Activism | Auburn Gresham | Interviews

Weaver of Faith

Khaleelah Dionne Muhammad on community, Chicago violence, and a bigger concept of faith

ALLISON TOREM

ALLISON TOREM

A lawyer by education and a Christian by birth, Khaleelah, forty-two, now works in community development and is a practicing Muslim. After she received her law degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 2003, she returned to work in Chicago and live in the south suburbs of the city with her two sons and husband. She introduced herself to the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina, a church and faith community in Auburn Gresham, where she grew up, and began working for St. Sabina’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. She serves as chairman of the board of ABJ Community Services, a social services agency in South Shore, and manages a parent group in Englewood. She also runs the String Weavers Peace Initiative with her colleagues from St. Sabina’s. The knitting and crochet group meets every Saturday morning at the Thurgood Marshall branch of the Chicago Public Library, on 75th and Racine. We sit in the children’s area of the library; Khaleelah is crocheting the last row of a green and orange shrug that she’s making for herself. Her mother and nine-year-old daughter talk softly at the next table, and a gaggle of children play and argue at the computers behind them.

Growing up as a Christian I was always taught that every human being had a purpose for their existence, so as a young person, I was always striving to not only find my purpose, but to live out my purpose. I have a very purpose-driven existence.

My father is a decorated war veteran from the Vietnam War, and there was an incident involving the police—a police misconduct, brutality situation involving my dad. I not only witnessed it but I ended up being mishandled myself. I remember articulating to my mom—and this was at seven years old—that I wanted to dedicate my life to making sure that stuff like that didn’t happen. When I decided to be a lawyer, it was a non-traditional approach to law. I didn’t want to practice law; I wanted to fight for justice for underrepresented, underserved people. And that’s pretty much what I’ve devoted my life to. And now, as a Muslim, I’m doing the same work. I still believe in one’s having a purpose for existence, and my purpose is, I believe, to fight for justice and to serve the people of humanity.

Growing up, we were taught to never, ever question God. Even then, being a student of logic, that didn’t sit well with me, but I complied with it because that was what my parents always taught me. When my granddad died when I was twelve years old, for the first time in my life I lost faith. I don’t know if I would articulate it as losing faith, but it was questioning. I knew that the questions that I had about God, I had to follow that journey alone, I wouldn’t be able to ask my mom. So I went on that journey alone, and that journey led me down so many paths, and one of those paths was Orthodox Islam, and that was actually by accident, although I don’t believe there is such a thing as accident. I don’t believe in coincidence.

I met my husband my first or second year in college, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s actually with the Nation of Islam, and he organized a trip to Chicago to see Mr. Farrakhan. I went on that trip, then I didn’t see him for two years. He was looking for me on campus and I was looking for him.

I was so moved by the lecture, I told a friend of mine who was Orthodox Muslim, “I want to be a Muslim, I want to join the Nation,” but I didn’t know the difference between them. He took me to the masjid, which is where the Orthodox Muslim community practices. By the time I figured out that I had been hoodwinked and bamboozled, I was already indoctrinated and I was already beginning to identify with that system of belief.

At that particular masjid, I was the only black person, and when we would stand shoulder to shoulder to pray, no one wanted to pray next to me because I was dark. By then, I had a friend, a best friend. She was a Pakistani girl, and she would be the buffer between me and the other sisters during prayer, but when she wouldn’t come, I had nobody who would.

At that point, Islam was so engrained in my heart, I maintained my Islam, but I was no longer a part of that community. And this is why I said nothing happens by accident. That didn’t happen by accident because it was my introduction to Islam. And I had been so hurt up to that point, by religion, I didn’t want to join any other religion, any other anything.

I was in the Student Union, sitting, eating by myself because I was no longer dining with the Muslims, and the brother who was in charge of the Orthodox Muslim community there walked over to me. He introduced me to my husband, and I looked and I was like, “Why does this brother look familiar?” When I became Orthodox Muslim, I had changed my name to Khaleelah, and by then, I didn’t look anything like I had looked two years before, and I was in full hijab. He said, “You know what, I’m looking for this girl named Dionne Johnson, do you know her?” and I was like [dissolves into laughter], “That’s me silly, that’s me!”

You know what ended up making me come into the Nation of Islam? The fact that my husband didn’t put pressure on me—and he wasn’t my husband then—but I would go to the study-group meetings just so I could learn more, and he never pressured me to come in. And that meant so much to me. Every other faith—whatever you want to call it—that I had been a part of, there was always this pressure initially. Even when it came to things I didn’t understand, he didn’t try to force those things. You know, he would just say, “Ask God for understanding and in time it’ll come.”

It was just a different approach to faith, and that’s why I’m comfortable even where I am now. I always jokingly say now, “I’m allergic to religion,” but I’m not allergic to religion, I’m just pro-spirituality, and even though I am a Muslim, I identify with people of faith, people who have conviction from within, no matter where that conviction comes from. But my faith is what guides me, so it’s like even if your faith is in you, and you have that strong urge from within to go and do good for humanity, I’m down with you. That’s kind of where faith has taken me. I have a bigger concept of faith now.

