Minister Chavis' conversion Called to Islam: Seeing a different light is logical, if not spiritual, given his ambitions.

February 26, 1997

WHEN CHRISTIANITY is rejected by a man who was once punished for trying to hold Bible classes for fellow prison inmates, it raises questions. Joining the Nation of Islam could not have been easy for the preacher from North Carolina now known as Benjamin F. Chavis Muhammad.

The civil rights activist evangelized while in prison for a 1976 firebombing conviction that was later overturned. He is a descendant of John Chavis, the first African-American ordained as a Presbyterian minister. His father was an Episcopal lay minister. For eight years, Mr. Chavis Muhammad directed an office of the United Church of Christ, one of of the nation's most conservative Christian denominations.

With such a background, Mr. Chavis Muhammad should understand why some question the genuineness of his Muslim conversion, even without the Louis Farrakhan factor. But there is Minister Farrakhan. At 63 years old and having already battled prostate cancer, Mr. Farrakhan has to think about who might replace him as head of the Nation of Islam.

It could be Mr. Chavis Muhammad, who fell from grace as head of the NAACP amid allegations of mismanagement and sexual harassment. Having beaten the definitive "black leader," Jesse Jackson, to get the NAACP job, Mr. Chavis Muhammad, 49, has been scrambling for a similar position of stature. The limelight has been brightest near Mr. Farrakhan.

The Nation of Islam has had few leaders. Malcolm X might have replaced Elijah Muhammad had they not fought over Mr. Muhammad's infidelities. Elijah Muhammad's son, Wallace, instead chose orthodox Islam. That left the door open for Mr. Farrakhan, who had been jockeying for leadership before Malcolm X was assassinated. Khalid Abdul Muhammad seemed an heir until he embarrassed Mr. Farrakhan with clearly anti-Semitic remarks in 1994.

Mr. Chavis Muhammad, while still a Christian, kept himself at Mr. Farrakhan's side after being forced from the NAACP. Their collaboration reached its zenith with the successful Million Man March in 1995. From that point, it was obvious that Mr. Chavis Muhammad had found a soul mate. But religion is a personal matter. He owes no mortal an explanation for his conversion. It seems a natural course for whichever reasons actually led to that decision.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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