Muslim leader's outreach mission returned in offers of help

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - It's about 20 minutes into a Friday afternoon prayer service and Rasul Seifullah, the leader of Springfield's small community of Sunni Muslims, is putting some passion in his sermon.

He's wound his way from the pitfalls of idol worship to talking about his congregation's mosque, a converted school that was burned down last month - the target, police say, of teenage vandals.

The region's interfaith community has offered to help raise money for the Al-Baqi Islamic Center and give the congregation space to hold its services until the mosque is rebuilt. On this day, they're praying at the Nation of Islam's mosque. The week before, services were held at the Jewish Community Center.

But Seifullah, Al-Baqi's 56-year-old imam, isn't about to let his people be carried by others.

''We can't sit back and have other people fund-raising for us and we're not raising anything for ourselves,'' he tells the 28 people sitting in front of him on prayer rugs.

The goal, he tells them, is for the congregation of about 100 to raise $250,000 to help rebuild a mosque that looks like a mosque, not an old building that's serving as a house of worship.

''When people drive by it, they'll know what it is,'' Seifullah said. ''They won't have to ask, 'Is that the mosque?'''

However obscure the building may have been at its inner-city address, Al-Baqi's congregation has been visible in Springfield's religious community. The offers of help aren't merely a knee-jerk reaction to a needy cause.

During his six years as imam, Seifullah (pronounced SYE'-foo-lah) has steadily built ties with other faiths.

''What has always impressed me with Al-Baqi is that the congregants are very present in the community,'' said the Rev. Karen Rucks, executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Springfield. ''If you look up, you will always see them represented in community gatherings or promoting religious understanding. Imam Seifullah has done a lot to encourage that.''

For Seifullah, it's been a mission that reflects his own yearnings for religious connections.

Born Anthony C. Francis, he grew up in Harlem and served as an altar boy in the Catholic church. But as a teenager during the civil rights era, he started questioning his religion. ''I never saw any pictures of black saints or black prophets,'' he said.

A stint serving in the Army in Vietnam, followed by his return home, only bolstered his increasingly bitter feelings toward whites, who he felt were responsible for the war. ''I hated white people,'' he said. ''I know my hatred was misguided, but it was easy to feel.''

Searching for a place of spiritual comfort and social acceptance, he found it in the Nation of Islam. ''I sat down with a can of beer and a plate of pork chops one night, put on the TV, and there was Louis Farrakhan,'' he said. ''He was fascinating.''

The minister drew him in with his message of black nationalism.

''I was asking God, 'Why am I black?' and 'Why am I catching hell for being black?''' Seifullah said. ''I found the Nation had a rationale for why we were catching hell - it was because white people were giving it to us.''

He was a member of the Nation of Islam until the mid-1970s. But after the death of Nation leader Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the group split and Seifullah embraced the shift toward Sunni Islam led by Muhammad's son, W. Deen Mohammed.

Mohammed ''taught us the universal message of Islam,'' Seifullah said. ''He taught us it wasn't about our skin color. Islam involves everyone - all people, all cultures. When you look at true Islam, you see people from every place in the world. And that was amazing to me.''

A chemical engineer, Anthony Francis moved to Springfield in 1978 when he took a job with the Monsanto chemical company. A few years later, he began attending services at the Al-Baqi Islamic Center.

''When I first met him, he was searching,'' said Rashad Fardan, one of Al-Baqi's earliest members and one of the mosque's former imams. ''But he took it all in. And I watched him develop.''

Ultimately, Francis took the name Rasul Faheen Seifullah, which means ''messenger,'' ''learned,'' and ''the sword and defender of Allah.'' Then, in 1998, the congregation elected him as its imam. Seifullah, who is married, retired and accepted the full-time, no-pay job.

He encouraged the group to become more involved in its surrounding community, which in turn attracted more members. Within the mosque's congregation of about 100 is a core of about 50 highly active members, double since he took over.

''My biggest challenge was to break the tendency of people staying to themselves,'' Seifullah said. ''I wanted to build a warmer, more engaging community.''

He began inviting other religious leaders to Al-Baqi and going with his congregants to their services.

When Minister Yusuf Muhammad, the local leader of the Nation of Islam mosque, was attacked in 2002 by a group of alleged drug dealers, Seifullah joined a neighborhood protest to tell drug dealers they would no longer be tolerated.

''He stood with us,'' Muham-mad said. ''He was there from the beginning.''

And Seifullah has collaborated with Jewish groups to promote religious and cultural tolerance, speaking and organizing programs at a youth summer camp sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

''The only thing that divides people is when they live in their own contained world,'' said Rabbi Robert Sternberg, director of the Hatikvah Holocaust Education Center. ''He's not comfortable with that happening, so he pushes people's comfort barriers so they learn new things.''

Since the fire at the Al-Baqi mosque, other religious groups immediately offered worship space, and the Council of Churches spearheaded a fund-raising effort to help Al-Baqi rebuild.

Police say the mosque was burned by seven 15-year-olds who broke into the building to steal money and candy, then decided to cover their tracks by lighting the fire. The boys have denied arson charges, and authorities say the crime wasn't motivated by religious hatred.

If the boys are held responsible for the crime, Seifullah hopes to play a role in whatever sentence they receive, but not for vengeance. ''I'd like to see them have to do some community service under my supervision,'' he said. ''I want to see if there's a way to reach these kids. Maybe they'll learn something.''

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