Alma College allowed Rev. Amjad Samuel to pursue his intellectual curiosities — an opportunity that he didn’t have in his home country of Pakistan.
When Amjad Samuel said he wanted to go to college in the United States, a family friend suggested Alma. The family friend, Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali, had taught a religion course at Alma.
“He said to me that if you want to study in the States, the best place to go is a small college, where you will get one-on-one interaction with professors,” says Samuel, a 1992 graduate of Alma College. “And he was absolutely right.”
Samuel is currently the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shelton, Conn. He’s been there since November 2014
When Samuel came to Alma, he originally intended to major in psychology but couldn’t handle the rats in the lab. But he loved learning about how people think, so he took courses in sociology and political science.
Eventually, he changed his major to religious studies, despite trying to avoid it. Three generations of family members — on both sides — have been members of the clergy, including his father.
“I never wanted to do religion; I was a rebelling teenager,” says Samuel. “But I kept taking religious studies courses, and I loved them.”
Samuel finished Alma in two years by taking on heavy course loads, doing independent studies with professors, and taking summer courses. One course included mapping the Pine River for cleanup with Professor Tracy Luke, the head of the religious studies department. It was Luke who encouraged Samuel to aim high and apply to places such as Princeton and Duke for graduate school.
“He helped me have faith in myself,” says Samuel. “That’s how I got to Duke. Again, it was really this feature of Alma College to be able to have this one-on-one time with the faculty.”
Upon graduation from Duke University Divinity School, he returned to Pakistan and was ordained a deacon, the first step toward priesthood. Then he started a school for children modeled after the American education system and Alma’s focus on a liberal arts education.
“Coming from Pakistan, you’re not allowed to think for yourself,” he says. “You’re told that this is the curriculum that you have to follow, and that’s it. But coming to Alma was really a great experience for me, from the point of view of being able to explore what I wanted to explore.
“I was so impressed by the American system of education that I wanted that for other people.”
He spent two to three years educating himself about education theories, raising money and meeting with architects to draw up plans for building the school.
“The thing that kept me working through the night was wanting the world to be a good place for everyone,” he says. “I worked with predominately Muslim children with Muslim teachers with this question in mind: Where and how does it happen that we end up with a different worldview?”
As a Christian, Samuel was a religious minority in Pakistan; about 96 percent of the population was Muslim. He was also different because of his American education.
He spent eight years working on the school and pastoring a church, but soon found that his vision went against what the establishment in Pakistan wanted. So he left.
He learned a lot from the experience.
“I feel very blessed that I had this opportunity to come to the U.S., study, then go back and apply some of that, and then come back and be more reflective about the experience,” he says.
“We in the West like to think that if only there was more education, societies would be more peaceful and just and benign, right? What I discovered was that that’s not true,” says Samuel. “It really stems from your religious thinking. And that’s where people make decisions that shape the very fabric of a society.”
After leaving Pakistan in 2006, he went to Hartford Seminary in Connecticut to do a Christian/Muslim relations graduate study for a year while serving at Calvary Episcopal Church in Stonington, Connecticut. Most recently, he spent more than four years working as an associate rector in a large parish in Akron, Ohio.
His job there was to do international and local mission work. The parish built schools in Liberia and Nigeria.
“For the local missions, we did things like community meals for the homeless,” he says.
“In Akron, the unemployment rate was quite high, so we started working on a ministry for the unemployed and underemployed, and that ministry is now up and running, and it helps people coming out of the prison system as well as anyone who is out of a job.”
As someone who has a unique perspective on religion and international politics, Samuel says that there’s a lot that the church can learn from Islam.
He says it’s no secret that faith in the U.S. is on the decline.
“More and more people don’t wish to associate with institutional religion,” he laughs. “Frankly, I don’t blame them.”
He thinks it’s an outcome of centuries’ worth of thinking in Western society, a lasting impact of the Enlightenment, when people began to challenge the authority of institutions such as the church.
In the U.S., religion has historically been closely tied to ethnicity; for example, there are Polish Catholics, Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics and German Lutherans. But those ties are weakening, says Samuel. For one, people are often surprised to learn that he’s Christian.
“Cultural Christianity is completely eroding, and I think that’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “It’s wonderful because the people who then end up in faith communities are actually really interested in the subject of faith.”
Samuel enjoys being there for people during their most important life events, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
“It’s a blessing — to have that role, to be in peoples’ lives when they need someone the most,” he says. “I like my job because I have the opportunity to raise questions with people and allow them to examine their lives. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”
— Erica Shekell