Battling For Soul

72% of blacks--and 53% of whites--think the call for black self-help at the Million Man March was a necessary step toward future integration Islam is spreading rapidly among black Americans--not so much because of Louis Farrakhan, but because of men like Suetwedien A. Muhammed. Standing amid boarded-up buildings and graffiti in the East Germantown section of Philadelphia last week, the 31-year-old African-American says, "I know this area. I helped mess up this area." As a boy he sang in the Baptist church's choir, but as a teenager he spent a lot of time on neighborhood street corners. In 1975 he converted to Islam; by 1992 he had opened a small storefront mosque to help turn the neighborhood around. It offers a "homework association," a crime watch and a Big Brothers program for young black men--most, like him, converts from Christianity. "A lot of people leave church and go into the bars with their Sunday clothes on," Muhammed says. "We've been getting a fast fix in church, with the singing and the clapping. Then we come out and are faced with the same problems."

Although Christian ministers say their congregations aren't shrinking--and black evangelical numbers are growing slightly--some leaders are worrying about the church's ability to attract young people in the country's toughest neighborhoods. About one third of the 4 million to 5 million Muslims in the United States are African-Americans, and at its current rapid rate of growth, Islam will become the second largest religion in the United States by the year 2000. While still small compared with Christianity's overall numbers, the Muslim community's growth has been dramatic. In 1989, there were 2,000 declared Muslims in the armed services. This year there are 10,000. In Philadelphia, the number of Muslim blacks has risen from 40,000 to 60,000 in five years. In Chicago, there were only a handful of mosques 20 years ago; today there are 30. And a third of all blacks in the federal prison system are Muslim; most of them converted after being locked up. The surge in interest in Islam--underscored by the prominent Islamic rhetoric at the Million Man March--is forcing mainstream Protestant churches to try new ways to put people in their pews. They realize that Islam's popularity is an indictment of their performance. "We've got a million black men in prison, and they're quickly becoming Muslims," says the Rev. Henry Lyons, leader of the National Baptist Convention, the largest organization of Baptists. "And we're standing by idly doing nothing."

In marketing themselves to black men, traditional African-American churches face two problems: Jesus is commonly depicted as white and most churchgoers are women. The growing interest in the African heritage of American blacks--from music to fashion to academics--has led some to view Christianity as a religion imposed on them by slaveholders. "Christianity is what kept the slaves in check in the first place," said 37-year-old Gwen Priestly, a media consultant in Los Angeles, who recently converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam. "That religion told them to be patient and to wait on the better life in heaven." As earthly conditions for black men have deteriorated, more of them have come to dismiss local churches as irrelevant. "The church was just too women-oriented for me," says Jason Gordon, a 21-year-old from Los Angeles who recently left the Baptist Church for Islam--over his mother's strenuous objections. "Men my age didn't really seem to have an active place. And they do in Islam."

Islam is perceived as more compatible with Afrocentrism and, in some ways, as more masculine. Islamic clergy often emphasize that about a third of the slaves were shipped to America from Muslim countries. And since Islam rejects visual depictions of God, blacks can pray to a formless Allah instead of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus. Most important, Islam's emphasis on dignity and self-discipline appeals to many men in the inner city, where disorder prevails. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day, avoid drugs and alcohol and take care of their families. "Even the manner of walking is different,, says Ghayth Nur Kashif, imam of a mosque in southeast Washington. When young men are first introduced to Islam, he says, many come in strutting-"swaying from side to side or walking with a little limp. In very short order the limp and swinging stops." In keeping with the notion that Islam is a full-time way of life, Islamic clergy also pay great attention to the worldly needs of men. Kashif's mosque offers classes not only in the Koran but in computer programming and typing.

Farrakhan may be the best-known "Muslim" leader, but the Nation of Islam has only 20,000 members. In fact, many Muslims don't think the Nation is actually Islamic. Among many differences, Orthodox Muslims believe Allah created all mankind; the Nation teaches that the white race resulted from a botched experiment by a mad black scientist named Yakub. Traditional Islam preaches racial harmony; the Nation advocates racial separatism.

Meanwhile, some churches-impressed with the Muslims' success--have tried to attract more black men by Africanizing Christianity. More ministers are wearing kente cloth on their vestments and playing African drums during services. At First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, a stained-glass image of a black Jesus was installed three years ago. Some Philadelphia churches now have images of Christ, Solomon and Moses depicted as black. The Rev. Ivan Hicks, assistant pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church, says he hopes to talk young men out of converting to Islam by showing them these images and saying, "You see those broad lips and that broad nose? Jesus looks just like you." And then he talks about Jesus as "a revolutionary, someone who was bringing liberation to the oppressed."

Churches, like mosques, are keen to emphasize outside-the-sanctuary selling points. At Bright Hope Baptist, they've started a Rites of Passage program in which elders mentor 14-to 18-year-olds in spiritual growth and African history. And even without dramatic changes in theological marketing, Protestant leaders believe that there's a limit to how much Islam can ultimately grow, given that the religion traditionally encourages women to wear Muslim garb and concentrate on child rearing. "Women aren't going to put up with all that veil stuff," says Herb Lusk, pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

If that's true, there may be a widening of the spiritual gender gap in the black community, with women going to churches and men to mosques. Religious leaders say that's not necessarily bad. The Rev. James Demus, of the Park Manor Christian Church in Chicago, says the battle for the hearts of young black men is not between Christianity and Islam, but between religion and the lure of the streets. "If they see the street gang as addressing their needs, they go there," he says. "If it's a church group, they go there. If it's Islam, they go there." The hope is that in religion, as in commerce, competition will raise the quality of all the services offered.

Battling For Soul | News