Nation of Islam leader the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan helped First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia, 1602 Christian St., celebrate its 205th anniversary on Sunday.
The sanctuary was filled to capacity as neatly dressed men and women of various faiths and denominations gathered for a chance to see and hear a man considered by many to be a national leader.
“Minister Farrakhan is definitely an important figure in the African-American community and I thought it would be fitting and proper to have him come and grace us with his presence,” said the Rev. Terrence Griffith, pastor of First African Baptist and president of the Philadelphia Black Clergy.
While Farrakhan’s visit was greeted enthusiastically by those who crammed inside the church to see him, Griffith said that not everyone approved of the controversial leaders visit.
“Not everyone will be pleased,” he said. “There were folks who called and folks who texted me and asked me how in the world could I have Minister Farrakhan to speak.”
Griffith recalled his conversation with one of those who disagreed with Farrakhan’s visit.
“I told him that I planned on having one of my good friends who is a Rabbi come speak for us soon and asked if he had a problem with that and he said, ‘No’. I said, ‘Well how can you disagree with Farrakhan coming to visit?’”
The answer, according to Griffith, was because he is a Muslim.
“These are the things which really disturb me. It really disturbs me that people are profiled because of their religion,” said Griffith.
In fact, Griffith said that the message given by Farrakhan was relevant to Jews, Christians, Muslims and even non-believers.
“I would invite him back again,” Griffith said.
Not only was Farrakhan warmly greeted by the church but he also was given the Bivins Heritage Award, an award given to those who have exemplified self-sacrifice and service.
The award is named after two men, Samuel and John Bivins, who voluntarily gave up their freedom to become slaves so that James Burrows, who was born a slave in Northampton County, Va., could be freed in their stead, allowing him to become the third pastor of First African Baptist in the 1800’s.
Burrows later earned enough money to buy back the freedom of the two men.
“We gave the Bivins Heritage Award to the Honorable Louis Farrakhan because of his work in the African-American [community] worldwide,” said Griffith.
When Griffith expressed to Minister Rodney Muhammad of Mosque #12 his desire to have Farrakhan preach during the anniversary service, it was Muhammad who set the gears in motion.
“The Honorable Louis Farrakhan has never lost the focus of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in seeing us as one people,” said Muhammad. “We just had a good time being there with our good friend [the Rev.] Terrence Griffith.”
Griffith and Muhammad have worked closely on community issues such as reentry and education.
During his sermon, Farrakhan thanked the members of First African Baptist for the invitation.
“I want you to know that I enjoyed every moment of the service this morning,” he said as he thanked Griffith for the award.
“I pray that almighty God will help me to become worthy of the honor that I received because my teacher said that when people give you honor, you should not accept it as if the work was done but as encouragement,” said Farrakhan.
Farrakhan addressed some of the misconceptions which Christians and Muslims may “have of one another” and said that these misconceptions “keep us from dialogue,” which is necessary for clearing these misconceptions.
“You don’t know it, but you are a Muslim, too,” said Farrakhan of those Christians who might take issue with his preaching at a Christian church. “By nature, you are of the righteous, and Muslim in Arabic only means ‘those who submit to the will of God.’ That’s not a bad name,” said Farrakhan.
“We have made a mess of religions,” he said as the church erupted in cheers of agreement.
Also at the service was Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen whose slaying by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, gained international attention. She received a standing ovation from the crowd.
First African Baptist Church was founded in 1809 and is the oldest Black Baptist church in the state. Griffith, who was installed on October 14th, 2001, is its 13th pastor.