The United States Army has made history by placing a Muslim in charge of 14,000 American soldiers’ spiritual needs.
Lt. Col Khallid Shabazz will take over as the chaplain for an entire division of soldiers this summer. He will serve as the spiritual leader for more than 14,000 mostly Christian soldiers.
Shabazz, who is stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, said he has dedicated his life to working across religious lines. When he got the call that he was receiving a promotion, he said he could barely keep calm.
“I’m on the phone saying, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it. I’ll serve honorably,’ and then I hang up the phone and I’m jumping all around like a little kid,” Shabazz, 48, recalled in interviews with McClatchy. “I was running around the office saying, al hamdulillah, al hamdulillah, praise be to God!”
Shabazz is one of only ten Muslim chaplains in the entire U.S. military. There are almost 1,400 chaplains in the Army and only five of them are Muslims.
“When you get the call saying you have been bestowed a division, the news is kind of like, unearthly,” Shabazz said. “The list is so small and it’s such a tough cut.”
With four months until the ceremony that will make him chaplain of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division at Lewis-McChord, Shabazz has plenty of time to think about taking on such a visible role in an age of open anti-Muslim hostility. He’d like to think his transition will be as smooth as those of his Christian peers, but he knows that not everyone will welcome him as warmly as the senior officers who gave him a standing ovation when the news was announced at a meeting on base.
“For me, a regular old guy from Louisiana, I look to the heavens and say, ‘Why me?’” Shabazz said. “As the day gets closer, I’m sure I’ll have more anxiety and think about it more. I’m extremely proud to have been on this journey for 20 years and never would’ve imagined that I’d be chosen to be the first.”
“Islamic guy in a leadership position?” he said. “If I think about it too much, it’ll get overwhelming.”
Shabazz was born Michael Barnes. He came from a large Lutheran family from Alexandria, Louisiana. Faith was always at the center of his household. His mother took him to church three time every week and they recited prayers each night.
After college, he was an elementary school teacher for six months, but quit that and joined the Army.
“I thought, ‘I’ll do 20 years in the military and then I’ll teach and coach,’ ” Shabazz said. “But I fell in love with the idea and the paradigm of the military.”
He will now oversee 14,000 troops as a Chaplain in the Army.
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