How did you become involved with Saint Sabina’s?

Over twenty years ago, I went to Lindblom High School [in West Englewood], and I lost one of my dear friends to gun violence, so I high-tailed it out of here as soon as I finished with high school. Before he died, the idea was he was going to follow me, he was a year behind me in school, but he didn’t make it to follow me. When he was killed I said, “There’s no way in hell I’m coming back”—excuse the French. But over time, I said, “God has given me so much. My family is there. There are so many people there that do not have control over their circumstances and they need justice. That’s what you decided you wanted to do.”

I came back home to Chicago in 2003, and I wanted to work in the Stop the Violence Movement. And Father Pfleger was already doing so much work in that arena, so I wasn’t going to come in and reinvent the wheel; I was going to learn from someone who was already doing the work. Father Pfleger didn’t know me from Adam at that point, and I emailed him and I was like, “This is a shot in the dark here,” but within the hour he had emailed me back and he was very embracing, very excited about me joining on with the work. I’ve been with Saint Sabina ever since.

When I was working at the Ark of Saint Sabina’s, managing the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative for Auburn Gresham, I was also volunteering at Muhammad University of Islam, teaching first grade or second grade, whatever class my daughter was in, how to do crochet. At the Ark, on our lunch breaks, Marchae Miller and Katrice Kendall and I would be crocheting, and we had this little fantasy about teaching the girls at the Ark how to crochet. Father Pfleger chimed in too, he was like, “Yeah, that’d be awesome,” and like I told you earlier, I don’t believe in coincidence.

In 2012, I lost my brother and my mom lost her son due to gun violence. That was actually the point at which I resigned from Saint Sabina, because working in the anti-violence movement began to be a little too much for me at that time. I was in a very angry place, a very dark place at that time, and crochet was really what saved me. I wasn’t able to verbalize what I was feeling, but I started going to my mom’s house, and we wouldn’t do a lot of talking, because of the pain, but we would sit there with our crochet hooks. String Weavers is my brother’s legacy.

The incarnation of the Stop the Violence movement that I have been a part of focuses on the males. But when you look at the underlying roots of violence—community poverty, lack of access—the approach to violence has to be family-based, it has to focus not on just one person in the family, one demographic of the family. It’s all about healing the ills of the community that lead to and give rise to violence.

The idea behind String Weavers was that we would teach the girls how to crochet, how to knit, all the string crafts, and for them to pay it forward in two ways: they would get the lessons for free but they would be charged with making at least one of their projects for someone who was less fortunate than they were. They also are charged with the responsibility of teaching at least two other people the skill that they got for free. Then there are mentoring and entrepreneurship components to the String Weavers program that are scheduled to roll out later in the summer. Even teaching the girls the concept of entrepreneurism, that’s something that, as a woman, means I can have self-confidence and be independent and feel good about my self. I don’t have to now put pressure on some guy to go out and do for me what I’m very capable of doing for myself.

You always have to plan and give room for God to work, and I feel like God has been working through this, because this is in no way what I planned but I’m loving every minute of it. Because of the space that we create, which now is intergenerational, you have the natural mentorship relationships that develop. But also, the girls are crocheting and talking and their guard is down, which is good because this is a safe space. We wanted to have a space that was just for the girls, so they feel comfortable talking out the issues that they’re going through.

On any given week now, we have about ten to fifteen ladies, young and old. I think our oldest participant, Ms. Mary, is in her seventies. But it feels like family. Just even the respect of calling—when the weather got real cold this winter, all of the older women, they didn’t have to call me, but they all called. “Just want you to know sister Khaleelah, that we don’t do cold weather.” I know that’s not very important, but it’s important to me.

How much has Auburn Gresham changed since you were growing up?

This was my library growing up. It was on 79th and Loomis, they moved the location, but this was the library and it is completely different, it’s not the same feel. Resources and whatnot, I would say they’re pretty much the same, but our attitude toward the resources has changed. When I was growing up, and I don’t know if it’s just because of the values that my parents had, but the library was a big deal for us. We respected the library, there was quiet in the library, but we looked forward to going to the library because we wanted to read, and now the books sit on the shelf lonely, in my opinion.

When I was growing up here, even though we had a lot of the same social conditions, the poverty et cetera, the family unit seemed to be stronger. I was scared to death of being outside doing things I wasn’t supposed to be doing because the neighbor was watching me. My mom, she worked around the clock, but my neighbor couldn’t wait to tell my momma if we got into something. Now, that sense of village seems to be not as strong, not to say that it’s not there at all. But it seems to be not as strong.

We tend to look the other way a lot. When we see things, there’s this idea that we shouldn’t snitch, we’re a bad person if we snitch. There’s this culture of not telling. We have to ask ourselves, what’s the reason that we should tell and whom should we tell? If your motivation is just to get someone in trouble, then you have to evaluate your heart, but if you’re trying to reform the community, the wrong thing to do, always, is nothing.

For more information or to become involved with the String Weavers Peace Initiative, email Khaleelah at stringweaverspeaceinitative@gmail.com.

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