(2011) At age 28, Imam Khalid Latif is shouldering major leadership responsibilities. But since age 24, he has been chaplain and director of the Islamic Center at New York University (ICNYU) and also Muslim chaplain for the New York Police Department, serving the needs of a wide-ranging constituency.
“The university and police department are obviously very different,” Latif said. “But they’re also very similar, as American institutions with growing Muslim populations who are trying to find their way.”
Latif is deeply committed to interfaith dialogue and community service as an integral part of what it means to be Muslim in a modern, multicultural world. “Each of these interactions can be an opportunity for spiritual growth,” he said.
However, Latif never forgets he is, above all, the spiritual leader of a young and varied congregation. Most are students seeking to find their spiritual path as Muslims while facing the challenges of college-age people anywhere.
Through the Islamic Center, students can seek advocacy, counseling and mediation services, and participate in interfaith activities. The center works with Bridges: Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Dialogue, a New York University student-run venture that offers dialogue, community service and weekend retreats. Additionally, ICNYU members can participate in community service programs with groups such as Habitat for Humanity.
In 2007, Latif was named as only the second Muslim chaplain to the New York Police Department. Latif, who serves with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy, has been called to hospitals several times to comfort injured officers and their families, none of whom happened to be Muslim.
These experiences, he said, have enriched him. “Any interaction I have with any individual broadens my own worldview,” he explained. “You have your values challenged and reinforced, and you begin to understand what you have in common with others.”
INQUIRY INTO FAITH
Latif grew up in Edison, New Jersey, the son of Pakistani-born parents and one of only a few Muslim students at his school. He sought out leadership positions, becoming student council president and captain of his football and track teams.
Latif majored in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University and continued his inquiry into his faith and his role as an American Muslim in perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse metropolitan area in the world. He also began to perceive the extraordinary diversity of Islam itself. “As a freshman, I met an Indonesian with a scraggly beard — and a surfboard. That was something new. But I also met Muslims who were African American, African, converted Muslims and the children of converts.”
At age 18, Latif was cajoled into giving his first sermon. “It seemed to go fairly well, and I was asked to give them on a regular basis,” he said.
In 2005, after graduating from New York University, Latif entered the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at the nondenominational Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, the only accredited program of its kind in the country. He also volunteered as the first chaplain of NYU’s Islamic Center and co-taught courses on conflict resolution at Abraham’s Vision, a Muslim/Jewish interfaith organization for young people.
Latif is a pioneer at a time when the growing Muslim student population, coupled with large numbers of international students, has greatly increased the need for Muslim chaplains on campus.
One of his most successful undertakings was almost an afterthought: podcasts of his 20-minute Friday sermons. A friend suggested they record and post them on the Islamic Center website.
Latif’s podcasts retain a strong following. “I’ve heard from a teacher in Abu Dhabi who plays the podcasts for her classroom of 60 students each week” he said.
Latif regards his commitment to interfaith activities as central to his mission as an imam. He cites a trip to New Orleans with members of the Islamic Center and NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. The two groups overcame their mistrust, he said, “and they all learned not to define students, by religion or background, as the ‘other.’”
“This is real, effective change,” Latif said, “change that can emanate into the broader community.”
(Source: Howard Cincotta and Staff Writer Lauren Monsen)