In February 2023, Chestnut Hill College welcomed Aziz Nathoo to serve as the College's first-ever Muslim chaplain. In the ensuing months, Nathoo has provided wisdom and guidance, sharing his vast experiences and community work with students, faculty, and staff.
Nathoo, who in addition to his role as Muslim chaplain is also a special advisor to the president and co-director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion (DEI), first came to Chestnut Hill College to co-lead an interfaith memorial service along with Quaiser Abdullah, Imam of the Quba Institute, in honor of Alwaleed Abdullah Algheraibi, a student who tragically lost his life as the victim of a homicide. During the service, Algheraibi’s classmates and teachers remembered him as quiet and caring, a friend who deeply loved his family and was firmly rooted in his Muslim faith.
For Nathoo, it is that same faith that has long since grounded his life's work and devotion as an educator, service volunteer, faith leader, humanitarian, chaplain, and preacher.
“We are blessed to have established a connection with Aziz, whose interfaith work in Philadelphia and beyond makes him a welcome addition to serve the spiritual needs of Chestnut Hill College’s diverse community,” notes William W. Latimer, Ph.D., M.P.H., president of Chestnut Hill College.
Nathoo, who has dedicated his career to interfaith connectivity among all faith groups, grew up in East Africa where he was raised in a tolerant religious environment. He first attended a secular school founded by the Aga Khan Development Network, a Muslim charitable institution. Wanting his son to have a greater exposure to the many other faiths, Nathoo's father then sent Nathoo to the St. Joseph School, a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Tanga, Tanzania. “It was a great move on my father’s part because it made a big difference on how I see things through a wider lens,” says Nathoo, who preaches tolerance with a focus on wisdom, dialogue, and building bonds of interfaith and civilizational alliance in his daily work. After finishing his primary education in Tanzania, Nathoo came to the United States to attend college in Texas.
While Nathoo's appreciation for the interconnectedness and interrelated nature of all faiths had begun to form at a young age thanks to his multi-faith education, it wasn't until after the tragedy and resulting backlash from the 9/11 attacks, that spurred him into action and to devoting his career to interfaith work. With a strong instinct to protect the reputation of different religions, including his own, Nathoo knew he had to act on behalf of the Muslim community.
“I was no longer able to sit quietly since my faith was being unjustly attacked and not being understood,” notes Nathoo, adding. “I thought, maybe I am the bridge that can talk to people and say we are not all that different." Having grown up in the different faiths, Nathoo felt empowered that he could be the conduit to highlight the call to dialogue and share knowledge about major religions and dispel the myths about the Muslim faith through investment in 'conversing over converting'. “My entire focus is what is common in us without compromising what is different. We can build on the commonality,” says Nathoo.
In the beginning, Nathoo attended interfaith events to develop his knowledge based on his experiences where he addressed mistakes commonly made by the public about the Muslim faith and educated people about his faith traditions. “Eventually organizers reached out and invited me to be a panelist,” notes Nathoo, who considers himself to be a "interfaith free agent without boundaries."
While Nathoo performs spiritual guidance and lay clergy functions for Muslims in the Philadelphia area, that is only one piece of what drives his work as an interfaith leader. “I do not restrict myself to one congregation so that I can go anywhere I am invited," he says. "While I talk about Islam, I do not represent any specific faith tradition or any specific mosque. There are areas of disagreement and exclusivity in all religions. But, If I look across the inclusive DNA of all religions, there is the call and struggle for justice and compassion, giving, and forgiving."
Nathoo puts his beliefs of social justice, giving, and compassion into action by serving in leadership positions with organizations, including the United Nations (UN), the Mayor of Philadelphia’s Interfaith Commission, the Poor People’s Campaign, Peace Walkers, UMMA Charities, and the Montgomery County Multi-Faith Coalition. In his work with the UN, Nathoo collaborated with the African Union and focuses on the initiative of the culture of peace, not just the absence of war, to ensure people have agency in their lives. As he has grown in his advocacy work, Nathoo stresses the point that "all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing and therefore we have to do something positive and not remain silent as our silence comforts the oppressor."
On campus, Nathoo has put all of his experience into practice in a role that includes advising Muslim students, serving as a resource for interfaith dialogue, coordinating religious and spiritual events, and facilitating service-learning opportunities. "The goal of Mission and Ministry is to facilitate and come alongside students as they go through the formation of 'who I am I and who I want to be?'” Nathoo says. “I want to awaken the spirit of fraternity with fellow students. Regardless of what religion they might be, we are not that different in essence from each other. Through my work, I want students to believe that we all have a valid place in this world, something to contribute, and that we can learn from others. My hope is that students can pick up navigational tools from all faiths as I have been blessed to acquire.”
Anna Ryan-Bender, director of Campus Ministry, notes that incorporating Nathoo into the team is an important way of demonstrating that the College wants to see and respond to the religious diversity of its students. She highlights that acknowledging interfaith work as part of a Catholic institution is to see our students in all their complexity and accompany them in their journey of formation. “Relationships are at the heart of the mission and students being seen and known well is important," says Ryan-Bender. " Aziz is a great addition to our team and doing that authentically and genuinely.”
In addition to his interfaith work on campus, Nathoo has also recently partnered up with Kim Ervine, interim director of DEI, to help lead DEI efforts and to support students, faculty, and staff in providing an inclusive environment for everyone on campus. By integrating his interfaith work with his extensive experience with diverse cultures and underserved communities, Nathoo will aid in helping to educate others on social justice issues. "Aziz naturally fits into our community by leading with love, wisdom and acceptance of all individuals and is excellent with listening to others and providing resources and knowledge to all that he connects with” says Ervine. “He will be instrumental in working with our DEI council and supporting our affinity groups here at CHC.”
- Jaime Renman