It was not as exotic a locale as the crowded scene of Mecca during the annual pilgrimage where Conrad Muhammad, known as "The Hip-Hop Minister," faced a similar philosophical reversal. His pivotal moment came instead in the inauspicious setting of a Harvard Divinity School classroom, where he hungrily digested the ideas of the Baptist theologian Howard Thurman and changed the direction of his own life and work.
By April of 2004, Minister Conrad Muhammad had become the Rev. Conrad Tillard, a Baptist preacher, ordained by his new mentor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the well-known pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
With his 1998 departure from the Nation of Islam, Tillard, 40, left behind a coveted position as minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem-Malcolm X's former mosque-as well as the prominence of being the Nation's national youth minister. But the exodus also began what he describes as his "journey home."
Tillard grew up in the Baptist church in St. Louis. His stepfather was a Baptist minister, and his family had longstanding ties to their church community. In 1984 Tillard became a student activist, working for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was running for president at the time. Tillard says that is the year when he "first got the call to ministry," a call that he assumed was leading toward Christian ordination.
He "didn't get far on that journey," though, he recalls. "I became disillusioned with politics and the notion of integration." When he asked people from his church questions about Islam, he was met with words like, "you should be ashamed of yourself," and "you'll go to hell." He says now, "That was the wrong conversation to have with me. My Christian experience was around people who meant well, and loved Jesus, but weren't open on any level to accepting the religiosity of others." Discouraged, Tillard "heeded the clarion voice" of Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
From the time he became a Muslim, and adopted the name Conrad Muhammad, Tillard rose quickly through the ranks at the Nation of Islam. His mission, he believed-and still believes-was to connect to what he calls the "hip-hop generation," particularly African-American and Hispanic urban youth, and inspire them to become more socially and politically involved. His non-profit organization, A Movement for CHAANGE (Conscious Hip-Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), worked from a faith-based perspective to combat injustice and empower young people, regularly meeting with hip-hop record executives to urge them to avoid negative portrayals of African-American youth.
In 1997, as he attended Harvard Divinity School to explore the history of the Nation and other facets of African-American religious history. He left the school feeling that he was "in a moment of religious uncertainty." His study of Thurman, an African-American Baptist theologian who wrote in the mid-20th century about civil rights, activism, and an inclusive, interracial Christian vision had inspired Tillard. He parted company with Farrakhan and the Nation soon after leaving school.
Philosophically, Tillard says, he could no longer support the Nation's exclusivist message. "I kept seeking and trying to get an understanding of my faith in a way that I could not only love all people, but respect them as well."
"Racism was not what I wanted to engage in," he continued. "I didn't want to be angry at people because of their race. I didn't want someone's crimes against me to prevent me to have a heart to have reconciliation. That's a prison."
Tillard's search led him to Butts, with whom he had worked on his hip-hop ministry while still at the Nation. He was welcomed heartily into Abyssinian, where he still is a member. After his ordination, Tillard took a position as interim pastor of a United Church of Christ church in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, where, coincidentally, Malcolm X also lived during his early teen years. Though many people leave the Nation of Islam, Tillard is the first major Nation of Islam minister to convert to Christianity.
Today, not for the first time in his life, Tillard is at a moment of transition. What he does know, though, is this: "I will continue to be an advocate for social justice. I will continue to minister to the hip-hop generation." And he's learned about the power of the black church to advance his message.
Preston Williams, a Harvard Divinity School professor of theology who taught Tillard about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., says that he observed "zeal" and "aggressiveness" in Tillard that has been redirected since his departure from the Nation. "He's more, shall we say, calmed down, and he has a more serious demeanor and orientation toward what he's trying to do," said Williams, who also taught Tillard a course on economic and community development.
"Anything you want to organize can be done from the base of the church," Tillard says. In fact, he has realized, structurally speaking, there are striking similarities between the Nation of Islam and the church.
"The Nation is 75 percent black church tradition," Tillard said. The Nation's founder, Elijah Muhammad was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, Farrakhan grew up in the Episcopal church, and Malcolm X's father was a Baptist minister as well. "The people in the mosque aren't that different at all from the people in the church," he said.
Meanwhile, the self-described "prodigal son" has returned home. "If you've fallen down, faith in Christ and a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is a true and powerful medicine in order to find healing and to get back up," he says.
"The Lord has used me to talk to other people, to know that you can come home."