“What’s your hometown?”
It’s a question I ask many people I speak with for news. It was one of the first things I asked Brother Mohamadou Diagne, now in his second year as chaplain for the Muslim community at Bucknell University.
Diagne told me his American hometown was Chicago, but his birthplace was Dakar, Senegal.
“My family emigrated to Chicago when I was 12,” he said. “I grew up in a Muslim family, a pretty large family. I have lots of aunts, uncles and cousins.”
Senegal, Diagne said, was about 90 percent Muslim. With mosques everywhere and the call to prayer often heard, Islam was a big part of his early life.
“The spiritual connection to the faith developed later,” he recalled. “But culturally I grew up Muslim.”
Diagne’s dad was a professor. He thus grew up in an atmosphere enlightened by higher education. The family came to Chicago when dad was offered a position at Northwestern University. A respected academic, he taught Islamic philosophy and other subjects.
“I was always taught to have a strong identity as a Muslim, but also learn to see things differently,” he said. “People have different experiences and they are shaped by different aspects of their identities.”
Still, getting used to the American culture was a challenge.
“Imagine coming into a new country, not speaking the language, being (a) very dark African, having an accent and starting the seventh grade,” Diagne said. “It was not an easy transition.”
But as a positive person, one engaged by education, he focused on learning and adapted quickly.
“Within a few months, I was able to gain fluency in English, in part because my dad was already fluent and it was easy for him to teach us the language,” Diagne recounted. “I started doing well academically throughout middle school and high school.”
High school included top-level classes and volunteering with the National Runaway Switchboard. The work spurred an interest in youth counseling and a nomination for a full scholarship to Carleton College (Minn.) where Diagne majored in psychology. He also had minor concentrations in educational and cross culture studies.
It led to an interest in perhaps being a chaplain, but not necessarily as a distinct calling.
“My most meaningful experience came from working in the chaplain’s office. I was what was called a chaplain’s associate,” he recounted. “It seemed like from the beginning I was looking at going to the chaplaincy because of how it all came together. It wasn’t like that at all. I was just doing what I was passionate about and (what) I liked.”
The work involved forming dialogue groups, organizing events, bringing in speakers and discussions of social justice issues which arise out of faith.
“That was kind of like my niche in college,” he said. “When it came time to figuring out what my next step was, I was attracted to master’s programs in divinity. I looked at Harvard and Union Theological Seminary. But I also looked at some master’s programs in education.”
Harvard Divinity School offered programs covering religion and education. But Diagne was unsure of pursing a Ph.D. on arrival and for a time afterward.
“I floated my first year until the spring when I met a Muslim chaplain. I had never met a Muslim chaplain before,” he said. “(It was) at a spring dinner at MIT, organized by the Muslim Students Association.”
The speaker was the Muslim chaplain from Princeton University.
“After hearing him talk (and) hearing him speak about his work I felt like... this is actually something I could do,” Diagne said. “I already (had) the background in education, psychology and... the divinity program.”
Diagne’s energy impressed the elder chaplain to the point where he received an endorsement. From there he switched from a two-year theology program to a three-year Masters of Divinity. It was more structured, longer and focused on chaplaincy.
Columbia University as assistant university chaplain was the next stop before arrival at Bucknell in 2017.
Being the first Muslim chaplain at Bucknell attracted a level of level of scrutiny. Diagne said some folks don’t know much about Islam while others have been unclear about what the new chaplain’s position would be.
Diagne has been designing a program for Muslim life. It is meant to sustain the spiritual community, not only for the 60 or so Muslims on campus but also the university in general.
“Whether you self-identity as a person of faith as a Muslim or not, to at least have some awareness and general understanding of general principles of religion,” he said. “So much of what happens in our worked, weather good or bad, does stem from religion in some form.”
Friday nights, a time when less than modest dress and imprudent behavior prevails at some colleges, has been challenging.
“One of the challenges of Muslims in the west... and at colleges like Bucknell is to identify the barriers to spiritual practice, and learning to overcome those barriers,” he said. “One the things I do (are) Friday evening programs that center on religious education and social events... It provides an opportunity for engagement and fellowship that is separate from some of the other activities that can happen on Friday nights that don’t necessarily represent Islamic values.”
Engaging the populace in simple things, such as removal of shoes when entering a prayer room, become important. It is a sign of respect and cleanliness. Similarly, greeting everyone on entering a room is a good deed.
“Little actions we do on the day-to-day can be seen as a form of worship,” Diagne concluded. “And a way of remembering God.”
Staff Writer Matt Farrand can be reached at 570-742-9671 and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.