In 2000, Khalid Latif, an 18-year-old first year undergraduate at New York University, still fresh off the train from Edison, New Jersey, found himself standing before a group of his fellow Muslim students, delivering his first sermon. ‘What do you mean give the sermon? You want me to stand in front of 150 people and lecture them about their religion?’ he responded, when the then president of NYU’s Islamic Center invited him to cover for an absent imam. ‘He said, “Just do it. You can do it.”’
Today, Latif serves as Muslim chaplain at both New York University and the New York Police Department, where he counsels officers and students and provides religious services, whether leading prayers or officiating wedding ceremonies. A quick YouTube search of his name will generate video after video of Latif doing what he does best – using his own personal narrative to help others navigate their lives and faith.
At one New York story slam, for example, he shares the heartbreaking discovery that the marshmallows in Rice Krispies Treats, his most cherished snack food, were not halal. Often dressed preppily in a dark blazer and tieless shirt, a black skullcap and trimmed beard, to reflect his piety, Latif is an effortless storyteller. His stories and sermons regularly weave in anecdotes about his childhood in Edison or his wife Priya, a master’s student in social work, and his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Medina, who he’s made famous through social media.
With his many roles and commitments, it’s no surprise that Latif doesn’t have much spare time – but he’s not complaining. ‘I really enjoy what I do, so I don’t mind doing it for a large part of my day. The moment I start to take a backseat, then the community can’t move forward.’
Serving New York’s Muslim community as an imam requires more than preaching, he believes. That’s one of the reasons he co-founded Honest Chop, an all-natural, organically inclined halal meat shop in Manhattan that aims to ‘reclaim halal meat’. He also has Muslim Wedding Service to his name – a response to the often ‘off-topic, off-colour and off-putting’ wedding sermons he’s witnessed.
Watching him work or speak, it’s hard to believe that Latif hadn’t planned on making a career out of his faith. ‘When I was growing up, you didn’t want to aspire to be an imam the way someone potentially might aspire to be a priest, or a minister, or a rabbi.’ The son of Pakistani immigrants, Latif was raised with Islam in an environment largely devoid of other Muslims, except for the South Asian families and businesses who moved to Edison’s Oak Tree Road during his teenage years. It wasn’t until New York introduced him to Islam’s racial and cultural diversity, that his identity as a Muslim began to take shape.
The first Muslim he met at NYU was an Indonesian clutching a surfboard at a welcome event for the University’s Islamic Center. ‘There were black students, white students, immigrants, converts and even people from other faiths. It opened up different perspectives, and this notion of social equity and appreciation for diversity really resonated with me. I was discovering certain ideas theologically that were really appealing and that I didn’t find in other traditions.’
It wasn’t, however, so much his increasing devotion to Islam as his desire to find the best possible utilisation of his skills and talents, that drove Latif to abandon his pursuit of a post-graduate law degree and shift gears towards Hartford Seminary instead.
‘Law school was definitely an engaging place on a more abstract level, but the idea of being a lawyer didn’t sit well with me,’ he explains. ‘I remember on the first day our contract law professor saying that our system isn’t one that is based on justice – that if you have wealth you will prevail. And I just found myself in a place where I couldn’t see who could benefit from me being a lawyer other than myself.’
Soon after, in 2005, Latif was approached by NYU to take on the role of the university’s inaugural Muslim chaplain. Two years later, he was nominated by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg for the role of Muslim chaplain at the NYPD, which, at 24, made him the youngest chaplain in the department’s history.
Catering not only to the thousands of Muslims it employs but to anyone on staff in need of guidance, Latif has spent the last seven years celebrating, mourning and growing alongside six other chaplains from multiple faiths and the world’s largest police force.
Immersed in police work for nearly a decade, Latif has had more than a few profound experiences. He recalls a funeral he recently attended in Rockaway for a fallen police officer. The man had died while rescuing people from a burning building. ‘As I walked over to the church where they were conducting the service, I literally moved upward on this slope into a sea of thousands of officers. They had all come to stand for this man, who literally gave everything of himself to save someone else, who, when he had the opportunity to do good, did so without hesitation. To truly understand that in that moment hit me really hard.’
It is this ethos that Latif encourages the students he counsels to adopt. He introduces them to inspiring stories of altruistic acts from their own ‘backyard’. ‘When I was presented with an award at this year’s NYU graduation ceremony, I spoke about Joshua Garcia, who worked in NYU’s dining hall. This guy served these students food for four years and most hadn’t realised that a month before he jumped onto a subway track to save a 16-year-old girl that had fallen, even though a train was approaching. Everyone else just stood watching and taking photos. You have these individuals who set a certain example we can aspire towards.’
When addressing the community through his sermons, Latif focuses on issues he observes daily, of direct relevance to its members. ‘I try to talk about things I feel I am qualified to talk about and I try not to regurgitate. I emphasise the importance of my listeners being good and better people, and having the ability to change things,’ he explains.
Through his work with Muslims in New York, Latif is trying to build what he calls an ‘atypical’ masjid community, one that encourages its adherents to become more productive members of their society. ‘What I like to tell our community is that faith shouldn’t be self-serving. How is being a Muslim something that brings benefit to the society around them?’ he questions.
While he has observed many positive developments within the community over the years, and has had what he considers the honour of walking alongside many through their challenges, Latif doesn’t find it beneficial to ‘assess’ his overall effect. ‘How do you really measure whether you’re impacting somebody’s heart?’ What matters, he teaches, is the attempt.
This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.
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