Muslim radio station and cultural center foster community in Whitehaven

At about 20,000 residents, Memphis’ Muslim population is relatively small — but it's growing, according to Moulay Patton Bey, director of Memphis Dawah Association, a Muslim cultural organization founded in 2015.

“People just don’t know much about Islam, particularly here in the South,” said Patton Bey, a native of Chicago who’s made the Bluff City his home for more than two decades.

According to the Pew Research Center, the 3.45 million Muslims living in the U.S. in 2017 made up just 1.1 percent of the total U.S. population.

Pew projects that by 2050, the U.S. Muslim population will double, reaching 8.1 million, or 2.1 percent of the nation’s total population, and making adherents of Islam the nation’s second largest religious group after Christians.

Locally, the Memphis Dawah is closing in on the purchase of a new building in the Whitehaven area to facilitate the Memphis Muslim community’s further growth.

Although Memphis Dawah is a place where prayer plays a central role, its physical center is not home to a mosque, nor does it have a congregation of its own. Muslims from across the city gather at Memphis Dawah, which also hosts events and educational opportunities that are open to the public. 

The nonprofit cultural association is seeking to establish a kulliye at 837 Craft Road. Derived from the Arabic term “kull,” meaning “all,” the kulliye — associated with Ottoman architecture — is a complex of buildings centered around a mosque or prayer area that generally includes a school, kitchen, health care clinic, services for the poor and other community buildings.

The kulliye exists to meet the community’s social, cultural, health care and spiritual needs. Memphis Dawah honors this tradition by bringing its own local model to Whitehaven — and finding opportunities to bridge the gap between the area's predominately African American population and the Muslims who call Memphis home. 

“It’s important to be good stewards, good neighbors,” Patton Bey said. “We are all part of this community and it’s important that we all make our contributions. I want to
particularly stress this with young people and not have them isolating themselves.”

Memphis Dawah has its own low-powered radio station, WMDA 93.5 FM, which in 2017 began communicating news to the Whitehaven community, with topics ranging from agriculture and health to community stories to city and county government and voter registration.

Jerald White, a radio professional with degrees in telecommunications and technical management services, was brought in to help establish the station through paperwork, get it up and running, and train volunteers.

“I saw that as a vehicle in terms of connecting the community, since we cover the Whitehaven area, which is close to about 50,000 people,” said White of the station, which also broadcasts news from city hall and county commission to keep residents informed.

The station broadcasts 24-7 in multiple languages, including English, French, Arabic and Somali and welcomes volunteer on-air reporters.

Community members Khaled Selman and Nemaat Selman pose during a holiday gathering at the Memphis Dawah center. (Memphis Dawah)

“We’d like to eventually have some of the politicians interviewed and have them come on the show, and preserve oral history and record stories and play them on air as a public service to the community,” said White, who is not Muslim, but says he’s proud to be part of this community endeavor that connects Memphians.

As chief engineer for the station, White says he’s enjoyed training the young volunteers of Memphis Dawah and teaching them the ins and outs of his profession, so they can continue to keep residents informed and engaged.

“My day job requires a lot of my time, but I still find time for WMDA to help it move forward,” he said. “The station has been implanted there in the Whitehaven community for a good reason, and that’s to help the community to grow. “

Patton Bey said that Memphis Dawah is unique as it reflects the world-wide diversity of Muslims, encompassing members of various ethnic groups and speakers of numerous languages. The nonprofit organization's members include black and white Americans, as well as immigrants from the Middle East, East Africa, West Africa, and other regions.

“Our center is a little bit different than the other [Muslim] centers in the city because
theirs are identified more by ethnicity,” said Patton Bey. “ You’ll have an Arab mosque, a Pakistani mosque, West African mosque or African-American mosque. Our center is more diverse, and I think we’re fortunate in that regard.”

He also said that Memphis Dawah has become a second home of sorts for many young American Muslims born to immigrant parents who, like many children of immigrants across the board, want to preserve their cultural heritage and faith traditions while also participating fully as American citizens engaged in the betterment of their communities.

“Our focus has been on the second generation, as well as people who convert,” said Patton Bey.

