February 19, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Nation of Islam convention returns to its Detroit roots

Saviours' Day was held in Detroit in 2007, and Louis Farrakhan delivered the keynote address then to about 30,000 attendees at Ford Field. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

The Nation of Islam traces its roots to Detroit, where in the 1930s Wallace Fard Muhammad formed a movement devoted to empowering African-Americans and others to improve their lives.

The group returns to its birthplace this week for Saviours’ Day, a four-day convention for thousands of supporters to mark its founding and inspire followers for the future.

“Detroit is like our Mecca,” said Troy Muhammad, student minister with Muhammad Mosque No. 1 in Detroit and a local representative of Louis Farrakhan, the minister who leads the Nation of Islam.

Held in the city for the first time since 2007, the event runs Thursday through Saturday at Cobo Center and ends with a sold-out address from Farrakhan on Sunday at Joe Louis Arena.

The convention commemorates the birth of the Nation’s founder, who taught in the city’s famed Black Bottom area. Attendees will find spiritual renewal, fellowship, networking and informational sessions.

But to some the main draw is Farrakhan’s keynote speech, “How Strong is Our Foundation: Can We Survive?”

Farrakhan, who visited the city in May, promised supporters he would “work hard to invest in Detroit and help Detroit in any way that he can,” Troy Muhammad said. “Bringing the Saviours’ Day event to Detroit is one way of helping. It brings revenue to the city and … the spiritual message to become better with our lives.”

Some 5,000 people have registered for the event and participants secured more than 6,500 rooms in 10 city hotels over multiple nights, said Bill Bohde, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. Economic impact is estimated at $4 million, he said. In a month not generally known as a hotspot for the local hospitality industry, Bohde said, “this is a great boost.”

Farrakhan is expected to deliver “a very powerful message that will give to us what we most need in a time like this, and that is guidance,” said Ishmael Muhammad, his national assistant minister. “What steps do we need to take so we can assure ourselves as a people and a nation … a better future? Does America have a bright, promising future if her people are not educated properly, served properly?”

To that end, Ishmael Muhammad said the Nation would like to work with local leaders on city revitalization efforts.

A representative recently spoke with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan about the group’s desire to help open black businesses, spokeswoman Alexis Wiley said. While efforts have not been finalized, the mayor “is always willing to listen to a plan that’s focused on creating jobs in the city of Detroit because that is something that we need,” she said.

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr did not plan to attend this week’s event and was not scheduled to meet with Farrakhan, spokesman Bill Nowling said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, others wonder if Farrakhan might offer commentary of the kind that some have considered inflammatory. The Anti-Defamation League denounced the leader for remarks at Detroit’s Fellowship Chapel in May that the group called “hateful, anti-Semitic invective.”

Heidi Budaj, the League’s regional director, said for decades Farrakhan “has marked himself as a notable figure on the extremist scene, publicly making inflammatory statements about Jews, white people and the LGBT community. Farrakhan’s most recent speeches and sermons have featured some of the most hateful messages of his career. ... Unfortunately, hate-filled speech spewed from Minister Farrakhan’s pulpit aims to reverse the good work of so many clergy and lay people working together to better our community.”

Barry Ross, a Jewish community activist who founded the Detroit Coalition Against Violence, was among the few whites in the audience last spring. He recalled “the word that came out of Minister Farrakhan was strictly out of love. … He didn’t say anything against the Jews.”

Ross is so enamored of Farrakhan and his message, the Royal Oak resident plans to attend the leader’s address Sunday and has even invited other Jews to join him. “Minister Louis Farrakhan really needs to be respected throughout the world and the country as another great human being who wants to open dialogue and reach out to all of humanity,” Ross said.

In a city rocked by racial rifts and upheavals, Farrakhan maintains widespread popularity among black residents due to his sharp insight, said Malik Shabazz, a minister and longtime community activist. “Farrakhan speaks the things that people say in barbershops, at bars, at family dinners, at family gatherings and meetings after church.”

The convention features workshops on prayer, education and foreign affairs. Those interest Charnita Champion, a professor from Detroit who identifies as a Seventh-day Adventist and attended a conference in Chicago. Sessions offering tips on healthy eating and more could yield “priceless knowledge” for people, she said. “They will have an opportunity to get a great deal of information in one spot if they’re really seeking.”

Thomas Mooney, 26, a business owner from Fenton, started following Nation of Islam teachings in the past four years. That helped spur “a 180-degree change,” he said, pushing him to abandon drugs and alcohol.

Assembling with other followers during Saviours’ Day is “a pretty awesome experience,” he said. “It’s almost overwhelming.”

That spirit encourages attendees such as Shelton Hasan, a retiree from Detroit who relocated to North Carolina several years ago.

“Everybody comes to enjoy being together,” he said. “It’s like an annual reunion.”

Correction Some tickets were still available Wednesday for Sunday’s address by Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan at Joe Louis Arena. Due to incorrect information provided to The Detroit News, a story on Page 1A Wednesday incorrectly stated the status of ticket sales.

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