The year I was born, my father joined the Nation of Islam. He was in prison at the time. Some of our earliest family pictures show him holding me inside the facility.

Before being sent to prison, my father had been introduced to Nation of Islam teachings. During his incarceration, he officially became a member, joining a growing number of African American men for whom the nation signified community, identity, reform, and dignity.

After converting, my father placed our family under the authority of the nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. We belonged to Temple 7B in Corona, Queens, a mosque annexed by the famed Temple 7 in Harlem, where Malcolm X had once served as minister. (Louis Farrakhan was in charge of Temple 7 at the time.) Malcolm had been assassinated only seven years earlier, and no one dared mention his name, almost as if there were an unspoken rule forbidding it.

The Invisible God

Growing up within the Nation of Islam, I was exposed to certain beliefs that, in retrospect, seem quite bizarre. Sometimes we would look up at the night sky, spot the lights of planes flying at high altitudes, and wonder if we had caught a glimpse of the “Mother Plane.” According to the nation’s leaders, this was a spacecraft equipped by Allah to destroy the world and its white ruling structures in what they called “the Battle in the Sky,” a reference to Armageddon.

Other memories are more pleasant. Scented body oils and the fragrance of burning incense were common in every Nation of Islam household alongside pictures of the nation’s founder, “Master” Wallace Fard Muhammad, and Elijah Muhammad, his successor. I also have fond recollections of cheering for Muhammad Ali. To us, he was something more than a champion boxer. He belonged to us, and we proudly watched every fight.

But the element of my upbringing that left the deepest impression was the constant indoctrination. We were drilled extensively in the nation’s core doctrines and taught to recite them. These doctrines came primarily from two books: Message to the Blackman in Americaand Our Saviour Has Arrived, both written by Elijah Muhammad. Our understanding of God originated with Fard Muhammad’s book The Supreme Wisdom Lessons. I distinctly remember chanting, “God is a man, not a spirit or a spook; never has God been a spirit or a spook; God is a man; God is a man!”

This chant had a clear purpose: to instill certainty that God (Allah) had come to earth in the person of Fard Muhammad, whom we knew by the exalted title of Savior of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in North America. (The nation thought of North America as a kind of wilderness from which Fard had come to rescue us.) However, even as a child, I remember thinking often about why my conception of God didn’t align with the nation’s teaching. Why was I so convinced that God really did have a spiritual nature?

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One day, I had an epiphany that confirmed my instincts. My sisters and I were playing hide-and-seek around our house. When they gave up trying to find me, they both yelled, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” At that moment, I was gripped with a thought I couldn’t fully grasp or articulate. While remaining hidden, I said to myself, “My sisters don’t know where I am. But Allah does, because he knows everything, so he must be on both the inside and the outside of this closet.” This meant that he couldn’t be a mere human being, like me or my sisters. Somehow, even at an early age, I was developing a notion of God’s omniscience and omnipresence that contradicted the nation’s insistence that he was neither “spirit” nor “spook.”

After Elijah Muhammad’s death, our family faced the same dilemma as others within the Nation of Islam. Would we remain faithful to Elijah’s teachings, or would we follow his successor, Wallace Deen Muhammad (Elijah’s oldest son), into the practice of orthodox Islam? Some families chose this route, effectively abandoning most of the nation’s core doctrines. Others joined one of several splinter groups, the largest of which was led by Louis Farrakhan.

Our family was caught in the middle. We did our best to honor the foundational teachings we had received, but we opted against following either leader. We still observed Savior’s Day, which commemorated Fard Muhammad’s birth, every February. We continued abstaining from pork. And we shunned the celebration of “pagan” holidays, such as Christmas and Easter.

At the time, I had no idea that God was working behind the scenes, sovereignly steering us away from the Nation of Islam. After marital discord caused my parents to separate, my mother moved us from New York City to Florida, where we encountered a Southern Baptist children’s evangelist. Every Saturday he would walk through our neighborhood, passing out Sunday school fliers with Bible verses, Bible crossword puzzles, and drawings of Bible characters to color in.

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Mr. Brown, as we affectionately called him, was sowing the seeds of the gospel in our hearts. Against the wishes of our mother, we always answered the door when he visited to hand out tracts. Mr. Brown gave us our first copy of the Bible, which we read in secret. He kept inviting us to Sunday school until our mother finally relented—but not without a litany of cautions against being proselytized. We were instructed to go only for the sake of being with friends and afterward to come straight home.

Around Christmas, Mr. Brown invited us to a party, given as a reward for those who could recite a selected memory verse from the New Testament. We made sure to withhold this detail from our mother while begging her to let us attend. In fact, we had gone above and beyond the one-verse threshold, reciting the entire first chapter of Matthew, genealogy and all, to the surprise of every adult listening.

A Chosen Race of Sinners

For a while after my father died, our family maintained a lukewarm connection to Nation of Islam doctrine. That began changing when the boyfriend of my second oldest sister invited her to church with his family. Soon thereafter, she accepted Christ, and we would often get into debates about salvation, Jesus, the Trinity, and the afterlife. I hadn’t lost my youthful interest in matters of theology.

Eventually, I started visiting this church to see for myself what was being taught. The more I visited, the more I was drawn to what I heard, almost as if the Holy Spirit was confirming that this was what I was searching for all those years ago, when doubts about Fard Muhammad’s teachings first arose.

After a period of deliberation, I realized I couldn’t sit through another sermon without declaring that I trusted in Jesus for salvation. At age 16 I was born again, and one year later I was already preaching the gospel. Since then, I’ve pastored four churches in three states, attended five seminaries (and counting!), traveled internationally to preach and teach, and led thousands to Christ through evangelism and apologetics.

Looking back, I can see that the Nation of Islam got some things right. I really was lost. I really was living in a wilderness. But the wilderness wasn’t North America—it was inside my own heart. And it wasn’t Fard or Elijah Muhammad who came to find and rescue me—it was Jesus. Our “Savior” had indeed arrived, as Elijah Muhammad’s book title promised. But he was both an eternal spirit and a man—God’s own Son, who came not to exalt one particular race but to gather a “chosen people” of sinners like me (1 Pet. 2:9).

Damon Richardson is the founder of UrbanLogia Ministries.

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