Baltimore City’s First Masjid Built from the Ground Up to Serve Existing Muslim Neighborhood
He shovels the fresh snow, and sprinkles salt on the driveway. It is the first snow of the season and Mustafa Sharif is getting ready for the Gwynn Oak Islamic Community (GIC) Masjid’s Open house.
Driving past suburban roads, past Liberty Heights Avenue, past the under construction Shoprite and serene Gwynn Oaks Park, past friendly neighbors helping each other park stalled cars on the icy roads, the cream and teal building is a magnificent sight in the snowfall.
A welcoming community in Baltimore City; a model community with a model masjid which resonates with the call to prayer. Centrally located near the beltway, there is optimistic talk of growth in the brand new masjid, of the school district making the high school into a magnet school, of quiet streets, historic homes, open green spaces, and convenient commute to the city without the congestion.
Of the ShopRite opening at the corner of Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak Avenues. The grocery store will have a whole aisle of Halal meat, says the president of Howard Civic Association, Shadid Tamir Abdul-Rahim. He announces that the congregation should submit suggestions for grocery items so that they can be stocked at the store. The community looks forward to more development in the area.
“We left the Nation of Islam,” seated on the floor of the masjid, Presley Cason III, Amir of the community tells me. Three generations of Casons lives blocks from each other. Presley Cason’s son got married and moved back into the neighborhood. The Casons have been calling people to move here since the early 90s, but it took time for the idea to take off; to get rid of the perception people had of this area of Baltimore City. 15 to 20 families came at first, then in 1999 the majority started to move in. “I was already living here for the past thirty years,” says Cason.
“Seeing 40 houses on a 1/4 acre plots of land for $40,000 to $50,000 dollars, we targeted this area to make an Islamic community,” he conveys. 3500-4000 sq ft homes at extraordinary prices 13 years ago -now a brand new, renovated home costs $200,000.
$40,000 can still buy you a home, according to Cason, if you are ready to renovate.
He is the nephew of John (Yahya) Cason, the man behind much of the redevelopment activity. His father and uncle spearhead many of the civic initiatives in the area. Conservatively fifty Muslim families live in the area, he says, who are involved with the Gwynn Oak Islamic Community, but there are a lot more.
Down the street is the Maine Avenue, otherwise known as Islamic Way. "It's not completely Islamic, but there is a concentration of Muslims on this street. Wholesome is the word that you will often here to describe the lifestyle Muslims have brought to the area,” said Mercedes Eugene, a former president of the civic association in a Baltimore magazine article- copies of which were handed out to visitors at the masjid.
Former drug houses were bought and renovated. There used to be a liquor store at the corner of Gwynn Oak and Rogers Ave. When it became a hub for drug dealers, Yahya Cason purchased the building and refused to rent it to the liquor store. The builder of the new supermarket evicted another liquor store, and New York Fried Chicken stands where the third liquor store used to sit.
As a child, Moses (Musa) Hammett, Partnership Liaison at the Center for Urban Families, used to look longingly at Gwynn Oak Park- a segregated amusement park; as an African American he could not come here. Now he owns a home in the neighborhood. City records show the change from an all-white Howard Park to a community in which Blacks were in the majority. There is no record of a Black resident in Howard Park prior to August 1959.” If you walked through the neighborhood, you could get accosted by white folks, that’s how racist it used to be,” reminisces Hammett.
“We have seen the community transform”; and it is transforming again. After accepting Islam, Hammett attended classes at Masjid Al Haqq with Shaykh Fatih Abdul Rahman from Sudan and Shaykh Dawud of Morocco. There he made friends who were moving here. “We saw so many Muslim families move into the area and [seeing] what they were trying to establish here, my wife and I were excited and moved into the Gwynn Oak community” in 2005.
Welcomed by the neighbors because of the progression they saw and when they saw that Muslims shutting down bars and the liquor stores. “When we actively led the action to shut down the liquor stores they didn't see us a foreign element, they saw us as normal people that want quality of life for their families.”
