Message of universal brotherhood, sisterhood centerstage at Ali homegoing

| June 13, 2016
The Rev. Bill McGill stands amidst a memorial admirers of Muhammad Ali constructed on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky.

The Rev. Bill McGill stands amidst a memorial admirers of Muhammad Ali constructed on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky.

By the Rev. Bill McGill

Special Frost Illustrated Correspondent

In an effort to make these observations authentic, I must greet all of you as Muhammad Ali would in the Arabic: “As-Salaam-Alaikum!”  Now for the uninformed it simply means “peace be unto you”, and it is certainly something our world needs to bring more abundantly into view.  I went to Louisville, KY to celebrate a heroic life who worked without ceasing to end racial, social, and economic strife.  He was known by many names, initially Cassius Clay, but became spiritually enlightened and removed that designation off his identity tray.  He declared himself Muhammad Ali, and I like thousands of others wanted to display our connectedness to his stalwart humanity tree.

The Rev. Bill McGill and Khalilah Ali.

The Rev. Bill McGill and Khalilah Ali.

We had come to Louisville, a town once deeply divided by ethnicity, but one that was unable to ever rob him of his deep-rooted dignity.  Yes, as I was reminded immediately upon arrival to retrieve my press credentials and met Khalilah Ali, like me he had multiple wives but there’s no denying he touched millions of lives.  His early struggles were well documented, but his subsequent years revealed a man who had clearly repented and was now widely respected.  That is why former WBO Cruiserweight Champion Johnny Nelson told me he flew in from the UK, because he wanted to “show respects for a man he admired in a tremendous way.”  Over and over the stanza would remain the same, Muhammad Ali was a man who never got off his game.  He was a force, even in sickness, that stayed true to his course.  Once he found “true” religion, his life underwent a powerful revision.  That is why though of unashamed and unapologetic Christian view, I was eagerly looking forward to sharing with members of Ali’s Islamic crew.  It’s impossible for my faith to be compromised as a consequence of human fellowship being exercised.  A simple gesture of religious civility should not threaten my spiritual stability.  So off to the Janaza Prayer service I went, and it proved to be time well spent.

The Rev. Bill McGill and Islamic scholar and Ali family advisor Timothy Gionatti greet each other. Interfaith peace and cooperation was a theme of the day at Muhammad Ali's memorial service.

The Rev. Bill McGill and Islamic scholar and Ali family advisor Timothy Gionatti greet each other. Interfaith peace and cooperation was a theme of the day at Muhammad Ali’s memorial service.

I was greeted by the Ali family spiritual advisor, Dr. Timothy Gianotti—an Islamic scholar at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada—who definitively and passionately said to me “you are my brother!”  To that I respond “indeed” even though we share a different religious institutional creed, because we both share a belief that only spirituality can provide sustained relief.  We disagree on God’s name but agree that only God can wash away your shame, and enable you to get back in the game.  We practice from a very different rule book but both strive to give people’s lives a brand new look!  Dr. Gianotti, affectionately called an “Iman” because of his beloved status in the Muslim community, is keenly aware that not everyone is in attendance because they care.  Some are not here for spiritual support—like Rehemah Ellis of NBC News—they are here simply to report.  They are here as social spectators, assigned to record the sacred participators.  So acting in his “Iman” role he attempts to get the prayer service on a roll.  He reminds the gathered throng that while this may be an unusual prayer call, they will still be using the standard protocol: “Sisters to the rear, Brother’s to the front, and friends to the side.”  He acknowledges these are principles that some people personally reject, but he asks that they be followed as a sign of simple respect.  Yes, we non-Muslims have crossed a spiritual border but are asked to maintain a sense of spiritual order.  The service is brief, but as a spiritual tactician I can sense it ushered in a sense of relief.  They have performed the last rites, so now their brother can enjoy eternity’s lights.  Upon exiting the service, I see Dr. Harry X. Davidson holding court and know he must be a part of this report because his bestseller suggests that Black’s possess some pathology’s which they must abort.  The book, “Somebody’s Trying To Kill You—The Psychodynamics of White racism and Black pathology,” was designed to start a healthy discussion about the roots of our nations racial disruption.  As I approached and greeted him in the Arabic while wearing my Christian clergy vestments, his response was textbook Davidson: “See, we don’t have a problem, because before we were Christian or Muslim we were Black.  It’s never been an issue for us!”  My last encounter had no personal power, but it was with a life that has unfolded like a peacefully maturing flower.  It was seeing an interview of Yusef Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) who in 2004 appeared on the U.S. “No Fly List”, but was now here to pay tribute to the man who won the world over with his fist.  His travel ban has obviously been lifted and his commitment to peace has never shifted.  It’s day one but the journey has only just begun.

Carl Weathers, who fictional movie character Apollo Creed from the Rocky franchise was modeled after the real life Muhammad Ali, greets the Rev. Bill McGill in Louisville, Kentucky.

