Muslim chaplain comes full circle

This fall,

joined the College in two roles: as the new Muslim chaplain and as associate coordinator of community engagement. He was born in New Haven, Conn. to a Pentecostal Christian mother and a father engaged with the Nation of Islam movement. In his youth, he was deeply involved in the Christian church before going on to embrace Islam as a college student. At that time, he became an avid community organizer, bringing together the Muslim community at Ohlone College in the early nineties. In 1997, he brought his skills back home to New Haven. Shortly thereafter, he began working as a volunteer chaplain in prisons and became increasingly involved until it became his full-time career. This past summer he graduated from Hartford Seminary. 

Tell me about your background. How did you end up at Williams?

When I was being interviewed, it was the week of my graduation from Hartford Seminary. So I told my father, “I have this interview … but I don’t think they’re really putting any funds behind this. But I’m not going to not go, because I should go at least and see – you should never turn anything down, [because] you never know what’s gonna happen.” And he said, “Where is it?” And I said, “This college, it’s called Williams.” And he said, “Williams! Your great-grandfather worked there. I used to go there as a kid. Your great-grandfather worked there from 1923 to 1973 in Psi Chi. And your great-grandmother worked there also, for fifty years. And I used to go there as a kid and just run around.”

Bilal Ansari, Muslim Chaplain
Ansari leads prayer for Muslim students in Thompson Chapel. Emily Calkins/Photo Editor

So when I was interviewing, he came up with me and we reconnected to my aunt – I had never met her. My aunt lives on Maple Street [with] my cousin, and my uncle works at the Clark…and my father wanted to go visit his grandfather’s grave.

[He was buried in] the veteran’s circle at the highest point of the cemetery. So we visited my great-grandfather’s grave right before my interview. At that point I felt this eerie feeling like, maybe I’m supposed to be here. At his grave, you can overlook the whole campus.

My aunt was telling me that he was loved here. And when he retired, Psi Chi had the last induction – the last induction into a fraternity on this campus was my grandfather. That was the last allowed fraternity induction. That marked a new era, turning the corner. And my coming here [as] the first Muslim chaplain is also going to mark a new era. All of these things were kind of a meshing – all this was in me. It was like, maybe something was here.

Then if you process the people, the mission, the vision, the attitude. . .and then the effort to get me here. The sincere effort to make this more than just a part-time job, but to make this a job with some teeth – the hard effort really was encouraging. But the clincher really was the spirit of Rick [Spalding, Chaplain to the College]. His soul is very endearing.

Why did you decide to become a chaplain rather than another type of religious leader?

I chose this path because I grew up in America. And the tradition that I embrace isn’t established, but my relationship with it is much like the tension between the “no establishment clause” and the “no prohibition of the free exercise thereof.” I lived within that world my whole life, before I embraced Islam. And I believe that imams lean more toward “the establishment thereof” … But chaplains have to on the other side understand everything that the imam understands and why they are conservative, but understand the mission of the institutions that are trying to accommodate space and be a pluralistic environment and not establish any one religion, or give any one religion a nod of authority, but to be open for all. Chaplains are specially trained to know how to negotiate that, from within the tradition and through embracing the institutional mission and vision.

I chose to go the chaplain’s route because I think it resonated most with my American upbringing, just being who I am, an organizer, just working with grassroots, big institutions like Yale or the mayor. So I had a good understanding of how to negotiate and make change from within an institution and how to move a community from just a passive place to a place of engagement.

How do you see your role here? 

What I want to do here is to build community. In the true sense of the word. So, when I’m wearing my Muslim chaplain hat – or kufi – build that community up strong where not only is there a growing, strong, vibrant, well-knit Muslim community, but fully engaged in the outer community of Williams …

As far as my other hat, as associate coordinator of community engagement, my goal is the same thing. There is a community that needs to be built. Right now it’s not really cohesive. I haven’t seen yet one of the athletic games between Williams and Amherst, I’m already starting to not like Amherst. Because if you put in a Google search on ‘community engagement’ Amherst is on the first page, sixth one down. Their community engagement is top-notch, and we’re not even on the chart. And it’s because they’re organized and we’re not. We have a strong engagement council of students who have kind of held down the fort for a long time … I hope to be a part of that effort here – I want to be higher than Amherst on the first page. At some point, that’s one of my goals. And when people think of those two terms, they think of this College.

What do you mean when you say that Amherst is better organized?

Well, between faculty, administration, students – all three of them got on board and labored through committees to think about this deeply, about how do we bring all of these disparate components together. And they’re not more engaged than we are – they’re just more organized in community engagement than we are. But I don’t like that either, because I’m an organizer at heart. So let’s get our act together and show the world that we are more engaged.