1. Encourage students’ spiritual development by inviting them to the campus dedicated prayer space that allows for the five daily prayers, Jummah, halaqas, workshops, Eid celebrations, Ramadan iftars, and more. Give them a personal invitation. In that space, invite Black guest speakers but not just during Black History Month. If you need a list of more-than-qualified khateebs, I would be happy to share that with you. Jummah khutbahs at Howard University are 99% given by Black Imams. Also, do not have a Black History Month event and only have White speakers.
Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives18
explains that “spiritual growth enhances other college outcomes, such as academic performances, psychological well-being, leadership development and satisfaction with college.” It’s important to understand this as many students are struggling to find themselves, who they are away from their family, away from the structures of home. This becomes even more challenging when you are Black and Muslim and feel unwanted. Having Black khateebs
do Jummah and speak at other events empowers the Black students; representation matters. It also shows other students the value of Black imams and Islamic scholars. All of this will help students excel in other areas of campus life as well.
2. Establish an environment that allows students to create their own identity as Muslims and not just replicas of immigrant Muslims. Many are looking for something concrete and real, independent of stereotypes of Muslims seen in the media. What does it mean to be Black and Muslim? What does it mean to be African and Muslim? What does it mean to be Caribbean and Muslim? What does it mean to be Afro Latinx and Muslim?
Christian Smith explains in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers 19
Three “dimensions” (or clusters of actions) a congregation might provide in engaging teenagers to grow spiritually and acquire valuable knowledge, abilities, and contacts include Moral Order, Learned Competencies, Social and Organizational Skills. For Black students, these three factors are essential for them but difficult to achieve if they feel isolated and marginalized from the larger group. There have to be both informal and formal invitations for these students to be a part of the group. Make real connections with students by talking to them individually. Check on them when you don’t see them at events. Just sending a flyer or posting invites may attract some but not others. Reach out with a personal connection. The Black Muslim students on the fringes may need additional support and incentives. Chaplains can play a crucial role in making this happen. Once a part of the group, students can quickly learn moral order and learning competencies. The development of social and organizational skills should include having Black students in leadership roles. They will bring a different perspective to what's being done. It will empower them and shatter any stereotypes that Black Muslims are ill-suited to lead.
3. Create a space with activities that allow students to learn together in Islam. A bonding takes place. Some may be on varying levels, but have “each one teach one.”
Mark DeVries suggests that developing an “emotionally healthy schedule” is suitable for our work and ministry.20
I believe this is also good for the students. If they have an “emotionally healthy schedule” that allows them to be an integral part of the group of Muslims on campus, that will enable them to learn together as Muslims. This schedule can include halaqas
(study circles) on Tuesdays, Jummah on Fridays, MSA meetings the first Thursday, social activities every other Friday repeating every week and every month. The focal point, if possible, is the prayer space, which can be a gathering spot.
It allows the other students to also develop “emotionally healthy schedules” by seeing the value of including the Black students. Both groups learn the importance of working together and leave college with skills that are transferable to masjid
leadership. Students come with varying levels of Islamic knowledge and can significantly benefit from learning from each other. Make each student where possible responsible for teaching another student. It allows the group to learn together and creates social skills that will last a long time. Follow the example of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ when he migrated to Yathrib, now Medina. The early Muslims came with nothing but their faith in Allah. Prophet Muhammad paired the migrants with the believers of Yathrib. This foundation of brotherhood established by the Prophet ﷺ was based on mutual economic and psychological support and the principle of being inheritors of one another, which in turn provided the migrants with support to get over the sorrow and misery they felt because of homesickness.21
|Establish Islamic study circles that pair new students with a current student to exchange learning. Help Black Muslim students overcome the sorrow and misery that many experience being at a PWI.
4. Have diverse representations of culture like food, nasheeds (music), and spoken-word artists at events that represent the heritage of all the students, not just Middle Eastern or South Asian, just because people think that’s considered “Islamic.”
Dr. Adair Lummis wants religious life professionals to understand that youth are an increasingly changing diverse population:
There is no one-size-fits-all youth culture anymore. That did exist in the first two waves of youth culture. But, likely, it will never exist again. There was a day in the not-too-distant past when the average high school entirely revolved around football players and cheerleaders. Today’s high schools…are a goulash of subcultures…The splintering of youth culture has created a huge methodological quagmire for youth workers, especially those steeped in ‘the right program is the answer’ thinking.”22
Is there really a ‘right program’? You’re on the wrong path if you think one program will suit all students.
