Spanish-language mosque in Houston draws worshippers

Alex Gutierrez, second from left, prays during Friday prayers in the mosque at the Islam in Spanish Centro Islamico, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, in Houston. Gutierrez, the director of development and operations, was raised Catholic, but he has been a Muslim for 12 years. In its first months, Centro Islamico welcomed 28 new converts to Islam, said Gutierrez, Islam in Spanish's development and operations director. "They were all Latinos — families, single mothers, couples with children. We've had 10-year-old sisters; we've witnessed a grandmother accepting Islam." (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Alex Gutierrez, second from left, prays during Friday prayers in the mosque at the Islam in Spanish Centro Islamico, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, in Houston. Gutierrez, the director of development and operations, was raised Catholic, but he has been a Muslim for 12 years. In its first months, Centro Islamico welcomed 28 new converts to Islam, said Gutierrez, Islam in Spanish's development and operations director. "They were all Latinos — families, single mothers, couples with children. We've had 10-year-old sisters; we've witnessed a grandmother accepting Islam." (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Washington Times

By ALLAN TURNER - Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - Mexican-born Maria Dawood grew up Catholic, but the church never fit her heart.

Her questions about its teachings brought only certitudes. Rituals grew meaningless. Even the stylish attire of female worshippers annoyed her.

The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2bf96oG ) reports spiritual but doctrinally untethered, Dawood’s life centered on a search for God.

In Houston, Dawood sampled Pentecostalism. Then a Muslim friend loaned her his Spanish-language Quran. From the Islamic holy book’s opening lines, Dawood knew she had found a religious home.

“I couldn’t stop,” she said. “I continued reading. Once I finished, I started again. Every time I read it I found something new. This is what I had been looking for.”

Dawood’s conversion came almost 40 years ago, a time when resources for Houston’s Spanish-speaking Muslims were few.

Now, with the opening earlier this year of Centro Islamico, Texas’ - and possibly the nation’s - only Spanish-language mosque, the city is poised to become a center of Hispanic Muslim teaching.

Located in a bank building on Houston’s far southwest side, the mosque is a project of Islam in Spanish, a producer of religious educational materials. Founded 15 years ago, the nonprofit has spawned similar organizations in Dallas, California and New Jersey.

In its first months, Centro Islamico welcomed 28 new converts to Islam, said Alex Gutierrez, Islam in Spanish’s development and operations director. “They were all Latinos - families, single mothers, couples with children. We’ve had 10-year-old sisters; we’ve witnessed a grandmother accepting Islam.”

Gutierrez, himself a former Catholic, estimated as many as 1,000 Hispanic Muslims live in the Houston area. Nationally, by some estimates, as many as 300,000 Latinos follow Prophet Muhammad’s teachings.

To date, Islamic inroads into the U.S. Hispanic population have been small.

Fifty-five percent of Hispanics are Catholics, Pew Research Center reports. Slightly more than 1 in 5 are Protestants; only 1 percent adhere to non-Christian religions.

Still, demographic trends may foretell Islam’s growth.

Latinos now comprise almost 40 percent of the population in Texas and 20 percent in the U.S. Pew reports that almost 1 in 4 identify themselves as former Catholics. By the second half of the century, Islam is projected to become the world’s dominant religion.

Islam in Spanish was created to supply Spanish-language religious materials for a new wave of converts.

In its early years, it issued more than 500 audio books and 250 videos, most of which were aired on public access television. More recently, it has directed attention to the internet.

Sunday classes are streamed live, offering a worship option to Muslims unable to travel to the Houston mosque.

“We reach viewers in Brazil, Spain, Argentina,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve had people tune in from Germany and Paris. We’re open to anybody, any Latinos anywhere in the world who are open to Islam.”

In December, the nonprofit will host the nation’s first Latino Muslim convention as part of the 2016 Texas Dawah Convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Each conversion is unique, but Dawood’s path to Islam is familiar to many Hispanic Muslims.

Like Dawood, Nahela Morales, 40, was born in Mexico to a Catholic family.

“As far back as I can remember, I was always looking for God,” she said. But when she sought religious guidance from the most devout member of her family, her grandmother, she simply was admonished to “always believe.”

“By my mid-20s, that wasn’t good enough,” said Morales, who today is “brand ambassador” for Islam in Spanish.

Morales attended Mormon, Baptist and Jehovah’s Witness services. She talked religion with a Jewish friend. In 2001, she moved to New York City. When terrorist-piloted airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center, she, with millions of other Americans, was enraged.

Then she bought a Quran to better understand Islam. What she found was surprising.

“When I came across Islam, I was encouraged to ask questions. All my questions were answered,” she said. “I got a Bible to compare with the Quran. When I found that Islam didn’t disregard Jesus, that was a big deal with me. Islam doesn’t disregard any of the messengers and prophets - there’s room for Adam, Noah, Jesus and finally the Prophet Muhammad, peace be to them all.”

For Dawood, the values of Islam comported with what she had been taught in her Catholic girlhood.

“It teaches love and peace,” she said. Islam, she said, offers direction on how to treat people, get along with parents, to engage in charity without judging the recipients. “When I travel and see someone in need, I give a dollar. What they do with it is up to them,” she said.

Islam in Spanish founder Jaime Muhajid Fletcher was a searcher, too. Classes at west Houston’s Elfarouq mosque brought him to the faith, and, arguably, saved his life.

A one-time Houston gang member, Fletcher, 39, was traveling this week and unavailable for comment.

In a 2008 Houston Chronicle article, though, the Colombian native explained the transformative nature of his found faith.

“I didn’t drink anymore. I didn’t smoke anymore. I didn’t go out,” he said. “Not because someone told me to stop, but because I would have felt dirty if I’d done it. It was a total change. . Deep inside, I wanted peace, and I wanted justice and for God to have given me Islam - it is what I hoped for all along.”

The roots of religion run deep, and conversion often doesn’t come without pain.

In Hispanic families, said Gutierrez, a move from Christianity to Islam can be perceived as betrayal.

“Latino families associate Islam with a certain culture and people,” he said. “When you embrace Islam, it’s as if you had rejected your own people.” Gutierrez, related to Fletcher by marriage, said his family’s acceptance of his conversion at first was “a struggle.”

“My mother really was very rejecting,” he said. “She would say things like ‘I won’t go with you.’”

Morales agreed.

“Family members can feel betrayed until they see that this new path is only enhancing and bettering you,” she said. “When I moved to New York, my parents worried that I would be clubbing and drinking. When I embraced Islam, it almost came as a relief to them.”

Morales, who wears a Muslim scarf, even reconciled her new belief with her devout Catholic grandmother.

“My grandmother in Mexico, actually, wears a scarf, covers her head, upon entering the church. The older generation does that,” Morales said. “When I struck up a conversation about my hijab with her, it wasn’t an alien concept.”

On one torrid Mexican day, she recalled, the grandmother-granddaughter head coverings even inspired a moment of weary commiseration.

“Oh,” the older woman sighed, “it’s so hot.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com