I was in junior high school in 1977. My family and I were watching the first episode of what would become the most watched television miniseries in American history, "Roots." I remember the words of the Levar Burton character Kunta Kinte in the belly of the slave ship on his way to captivity in America: "Allah the Beneficent, Allah the Merciful." As a thirteen-year-old I had no idea how much those words would eventually guide the rest of my life and become the focus of my greatest hopes and fears.
Raised in a church-going Christian household, I was always a believer in God and organized religion. Even after watching "Roots," I still believed that the religion of God was Christianity and I fully expected that one day I would be baptized and join the Church. However, television had opened my mind to the realization that other people believed as strongly in their religion as my family believed in its own. I also had to consider the circumstances that resulted in my Afro-American family residing in America in the first place: the transcontinental slave trade of Africans. On my mother's side of the family we can trace my great grandparents to their time as Virginia slaves. As we are well aware, Africans brought here to become chattel slaves were not allowed to speak their native tongue, maintain their family names, engage in their native customs, or practice their native religions. They were forcibly converted to Christianity, although the converted did not achieve an improved status of spiritual brotherhood with his converter. This historical situation raised an unanswerable question I would ponder often in years to come: If Kunta Kinte's tribe was Muslim, was mine also? Had the slave trade never happened, would we be practicing Muslims in Africa? Still believing in Christianity, I asked Allah (by college I began using that term for God) to guide me to the truth whatever it may be.
After graduating from college, I became more serious about religion. My days as a full time student were over and I would now have to support myself. It was time to begin taking more responsibility for my moral behavior, too. I remember the evening after I graduated from college. I had just left my family at their hotel and my best friend for four years, Kevin Edwards, and I were alone in my apartment. My other graduating roommate Roger had already left the campus with his family, leaving me a goodbye note. Kevin, who was going to be finishing up in another semester, said to me, "Now you have to go get a job. Then you'll get married, have some kids. Hey man, you'll be dead soon." As morbid a joke as that may have been, I had to accept the reality of the swift passage of time. Whether I was given a long life or a short one, I would one day have to face judgment.
That summer, perhaps because I missed being in school, I went on a reading frenzy. Two works I read that summer were The New Testament and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm's autobiography was completely captivating. I found myself reading it when I woke up in the morning, on the train going back and forth to the city, when I came home in the evening, and before going to bed at night. I, like many others, was intrigued by Malcolm's transformations from street criminal to Black Muslim minister to orthodox Muslim and international figure.
I also spent a lot of time reading the New Testament of the Bible. I had taken Old Testament classes in high school and college and had become very familiar with The Torah. I now wanted to get a better understanding of this "new covenant" that God had made with people.
During that same period my two closest neighborhood friends were also studying Religion, including Islam. At that time a "Muslim" (I use the term loosely) organization known as the Ansar Allah community was well known in New York. Their leader had a weekly radio program that focused on comparative religion, and particularly on Islam and Christianity. As someone raised in the Christian faith this was of great interest to me, since my primary understanding of religion was based on the Bible. By this time I had been working the past several months for Rev. Congressman Floyd H. Flake, pastor of the Allen A.M.E. Church in St. Albans, Queens. I had met Rev. Flake by working on his initial campaign for Congress in 1986. Shortly after winning the November election, the Chairman of the democratic club I belonged to, Gregory Meeks, set up an interview for me with Flake's chief of staff, and they offered me a position.What is significant about these circumstances is that working for a pastor during this time that I was seeking more spiritual guidance began pushing me closer and closer toward the Christian church and becoming baptized. However, my continued studies into comparative religion kept holding me back. I am sure that many in the Christian faith will say that the devil was standing in my way, especially when you consider that the leader of the Ansar Allah community was exposed, by orthodox Muslims, as a fraud. Nevertheless, my religious studies and conclusions were not based on some charismatic personality the way many others are swayed. Nor were they based on a need to understand my "divine nature as a black man" like the Nation of Islam or the Five Percent Nation might say. They were based on an intelligent inspection of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and Allah knows best, a sincere call to the one God to guide me to the straight path.