Three hundred and seven years after Yale was founded as a seminary for Protestant purists, the University has hired its first full-time employee devoted to serving Muslim students.
Omer Bajwa, who will serve as the coordinator of Muslim life in the Chaplain’s office, served as the interim Muslim chaplain at Cornell University before coming to Yale this summer. The appointment is the result of efforts by University Chaplain Sharon Kugler — who arrived at Yale last July — to expand the Chaplain’s office and facilitate contact between students and religious leaders at Yale.
Only a handful of other institutions nationwide have created comparable positions.
“[Bajwa] is a strong collaborator, an energetic consensus builder and an eloquent speaker,” Kulger wrote in an e-mail to the News.
During his first few weeks at Yale, Bajwa has already made an impression on some Elis. Bajwa leads prayer services each Friday, and some have attributed a recent upswing in attendance to his presence.
“He’s attracted a whole group of new people that we haven’t been able to get before,” said Usama Qadri ’10, president of the Yale Muslim Students Association. “A lot of us feel like he is an older-brother figure. When people meet him in person, they want to come back.”
While Bajwa has presided, attendance at the prayer services has nearly doubled compared to last year’s totals, Qadri said.
For Bajwa, his new position will involve much more than drawing larger crowds to prayer services. Bajwa said he primarily sees himself “being available as a full-time dedicated resource for the community.”
Bajwa said he hopes both Muslim and non-Muslim students at Yale will approach him for advice and answers to theological questions. He also looks forward to “having a seat at the table” and serving as a Muslim voice for inter-religious dialogue at Yale, he said.
Bajwa also intends to expand his role into the greater New Haven community by speaking about Muslim issues at local high schools and religious venues and partnering with the Muslim Students Association to arrange for Yalies to tutor children at a local mosque, he said.
Currently, Bajwa is spearheading the upcoming Ramadan banquet, which will be held at Commons dining hall next Tuesday.
Bajwa received master’s degrees in communications and Near Eastern studies from Cornell. It was only after earning his degrees that he decided to pursue the chaplaincy as a career.
While studying at Cornell, Bajwa learned to deliver sermons, which he began delivering every few weeks during prayer services. Soon, he began leading Islamic study circles and discovered a passion for discussing religion in an academic setting.
“My academic advisor came up to me at one point and said, ‘Chaplaincy seems like a very natural fit for you.’ It was a mini-epiphany,” he said.
Bajwa is currently completing his graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy at Hartford Seminary, which he expects to receive this coming spring.