrived at Georgetown in August 1999 to serve as a full-time imam for the university’s Muslim community, he knew he was breaking new ground, so there was no way to know what he might face.

"I was the first and only Muslim chaplain at any university in the country, so I didn’t know what to expect, or not to, and couldn’t ask anyone," he says. "But I received so much love and accommodation, such appreciation and respect, that it was a challenge to meet that expectation."

Hendi was asked to come to Georgetown to better serve the growing numbers of Muslim students and faculty on campus by Rev. Leo J. O’Donovan, Georgetown’s president at the time. "He believed that having a Muslim chaplain met Georgetown’s vision and reflected the Jesuit belief in diversity and respect for all cultures," Hendi says, adding that the university’s commitment to interfaith work comes naturally. "It’s very much a part of what the administration, faculty, staff and students believe is the vision of Georgetown, and a natural part of what distinguishes Georgetown from other schools.

"We all feel the calling to build bridges. It’s a very godly act to make those kinds of connections," he says.

An Immediate Impact

Fuad Rana (F’99) was a student on the search committee that brought Hendi to campus. He says the university was "terrific" in its recognition and response to the growing needs of the Muslim community, and Hendi’s presence is invaluable.

"Having an imam is a great resource in terms of providing a link between students and campus ministry, and offering support and developing programs that students couldn’t do otherwise," Rana says. "I’m sure there are students on campus today who could not imagine what it was like without an imam on campus."

Aasil Ahmad (F’00) was president of the Muslim Student Association during his senior year, Hendi’s first on campus. "I think Imam Hendi made an immediate impact in terms of recognizing what the Muslim community contributes to Georgetown. It was significant to have the backing of the campus ministry for our programming," Ahmad says. "He knows how to operate in an administrative environment, not just as a chaplain. He understands how to engage the university community as well as be an ambassador."

Culture and Faith

Hendi says that Muslim students have the same needs and questions as students of other faiths, though Muslim students sometimes struggle with cultural issues in sharing their faith with non-Muslims. "Culture can be a tough question – what comes from the religion, what is from culture and how do you make the distinction and explain that," he says.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks raised many questions about Islam and Muslims, Hendi says, providing him and other Muslims on campus with a unique opportunity. "There were many questions raised about Islam, and not many campuses had the presence of so many American Muslims, which I think was definitely helpful," he says. He also advised many public and private organizations, including the White House and State Department, in the days following the attacks.

Expanded Understanding

Among the resources available to Muslims since Hendi’s arrival are two annual retreats for Muslim students and a daily iftar (the meal that breaks the day’s fast) during the holy month of Ramadan, as well as a Muslim prayer room in Copley Hall. He hopes the future will see an endowment for the Muslim chaplaincy and a full-time Muslim program coordinator, as well as the establishment of an annual Islamic civilization lecture, delivered by a visiting Muslim scholar.

He also hopes to see the continued expansion of a class that has grown in popularity since it began in 2000, Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue. Hendi teaches the course along with Rabbi Harold White and Rev. Dennis McManus. "It’s a very popular course – it started out every two years and is now every semester, and we would do it more often if we could," he says. "It’s been a big success."

Rev. Philip Boroughs, vice president for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown, says the class plays an important role in student development. "It helps our students develop a critical understanding of diverse religious perspectives," he says.

Respect for Religious Diversity

Boroughs also has high praise for Hendi’s efforts to reach out to those of other faiths. "His commitment to interreligious understanding and dialogue and his presence on the interreligious campus ministry team has been invaluable," Boroughs says. "His openness and warmth attract students from all traditions and help them to envision a world where respect for religious diversity promotes human community."

Hendi feels very strongly about his work with those of different traditions. "I believe that interfaith dialogue empowers us all to be the best we can, to come to know who we are and are not," he says. "We challenge the perceptions about ourselves and others in an intellectual and spiritual setting, and that makes dialogue possible."