A universal chaplain

Queen’s Imam Yasin Dwyer discusses his work at the university and Canada’s prison system

Queen's Imam Yasin Dwyer
Imam Yasin Dwyer spent over 10 years working as a chaplain with Correctional Service Canada and has been with the Office of the Chaplain at Queen’s for the past eight years.

As a chaplain, Yasin Dwyer’s career has been unique — working with everyone from radicalized inmates to students at Queen’s.

He’s spent the last eight years as the Imam at Queen’s, operating out of the Office of the Chaplain. During that time, he’s worked with students of multiple faiths.

Dwyer isn’t new to the field. Prior to his time at Queen’s he worked as a chaplain for over a decade in the Canadian prison system. As the first full-time Imam hired by Correctional Service Canada, he counseled radicalized offenders, offering them a better understanding of the Islamic faith.

The Journal sat down with Dwyer to discuss his work — both at Queen’s and with Correctional Service — and the role of the Chaplain’s Office at the University.

In your mind, what’s the role of the Chaplain’s office and your position in the Queen’s community today?

The role of the Chaplain’s Office is just to provide religious and spiritual support for students on campus. My particular role is to be a part of the religious and spiritual chaplaincy team here at Queen’s. I am a chaplain of the Muslim faith. However, I am hoping to be a universal figure here on campus. 

But I was brought on some years ago because of the University’s acknowledgement that there was a need to perhaps have a chaplain of the Muslim faith as a result of some of the incidents of Islamophobia that took place on campus. 

I was really brought on on a casual basis, just to act as an advisor or someone to help the University understand the needs of Muslim students here at Queen’s, and to respond in a positive way to some of the fears that Muslim students on campus had. 

Queen’s has its roots as a Presbyterian college and still has stereotypes about its Anglo-Saxon culture.  From your standpoint in the Chaplain’s Office, have you seen the impact of this on students from different faith communities?

Traditionally, the default chaplains have been either Catholic or Protestant. So as a Muslim, we really are learning from our Catholic and Protestant colleagues. We’re trying to figure out what it means to be a chaplain from an Islamic perspective. 

So many within the Muslim community, even the Jewish community — perhaps even the Rastafarian community — would hear the word chaplain and 

associate it primarily with either the Catholic or Protestant Churches, but we’re trying to break those stereotypes and recognize that religion and spirituality are universal … there are a variety of creative expressions of what it means to be a chaplain. 

In a diverse community, interfaith dialogue plays an important role. What steps can Queen’s take — as both a university and as a community — to advance this dialogue?

In the Muslim community, we just came out of a very, very important pillar of our religion called the Hajj or the pilgrimage. 

The pilgrimage is very significant for a variety of reasons, but one of the principal reasons that the pilgrimage is very important is that it’s a real manifestation of the universality of humanity. So the diversity that we see in humanity, the diversity on campus, is really for the purpose not to be divided, but rather to get to know each other and to learn about each other. And not only tolerate each other, but value each other. 

So the university can help this process by recognizing the value of diversity, recognize the value of difference and celebrating it in a very safe and open academic, intellectual and spiritual environment. 

Could you briefly describe your role with Correctional Service of Canada?

I began in, I believe, 2004 and resigned some time last year. I was a chaplain, a professional chaplain with the Correctional Services of Canada and again I was brought on because there was a growing Muslim offender population. 

I was kind of brought on as a pioneer of sorts, because I was the first full-time Muslim chaplain to be hired by the Correctional Service of Canada. 

[I dealt with] dietary needs, worship needs and we were able … to help chaplaincy understand what it meant or what kind of a contribution Muslims could make to the overall field of chaplaincy. So we were able to do a lot of positive work with offenders, with inmates and advocate for them and to help — through religious and spiritual means — them to do their time and not make their time do them.

You also worked with radicalized inmates, correct?

[I] and another Muslim chaplain, who was brought under contract some years after me … were asked to deal with a handful of offenders who were charged and convicted of terrorist-related offences. There was a religious dimension to this particular offence, so as Muslim chaplains or chaplains of the Muslim faith, we were asked to speak to their offence and counsel them through very, very specific religious strategies. 

We were able to extract from our primary texts the mistakes that they had made and we helped reconsider some of their religious and spiritual thinking to the point where today, many of them have come a very long way and have understood, or have a much more holistic understanding, of what Islam is, and they also understand what Islam is not.

Of course, we had to improvise and be very creative, because there wasn’t official acknowledgement that such a program specifically geared to radicalized offenders was actually needed. We had some success. 

Of course, time will tell whether that success was real or not. But today we can say that we were really able to develop positive relationships, mentoring relationships, to many of these young men — because most of them were young men — to the point where I can say our relationship has kind of gone beyond a professional one. I consider many of these individuals my friends. 

We do have text in religion, but we also have, most importantly, context. So we were able to help them understand the context of religion and to help them become better citizens and better believers.

What are the key lessons that you learned from your time with Correctional Services of Canada that you’ve applied to your role at Queen’s?

There is a popular saying in our tradition to “keep your heart busy with God and keep your hands busy with the people.” Keeping your heart busy with God has to do with your personal relationship with God. At the same time, faith has an external dimension as well, and that is symbolized through the hands. 

Your personal relationship with God must be secure, but also your relationship is not complete unless you serve the people, unless you serve those who are in need. So in a correctional context, that is quite clear, because you’re dealing with a group of people that are marginalized, are oft-times very poor and oft-times forgotten by society. 

It’s very easy to look down and condemn those who have made errors, especially when there are victims involved. But really, the goal of restorative justice is to restore people and to help people become complete, whether it’s offenders, victims, the community. 

That lesson was very explicit when I was working with corrections. I did move on, but I promised the men and women that I worked with that I’m only resigning, but I’m not quitting because the work — it’s not really work. It’s actually a duty. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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