This is important to consider when MSAs want only to serve cultural food they believe to be Islamic or that represents one area of the planet to the exclusion of the other diverse representations of Islam around the globe. Have pizza to solve this problem, have wings and fries to solve this problem, but just serving South Asian food or Middle Eastern food can be seen as a microaggression by students from diverse backgrounds. Consider the nasheeds (vocals with percussion) by Native Deen, the spoken word of Amir Suleiman and/or Brother Ali. One menu does not suit all.
5. Allow students to develop a positive identity of who they are as Muslims by encouraging them to get involved in all aspects of campus life, including interfaith activities.
Dr. Adair Lummis, from Hartford Seminary, explains in a lecture that, for teenagers in the 21st century, studies indicate that socio-economic situation, race, ethnicity, birth country, parental household dynamics, family religious involvement and other youth with whom they encounter in school, congregation, or neighborhood may variously contribute to their religious beliefs and future congregational participation. Teenagers go to schools in the majority where students are from different religions, denominations, have no specific religious affiliation, or are atheists, and so will be hearing other viewpoints. Also important, many teenagers will become involved in sports, clubs, and social events outside their congregation, which will take their time and interests in directions other than religious observance and learning.
The welcoming MSA can become an escape from the real world where Black students just stay to themselves when they experience racism from other students on campus. They can develop a lower sense of self-worth and become vulnerable to outside influences. Many Muslim students also want to explore and get involved in different areas on campus but the sting of racism can be repulsive. The MSA may be their starting point, but chaplains can encourage them to get involved in other activities like student government, interfaith groups, and alternative spring break. Chaplains can take note of the interactions between students and encourage other students to make room for the Black Muslims who may be feeling left out. Together, they all can be encouraged to become involved in a variety of activities on campus. These students live in a very diverse world, and what they learn on campus is what they take with them to live off-campus. At Howard University, I’m always on the lookout for the student who looks lost or left out. I find ways to include them in what we are doing. I also suggest activities for them to get involved with, activities that they might not have considered.
6. Encourage the development of good relationships between Muslim students, faculty, and staff. Dr. Lummis explains, “We can no longer expect that young adults will come through the doors of congregations on their own. Instead, we must make it a priority to go beyond our walls to engage this generation and co-create truly thriving communities of faith.”23
Students can easily get lost in the challenges of life on campus. Halima felt she had nowhere to turn. She just drifted away from the MSA and gravitated to the BSU. This challenge can have a positive side. The experience with Halima at the BSU can be educational for many students. She exposed other Black students to Islam who may never have interacted with a Muslim student on a social and cultural level. Alhamdullilah. That’s a win in dispelling myths and stereotypes about Muslims. However, if there was a Muslim Chaplain who took notice of her being absent from events, that person could have reached out to her to encourage and engage her to be a part of another truly thriving community. After a conversation with her, the chaplain could also involve the MSA leadership to be more welcoming to Halima and other students like her or others who feel marginalized. We have white converts and immigrant Muslims at Howard University, and I make special efforts to ensure their inclusion in all that we do.
7. Help the students build brotherhood and sisterhood with appropriate activities that can also involve faculty and staff as mentors.
Vern L. Bengtson24
contends that youth are most influenced (in regard to faith transmission) by their own immediate family, parents, and grandparents. It’s critical also to have intergenerational activities that focus on the family as a unit. On-campus, the people students interact with can become like family. These adults are in the best positions to make Black Muslim students feel welcomed and a part of the community. They can model as parents often do appropriate behavior. They can help students navigate the challenges of making room in their assemblies for others. At Howard, our Jummah service is a mix of students, faculty, and staff who are also involved in other MSA events.
8. Connect students with the off-campus community that surrounds them and find ways for the students to engage in community service.
Damon Mayrl and Freeden Oeur 25
explain that “the best activities to strengthen students’ level of Religious Commitment include engaging in volunteer work, donating money to charity, joining a campus religious organization, and discussing religion with peers, faculty, or staff.” Encouraging all Muslim students to be a part of the Muslim Students Association can help create the best activities to strengthen students' level of religious commitment. Students can suggest community service projects like feeding the homeless, mentoring and tutoring, and much more. All students can feel welcomed by the inclusion of their ideas and suggestions. At Howard, the MSA worked with the MSAs at Georgetown, George Washington, American, George Mason Universities, and the University of Maryland to produce backpacks for the homeless that included toiletries that they collected on campus. This event brought a diverse group of Muslim students together for a most worthy cause.