Alexandria native is imam chaplain taking care of U.S. soldiers in Europe
Special to The Town Talk
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Chaplain (Maj.) Khallid Shabazz, one of the only five imam chaplains in the Army, is an Alexandria native who wasn’t always a chaplain, a Muslim or even named Khallid Shabazz.
An imam is a leader of prayer or Muslim congregation. Shabazz is an imam chaplain for the U.S. Army in Europe.
Shabazz used to be known as Michael Barnes, a 23-year-old Jarvis Christian College graduate working at a major department store chain in Baton Rouge making $67 a week before he decided to enlist in the Army.
“At the time, my wife was having our second child,” the former Lutheran said. “I needed to do something with my life. I went down to see a recruiter and joined the Army. I entered field artillery. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Shabazz said he was a pampered athlete growing up, and the life of a field artilleryman, sleeping in adverse conditions and being hollered and cursed at, helped him mature as a person.
“It actually motivated me after my second Article 15. I got two Article 15s for disrespect. It actually motivated me to be a man and stand on my own two feet.”
During Shabazz’s stint in field artillery, he began to reassess his religious beliefs.
One day, he challenged a Muslim soldier on the concepts of Islam, the chaplain said. He was fascinated by the responses of the Muslim soldier and began a two-year journey of studying Islam, which eventually led to his conversion.
He decided to become an officer while on that two-year spiritual journey.
“I decided I wanted to go to officer school, because I wanted to get out of field artillery,” Shabazz said with a laugh.
The imam said he had a 92 general technology score, so he had to increase his GT score by 18 points to be eligible for Officer Candidate School.
While trying to increase his GT score, he faced opposition about going to Jummah service on Fridays, Shabazz said, so he desperately sought help and went to the chaplain.
“The chaplain said, ‘Why don’t you become a Muslim chaplain so you can help people like yourself that are in trouble?’,” Shabazz said. “If I had the GT score at the time, it never would have happened. I think life is amazing that things like this happen. That is how I became a Muslim chaplain.”
Shabazz studied Quranic methodology, the hadith (the Prophet’s sayings) and comparative religion for 2 ½ years to become an imam at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Ashburn, Va.
He also studied Arabic for two years at the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan.
When he arrived at the University of Jordan, Shabazz told the enrollment official that he wanted to learn how to recite the Quran in Arabic, but the official told him he should already know how to speak the language and wouldn’t let him register for classes.
“I told the enrollment official, ‘I don’t know the language, because I’m from America.’ He said, ‘There are no Muslims in America.’ He didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t enroll into the school until I brought my passport. It was really funny. After I brought my passport, he was my best friend.”
After becoming an Army chaplain in 1999, Shabazz deployed numerous times to minister to soldiers in places such as Africa, Bosnia, Kosovo, Poland and the Middle East, and he was an adviser of religious affairs for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The chaplain traveled back and forth to the Middle East to ensure soldiers were taken care of during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and he also deployed to Iraq for 15 months.
During his Iraq deployment, Shabazz traveled the entire theater to minister to soldiers and to teach commanders about Islamic faith and cultural aspects of the religion.
“I went to wherever there was a base camp. If I had one soldier at a base camp in Q-West, I flew there to minister to him and provide whatever I could to him. If they had to put me in a Humvee at 3 in the morning, I went at 3 in the morning. I told commanders what they could and couldn’t do based on the religion.”
Shabazz still ministers to soldiers, but has a new role as the USAREUR imam chaplain.
“My job is to go to each chapel and make sure I commission distinctive faith group leaders, a person who serves in the absence of the chaplain to conduct service. Everywhere in Europe they have chaplains to do the services. They don’t have imams to do the service, so I have to go in and train a guy. I send in an endorsement for him, and he gets to be the distinctive faith group leader for one year. Then, we retrain him every year.”
Shabazz said being able to train and commission faith group leaders throughout USAREUR is an example of how the Army provides the necessary support and resources to meet the spiritual needs of Muslim soldiers.
“Religious diversity is the recognition of differences in the way that soldiers in our ranks worship, think, believe and connect to someone or something greater than themselves,” said Master Sgt. Mark Jordan, the USAREUR equal opportunity senior enlisted adviser. “If the U.S. Army is to reach a global audience, diversity must be our mindset. We must be resilient in maintaining the different cultures, experiences and immeasurable talent that we all possess.”
Shabazz said Muslims may worship differently than other religious groups in the Army, but all of the religious groups in the Army share commonalities.
“The Islamic community is no different than any other community. The main objective is to worship. We want great families. We want our children to grow up and be successful. We want to be part of the community as opposed to being on the outside of the community.
“Every Friday we come here (the Patrick Henry Village Chapel) like any other service. We get together to garner support and be a backdrop of stability for each other. Like any church organization, we want to provide comfort for the people in the mosque and make sure they know that when they’re in times of trouble and difficulty, we’re here for them.”
The refuge of the mosque isn’t limited to only Muslim soldiers, and Shabazz is eager to offer guidance and support to all soldiers.
“I spend 99.9 percent of my time ministering to non-Muslim soldiers,” Shabazz said. “I play basketball and lift weights with them. Most of them don’t come to me for spiritual guidance, but they come to me for mentorship. I’ve put 24 soldiers in officer school by helping with their packets.
“It’s like offering fatherly or brotherly advice which is spiritual to me. In the chaplain corps, we either perform or provide. If I can’t direct them spiritually, I provide another chaplain for their spiritual needs.
“I’m a chaplain first and imam second. When people call me the Muslim chaplain, I’m almost offended, because that is categorizing me to be only for Muslim soldiers, and that isn’t who I am. I have a moon on my chest. They are going to know that I’m a Muslim. My job, the job of the chaplain, is to take care of soldiers. I’m Chaplain Shabazz who happens to be one of our Muslim chaplains. It’s a play on words to some people, but not to me.”