Bringing Allah to urban renewal

As politicians call for more religious involvement in communities, an

Most people here used to do just about anything to avoid driving down Quindaro Boulevard. It was a street lined with signs of inner-city trouble: dingy liquor stores sheathed in security bars, aimless men warily eyeing passersby, and an abandoned gas station that was home to shootouts and drive-thru drug deals.

But that was before the Black Muslims came calling.

Now there's the new diner. Its red-and-white star-and-crescent sign - and its conspicuous lack of security bars - beckon customers. Fish nuggets are just $2.50, and they're served by bow-tie clad waiters.

Then there's the renovated gas station, where three men in starchy-straight shirts bustle out to serve each customer. One pumps gas. Another checks oil and tire pressure. The third offers a plate of cookies.

With mathematic precision, this band of polite believers aims to resurrect one of Kansas City's toughest neighborhoods - and then do the same in other blighted communities around the country. They're also known as the United Nation of Islam (no relation to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam), and their effort comes as criminologists and politicians - including GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush - are touting faith groups as a great hope for some of the worst areas of urban blight.

Up and down Quindaro Boulevard, the diner and the gas station are joined by other testaments of revival -a grocery store, a bakery, a variety store.

In the tidy grocery store, canned vegetables and other goods stand in soldierly rows on sparsely stocked shelves. Butternut squash from the group's Maryland farm is piled high near the window.

At the variety store, old household appliances - from vacuum cleaners to food dehydrators - are brought back to life and sold. It's symbolic, the group says, of the neighborhood's return to life.

Opening soon are a health clinic, an employment center, a formal restaurant, and a laundromat. All the businesses have bold star-and-crescent signs out front. And they're all named "Your Diner," "Your Laundromat," "Your Service Station," and so on.

What has motivated this close-knit, quiet group of inner-city do-gooders is a practical philosophy of urban renewal. If a community is to be self-sufficient, they say, residents must be able to get all they need in the area. Therefore, it must have an array of businesses, not just one or two stores.

Moreover, they criticize other antipoverty programs for providing detox services for drug addicts - and then turning them loose onto the same rough streets. Such people must be eased back into a more-supportive environment that helps them stay clean.

To this end, the service station doesn't sell cigarettes - or even soda - because they're bad for customers' health and thus a disservice. The diner doesn't serve red meat for the same reason.

"Our prayer is our practice," explains James 2X, the group's national secretary, who runs the Kansas City, Kan., operation. Officials shun esoteric faith as a guide, he says. "What's right is that which can be proven."

The United Nation of Islam

The group doesn't appear to espouse the racially charged views of other Black Muslim organizations, such as the Nation of Islam. Formed in 1993, it is a splinter group of the Nation of Islam and now views Mr. Farrakhan as having gotten distracted by the issue of race.

The United Nation of Islam is based in Temple Hills, Md., and is led by a man named Solomon. His followers call him Allah because he is the originator of the "mathematical" approach to life. The Nation doesn't release membership numbers, but adherents from all over the country send money to support the Kansas City venture. The group won't accept any government funds.

That's in line with many other faith-based charity groups, which worry that government funds could compromise their mission. Still, other groups are happy to use government money.

Indeed, Mr. Bush has proposed eliminating all barriers to religious groups getting government funds - and giving up to $8 billion a year in tax breaks and grants to such groups. Reflecting an unusual bipartisan spirit on the issue, Vice President Al Gore also backs a greater role for faith-based groups in social services.

This political consensus reflects the "broad recognition that a lot of social programs have fallen short because they don't have a values or spiritual or moral component to them," says Peter Frumkin, a public policy professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

There is, however, concern among those who defend church-state separation that government money will be used to proselytize. But United Nation of Islam members say that's not an issue here.

"We haven't converted one single person since we've been here," Mr. 2X says. "That's not our goal."

Their aim, he says, is only to make the community and the businesses self-sufficient. So far, only the diner and the service station are profitable. But eventually he expects all the businesses to make money. And in the meantime, the stores, which are open to everyone, are used as "classrooms" in which neighborhood young people learn job skills.

In February, the group expects to expand its current summer-school program into a year-round school. Students will take classes in "mathematical thinking" and "civilization," then they'll be put into one of the businesses to learn job skills. "Why teach them basketball?" asks 2X, referring to traditional youth programs such as midnight basketball. Businesses are places where young people can learn "how to be responsible, how to pay attention to the details."

What are the group's aims?

Eventually, the group says it aims to pull out of the neighborhood and turn over the businesses to residents. But this no-strings-attached approach has brought some skepticism in the community, with people wondering what the group's true motives are. But seeing the fruit of their works has convinced many that the group will do what it says.

"When they first came in I was kind of suspect," says Don Sewing, who owns a local real estate agency and has worked in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years.

But soon he was won over. "They're very clean-cut, very mannerable," he says. And now, thanks to their efforts, "I feel safe leaving my front door unlocked." That, he says standing in his office on Quindaro Boulevard, "is a big change from a decade ago."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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