He rakes his elderly neighbors leaves, reminding of them of the Biblical teaching- Love Thy Neighbor. “You are the best neighbor I have ever had,” those words hold meaning to the Hammetts. “They see that we don't bring drama but are being productive; it's been a really good experience.”
Attorney Melvin Bilal lives and plays golf with his buddy, Rafeeq, on one of the oldest golf course in Baltimore, Forest Park Golf Course, a few minutes from the masjid.
Khayriyyah Garner, 18, grew up on Arlington Ave., on a city block where they cleaned their stoops and gutters, sharing a room with several siblings. “We could never walk alone in our old neighborhood.” Eight years ago, her family moved to Gwynn Oak, and she never had to share a bathroom again. She walked the treelined block to her best friend’s house. Next stop was the playground in front of Sr. Khadijah’s* house, a refuge for the kids in case anyone needed a band aid or had to use the toilet. Garner is now married to a young man who also grew up in the neighborhood, but went overseas to learn Quran. They are remodeling a house that her husband’s mother bought, near her parents and the Gwynn Oaks masjid.
After 4 years, the masjid is near completion. The community has raised over 1.3 million dollars; GIC must raise $40,000 more to complete the masjid construction. A fundraiser is scheduled on the first Saturday of January, 2014.
Three stories high, the masjid is American suburban, with a salute to an Islamic aesthetic with teal arches over the entrance. An elevator leads up to the third floor, which will house the gym and youth rec area. A commercial kitchen, 3 classrooms on the first floor, a musallah on the second and “a lot of attention paid to the bathroom and wudu areas.”
It’s not a huge building but it fits the immediate needs to the community. To bring Islamic life for their future generations, the community bought a house and expanded it into a masjid. After it was condemned, and to comply with current zoning laws, they decided to raze the house and build a new masjid from the ground up-- a first for Baltimore City--symbolic of the new community.
“We want to raise men who are worthy of our daughters and daughters who are worthy of being mothers of our sons,” says Presley Cason, “as we grow we could easily be the majority in the area.” Working class and professional Muslims live and worship together.
A homeschooling co-op, a small Islamic school and Al Rahmah School are all options for children’s education. Many of the girls attend Western High School, the oldest all-girls public high school in the United States, known for its quality education and the boys go to a previously all boys school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
With plates of tuna and chicken salad on their laps, two old friends, Quadriyyah Tauheed and Sabreen Sharif catch up and exchange photos of grandchildren on their smartphones. Between them, they raised 8 children in the neighborhood. Their children still have the same tight bond with each other. Excited about the masjid reopening, the friends were present at the various meetings held to gather input from the members. “They asked us questions about how we wanted the building, the arrangement,” says Sharif, ”a Muslim architect drew out the plan and explained it to community members.” Annual membership dues are $210 per person or $420 per family.
The Sharifs moved here in 2000 from the inner city. “Our children felt safe,” says Sabreen. “They felt free- free to be Muslim,” says Mustafa. “I didn’t have to worry about them, because I knew who they were with and who their parents were, she shares. All of her children except for two went overseas to learn Islam and came back.“My boys are still in the community, other kids are close by, near ISB.”
A teacher at Al Rahmah School, Tauheed says her family benefited from having Sister Majida in the community. “She was the principal of Madina Academy, homeschooled and tutored the children in our community.” Tauheed’s sons, Muhammad, (an engineer who an integral part of the UMBC MSA) and Ameer travelled to Egypt while they were in elementary school to study at Al-Azhar. She sent them with a family from the Gwynn Oak community to learn Arabic. They oversaw the boys, like extended family. Her daughter stayed with the same family during her tenure at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Hand in hand, the Gwynn Oak Islamic Community is establishing Islam within the borders of the Gwynn Oaks area of Baltimore City, in accordance to the Quran and Sunnah, “where the character of [people of other faiths] is being influenced by our children’s upright characters.” Engaged civically and politically, these indigenous converts are raising generations of born Muslim children and asking others to join them.
*Name changed to protect privacy