Keeping the Faith, Differently

The New York Times, June 16, 2003

If one thing can be said of Conrad Tillard, it is that he never shied away from the incendiary remark.

If another might be permitted, it could be that he is not too proud to change his mind.

Mr. Tillard is the former minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem who made an infamous career as a slinger of slurs when he served as the Nation of Islam‘s chief representative in New York. He once referred to a Brooklyn assemblyman as a “snotty-nosed Jewish politician.” He often repeated the view of some members of the Nation that the white man is the devil.

These days, however, Conrad Tillard, once known as Conrad Muhammad, is emerging from a five-year metamorphosis that has transformed him from a fist-shaking black nationalist to a Bible-quoting Baptist preacher. He has returned to the name of his birth. He has also returned to the faith he practiced as a child.

In the meantime, his spiritual journey has blazed a fresh trail between two of Harlem’s best-known religious institutions. Leaving the doors of Mosque No. 7, Malcolm X’s home base, he essentially turned left on Lenox Avenue and wandered several blocks uptown to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would preach when he was in town.

He is now a Baptist minister, and two months ago he gave his first sermon as one of the congregation’s preachers from the pulpit at Abyssinian. It felt like a homecoming, he explained.

“I basically walked from one place to the other,” Mr. Tillard said the other day. “It may have taken me a long time to get there, but I finally came home.”

Mr. Tillard was sitting at Amy Ruth’s restaurant on West 116th Street, where there were echoes of his former life. Even today, the menu, which includes photographs of Harlem luminaries, bears a picture of him captioned, “Minister Conrad Muhammad of the Nation of Islam.” He chuckles at it now.

At 38, Mr. Tillard is no longer quite the firebrand he used to be. He is a quiet, thoughtful man with the pensiveness and humble manner of a dogmatist who has learned to temper his most strident beliefs. He speaks of his transformation in gentle, almost hesitating, tones, as if it were a fragile living thing.

He was 19 when he joined the Nation, and he was not so humble then, he says. As a Nation of Islam member, he castigated Jews, Christians, Democrats, Republicans, dope dealers and gangsta rappers with the same fervor. He reserved a special ire for the black church of his childhood, which he condemned for cronyism and cowardice. For too long, it had turned a cheek toward racism, he said.

But after more than a decade in the Nation of Islam, the internal politics began to wear him down. So, too, he explained, did the group’s angry message. In 1997, he studied at Harvard Divinity School, where he explored the theological roots of what had become an all-too-political ministry. A year later, in a public break with Louis Farrakhan, his mentor, he quit the Nation for good.

Mr. Tillard admits that it was not the tenets of Islam that attracted him at first to Mosque No. 7. Instead, he was drawn to the Nation because it provided him with feelings of strength and racial pride. As soon as he left the group, in fact, he began to question whether he still believed in Islam’s teachings. .

And so after leaving, Mr. Tillard by and large took up a secular life. A brief stint as a radio talk show host on WBLS followed. Soon after, Mr. Tillard formed an eccentrically spelled group called the Movement for Chhange, for Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment. At Mosque No. 7, he had styled himself as the city’s hip-hop minister, but at the helm of his new organization he quickly found himself in a bitter feud with Russell Simmons, the rap impresario. He chided Mr. Simmons as exploiting hip-hop music for the benefit of its white fans and for promoting what he viewed as a dangerous, degrading image of blacks.

“Whites have accepted Russell Simmons as the guru of urban black youth culture,” he said in an interview with The Village Voice in April 2001. “He has sold them a bill of goods — that we are penny-chasing, Champagne-drinking, gold-teeth-wearing, modern-day Sambos, pimps and players.”

Mr. Tillard has largely dispensed with that sort of talk these days, and he is more likely to speak passionately of St. Peter than of Sean Combs. Even during his days as a hip-hop crusader — and during his failed attempt last year to unseat Charles B. Rangel as Harlem’s Congressional representative — he was toying with thoughts of returning to the church.

“It was in my heart,” he says, “but I had so many questions and so many doubts.”

“I was known in the neighborhood as Minister Conrad of the Nation of Islam,” he says. “I knew God was calling, but I still had to overcome the fear of facing people on the street.”

So far, he says, there has been no bad blood. In fact, the neighborhood has accepted him with such open arms that he would readily consider serving as pastor at a church in Harlem.

But at the outset of his transformation, he needed what amounted to a safe house. He found it in the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore, where for several months last year he attended services and reacquainted himself with Christianity.

It was last June when he walked for the first time as a worshiper into Abyssinian Baptist. He spent nearly seven months just sitting in the pews before he started working toward the ministry.

Along with taking classes, Mr. Tillard has taken a new mentor — the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of Abyssinian, who stayed close with him throughout his time at Mosque No. 7.

“Conrad is an extremely bright and talented man,” Mr. Butts said. “He has been conferring with me over several years now, and I think he has found that his strength and the effectiveness of his ministry are best utilized through the Gospels and not through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.”

Mr. Tillard has not entirely discarded his old beliefs. Rather, he has labored to place them in the framework of his new beliefs. Once, he saw his idols — Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Nat Turner — as secular heroes who had no ties to the Christianity he has reclaimed. Now, he sees them as indebted to the church.

Earlier this month, he said as much at the Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, where he delivered a sermon at a Sunday service.

Mr. Tillard’s sermon was a sort of public coming-out — delivered at the end of a three-day conference attended by black public figures that included the Rev. Al Sharpton; Earl Graves Jr., the founder of Black Enterprise magazine; and Mr. Rangel.

It was an address that mixed the personal with the scriptural. Its theme, of course, was the prodigal son. The congregation seemed to love it.

“There’s someone here who wants to come home,” Mr. Tillard said toward the end. “There’s someone here that wants to sit in the pew. He wants to sit in the pew and sing, `Blessed Assurance.’ “

“When people decide to come home, it’s a hard decision,” he went on. “On that road home, you think: `What will people say? How will they receive me? What will the response be?’ “

Immediately after those words, one response rose from the pews.

“That’s right!” someone in the church called out, seeming to encourage Mr. Tillard to find his way on his chosen path. “Work it out!”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday June 17, 2003.
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