Carl Weathers, who fictional movie character Apollo Creed from the Rocky franchise was modeled after the real life Muhammad Ali, greets the Rev. Bill McGill in Louisville, Kentucky.

My next stop is the Muhammad Ali Center, whose goal is to be a hatred and apathy preventer.  It hopes to create disciples of peaceful action, who work diligently and consistently to heal the worlds fraction.  Yes, it is filled with notable memorabilia but was not designed to create social amnesia.  They clearly want you to leave with a sense of moral responsibility up your sleeve.  Surprisingly though, it would be my exit that provided the most merit.  I realized yet again, that the world is getting increasingly smaller while the opponents of equality are seemingly growing taller.  Almost simultaneously I ran into former WANE reporter Sara Wagner, who now works for the ABC affiliate in Louisville, and community activist Joe Ayers whose annual Amnesty event has become a worthy tradition.  You must concede the likelihood of that happening was slim, but at least this pastor was not engaged in anything that would cause his candle to dim.  But providence, not coincidence, had another lesson to remind me of how critical it is to walk in moral innocence.  I proceeded to the obligatory soul food meal at “Franko’s”, and was glad I get in 18 elliptical miles every week regardless of how my schedule flows.  I then visited Ali’s childhood home on a street named Grand, where he first learned in life that one will ultimately be required to take a stand.  It was again as I took my leave that something happened which was hard to believe; someone driving by shouted: “Rev. Bill McGill—Fort Wayne in the house!”  Now, at this point—though I denounce the lyrics, I’m feeling like 2Pac with “All Eyez On Me.”  Honesty forces me to concede that I couldn’t remember the brothers name, but when he stopped so we could talk I remembered we shared the same barber who kept our fades looking tame.  It was a not so subtle reminder that, like Ali, one must be committed to being who they are wherever they are.  I may have been on a road trip but my morals and values could not slip.  In fact, it was a road trip but what happened next was proof-positive that I remained in the Almighty God’s grip.  On the way back to the hotel I missed a turn, but it ultimately provided an opportunity for my Christian soul to burn. While making a U-Turn I noticed a full church parking lot, so I figured since it was only Thursday whatever they were having must have been hot, and I must testify the worship hit the spot!  I didn’t know the pastor but I knew the preacher, as a world renowned lecturer, author, and evangelistic teacher.  The Rev. Dr. Walter Malone had a word directly from the throne, that helped me stay anchored while I was in this ecumenical spiritual zone.  It was not on my itinerary but the worship proved legendary, and it served to refresh my inner tributary.

Renowned movie star and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg comments on the moral impact Muhammad Ali had on her life.

Renowned movie star and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg comments on the moral impact Muhammad Ali had on her life.

I’m nearly done but the life-lessons learned at the Interfaith Memorial Service weighed a ton, and there was an undeniable sign that Ali’s moral victory had been won.  Boxing promotor Don King was invited as a VIP despite being sued for taking money from Ali’s revenue tree.  He had been forgiven despite being selfishly driven.  They had extended grace despite being spit in the face.  They turned the other cheek to one who caused Ali to financially leak, at a time when he was at his earnings peak.  I guess Ambassador Shabazz was right: “If you really love God, you can’t just love some of His people.”  And yes, even though Dr. Kevin Cosby is considered a friend, I must concede Iman Zaid Shakir was right: “Don’t give a teenager a telephone, and don’t give a preacher a microphone!”  That’s the kind of loving tone that filled the air, despite the circumstances that brought us there.  Carl Weathers, who portrayed the fictional fighter Apollo Creed, was there to echo that in humanity Ali always took the lead.  Actress and “The View” co-host Whoppi Goldberg had previously said “Ali taught me to maintain my convictions despite the cost”, so she came to mourn that a personal hero had been lost.  But my vote for singular quote clearly came from the family boat.  When his widow Loni used her strong and steady voice to remind us that there might never have been a Muhammad Ali if a police officer had made a different choice: “When an inner-city cop and Black teenagers talk miracles happen!”  So yes, Loni, “even in death Muhammad has something to say.”  As I close this report, members of the LGBT community are in desperate need of our support.  The nation finds itself again emotionally shaken, because in Orlando, Florida 50 lives have been senselessly taken.  I feel confident that Ali would say that all lives matter despite who makes their heart patter.  The Ali I idolized would never declare that anyone in the human family deserved to be victimized or traumatized.  The Ali that I respected believed that no life should ever be rejected, and I pray that we commit ourselves to having his values reflected.

The Rev. Bill McGill is pastor of Imani Baptist Temple in Fort Wayne. The Rev. McGill went to Louisville as one of the select correspondents officially credentialed to be allowed entrance to the going home service of Brother Muhammad Ali. The Rev. McGill served as Frost Illustrated’s special correspondent at that historic event.

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Category: History, International, Local, National, Special Reports, Spiritual Matters, Sports

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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