AFRICAN AMERICAN PAPAL ENGAGEMENT
OCTOBER 7, 2015
As-Salaamu 'Alaikum wa Rahmatullah . Pope Francis' current and ongoing global tours give Muslim religious and spiritual leaders in various countries, the opportunity to interact with him. His recent visit to NYC is an example of this, wherein both (NYPD, and NYU Islamic Center Muslim Chaplain) Imam Khalid Latif, and sister Sarah Sayeed (formerly of the Interfaith Center of NY, now with the NYC Mayor's office) were selected to offer prayer at the Sept. 11th Memorial Museum multi-faith gathering. However this was not the first such gathering with Muslim American participants .
Two decades prior, 19 and 20 years ago respectively this month, foundational and substantive engagements took place between US-based African American imams ,and a predecessor of the current pope, his eminence Pope John Paul II. In 1995 , during the 2nd of two such visits (the first was in 1979) it was that pope who took NYC by storm with motorcades and multiple appearances for public worship, before throngs of people at Central Park's Great Lawn, Yonkers' Aqueduct Race Track, and NJ's Giants Stadium.
However during a more intimate interfaith gathering of religious leaders at the NYC residence of Cardinal John O'Connor, this writer had the honor to meet and greet Pope John Paul II , and speak with him for a few minutes about the diversity and vibrancy of the Muslim population in America, including African Americans. Imam Talib 'Abdur-Rashid of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (Harlem, NY) was invited to the private audience because of his then seven years experience (and that was 20 years ago) as a pioneering Muslim participant in interfaith dialogue and multi-faith worship, in NYC and beyond. During that 1995 Manhattan gathering , the participants had a light moment when, looking at the African American leader, the pope asked if he was from Ethiopia. "No sir" he replied. "I'm from North Carolina", and everyone laughed.
Also in his capacity then as a 2nd Vice President of the Majlis Ash-Shura (Islamic Leadership Council) of Metropolitan NY, the imam presented a plaque to the esteemed global leader the pope, on behalf of then Ameer of the Majlis, Imam Al-Amin Abdul-Latif. Imam Al-Amin is himself an African American. Its inscription of welcome was co-signed by the two of them . The plaque highlighted the ayyat (verse) from the Qur'an 3:64, calling the People of the Book to common terms of monotheistic belief with Muslims. This gave the engagement a traditional faith-based thrust rooted in both the Qur'an, and the prophetic mission of Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him).
An equally religiously rooted, but even more historic and substantive engagement occured a year later, when the Honorable Imam W.D. Mohammed (Rahmatullah 'alaihi, May Allah have mercy on him and reward him with Paradise, ameen) led a delegation of 92 Muslim African Americans to an interfaith gathering at the Vatican, in the presence not only of Pope John Paul II, but the Dali Lama. There the Imam spoke before a crowd of 100,000 people in representation not only of his own "people of the land" of America, but all Muslims in the USA. All of this is a matter of public record,nonetheless unknown to too many Muslims in America, and perhaps in NY, in this day and time.
A muslim sister this writer was conversing with recently encouraged me to educate the Muslim public on this history, using social media. So here it is. Lastly, here is a video of Imam Mohammed's brief but historic 1996 address, at the Vatican:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5W5D1RHFfA