Imam Hendi
Called to Be: Access & Excellence

Title:Last Word: Imam Hendi on the importance of radical compassion, respectful conversations, and self-care

Author: Interview by Camille Scarborough
Date Published: May 27, 2021

In August 1999, Georgetown University became the first American university to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain. Imam Yahya Hendi works with students of all faith traditions and teaches a popular course called Interreligious Dialogue. He also offers Muslim retreats and leads Jum’ah (Friday services).

What do you enjoy most about working at Georgetown?

At Georgetown I’m able to engage with students who are the leaders of tomorrow. The university and its students care about issues that are important to me: social justice, environmental justice, health care justice.

I have a passion for compassion that I try to instill in my students. I want them to leave Georgetown with a radical compassion for all people: those who have a seat at the table and those who we want to invite in. We share this world.

What sets your Interreligious Dialogue class apart from other course offerings?

I teach this course with rabbis and priests. We model how to have respectful conversations about potentially divisive topics: medical ethics, sexuality, politics, religion.

It’s interesting to see how students tend to sit with others from their faith traditions at the start of the course. Then, as time goes by, they mix up a bit more. We encourage them to ask why people believe what they do, to look for commonalities, and appreciate differences. I think that if we want to unite within the United States and the world at large, we need more experiences like that—for both students and everyone else.

You’ve met a lot of world leaders in your career. Do any conversations stand out?

I found it inspiring to talk with President Jimmy Carter in Atlanta. He’s a man of faith who became a voice for justice everywhere he went. Justice is a human and universal value. He believes religion is part of the solution to what ails our society, but lately religion has been politicized. President Carter and I agree that religion and faith can help us give voice to those who feel silenced. That’s the way to peace.

Given the pandemic and social unrest of the last year, have you started any new research or special endeavors?

When the pandemic started in spring 2020, I saw the fatigue and frustration on the faces of Georgetown students. The root of it was fear—fear of the unknown, fear of weakness and vulnerability. I realized that the solution was going to be self-care. I started meeting weekly with a group of undergraduate and graduate students via Zoom, entirely voluntary. We discuss ways to use this unusual time and these difficult feelings to unlock one’s potential and even maximize performance. Instead of being afraid of the unknown, I want them to start thinking outside of the box. In this uncomfortable time, you still need to experience things. It’s a perfect time to listen to that inner voice and follow your passion. Sometimes you have to push yourself. I tell them “Never work for what is possible but rather what is worthy of doing.”