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Groundbreaker: State Capitol’s first Muslim chaplain

Sacramento Imam Mohammad “Yasir” Khan. (Photo: Council on American Islamic Relations)

When Sacramento Imam Mohammad “Yasir” Khan leads the opening invocation for the California Assembly on Jan. 11, he will do so as the first appointed Muslim chaplain in state legislative history.

In a statement released with the announcement on Dec. 7, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said Khan “represents California’s growing diversity in all the best ways.”

“I’ve seen the growth of the Islamic community in my own district and have become close to both religious and civic leaders,” Rendon said. “Like them, Khan shows a strong desire to contribute to the spiritual and civic vitality of California.”

“This was not something I was seeking,” he says. “It basically fell in my lap.” — Imam Mohammad “Yasir” Khan

Those contributions include serving as the chaplain for Northern California organizations like the San Joaquin County jail, Lodi Memorial hospital and the California Islamic Center. Khan is also the founder of Al-Misbaah, a non-profit that provides various kinds of charitable and financial aid to immigrants and other needy families in the Sacramento region.

He says he wasn’t looking to add the Assembly chaplaincy to his duties, and admits that when the Speaker’s office first contacted him, “I didn’t think much of it.” But after a few conversations – including one with Rendon – he became intrigued. More conversations ensued, this time with family and fellow clergy, who encouraged him to do it.

“This was not something I was seeking,” he says. “It basically fell in my lap.”

The appointment has since drawn plenty of attention, and Khan has been kept very busy doing interviews for news publications around the country and beyond. He says the reaction took him by surprise.

“I was taken aback,” he says. “I wasn’t seeking the spotlight. I’m just trying to make the world a better place. I only learned after the fact that this is a big deal.”

It is indeed that, says Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, the first woman of color and the first Muslim ever elected to that city’s Council.

Imams have also previously led invocations as guests in several other statehouses and Congress.

She was sworn into the mayor’s office on Dec. 8, just one day after the Assembly Speaker’s office announcement on the chaplaincy. She calls the choice “a refreshing approach” and an acknowledgement of the state’s broad diversity.

“In the face of so much hatred out there, not only against the Muslim community but other communities as well, I think it’s a very positive bold step that Speaker Rendon took,” she says. “It just normalizes the religion a little more. Maybe people who wouldn’t have paid attention to something like this will look into it a little more to see what it’s all about.”

Although he is the first imam to be the regular chaplain for a California legislative body, Khan is not the first imam to lead the invocation. At Rendon’s invitation, Imam Abdul-Azeez, the founder of the Roseville-based Tarbiya Institute, did so in November 2017.

Imams have also previously led invocations as guests in several other statehouses and Congress. Some of those appearances have drawn heated resistance.

As a state senator in 2011, Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, boycotted an invocation led by a Muslim cleric, saying that while he believed in tolerance of all faiths, he didn’t believe in endorsing all faiths. He shunned the cleric’s appearance because “I didn’t want my attendance on the floor to appear that I was endorsing that.”

Although not reacting to an invocation, now-California state Sen. Melissa Melendez, then in the Assembly, drew national attention for a post on Twitter in 2015 condemning the murder of an American aid worker in Syria by the militant group Islamic State. Melendez ended the post with the hashtag urging people to “stand up against Islam,” which garnered accusations of her conflating the group with all Muslims.

A visiting cleric in Delaware in 2017 also drew the ire of Republican state Sens. Dave Lawson and Colin Bonini, who walked out on the invocation. Lawson later called the imam’s appearance “despicable.”

What does concern him is using his new platform as a means to “bring the community closer together.”

And in 2019, Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew scathing criticism from New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin for having Imam Omar Suleiman lead the invocation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Zeldin was angry over the imam’s support of calls on public and private entities to stop doing business with Israel.

While the reaction to his appointment has so far been uniformly positive, Imam Khan says he did consider the possibility that there could be some negative reaction as well.

“I did think about that, but it didn’t concern me. I was up for the challenge because I believe this is something that needs to happen, and therefore I was mentally prepared to face anything I might be subjected to. That was going to be part of the package,” he says.

What does concern him is using his new platform as a means to “bring the community closer together.” He says he is very interested in working with other interfaith leaders and perhaps even Capitol staffers wherever possible. But he also understands it will take some time to fully grasp how things work around his new digs.

One commonality is the request that the prayer be kept brief. It is not always as easy as it sounds.

“I have a lot to learn. I’m still a newbie around the Capitol,” he says. “My role is to provide spiritual guidance. I’m not there to point toward any kind of legislation or to take sides in any issues.”

The learning curve is something every new chaplain must go through. All 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska is unicameral) open sessions with an invocation, and most have their own guidelines for how chaplains present their prayers. A handful require the faith leader to submit their planned invocation to the body’s leadership beforehand. Some (including California) pay their chaplains a fee, others compensate only for mileage or a small per diem. Many offer no compensation at all.

One commonality is the request that the prayer be kept brief. It is not always as easy as it sounds.

“In a typical service, our talks would go 12-15 minutes. It was a challenge to narrow it down to two minutes and still have some substance in there so that when you leave you actually left a message that lawmakers would take with them for that day,” says Rev. Patti Oshita of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento.

Oshita and her husband Bob, also a reverend with the church, each served two years as the Assembly chaplain before they both retired last year.

Senate Chaplain Sister Michelle Gorman faced the same dilemma when she took the position in 2015. It was challenging at first, but she says she has come to embrace brevity.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Please God, don’t let me be lighthearted today when the world is falling apart.’” — Sister Michelle Gorman

“When I first heard that they wanted me to do it in about a minute, I thought they were kidding me because we nuns have prayers that can go on forever,” she says. “But now I think one minute is really good. It helps you focus and find simpler ways to say things.”

To keep things brief, the Oshitas regularly used short reflections that refrained from using too many Buddhist terms. These often included mention of a current event, such as the devastating fire that destroyed much of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 2019. But even that at times could be a bit confusing for some observers.

“One member asked if we could present a more traditional prayer,” Bob Oshita says. “I had to explain to him that in Buddhism there is no formal prayer. In Buddhism, truth is everywhere. There’s no such thing as Buddhist truth or Jewish truth or Catholic truth, so you have to appreciate it wherever you find it.”

All the chaplains say they were asked to submit their planned invocation to the chamber’s leader a day or so beforehand, but emphasize that they have mostly free reign over their content. Even so, Gorman was asked to refrain from ending with a prayer to Jesus Christ, out of respect for those in the room who might have different religious views. In that regard, she quickly became fond of using poetry – something general and broad – to get her point across.

She says she too tries to craft a message connected in some way to the news of the day, and particularly on social justice issues. But mostly, she says, she tries to be sensitive to what is going on in the world as she crafts her messages.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Please God, don’t let me be lighthearted today when the world is falling apart.’”

Imam Khan says he is excited to get started, and is already well into his preparation for January 11th.

Aside from brevity, his Assembly predecessors have only one other bit of advice.

“We don’t know how long we have to do this, so take it seriously but don’t forget to enjoy and treasure the moment,” says Patti Oshita.

Ed’s Note: Corrects spelling of Khan throughout.

 


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