As a child Samshad Sheikh aspired to be a nun in a convent, but her Muslim faith eventually led her instead to Yale, where she is serving as one of the two new associate university chaplains who started work this August.
Sheikh, the first Muslim chaplain in Yale’s history, will concentrate on Yale’s multifaith community, filling the vacancy created last year after Cynthia Terry left Yale for Goucher College. The other new associate chaplain, Callista Isabelle DIV ’05, will work specifically with Christians at the University, in a new position that was developed based on recommendations from a University Council report on religious life at Yale. Both women say they have found the Yale religious community open and accepting and look forward to making the chaplain’s office a larger presence on campus.
Isabelle, a Lutheran in the process of being ordained, said she has found that one of the best parts about Yale is its open dialogue on religion.
“I really think to try to do a chaplaincy here without listening to the diversity of voices on campus would be to really miss an important opportunity,” she said.
Yale University Chaplain Rev. Frederick Streets said the two new associate chaplains represent an important expansion for the Chaplain’s Office.
“The associate chaplain presence confirms the growing and robust nature of the religious community of Yale,” Streets said. “It’s an exciting time for the chaplaincy.”
Both associate chaplains’ responsibilities include attending meetings with students and faculty to discuss religion on campus, organizing community outreach, and providing counseling to anyone who needs it, he said.
They also have other duties specific to their roles in the Chaplain’s Office. Sheikh said one important part of her job as chaplain for multifaith religions is ensuring that students of all religions have adequate resources to observe holidays and generally making students of minority faiths feel that their needs are being addressed.
“Minorities feel that they have been neglected for a long time,” she said. “There was a need of recognition of all of the different faith groups that exist on our campus.”
Isabelle has already established an evening prayer service on Sundays at Battell Chapel, which is run by the Chaplain’s Office, and said she also spends time working with Yale Christians involved in other churches.
Students involved in religion at Yale said they are excited about the new additions to the chaplaincy and hope Sheikh and Isabelle will help expand the role the Chaplain’s Office plays in student religious life.
Altaf Saadi ’08, president of the Muslim Students Association, said she especially values the guidance that Sheikh, as a Muslim, is able to offer students of all minority religions at Yale.
“[Sheikh has] a different perspective on needs,” Saadi said. “I think she really understands how hard it can be for college students, whether you’re Muslim or Hindu or Baha’i or whatever, to really maintain that in college.”
Dariush Nothaft ’08, one of only a few Baha’i students at Yale, said while a chaplain may find it challenging to provide support to students of faiths other than her own, he appreciates having a chaplain specifically focused on students of minority religions.
“I don’t know how much you can do if you’re not someone’s actual religion,” he said. “[But] I think it’s about hiring the right person — it’s not about what religion they are.”
Sheikh and Isabelle both said they aim to increase students’ awareness about the Chaplain’s office. Andrew Beaty ’07, a student deacon at Battell Chapel who has worked with Isabelle, said he thinks attendance at Battell is up this year, due in large part to the new chaplains’ efforts to reach out to the undergraduate community.
“In theory, [Battell] tries to be the center of Christian life on campus, but I think in practice that’s definitely not true,” he said. “Having someone … focusing on undergrads is definitely a big step towards making Battell a more welcoming and accessible place.”