American chaplain Ibrahim J. Long speaks to Mspiration about finding his faith and helping people in the depths of their suffering.
I watched my mother battle cancer when I was in high-school. I watched what faith did to her during her struggle. I was sixteen or seventeen years old around this time and I remember her strength particularly during the last years of her life. When she passed away I became really set upon trying to find the same strength she had. Interestingly, it was a priest at her funeral who said the words that really set me on this path. He said to think of one thing about Wanda Long – my mother – that you can take into your life and that will be her living legacy. I knew immediately what I wanted to carry on: her strength and that came from her faith.
After several years I practically gave up on faith because I couldn’t quite find it. I had looked into Christianity, Buddhism and New Age and, despite appreciating parts of them, I felt unable to accept them completely. It was around this time that I ended up reading a book about Palestine – because I was generally interested in the Holy Land – and I remember it being heavily anti-Muslim; blaming most of the problems of the region on Islamic theology. After reading the book I adopted those opinions. Soon after, a hippy friend of mine had just come back from backpacking around Europe and during his entire trip he did not shave, so he had a massive beard. As I caught up with him about his trip I remember saying “you look like a Muslim” and he responded “that sounds like you are prejudiced.” That really hit me because I didn’t want to be prejudiced. At that point, I realized I had to speak to Muslims and find out more about Islam.
I worked with some Muslims who started inviting me to their house every Friday for some discussions. It was very easy going and no one pushed anything on me and we just spoke about spirituality. As we continued to talk I got a copy of the Quran and when I started reading it I recognized in Islam all the things I was looking for in other religions but packaged together as one. That eventually led to me accepting Islam.
I was always very interested in psychology. From early on, I tended to imagine myself as eventually becoming some sort of counselor who would incorporates spirituality into their practice. Studying traditional psychology didn’t offer me that, however. I was upset and disappointed at the lack of discussion on spirituality in relation to counseling. After converting to Islam I felt drawn to Islamic approaches to wellness and wellbeing. After completing a BA in religious studies, I decided to continue my education at the Hartford Seminary because they had courses like Muslim Mental Health, Addiction and Spirituality and focused on how spirituality can help people in their mental wellbeing. After spending sometime there I came across this concept called Muslim chaplaincy. At first I was not really interested; by this point I had decided that I wanted to be a professor, but one that provides services to the community. However, after meeting with Muslim chaplains and working in this position for a while I realized this is what a Muslim chaplain is: a person who is engaged in the academic and spiritual theories but who makes it relevant to our society and an individual’s well being. I felt like I reached full circle; Muslim chaplaincy gave me the invitation to be authentic to my faith and provide counseling.
Many times I talk to people who just experienced a life changing illness or event. I remembered talking to a man that was very devout in his own faith and we spoke for sometime about how scared he was of dying. So I asked him what he thought about that and what he believes will happen. I was trying to help him process his feelings and affirm him within his struggle. To be with someone in the depths of their suffering is itself is a form of care. Sometimes that doesn’t necessitate that we talk. Just putting your hand on someone’s shoulders who is deeply sad, those who have experienced that know just how comforting that gesture is. The types of interventions that chaplains use is more than just verbal, it’s about having a calm presence and accepting the individual despite their current predicament.
I help people with a wide diversity of issues. Some of the main themes that I commonly come across relate to a struggle for self acceptance and the ability to accept who one is and assert that without fearing rejection. Other themes include finding a sense of belonging, and to belong somewhere with purpose. Basically, it’s about knowing and being one’s self in general and this is a very big issue for many people. I remember speaking to one woman that was very depressed and I felt it appropriate to ask her: “In what way might God bring you hope in this situation?” She replied that it was actually her mother that gives her hope, and not God. Now, if you look at it purely doctrinally one could say “astragfurillah, your mother give you hope but not God?” But I instead went with it and she went on to tell me her mother’s great qualities. Her mood was changing before my eyes and I could see how important her mother was to her, so I asked her if she could see her mother’s qualities within herself. The notion was very reaffirming for her, as we discussed the admirable qualities both she and her mother shared. From that experience I learned that what gives someone strength varies. What we need moment to moment changes in our lives.
A general rule when it comes to advice giving: one should refrain unless they have reasonable certainty that what they provide will be effective (or, at least not harmful). Let’s take the concept of preordainment as an example. Imagine a person who is in a fragile state after losing a family member as the result of a traumatic event. If you say to them at that instance, “This is the ordainment of God,” their first reaction may be anger at God, His preordainment, and or you for saying that. Such statements, no matter how true, may have damaging effects upon another’s spirituality if stated at an inappropriate time.
Everyone has got different spiritual ailments to work on and I also have my own. Part of being a chaplain is dealing with my own ailments as I am helping others. On this point, one of the aspects I really appreciate about this particular path is that it has led me to better accept my own flaws and mistakes. This has made me reflect further upon my own relationship with God. I came to an understanding of our relationship, and God’s relationship with all human beings in general, which I will share it with you: God likes to watch the process. He is there with us as we are walking and stumbling towards Him. This belief speaks to me deeply. He could have created us sinless, but as the Hadith says, if that were to occur he would have replaced us with another group of people who would sin. We are here on this earth to know and praise Allah’s attributes, some of which is that he is the most graceful and merciful. When I am with people that are flawed individuals like myself, whatever their faith or behaviour is, I see them as on a journey and God is watching them along the process. I am just there with them at one stage of the road.
To know more about Ibrahim J.Long please visit his blog.
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