The Muslim men and women gathered in a Bloomington classroom recently are part of an experiment to help hospitals, universities and correctional centers fill a glaring gap in services — the major shortage of certified Muslim chaplains.

Minnesota is home to an estimated 150,000 Muslims, a number expected to rise. While there are several Muslims employed as chaplains, just one Muslim — a Minneapolis imam — is on track to finish the professional training typically required to serve in that role in hospitals and other top jobs.

At the training session in June, the group engaged in lively discussion. What does Islam say about caring for the vulnerable? How do you support people of different religions? What if the patient doesn’t trust the medical system?

“I think this training is a good idea,” said Imam Abdillahi Mohamud, of the Omar Sabri Mosque and Islamic Center in Minneapolis, taking a break between sessions.

“I already know how to deal with different types of people, and different problems,” he said. “And I know this [service] is needed. If I can pass the test, I will try to be a chaplain.”

The two-year project, launched this spring, is rare in the nation, said Imam Sharif Abdirahman Mohamed, co-founder of Open Path Resources, a Minneapolis nonprofit that created the training.

It’s designed to introduce Muslim leaders to the issues and knowledge base needed for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) certification, the primary professional degree in the chaplaincy field.

The project also is working to create internships and employment pathways in Twin Cities medical settings where students can get direct experience on the job, he said.

Some chaplain jobs, such as in universities and police departments, have their own training programs and don’t require the professional degree.

But hospitals and other large institutions seek out degreed staff, said Chris Beckman, spiritual care manager at Children’s Minnesota health system and a certification coordinator for the Association of Professional Chaplains.

Those jobs are often going unfilled because of the scarcity of qualified candidates, he said.

There are just eight Muslims in the nation who have completed the CPE certification process, he said.

It typically requires a college degree, a divinity degree and an invitation to serve from their faith group. But equivalent experience is considered in nontraditional faith groups, he said.

Work across faiths

The group who gathered at the Fairview Ridges Education Center last month ranged from imams to a hospital interpreter to an Islamic scholar. Mohamed and program co-director Michael Van Keulen said they reached out to Minnesota mosques when they were seeking program candidates.

They also made an effort to include women, who comprised about a third of the students in the room.

It was their second class, and Mohamed, who was leading the morning session, wanted to make sure they understood what a chaplain did.

Chaplains don’t just work in hospitals, he told the group, but also in the military, police forces, corrections facilities and universities.

The job requires both counseling skills as well as a knowledge of the sector they are working in. It often requires offering spiritual support to people of other faiths.

The requirements made some students a bit uneasy. After learning that chaplains had to serve people of other faiths, one imam said he feared that he wouldn’t know how to do that. Another worried that by working in a hospital, his community would think he “was just the voice of the doctor.”

“And a lot of people don’t trust doctors,” he said.

Van Keulen, co-director of Open Path Resources, acknowledged to the group that during the professional chaplain education “you will be challenged.”

“We will give you tools,” Van Keulen said. “And you will bring tools of your own.”

Jamilla Hassan, a medical interpreter listening to the discussion, is eager to bring her tool kit to a new career. She said she visits elderly and sick Muslims in nursing facilities and sees the urgent need for a spiritual leader who speaks their language, who understands their faith, who is a familiar face.

“When I’m there, there are no other Muslims,” Hassan said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what’s going on.”

New paths needed

That said, Hassan said she understands the need for chaplains to be able to work across faiths and cultures. She grew up in Somalia but attended a Catholic college in Boston, earning a bachelor’s degree in business. She believes a compassionate, caring presence can cross all faiths.

One of the tricky things about certifying Muslim chaplains is that the majority of U.S. chaplaincy programs have long occurred in Christian seminaries or through the formal certification program. Chaplains were typically ordained ministers or priests.

This conventional training isn’t practical or possible for many Muslim and diverse spiritual leaders. Projects such as the local “Pre-CPE for Muslim Chaplains” are among many ideas being explored across the country.

The Association of Muslim Chaplains, along with Boston University School of Medicine, in April released a survey of Muslim chaplains in America.

It found that challenges included the need for more “strong Muslim institutions” to conduct the training and provide financial support, personal support, gender expectations and the social climate.

The Twin Cities project will work to break down some of those barriers in the year ahead.

The project was funded by a $209,000 grant from the Bush Foundation and additional support from the Minneapolis Foundation.

Hassan is among those ready to join the chaplaincy ranks.

“I will finish it [the training] because it is so needed,” said Hassan. “A lot of people don’t like to deal with sickness and trauma. Some people don’t even like to go to hospitals. But we all hurt the same.”