Muslim Community Center Offers Spiritual Solace
Center in Portland, Oregon, provides services to prison inmates
By Steve Holgate
Portland, Oregon — Most religious communities judge themselves not on whether the wealthy and powerful wish to join, but on whether they themselves have reached out to the poor and unwanted. By this measure, the Muslim Community Center of Portland, Oregon, like other faiths, is honoring an important tenet.
As imam of the center and its associated mosque, Shaheed Hamid has committed himself to one of the most important aspects of his community’s efforts. In fact, he has taken his commitment to the gates of prison, and then entered through them, establishing prison outreach to serve the small population of Muslims in the county jail.
A stocky man of 60-odd years with a warm, gravelly voice, Hamid points to the hadith (written traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) as encouraging this type of prison outreach. “Allah orders us to be just and to work toward bettering humanity,” he said, adding he believes his prison work does exactly that.
According to Hamid, the center and its mosque have a long history of offering spiritual solace to those in prison, going back to its days as part of the Nation of Islam, whose most famous preacher, Malcolm X, converted to Islam while in prison.
Hamid adds that his own experience intensified his willingness to undertake his outreach efforts. While a young man living in New York during the 1960s, Hamid had a minor brush with the law that landed him in the country jail for a few days. Those few days, he says now, made a great difference in his life. “Looking around the prison,” Hamid says, “I saw all these people in really bad shape in their lives. It woke me up.” Though he had already converted to Islam, he says, those few days in jail led him to take up his faith in a more active way.
A few years later he moved to Portland, where he became active at the Muslim Community Center and in its mosque. At that time, the mosque no longer was associated with the Nation of Islam, and had also let its prison outreach lapse. Eventually, the mosque took on new leadership, and Hamid expressed his interest in resurrecting its outreach program. He applied to jail authorities and was accepted by them as one of their authorized ministers. Since that time, four years ago, he has been volunteering his time ministering to the jail’s Muslim population.
Kyle Lewis, who works with the county jail’s Chaplain’s Unit, says that his office is committed to meeting the spiritual needs of all its inmates. In a nation as religiously diverse as the United States, this results in a highly heterogeneous program. In addition to offering the services of various Christian denominations, the Chaplain’s Unit has ministers for the jail’s Buddhists and Hindus, rabbis for its Jewish prisoners, and Hamid’s Muslim outreach.
At any given moment, the jail’s Muslim population is small, Hamid says, ranging from about 15 to as few as half a dozen. Hamid talks to inmates individually as well as offering monthly Islamic study services at one of the county’s jails and Friday prayers at another. He also advises the jails on how to prepare halal meals for Muslim inmates.
Though he feels that he helps many of the inmates, Hamid says that the work can be discouraging at times. Many prisoners gain their freedom only to return to crime and jail. A majority of them, Hamid says, including some Muslims, have drug problems. A drug counselor by profession, Hamid tries to help. “There’s an ocean of troubles,” he says, “an ocean of problems. Sometimes it feels like my contribution is just a drop in that ocean.” Whatever the challenges he faces, though, Hamid says, “It makes me feel good to contribute.”
“Getting out of prison is more than being free out here,” Hamid often says to the inmates, while making a gesture to the world outside the prison walls, “The important thing is being free in your thinking.” He sums up by saying, “My hope is that they will start to see Islam as a complement to what’s good in humanity. If that can be accomplished, well, ‘Al Hamdu Lillah.’[Thanks be to God.]”
Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.