There is always hope: A conversation with Chaplain Imam Abdul-Wahab Omeira

Yule observance in PrisonWhat is Chaplaincy? When an untrained Muslim cleric – student of a Grand Mufti in Syria – builds a Mosque and then a Prison is built near the mosque, he responds to the call of serving, of being a volunteer. From part time to full-time chaplain, Imam Abdul-Wahab Omeira serves people from all faiths, including Wiccans and Pagans. He says that having religion in prison – and religious services – is a right, not a privilege. An interesting, wide-ranging article that rings bells for those who have worked as a chaplain.


Lauren Pond: Could you tell me a bit more about when and why you became a prison chaplain?

Imam Abdul-Wahab Omeira: In 1990, I moved to Lancaster, California because of the cheap housing, so I could have a house for my family. When I moved there, there was no mosque for the Muslims, so I started with a few friends a project to establish a mosque. It’s called North Valley Islamic Center. As we were doing that, in 1991-1992, the prison was built next door, not too far away from us, about five miles. I said to the community, we have a prison next to our community and we need to try to volunteer and help. I guess there was a former prisoner in our midst who had converted to Islam inside the prison. He told me, “they need a chaplain.” So I went to the prison to see if I could help and volunteer, and they hired me as a part-time chaplain. From 1993 until 1996, I had a full-time job and I was doing the chaplaincy on the side, taking care of the Islamic program.

LP: What was your full-time job?

AWO: It was in the grocery market. In 1996, my supervisor at the prison liked my work ethics and my understanding of my faith, my treatment of the prisoners and the staff. He decided then to convert me to full-time.

LP: Did you have to go through any formal chaplaincy training?

AWO: No. I grew up in Damascus, Syria, and the Grand Mufti — I’m not sure if you know what a Mufti is? In Muslim countries, there is a higher authority, an Islamic authority, where if there is a conflict between religion and politics, or between the secular and religious, he will solve the problem. So, I grew up in his school. I completed high school and my studies under him. When I came to Lancaster from there and I started the mosque, I automatically became the spiritual leader of the community. And so, the state, at the time when I was hired, they didn’t ask me for degrees; they just accepted my leadership of the mosque and my spiritual experience as my background. This is how I became a chaplain.

LP: Did you consider any other forms of chaplaincy outside of the prison?

AWO: I volunteered in the hospital as a Muslim chaplain. When they had a Muslim patient, they called me, and I went and I consoled him. But I have other activities in the community. I established a charter school in 2001, and we grew for over 17 years, and hopefully now we can continue. Our charter has stopped because the board of Palmdale School District refused to renew it, but now we may be getting it back next August. We’re not quitting.

LP: Do you primarily work with Muslim prisoners?

AWO: No, I work with everybody. I find it to be my mission as a chaplain. My inmates — and I call them my inmates, really, because I’m serving them to help them to better themselves — whichever faith they find available, where they’re convinced that this is the place of spirituality they can take refuge in or with, they can better themselves.

The parable, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it: religion is for God, and the country for all. Your religion is yours, but the country is for all of us. We share it. I wish that Muslim countries would do that, would understand the concept of separation of church and state. I appreciate the Constitution of the U.S. I am very, very thankful to our forefathers who have put this together. A brilliant piece of art, I consider it.

LP: I know you also work with Pagan prisoners, including Druids, Wiccans, and Odinists. Could you tell me a bit about this?

AWO: When I first came to the prison, there were no Odinists. In 2004, I was introduced to the Wicca faith by some Wiccan inmates. Unfortunately, the Wicca practitioners in the institution were kind of hidden; they were kind of ashamed because of the stigma behind witchcraft. So there were some brave inmates who decided to take it and work with it. I found a volunteer from the community. She used to come in, and she would take care of their needs. I was only facilitating: bringing her the artifacts, writing the supplements for her, to make sure she had the basic materials to conduct her sabbath. I would escort her back and forth. Lisa Morganstern stepped up to the plate after that young lady stopped coming.

If an inmate tells me, “This cup of coffee is my faith,” I will ask him, “How can I help you to meet your spiritual needs?” I don’t care who it is or what he believes in, as long as he is sincere, as long as he has a sincerely held belief. I find some inmates who are occasional, they like to [move around between] different faith groups until they find a faith that will suit them best. Some have received commutation for their sentence. I consider the success of their spirituality that helped them stay away from the gangs, stay away from fighting, the drugs.

Because when we have a vacuum inside us, we need something to fill it up. I think the vacuum we develop is through the way we’re brought up: lack of love, lack of care, lack of discipline, lack of appreciation for life. When people see that there is a spiritual apparatus that they can put on themselves, like a rope, it can enhance their life and raise them to be a better human being, a better citizen. We need to do whatever we can to facilitate this.

 

the ham
Imam Abdul-Wahab Omeira, a Muslim prison chaplain, buys Yule feast groceries, including ham, for the pagan prisoners he oversees at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County – a maximum-security men’s facilty located in Lancaster, California – on December 23, 2014.(Photo: Lauren Pond)

LP: Do you consider that to be one of the roles of religion in prisons: helping people fill that void that led them there?

