Imam Sharif Abdirahman Mohamed, Co-Founder/Partner
Michael Van Keulen, Co-Founder/Partner
Open Path Resources
Many of the most complex decisions we face in life come in times of crisis. These decisions often take place in hospitals, where people are asked to make deeply meaningful health care decisions. For some of us, life and death are infused with spiritual meaning and faith obligations. For that reason, individuals and families are often faced with care decisions that they feel ill-equipped to address, and for which they seek comfort and spiritual guidance from a faith leader.
Hospitals have long understood this. Most view emotional and spiritual support as vital aspects of an effective and compassionate health care model and provide hospital chaplains, who—when requested—are viewed as critical members of the health care team. For years, hospitals have offered interfaith chaplains to provide faith support for Muslim families. But over 95 percent of these chaplains come from Christian backgrounds (1, 2). In fact, there are only 12 certified Muslim hospital interfaith chaplains in the United States and Canada (3), which often causes Muslim families to look outside a hospital’s wall for spiritual support. While there is significant data supporting the inclusion of spiritual care as a part of patient support, the relationship between the inclusion of an outside faith leader and improved patient health outcomes is much weaker. Research demonstrates that when imams are brought in from outside a hospital system for patient support, there is often little connection between the health care team, the patient, and the faith leader (4). These short-term partnerships have proven to be unsatisfactory and unsustainable (5). In Minnesota, which has a Muslim population of about 150,000, it has become clear that it could be enormously beneficial to integrate appropriate faith leaders into systems of care in order to overcome significant cultural gaps between community and health care providers and provide meaningful support to families facing critical life questions.
In 2012 a small Minnesota nonprofit called Open Path Resources (OPR) led a communitywide survey among the 75,000 member Somali refugee population in the state. Minnesota’s Somali refugee population has arrived over the last 25 years, and has faced tremendous barriers to well-being, including poverty, islamophobia, and language acquisition. Yet they have been incredibly successful in organizing and calling upon the region to improve its commitment to democratic values and policies. Analysis of OPR’s survey, which included more than 500 respondents, revealed that the availability of Muslim faith leaders as a part of the health care system was a high priority for the community. In response, OPR formed a partnership with the Catalyst Initiative of the Minneapolis Foundation, an important and emerging philanthropic intermediary housed within a community foundation. Catalyst operates from a core principle of being in relationship with community partners to effect transformational change. Through a Bush Foundation Innovation grant, OPR and Catalyst were awarded $200,000 to provide the Mid-West region’s first culturally-based training to help Muslim faith leaders explore and prepare for roles as interfaith chaplains. In 2019, the first year of the program, 21 male and female faith leaders completed the yearlong training and began a career-path towards chaplaincy, in hospital, police, prison, senior care, and mental health systems.
During the yearlong training, faith leaders explored the interfaith chaplaincy model and cross-cultural care. Each completed an in-depth exploration of their own theology, how their theology aligned with interfaith care, and what it would mean to work as part of an intercultural health care team. The program’s participants understood that they would likely be one of the first Muslims that many non-Muslim staff and patients had ever met. They were excited to present to the health care world a truer face of Islam one that was of mercy, care, and compassion for all life.
An Unexpected Challenge
The stated goal of our initiative is to increase Muslim chaplains into public systems of care and safety. By the start of 2020, 20 of 21 individuals had secured chaplaincy opportunities in hospitals, mental health centers, and public safety systems. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a challenge. Hospitals that were eager to integrate Muslim chaplains into their care systems suddenly needed to institute new protocols that suspended all programs and trainings. Over the last six months this has required our newly trained chaplains to provide teleconference care in some systems and wait for others to once again allow integration of new staff.
However, we remain resolute and hopeful despite this setback. The pandemic has made the health disparities tied to race and heritage painfully clear. American health care and public safety systems can no longer ignore systemic racism in all its forms. At OPR, we are taking on this issue directly as we prepare for a second cohort of Muslim faith leaders to explore interfaith chaplaincy as a career. Our second cohort includes a more culturally diverse group of candidates, representing U.S. born Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia, and Africa. By the end of 2021 we anticipate having a total team of 46 Muslim faith leaders who are well-equipped to make themselves available to health care systems and public safety institutions. We anticipate these individuals will find placement across Minnesota and the Midwest region, improving health care and public health outcomes for countless Muslim patients and their families.
Liefbroer, A.I., Olsman, E., Ganzevoort, R.R. et al. Interfaith Spiritual Care: A Systematic Review. J Relig Health 56, 1776–1793 (2017).
Pew Research Center, (2012). Religion in Prisons – A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains: Profile Of State Prison Chaplain. Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Kelsey B. White, Marilyn J. D. Barnes, Wendy Cadge & George Fitchett (2020) Mapping the healthcare chaplaincy workforce: a baseline description, Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy DOI
Khoja-Moolji, S. S. (2011). An emerging model of Muslim leadership: Chaplaincy on university campuses. The Pluralism Project, Harvard University.
Long, I. J., & Ansari, B. (2018). Islamic Pastoral Care and the Development of Muslim Chaplaincy. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 12(1). DOI