Islamic Center of St. Cloud President Muhayadin Mohamed stands Friday in front of the former Garfield Elementary School building in St. Cloud.In 2013, the Islamic Center of St. Cloud proposed a plan to build a mosque in a residential area near Clearwater Road, only to withdraw its application after strong public resistance to the proposal.
Last Friday, however, Islamic Center of St. Cloud President Mohayadin Mohamed explained how the lost battle became a blessing in disguise: The Islamic center recently purchased a church in the city that embodies nearly everything the center sought in the failed plan — and at a lower price.
In April, the former Good News Assembly of God church at 712-17th Ave. S was converted into a mosque and classrooms for the growing Muslim population in the city. The building is the former Garfield Elementary School. The site is St. Cloud’s fourth mosque; others are located on Fifth Avenue South, Fourth Avenue South and Third Street North.
Randy Adams, former pastor of Good News Assembly of God, congratulated the leaders of the Islamic center for the purchase.
“They were easy to work with,” Adams said. “They were good people. We wish them the best.”
The 46,640-square-foot facility — which consists of 20 classrooms, seven offices, a cafeteria and a space that can hold up to 400 parishioners — cost the center $850,000.
“After the city rejected the plan to build a mosque, we were looking for another option,” Mohamed said. “But we found this place … a better place than the one rejected.”
Mohamed, 35, said it would have cost the Islamic center millions of dollars if city officials approved the plan to develop the 9.5-acre space near Clearwater Road, which the Islamic center purchased in 2010 from the school district.
Mohamed said he was gratified by the financial commitment of the local Muslims, especially the parents whose children are enrolled in religious classes at the organization’s 300 Fifth Ave. S. building.
“We didn’t go outside St. Cloud to raise it,” Mohamed said of the money that secured the new center. “We were able to collect all of it from the community here in one year.”
At the former Good News Assembly of God last Friday, dozens of men in straight rows bowed and prostrated themselves as they offered silent prayers.
“We’re happy to have this new building,” said Aden Ali, who was among the worshipers. “It has a big parking lot, many classrooms and a big prayer space.”
Accompanied by his two teenage boys, Ali said the space provides his children and others with an opportunity to take more religious classes at the center.
Islamic Center of St. Cloud President Muhayadin Mohamed talks about plans for the use of classrooms Friday in the former Garfield Elementary School building in St. Cloud.
Nearly 300 students are now enrolled in weekend religious and civic programs at the new center, which does not yet have an official name. The programs include Arabic, Quran and civic studies.
“The kids learn about … how to be good citizens and how they can positively contribute to their families and to the larger community they’re living in,” Mohamed said. “They learn about how to be better people and develop good characters.”
He added: “It’s pretty much the kind of programs they would take at Sunday schools.”
New outreach programs
Leaders of the center are planning to create outreach programs that integrate the seemingly segregated communities in the city.
Mohamed said he envisions the new facility to become a center for all communities, regardless of race, religion or cultural background.
“When we bought this building, we were thinking about the larger community,” he said. “We plan to have outreach classes for the community.”
Mohamed added that the 7,260-square-foot mosque on Fifth Avenue couldn’t house effective engagement activities to reach across St. Cloud communities.
But the new center will, he said.
“We’re very glad to have this kind of space to accommodate all communities in St. Cloud,” Mohamed said. “Our goal is to open the doors for everybody. We want them to learn from us and we want to learn from them.”
In addition to providing religious services and community engagement programs, the new Islamic center provides educational programs for school-age children, Mohamed said.
Math Academy, an after-school program for second- through sixth-grade students, is among several educational programs available at the new center. Mohamed said he’s working with the school district to expand these programs to K-12 students.
“We’re seeing a big achievement gap (between white students and students of color),” he said. “Our center here can help close that gap.”
Mohamed said local Islamic centers have seen episodes of vandalism in recent years. In various incidents, for instance, vandals broke windows or threw rocks at the Fifth Avenue Islamic Center of St. Cloud.
No one was hurt at the mosque. But in some cases, the center was vandalized as many as four times a month, Mohamed said.
Many parishioners, he said, have expressed feeling fearful of a growing hostility toward local Muslims — which he said was fueled by the violent actions perpetrated by Muslim extremists in other parts of the world.
Mohamed said security cameras are now installed at the Fifth Avenue and 17th Avenue Islamic centers to deter potential vandalism and other violent incidents.
“This might help us and the police,” he said of the cameras. “We thought it would be useful in future investigation processes.”
Article first appeared on St. Cloud Times. Ibrahim Hirsi is a Somali American Journalist.
Follow Ibrahim Hirsi on Twitter @IHirsi.