AWO: There are a lot of things we can teach an inmate. We can spend money on teaching him a craft. We can spend money on teaching him how to get a degree. We can spend money on teaching him how to take care of himself physically. But if something that he has never, ever gotten was spiritual upbringing…

I always tell my inmates, there are things that have no answers. They don’t make sense — the prejudice, the racism, the hatred. Especially when you were incarcerated. Nobody realizes that you have paid your debt to society. They cannot get employment; they cannot get help. Well then, automatically, we’re pushing them back. But if a prisoner has that piece of spirituality to hang on, the rope to hang on to until things get better. With difficulties comes ease.

There are a lot of innocent people in prison as well — some innocent people inside who have not done the crime that they are serving time for. And those people need spirituality to even cope with the injustice that they have experienced.

So all in all, while we try to teach them a craft, how to earn a living, I believe we also need to teach them how to become disciplined and decent, decent, and god-fearing.

LP: Could you tell me more about what you do on a daily basis with the different people who are incarcerated in Lancaster, and which groups you work with?

AWO: We have inmates who ask for books. We have inmates who are hurting and they want to have a meeting. We have inmates who are missing their parents, their loved ones, their kids. On a daily basis, I have to go and read my mail. I have so many inmates requesting me to come to see them. I have to go see them, see what they need. And whether they are Christian or Buddhist or Hindu, I consider it my oath to go and talk to them, give them a shoulder to cry on, or a hand of love.

So, it’s really very difficult, yet rewarding. When you see the plight of a human being in front of you, your brother in humanity, in this situation, and you can give him limited help, but not all the help that he needs — sometimes it impacts us. I developed a metaphor: I call it the garbage disposal of my psyche. When I am stressed, I take all that and I grind it up and I let it out. I receive the problems and the headaches of the inmates. I am human. There are so many miserable stories.

LP: I remember from our prior conversations you saying that some of the other chaplains didn’t want to help the Pagan inmates. Could you elaborate on that?

AWO: Right now, we have some chaplains who – I don’t want to name what denomination they are – who declare conscientious objection to teaching or taking a role in teaching or sponsoring Wicca.

Two years ago, we were in Sacramento for state-sponsored training. One of the Muslim chaplains raised this same issue. After we were done, I went up to him. I said, “Excuse me young man, if there was a faith on this earth today that people would love for it to vanish, which faith do you think it would be?” And he said, maybe Islam. I said yes, you’re right. Because right now Islam is under scrutiny, under attack. If it wasn’t for [the Wiccans’] right to worship, you would not have a right to even pray. And we need to thank God for the Constitution, and you need to thank God that you have people like that to take care of you.

AWO: Unfortunately for the majority of our country, they think they’re going to go to heaven and close the door behind them. They are insulting the intelligence of God. I said God is just, and if God is just, then we need to look at the dartboard. The bullseye is God, and any road we take to him —as long as we are good citizens, taking care of our country, taking care of our community, taking care of our families and our surroundings, that’s the mission of God.

LP: I find it interesting what you said about feeling like Islam is hated so much right now, and that’s part of the reason that it’s so important to take care of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and helping these other groups, too.

AWO: I also teach my colleagues and my parishioners and everybody, each and every one of us is representing our prophet, representing our faith. And if I don’t impress you enough, I’m not doing my job and I am not representing my faith. And so it is my duty to come, as a citizen, and give you comfort.

Unfortunately, as a human being, the only thing we see is what we disagree on. We don’t see how much commonality we have between us. I see people, even though they are good on the inside, they are good citizens, they have no racism — but when I am on the plane next to them, and they know I’m a Muslim, they wonder: Is he going to blow himself up? It is my duty to teach them about me.

After 9/11, I took it upon myself to go into the [local] high school district. I went to every school there is. I sat in front of the student body, I gave them a presentation of half an hour about my faith. And I took questions in the rest of the time.

You know the word jihad – it’s misunderstood to mean fighting and killing. But this is the true jihad: self-discipline, self-restraint, and struggling in the way of your country, of your community, of your society. You should be the role model of peace and love in your community.

LP: What’s the difference in working with the Pagan prisoners? Do you do some of the same things with them?

AWO: The Pagan inmates usually take care of themselves. I read a few things, I try to educate myself on a few things from their faith. We stigmatize other faiths that are not ours, and we are ignorant. The more you read about certain faiths, the more you learn to appreciate them. Even though we have had the Halloween things and the witches and all that — when you read about it, you start appreciating it. They’re doing the same thing I’m doing, except in a different format. The objective is the same: for them to get themselves spiritually clean and spiritually connected. I think the way that they perform, they usually take care of each other.

Unfortunately, there are not enough volunteers from their faith to oversee or to help them out. But I try to get them books. I try to get them donations, if possible. And the religious artifacts that through the years I was able to add for them, like the Thor’s hammer.

LP: The Pagans can’t often meet without a volunteer to oversee them, is that right?

