Celebrating 20 years of Acceptance, Respect, and Healing

by Fatima Mirza, PhD, MSW, Supervisee in Social Work

Center For Pastoral Counseling

Life feels a bit surreal to me right now.

Globally, many governments are experiencing polarization and tensions, if not outright instability; we stop momentarily to re-sensitize ourselves to the plight of migrants and refugees; and a reality TV personality is a contender for the U.S. presidency. Economic prosperity seems to have stalled; the job market is changing yet again; and families are coping with higher and higher levels of stress.

Yet, in the middle of all this, some things that seemed stuck or inevitable seem to have some movement: Congress seems poised to at least attempt action on regulating the sale of assault rifles; the Black Lives matter movement has been successful on moving the conversation about race off of the back burner; social media has helped shine a light into corners many would rather stay dark but these areas desperately need for us to pay attention.

Here I am, part of the surreal situation.

I am a Muslim American. I work at the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia. And today, it’s my turn to write for our blog.


Just as CPC is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Twenty years of working in the community providing support, facilitating healing, and supporting the healing process by leveraging clients’ relationships with their faith, regardless of which faith that might be.


As Muslim Americans are at the center of countless political conversations that range from appreciating our contributions to disparaging and questioning our very existence within the U.S.


When young Muslim Americans are increasingly reaching out for support reporting depression, anxiety, and being bullied for their religious affiliation – stories that I heard as part of my dissertation research, and continue to hear in my counseling practice.


When our nation struggles to understand and heal from (another) mass shooting, one perpetrated in Orlando, FL, by a troubled young adult who acted out his pain through his lens of his (Muslim) faith.

So I feel obligated to try to take this moment to shine a few lights.


Pastoral Counseling – what is it and why should it matter to me?

If you are at all like me, or like the many clients that have walked through my door in the past year, one of the major struggles is “Why?” In other words, “Why did this happen?” or “What does this all mean?” This struggle is universal. It’s a function of our humanity – to make meaning of things.

“WHY” our souls scream when faced with the pain.

Yet also within us, is the power to sit with the pain, and to work towards healing ourselves and our communities of it. In its essence, that is pastoral counseling. It’s a form of therapy that at its core:

  1. recognizes the unknown quantity within ourselves that many traditions refer to as our souls
  2. holds foremost our relationship with That Which is Greater than ourselves, whether we call it God, Allah, Adoni, Spirit, the Divine, Jesus, Brahma, etc., and
  3. our connection to one other is contextualized our relationship with the Divine.

CPC provides a space to have the conversations about content (WHAT we are struggling with) in the context of That Which is Greater than right here, right now.

And sometimes, it means sitting with that which isn’t comfortable – because that which isn’t comfortable is also valuable. That discomfort is often what drives individual growth, and drives efforts for community change.

It’s a brave space 1, because to sit with discomfort takes courage.  My colleagues at CPC are some of the bravest people I know because they sit with discomfort day after day with each client that comes through the door. And let’s be real – our clients are amazingly brave as well. Because they chose to not (continue) to sweep the discomfort under the rug; they chose to come and open themselves up to that which requires them to be courageous.


Wait? Isn’t Pastoral Counseling a Christian thing? Didn’t you say you are Muslim?

Yes and yes.

Pastoral counseling, in its origins, and in the vast majority of its practice is rooted in the Christian faith2. Yet, it’s not “Christian counseling.” The former is more about honoring and respecting a person’s religious and/or spiritual beliefs, and working within the client’s own belief system rather than preaching or proscribing a particular set of beliefs.  The latter tends to use the counseling session to help clients increase their belief in and practice of a particular form of Christianity.  Many of our staff members are equipped to work deeply within the Christian tradition and assist their clients clarify and solidify their Christian faith, and all of our counselors respect and work with all individuals regardless of their religious or spiritual orientation – including those who don’t identify with a religious or spiritual belief system.

Muslims have a long set of traditions that mirror some of what is modern day Pastoral Counseling. Whether you are talking about tarbiyyah or the teaching/raising/developing/training of a person so that they can embody good character (akhlaaq), or if you are talking about tazkiyyat an-nafs (purification of the soul) there is a clear sense that faith and actions are interconnected, and that your relationship with Allah (God) is fundamental to your relationships with others. In fact, forming relationships with a group of people striving towards self-betterment (suhbah) is stressed and encouraged3 because nobody does life alone.

We have our share of “Qur’an thumping” Muslims who believe their role in their relationships is to make people practice their religion better, and usually in a particularly defined way. Though well-meaning, those arenas tend to encourage circumscribed answers, and do not tend to receive well people experiencing discomfort or confusion.

As a Muslim, as someone who was trained in Social Work, and because I wanted to be affiliated with a place that was clear that it allowed clients to figure out how they brought the unquantifiable of their spirit into the finite world, applying to work at CPC was a no brainer for me.


Ok, so why are you telling us all this?

I’m taking my turn to write about this for our blog because on July 1, 2016, the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia celebrated its twentieth anniversary, 20 years of Acceptance, Respect, and Healing.  Twenty years. That’s a lot of sitting with discomfort. And in a world that makes me go “WOW life feels more than a little bit uncomfortable right now” we need organizations like ours.

So I’m inviting you to come and get to know us. Whether you are a member of the courageous community that works for social justice, or the courageous person staring in to the eyes of deep personal pain, we are happy to meet you. Acceptance. Respect. Healing.

And to those of you who thought Pastoral Counseling was just for Christians, those of you who thought, “oh that’s not for me because I’m [Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, insert any other descriptor you’d like here],” I invite you to get to know us too. You might be (hopefully pleasantly) surprised to find that here the human connection happens every day – even if on the surface you wouldn’t have expected it. Our space is that space… acceptance, respect, healing.

PS – Keep an eye out for anniversary related events!! We’ve got some neat things coming up.


1 Brene Brown’s book “Rising Strong” talks about this concept further – that in order to move to the next level in our lives it takes courage to be vulnerable and tackle the external and internal challenges that arise.

2 A brief history is available here: http://aapc.org/Default.aspx?ssid=74&NavPTypeId=1158 and further reading about the history of pastoral counseling can be found in Loren Townsend’s book: Introduction to Pastoral Counseling.

3 “And hold fast to the rope of God, all together, and be not divided. Remember the Blessing of God upon you, when you were enemies and He joined your hearts, such that you became brothers by His Blessing. You were on the brink of a pit of fire and He delivered you from it. Thus does God make clear unto you His signs, that haply you may be rightly guided” (Chapter 3, verse 103. Translation from “The Study Qur’an” by: Nasr (Ed.), pp. 158-159);
 “By the declining day, Truly mankind is in loss, Save those who believe, perform righteous deeds, exhort one another to the truth, and exhort one another to patience” (Chapter 103. Translation from “The Study Qur’an” by: Nasr (Ed.), p. 1558);

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