Facing the entrance of the church, Mmoja Ajabu tries to envision a Sunday 13 years ago. He can see that day almost as clearly as he can now see himself in the glass doors. Much in the reflection has changed.
The 59-year-old man with a white beard and a custom-made black suit sees his 46-year-old self clad in military fatigues, his four fellow militiamen positioned behind him. He can see the face of the security guard inches from his own, blocking his entrance to the church. He can feel the stares of the apprehensive congregants gathered in the church lobby, looking on from within. And he can still feel the anger well up inside of him. He exhales through flared nostrils.
“I was pounding on these doors,” he says, calmly pantomiming the action with his fist. “I was screaming, ‘Who are you to say I can’t come in this church?’”
But he knew the reason then, as well as he does standing here today. At the time, Ajabu was commander of the Indianapolis Black Panther Militia. To many, he was a villain, a madman who was holding the city hostage, threatening violent “revolution” if the government did not respond to its black constituents. A maniac who, when his son was involved in the brutal slaying of three Carmel youths, had called out the prosecutor and the mother of the victims and pledged that “a whole hunch of people would die” if his son was executed. An outspoken opponent of organized religion who had long maligned the Light of the World Christian Church—one of the city’s most influential—and its bishop, T. Garrett Benjamin Jr., as hypocrites who talked of good deeds on Sunday but did nothing to help those in actual need. The revolutionary who, with armed escort, was now trying to invade their sanctuary.
“I was yelling, ‘That’s why I talk about this church,’” he reenacts, fists landing softly on the glass. “I said, ‘How can y’all say you help people, when y’all won’t let people in the church?’”
Ajabu unfolds a crooked finger, and rings the doorbell. The Light of the World church left this building years ago for a bigger facility across town. Still, a custodian from the current tenant opens the door and greets him: “Reverend Ajabu.”
Ajabu asks to see the chapel, and while the custodian runs to get the keys, a tall marble fountain in the lobby echoes behind his story. “Eventually,” he says, “the ruckus outside drew the attention of the bishop. He sent word down to security to let us enter and to escort me to a seat.”
The custodian returns, keys jangling, and unlocks the chapel door. “Go on in,” he says. “I’ll go upstairs and turn on the lights for you.”
In the darkened sanctuary, Ajabu retraces the path on which he was led that day years ago, past the awestruck churchgoers, all the way to the front pew, where he was seated next to the bishop’s wife. He now sits in the same spot and stares up at the dark and empty altar. “Bishop preached on Moses,” he says. “And it all came flooding back to me.”
As it does now: Distant visions of his father preaching from a similar pulpit, later lying in his coffin, leaving the teenage son to support his family. A job recently lost for carrying a firearm; a home nearly burnt to the ground; his wife who after years of tumult was now leaving for good. All on top of the hatred from the people of this city, a fury he could feel in the stares of those in the pews behind him.
Perhaps the mounting burdens had finally overwhelmed him. Maybe it was divine intervention. Perhaps both. The bishop’s wife touched his shoulder and invited him to join the church. Ajabu wept.
He now stands and approaches the altar, as he did on that day, clasps his hands together and brings them to his lips. The lights come on, as if on cue, but Ajabu doesn’t notice. Tears streaming from his clenched eyelids, he bows his head. A knot forms in his throat. He can muster little more than a whisper.
“I was a pariah in this city,” he says softly. “The bishop hugged me. He loved me when my life was devoid of love. He put his arms around me and never let go. This was the place where he started me on that path.”
Today there is a new Light of the World. In 2002, the expanding congregation moved into a brand new complex dubbed “The City on the Hill,” erected just north of Crown Hill Cemetery on Michigan Road. Every Sunday, more than a thousand churchgoers file through the new glass doors. Every Sunday, Reverend Muja Ajabu is there to greet them.
A short, gaunt man whose tailored suit nevertheless hangs loosely on his bones, Ajabu possesses a raspy voice that carries the fervor of a man many times his size. “S’up, soldier?” he gruffs forcefully to the men whose hands he grabs and locks to pull them in for a firm half-hug. “Good morning, sister,” he offers the ladies, often punctuated with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. White hairs have overtaken his thick beard and are starling to encroach on his black Afro. Gone are the stern countenance, clenched jaw, pouting lips, and blazing eyes of the righteous protestor. At 59, his face has softened, wrinkles worn around yellowed eyes and lips now often upturned into a smile.
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