Gainesville Islamic Cultural Center
Where: 694 E.E. Butler Parkway, Gainesville
Phone number: 770-900-9010
Imam Bilal Ali wasn’t always a Muslim.
The Gainesville man was born Reco Champion and raised in a Christian home off Bradford Street. And growing up Christian helped Ali when he decided to convert to Islam.
“It helped me because I come from a foundation,” he said. “Me coming from a foundation, knowing who God is, is almost like I graduated from one semester in college to another.”
Ali said knowledge continues to grow and helps show what the purpose in life is and who God is.
“Islam taught me who God is,” he said. “What is your role in life? What is your purpose in life? Christianity was teaching that and ... for me it didn’t go as far in depth.”
Ali said Christianity taught him God is jealous. Because of that, people have to worship him and separate everything from him.
“If people know who the creator is and they fall in love with their creator, nothing else matters,” he said. “You become blind to everyone else.”
Islam teaches you to want for your brother what you want for yourself, Ali said.
This was a lesson he learned in his “very religious household.” His great-grandmother was a minister, his mother was very religious and his father was a hard worker who provided for his family.
He said growing up he and his siblings were raised to treat others how they wanted to be treated and to value diversity. They were taught to love their neighbor and love each other.
“We always had an understanding of who God is and that everything that exists, exists because God allows it to,” he said.
But his family members don’t let their religious beliefs and differences trap them, Ali said, noting his siblings are still Christian.
“We don’t hang up the phone,” Ali said. “We don’t leave a gathering without saying ‘I love you, be safe.’”
Therefore, his Christian background and values made it easy for him to transition to Islam.
Ali was invited to his first Islamic service in the late 1980s. He found it welcoming and inviting.
“When you come through these doors, leave your problems out there,” Ali said of the mosque. “This is a safe haven. An area where we put God first and we’re going to discuss something that’s going to make everything better.”
Then in 1990, he converted to Islam and legally changed his name a year later. His name was selected by his teacher then, Bilal was the first caller to prayer during the time of Muhammad.
“When I became Muslim, I was always a student of knowledge, of trying to learn,” Ali said. “My first teachers were from Egypt and they taught me constantly, daily.”
Two years later, Ali was chosen to lead prayer. In the Islamic faith, the community chooses its leaders.
Finally in 2004, Ali made his pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is the holiest city for Islam since it was the birthplace of the prophet Muhammed.
Now the 44-year-old is leading other Muslims while raising his family with his wife, Shannon, whose Islamic name is Sabirah. The couple have six boys and two girls, ranging from ages 14 to 25.
“We love all our children and have a huge family,” he said. “We do our best to be model citizens in the community.”
Ali recently sat down with The Times to answer some questions about leading the Gainesville Islamic Cultural Center.
Question: What is your favorite part of being at the Islamic Center?
Answer: We pray five times a day and we come in and out at particular times for our prayers — if we’re able to make it here to the mosque. Even if we’re not, we pray wherever. On Friday we have congregational prayers, so this building is crowded. To see the diversity and the city with the Muslim from different races, different social statuses. We have brothers from Pakistan, people from all over. The diversity is beautiful. I enjoy seeing that.
Q: What are the strengths of this Islamic community?
A: Diversity. The strength is most of us and myself, I was raised up here in Gainesville. I know a lot of people. I went to school with a lot of people who know me before Bilal Ali. They knew me when my name was Reco Champion. I’m the same person. My smile is the same, my involvement in the community is the same. I think that me being from here it makes things a lot easier to relate to the people, to talk to the people. So I think that’s one of our strong points here.
We have an open-door policy here at the mosque. Several of the local colleges here come monthly with their students to learn about different faiths and we sit down and talk to them. Or I go into the colleges and talk to them about Islam. These are some strengths that I have that we open the door. You don’t have to come by appointment. We have nothing to hide here. We teach Islam. We teach that this is a way of life, so with that being taught we have to continue to stay consistent
Q: Are there any areas of improvement or growth you’d like to see?
A: We’ve pretty much grown in this building here. We own several properties around the mosque. Even though we’re crowded on our Friday prayers, our Friday service, but for our daily prayers we’d love to see more people coming in. We’re establishing more classes.
Another area is interfaith dialog, so people in the community who don’t have a clear understanding of who a Muslim is, what Islam is. We would love for them to know hopes or goals.
If the people in the community would just give themselves the opportunity to get to know us they would understand there’s only a language barrier that separates us. My mother tongue is English. The Quran was revealed in Arabic. If I explain to the people regarding religion in a language that they would understand they would see that we’re no different. We all come from two. We all come from Adam and Eve. If the people get caught up in what’s being said, the negative that’s being said, they never give us the opportunity. We believe in one God. We believe in the same God Adam believed in.