INTERVIEW WITH JPB BOARD MEMBER IMAM ANSARI: Imam Bilal shares why he chose to join the team
"If you can find hope there, you can find hope anywhere” was the immediate response from JPB’s newest board member when asked what drew him to JPB’s mission in the Holy Lands. Imam Dr. Bilal Ansari, or Imam Bilal, knows about hope, as he has dedicated his professional life to the prospect of restoring it to, and caring for, the poor and the marginalized.
Imam Bilal credits this dedication to his early childhood, and the direct influence of his extended family. In his formative years in New Haven, CT, Imam Bilal’s maternal grandparents were members of a local Pentecostal/Evangelical Black Church, which focused its outreach ministry on the poor and marginalized in New Haven. Imam Bilal’s grandfather, a staunch believer in God’s healing power, encouraged his grandson, aged nine, to address a speech impediment head-on by street-corner preaching every Friday night.
Although his grandfather’s “prescription” did not entirely succeed in eliminating the problem, the preaching experience resulted in two benefits: Imam Bilal was forced to develop skills to accommodate his uniqueness, and this in turn gave rise to him recognizing the gifts he possessed. He found his own way to rise above this personal challenge while at the same time continuing to get his ever-important message out and heard.
Similarly, Imam Bilal’s mother and father were profound influences in helping him to find his vocation. His mother, raised in a Christian household, married his father, who was Muslim and himself an imam. Both encouraged Imam Bilal to explore his own faith and to determine for himself which faith tradition most nourished his relationship with God. They went to great lengths to ensure he was exposed equally to both traditions. While in his teens, Imam Bilal recalls encountering a biography of Malcom X. The book had a deep and lasting impact on him, and he is still moved by the fact that Malcom X spoke truth to power despite the fact that he knew it would likely cost him his life.
It is, in part, this desire to speak truth to power that still motivates Imam Bilal. His formation began when he was studying on the West Coast, during the explosive time of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles and continues today under the shadow of George Floyd. He has focused on this country’s debilitating Prison Industrial Complex, which has risen from approximately 500,000 incarcerated in 1980, to today’s figure of approximately 2.2 million.
Imam Bilal’s career itself has centered on chaplaincy and teaching. He served as the inaugural Dean of Students and Director of Student Life at Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S., while that institution was working towards its accredited status. For 14 years, he was a prison chaplain in both state and federal correctional facilities. While working within the Connecticut prison system, he encountered a supervisor who recognized his gifts and encouraged the Imam to share them through university chaplaincy work. This led to Imam Bilal becoming the first Muslim chaplain at Williams College, Massachusetts, from 2011 to 2014.
While Imam Bilal was working at Williams, he gained his first exposure to the JPB program. In 2011, he received a request to participate in an inter-faith forum sponsored by a newly-formed nonprofit based in Brattleboro, VT. According to the Imam, he was happy to participate, and regularly made the hour and a half one-way, drive. Thus, he began what has been for him an uninterrupted, 10-year productive association with JPB.
Currently, Imam Bilal holds two positions: He is a professor of Pastoral Theology and director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. He has also returned to Williams College, this time within the Office of Institutional Diversity Equity and Inclusion as the Assistant VP for Campus Engagement.
Imam Bilal has been happily married for 14 years to Dr. Colleen Keyes, also a professor at Hartford Seminary, where she focuses on Islamic Spirituality, and Women and Gender Issues in Islam. When asked about his favorite personal pastimes, Imam Bilal’s instant response was, “to stare into the Irish smiling eyes of my beautiful wife.” They have six children, four sons and two daughters.
JPB is extremely grateful to Imam Bilal for his unwavering support of JPB’s work, and for taking on this new leadership role as a member of the board. Please join Fr. Nicholas and all the JPB staff in extending the warmest of welcomes to Imam Bilal, Dr. Keyes, and their children.