“The second generation grows up in this country. We try to work with them in terms of how to practice their faith in this country and at the same time contribute to this country and not isolate themselves ... it’s helping that second generation live their faith in this country while participating in this country by doing volunteer work and helping people, whether they’re Muslim or non-Muslim.”

Memphis Dawah offers classes about the Islamic faith, ESL classes, tutoring services, voter registration help, and service opportunities.
Men play football at a recent holiday gathering. The center is a space for spirituality but also a place for fun and community. (Memphis Dawah)
Kris Fulmore, 32, is one of those converts to Islam who’s become engaged with the larger Memphis community through Memphis Dawah. The technology consultant divides his time between Memphis and his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. 

Fulmore feels at home in the Bluff City and plans to soon become a fulltime transplanted Memphian. He has found community at Memphis Dawah and says Patton Bey has been his friend and mentor for more than a decade.

“Being a convert myself, one thing that’s really important, to anyone, is having an identity. It’s a nonprofit, not tied to any political parties. It’s important to be able to identify what American Muslim identity is and having a community that shares the same interests. Memphis Dawah has done a great job of doing that — being able to say this is how you can be Muslim and American."

In addition to the Muslim faith, those common interests for members of Memphis Dawah are built around issues of social justice, from education to access to health care to food equity to voter registration.

Memphis Dawah hosts lectures to educate the predominantly African American community of Whitehaven about the history of Muslims in America. One lecture during 2018 Black History Month involved keynote speaker Shaykh Yahya, a scholar with degrees from Harvard University in Economics and from Global University (Lebanon), and whose engagements involve imparting Islamic knowledge to American communities to inform, engage and create meaningful cooperation in the challenges facing society.

Memphis Dawah also makes an effort to educate the community about the extremism that often dominates and shapes American ideas of Islam.

“You need to make people feel comfortable,” said Patton Bey. “Some people are shy to ask about it and don’t want to offend you. We definitely address those issues and have been speaking out about that for quite some time.”

In addition to open dialogue, Patton Bey says he is passionate about promoting healthy lifestyles in a community with high rates of chronic health conditions, such as hypertension, obesity and Type II diabetes.

Last month, Memphis Dawah held a “Healthy Whitehaven” mental and physical wellness fair, partnering with the Shelby County Health Department, at the Whitehaven Community Center, which included free health screenings, health-focused exhibitors, and creating awareness about Tennessee’s opiate addiction.

A major component in improving health in the Whitehaven neighborhood is working toward eliminating Memphis’ food deserts, neighborhoods where residents lack access to affordable fresh, healthy food options.

“These are things we need to try to change,” said Patton Bey. “Memphis is a pretty big place, but people mentally detach themselves from farming, even though there are farms just a few miles down the road."

Related: "Whitehaven homesteading movement gets the neighborhood back to its roots"

Memphis Dawah has educated residents about urban agriculture through lectures and
gardening classes and supported farmers markets by working with local market organizers and encouraging residents to eat healthy and buy from local growers. On October 27, Memphis Dawah will host an agricultural class from 3 to 5 p.m. at Whitehaven Community Center and will launch their own farmers market November 3 at their future home at 3379 Millbranch Road.

Memphis Dawah plans to close by the end of this month on the new 4.8-acre property in Whitehaven that formerly housed a Christian church and includes 34,000 square feet of community space, much larger than their current building.

They hope to have a soup kitchen, health clinic, daycare, prayer center and a new home for the radio station. Although the building is in need of major repairs, Patton Bey said, “the location is better to serve Memphis Dawah’s objectives to benefit the wider community.”

“The building was vandalized over the last three years,” said Patton Bey, adding that it will take one to three years before the renovated building is fully functioning. “They’ve taken out the plumbing, the electric, the heat — basically gutted the whole building. Structurally, it’s still very sound.”

The hope is that Memphis Dawah will continue to reach residents across the city, on air and off.

“They’re setting things up for the next generations,” said Fulmore. “My kids can have a place where they can pray, where they can be involved in agriculture and voter registration and all of these different things. It’s awesome. It goes back to having an American Muslim identity."
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Read more articles by Aisling Maki.

Aisling Maki is a writer and editor with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries and she has written locally for more than a dozen publications, including The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and Memphis Parent Magazine. She previously worked as a digital producer and weekend reporter for Action News 5, Memphis correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and staff reporter for Memphis Daily News.