By Debbie Gregory.
In January, Lt. Col. Khallid Shabazz will become the first Muslim division-level chaplain in the history of the U.S. military – a Muslim spiritual leader for more than 14,000 mostly Christian soldiers.
Shabazz, 48, will administer spiritual leadership to the Army’s 7th Infantry Division at Lewis-McChord. He is one of only 10 Muslim chaplains in the entire U.S. military; of the Army’s 1,400 or so chaplains, just five are Muslim.
“When you get the call saying you have been bestowed a division, the news is kind of like, unearthly,” Shabazz said. “The list is so small and it’s such a tough cut.”
Shabazz came into the world as Michael Barnes, born into a large Lutheran family in Alexandria, Louisiana.
After high school, Shabazz headed to Jarvis Christian College, a historically black college in the small town of Hawkins in eastern Texas. Upon graduation, he returned to Louisiana and began teaching biology to fifth-graders at an elementary school in his hometown. He said he wasn’t prepared for how despondent he became at seeing so many children whose growth was stymied by poverty or poor parenting; he struggled to accept that he couldn’t help them all.
After just six months, he quit. At age 23, he decided to join the Army, thinking that it would help him mature and make him a better, stronger teacher afterward.
While stationed in Baumholder, Germany, Shabazz began studying Islam on his own.
After two years, he decided to convert to Islam, taking the name Khallid Shabazz. He said that there had been no single tipping point in his thinking, just a deep identification with Islamic tenets, such as the lack of a clerical hierarchy and the emphasis on charity.
It was a decision that his family found hard to accept.
“I do still go to church with my family – that’s an important part of reaching across the aisle,” Shabazz said. “It would be improper for me to disrespect something that instilled in me so much of who I am.”
Shabazz’s conversion caused a few speed bumps with the military as well. He had to write memos for religious accommodation, such as time to perform the traditional Friday prayers. Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, while keeping up his physical activity, was also challenging. Dietary restrictions were also an issue.
Shabazz has now been in the Army for 26 years, 18 years as a chaplain. He’s been deployed seven times – including Iraq, Kosovo and a stint at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was sent to advise commanders on religious issues after a string of scandals.
“My job is not to convert anybody to Islam. God guides people. My only goal is to have people leave my office stronger than when they came in.”