A Muslim chaplain at Loyola puts himself firmly in Sister Jean’s court

SHARE A Muslim chaplain at Loyola puts himself firmly in Sister Jean’s court
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Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the Loyola Ramblers’ chaplain, holds up No. 1 as fans chant inside Gentile Arena. | Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

As the Loyola men’s basketball team captured the nation’s attention in its run to the NCAA Final Four, my friends kept asking: “Do you know Sister Jean?”

The answer: Everyone at Loyola knows the 98-year-old Sister Jean — and Sister Jean knows everyone.

Speaking as her colleague in campus ministry, she’s fascinating in that she remembers everyone by name — students, faculty, staff. In department meetings, she is alert, raising questions out of concern for the students and the university.

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Reporters ask her for those perfect quotes. A journalist inquires whether she prays for the opposing teams, and she responds, “Yes, but not as much.”

Long before those brilliant sound bytes, she has been telling us great stories, including the time she wasn’t allowed to have a dog, so she had a secret pet monkey.

While I am racing across campus between appointments with students, I pass her, waving. She nods and says, “Hi, Omer.”

She is still, talking to students, speaking with each with the same concern and compassion the nation witnessed with our basketball players.

One student tells me Sister Jean would ask about his music projects. Another student speaks of her conversations with him in the morning as the brightest part of his day.

Omer M. Mozaffar. | Provided photo

Omer M. Mozaffar. | Provided photo

As a university founded on Jesuit values, we teach students to find God in all things. As a Muslim chaplain and lecturer, I am guiding the students, in my vocabulary, to see all things as signs of God. We teach that the pursuit of the Divine is inseparable from the pursuit of social justice. It follows that Loyola is home to a vibrant culture of social consciousness and activism that is itself gaining national attention.

There is something in this Loyola model that can be of use in our society. In seeking to be a home for all faiths, Loyola employs me to nurture students because of my Islam, not despite it. My assignment is to apply my Islamic training in the students’ formation. There is no compromise of Loyola’s Catholic consciousness, nor is there any compromise of my Islamic consciousness.

There is an old assumption that religion breeds violence. It does. Muslims are persecuting Christians in Pakistan. Buddhists are persecuting Muslims in Myanmar. Hindus are persecuting Muslims and Christians in India. Jews are persecuting Muslim and Christian Palestinians in the Middle East. In the United States, Christians are attacking Jews and Muslims, as well as the Sikhs and Hindus whom they mistake for Muslims. Pick a nation, an era or a religion, and you will find persecution involving religion.

But religion breeds more compassion than violence. If we were to argue that 1 percent of believers engage in violence, which would be an exaggeration, it still would mean that 99 percent are peaceful. The examples of pacifist believers are not as interesting because they involve engagement rather than explosions. More often, they involve the mundane, rather than the spectacular.

Outside of my work at Loyola, I have years of work in counter-radicalization of Muslims. Despite what news reports and certain politicians might suggest, the problem is minuscule, especially in comparison to the problem of radicalization in Christian white supremacist groups. Nevertheless, the repeated cause of radicalization has been a combination of anger, a perception of dispossession, utopian visions, aggressive readings of specific passages of scripture and charlatan preachers. In other words, when preachers convince young people that superpowers, foreigners or minorities have violated their rights, they fuel them with angry interpretations and visions of an idealistic, impossible world.

The cure is twofold. First, we override the anger and the preachers with love and compassion. Second, we dignify their intelligence by compelling them to explore the entirety of the tradition, rather than a few misquoted passages. When you engage the entirety of the tradition, you shift from utopian, idealist thinking, to real-world pragmatism. The ancient religions survive because they provide answers to real-world situations.

Why does the Loyola design work? We embrace faith unapologetically. While Sister Jean is unique, she is more a model than an anomaly, showing that students must be loved. She is a model that others, including myself, follow.

Omer M. Mozaffar is the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago.

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