AWO: In the institution, fortunately we have inmate-led services. I was able to convince the warden to allow them. Many of the religious groups don’t have volunteers like me and I can’t be in 20 places at one time. Either you allow prisoners to lead their own services, or they’re going to take us to court. The court is going to side with them, and we’re going to have to find ways to provide for them. Because religion is a right; it’s not a privilege.

LP: You said you’ve done some readings from the different Pagan religions. What would you say you have learned most about them — in your experiences with them and in your reading?

AWO: Really what stuck to mind is how many things from Christianity are actually based on the learning and teaching of Wicca. I read an article from a Wiccan newspaper, and most of the holidays that the Christians practice are actually Pagan holidays.

I learned also how they have the circle, and how once you put the circle together like this, there is an imaginary wall that you cannot penetrate until you break the circle. I learned that the Wiccans, sometimes they cast the spirit out and sometimes they cast the spirit in.

LP: How do you think Pagan prisoners receive you, as someone outside of their religion helping them? Have you ever gotten any feedback from them?

AWO: I think many of them appreciate what I am doing. Many of them look at me, not in a sarcastic way, but kind of strange: how is a Muslim taking care of us? The same way that many people would think, how could a Muslim be running the Pagan group? There’s such a huge gap between the two. They just find it odd, but everybody is appreciative of what I’m doing, particularly the group that you met. They’re really nice people. I enjoy serving them.

 

Caring for the prisoner

LP: There’s a growing push to counter racism among members of Germanic Pagan traditions such as Asatru and Odinism, especially in prison. I’ve heard from community members that it’s important to ensure prisoners have access to educational resources about these religions and guidance from practitioners on the outside.

AWO: I think that is very good, powerful point: Inside the religion in Odinist and Asatru, trying to get the racists out. Last Tuesday when I had the Odinist banquet, one of the inmates had a swastika all over his back, and he had his shirt out, showing it. You could tell that he still has that mindset. But if you kick him out, you won’t have helped him; if you let him in, probably he will change. His peers will help him change that perspective. Kicking him out of it is not the solution. You’re just helping him to say what he is.

I find in the past, like in 2003, I found a book that they were reading and it had some racist elements. When I meet with them, I tell them, I am very happy to take care of them, I am happy to. But I will not help you to be racist. And if you are racist, please don’t ask me to be your sponsor.

Humans are good by nature. They are created good. It is the environment that they grow up in that changes their goodness. By the way you were created you are a good person. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. I always tell them that.

LP: Is there anything specific you would want people to know about prison chaplaincy?

AWO: I think many people appreciate prison chaplaincy, but I would like people to understand that it takes a special person to take care of prisoners. It’s a difficult job. Not everybody can do it. It’s a special calling. I think chaplains as a whole do an awesome job, and they work hard. I hope and I pray that the society as a whole will encourage our lawmakers to make sure that the chaplaincy program will be facilitated, will be enhanced, will be made stronger rather than weaker. It seems like the chaplains are the most disposable department in the department of corrections. But really we do so much.

So, I hope that all people will understand that chaplaincy is a really, really important program, and chaplains are doing a lot of good. It doesn’t matter which faith we are teaching. It doesn’t matter what group we are sponsoring. We’re doing something positive.

LP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AWO: We need to eliminate the mindset of, “Throw them in jail and throw away the key.” It doesn’t matter how horrendous their crime is; there is always rehabilitation.

I think we need to look at solutions. An ounce of prevention is better than a ton of treatment. We can really face our elected officials and ask them to do something good about our educational system and to stop using it as a guinea pig or a pawn to get elected. I have seen many officials who have promised to do miracles for education, and then when they get elected, it becomes a secondary issue. I feel that our society owes it to the future of our country.

LP: Do you have plans to retire?

AWO: I started [working at the prison] in 1993, and as long as I’m enjoying it, I’m doing it. It’s really fun. Doing what I’m doing, to me, is healing. I’ve always enjoyed helping people. I learned this in the United States. Where I grew up, volunteerism was really weak, I guess because of the poverty level. People were more busy trying to make a living. The American people are amazing people. And I learned volunteerism from them. They give up their time.

There is hope. There is always hope. We need to wake up.

***

Lauren Pond is a documentary photographer who specializes in faith and religion. She is currently a multimedia producer for the Ohio State University’s Center for the Study of Religion, where she uses photography and sound to study Ohio’s diverse religious communities, including neopagan movements and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. In 2017, Lauren published Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation (Duke University Press), a photography book about Pentecostal serpent handlers, which received the 2016 Duke Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. Lauren received dual Bachelor’s degrees in journalism and art from Northwestern University in 2009, and a Master’s degree in photojournalism from Ohio University in 2014.

 

Yule observance in Prison
Men incarcerated at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County examine evergreen sprigs provided for them for a Yule ceremony on December 24, 2014. They observe Asatru, a Germanic pagan religion thought to be rooted in the beliefs and practices of ancient northern Europe. Imam Abdul-Wahab Omeira, a Muslim chaplain who oversees pagan religions at the prison, stands at the door behind them. (Photo: Lauren Pond)

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