From Christian Minister to Muslim - The Benjamin Chavis Muhammed story

Jamaica Gleaner/March 25, 2003
By Mark Dawes

How can an ordained minister of the gospel for 30-odd years move from being a Christian to a Muslim? For Ben Chavis, it was not that difficult, as by his reckoning, it was God who told him to switch faiths.

An icon in the United States civil rights movement, the Rev. Dr. Ben Chavis became in 1997 the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammed, after he made the transition from the church to the mosque.

Dr. Muhammed, 55, was in the island last week where he gave the keynote address at the conference: "Transforming Values and Attitudes: Policy Challenges for Jamaican Society," organised and convened at the Mona School of Business, St. Andrew.

Dr. Ben, as he likes to be called, is president and CEO of the non-profit lobby group the ­ Hip Hop Summit Action Network, the largest national coalition of hip hop artistes and record companies which was founded two years ago by himself and entertainment mogul Russell Simmonds of Def Comedy Jam, fame.

Involved in the US civil rights struggle from he was 12, Dr. Muhammed as a teen worked alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King was in Memphis on April 4, 1968, when he was fatally shot. His next stop was scheduled to be in North Carolina, where Dr. Muhammed was preparing the way as part of his advance party when the sad news came.

Later, Dr. Muhammed achieved fame in his own right as part of the 'Wilmington 10,' a group which was convicted of fire-bombing a grocery store in Wilmington, North Carolina. Dr. Muhammed spent almost five years in prison during the 1970s until his conviction was set aside in 1980.

On his release, Dr. Muhammed continued to give leadership to civil rights issues through the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice. Between the period 1992-1994 he was executive director of the NAACP. He was, however, fired from his NAACP post as he became mired in a scandal where financial irregularities loomed large.

Minister Louis Farrahkan tapped him to be the National Director for the Million Man March which took place on October 16, 1995, in Washington D.C., a time when 'Black on Black' crimes were at an all time high. On that day, the men gathered, took a pledge to accept responsibility for their circumstances and to do their utmost to improve conditions.

"I am pleased to report to you, that three months after the Million Man March 'Black on Black' crimes went down and have never gone back up. Also after the Million Man March, the black high school drop out rate also went down. We took a pledge at the Million Man March that we would go back take care of our children. In certain cities they had to hire people to collect the money because brothers started paying child support payments for the first time. So my thing is, if we can change our values and our attitudes in a one-day demonstration, why can't we do it everyday?"

"You first have to value yourself. The first and most important value is to value yourself. If you think nothing of yourself you will tend to minimise what you can contribute to society and to the world," a proud Dr. Muhammed said.

Then came 1997, when Dr. Chavis shocked the Christian community with the announcement that he had joined the Nation of Islam.

He explained: "I am on a faith journey seeking obedience to the will of God. I answered God's call to the Christian ministry 37 years ago and my acceptance of God's call to the Islamic ministry was also an act of obedience to the will of God. It is not that a different God has called me to a different religion. The same God that called me into the church is the same God that has called me into the mosque. Some people think that Minister Benjamin has turned away from the church ­ no not at all. I still work with the church. I believe in striving to be obedient to the will of Christ in my own life, in my own faith journey, in my own search for truth ­ There came a point in time in my own life as I searched for greater internal faith discipline in my own life - Islam became very appealing. I believe in prayer. I pray five times a day. You can pray five or 10 times a day ­ that is not the point. The organised structure of Islam was very appealing to me. The greater discipline was very appealing to me ­ I call it an evolution to Islam more than a conversion. The God of Abraham that called me to be involved in the Christian ministry and affirm Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is the same God later in my life who called me later in life to Islam to see the teachings that are outlined in the Holy Koran ­ the revelation Allah gave to the prophet Mohammed is not antithetical but a continuation of the prophetic tradition."

As he practices Islam and relates to adherents of Judaism and Christianity, Dr. Muhammed, the holder of a Master's in Divinity from Duke University and a Doctor of Ministry from Howard University, stresses that he looks for common themes within these monotheistic religions. "I am looking for unity. I am looking for the commonality. I am looking for what is common among Christians, Muslims and Jews ­ I have been seeking the oneness of humanity, the oneness of God ­ What I found was that God is the God of all people. The Creator of all people. And God has self-disclosed Godself in different ways."

He continued: "If God is one, then humanity should be one. Then we shouldn't have racism, injustice, oppression, murders. Religion should be the solution to your life, not the problem. Religion should help resolve problems in your life, and help to free people."

Those arguments, however, did not impress his denomination. Two months after he joined the Nation, he was brought before a hearing and by his account, he was accused of rejecting Jesus. He argued that he had not rejected Jesus as to be a good Muslim one had to believe in Jesus, especially since Jesus is spoken about in the Koran.

According to Dr. Muhammad: "I did not do it to cause problems for the church ­ I was hoping the United Church of Christ would have seen this as an opportunity to engage in Muslim-Christian dialogue. I would have loved to have been the facilitator.

From that day on, he said, the church took away his ministerial standing and reduced some of his pension benefits from that applicable to a clergyman to that of a layperson. He was defrocked. He, however, harbours no bitterness to his old denomination. In fact, he has been back there to preach at regular Sunday morning worship services, he told The Gleaner.

The father of eight, Dr. Muhammed said the transition to Islam for his family was not particularly difficult as his children warmed to the new faith. His wife's major reservation, however, was the requirement to wear a veil. Otherwise, she has adjusted to the new religion, he said.

Islam is on the incline in America while churches are not in decline but standing still, said Dr. Muhammed.

He has not denounced Christian teachings. By his reckoning, it helps him to be a better Muslim. A Muslim, he maintains, "is one who seeks to be obedient to the will of God. You can be a good Jew, a good Christian and a good Muslim - all at the same time.

As he looks for "connections" between the three faith groups, it seems a fair to say Dr. Muhammed has connected with Hip Hop artistes and their fan base.

The mission of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, said Dr. Muhammed, "Is to encourage the empowerment of youth, young people to work on social transformation issues, social justice issues, also to facilitate the bridging of the generation gap between adults and young people and to bridge the cultural gap."

In this respect, he worked with the who's who in the Hip Hop artistes community. These include Sean 'P. Diddy' Coombs, Damon Dash, Jay-Z; DMX and Eminem.

"We measure our success," he said, "by how many lives we can save in the inner city from self-destruction. We measure our success when we see artistes who may have five or six years ago engaged in language that is negative; now today they engage in language that is positive. As an example of this influence, he cited DMX's rapping about his family, his mother and God - all in a positive way. "The young people listen to what Hip Hop rappers are putting in lyrics in their songs. So if we get righteousness affirmed through Hip Hop music, then I say to God be the glory."

One of the reasons for his working with the Network, is "so that we can promote that love, that embrace and that self-reliance. We like to see young people grow and take their rightful places on the world stage.

He maintains that "the ultimate value in life is to be found living your life right. Values are principles that you are supposed to live by. You don't get those ultimate principles from the world. You get those principles from God."

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