Megachurch now a mosque as number of Islamic centers grows in Michigan
For years, Detroit World Outreach in Redford Township drew thousands of Christians to hear a pastor who lived in a $6 million home preach the prosperity gospel.
The megachurch was one of the largest congregations in metro Detroit, spread out over 18 acres with several buildings of more than 200,000 square feet, a massive sanctuary seating 4,200, kitchens, a gym and a coffee house. But after its popular pastor, Benjamin Gibert, died in 2017 at 54 of a heart attack, it went into bankruptcy. Last month, the church campus was sold to a group of Muslim leaders for $4.2 million, becoming a mosque as Islamic clerics led prayers inside it for the first time on Aug. 24. The center is now named Masjid an Nour: World Peace Association.
"It's going to be one of the largest institutions in Michigan," said Dr. Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, who led a group in buying the church. "It's going to be a unifying institution. Our mission is going to be charity, community service, outreach, interfaith, in addition to a house of worship."
The purchase of the large church symbolizes the growth of the Muslim community in Michigan, where there are now about 140 mosques, according to Free Press reporting and a study released last year by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a research center founded in metro Detroit that studies Muslim Americans. From 2010 to 2020, the number of mosques in Michigan jumped 65%, the highest percentage increase in the U.S. among large states, the study found.
Landmark for Islam
In 2007, the Islamic Organization of North America became the first mosque to open in Warren, the third largest city in the state. Now, there are about a dozen mosques in Warren, said Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk, who leads the Islamic Organization of North America. Last month, Elturk opened in his mosque a soup kitchen, the first to be run in Macomb County by Muslims. In December, ground was broken two hours west of Detroit in Coldwater on a $3.4 million mosque with a 73-foot-tall minaret.
And on Sept. 9, the Islamic Institute of America, a Dearborn Heights mosque on Ford Road led by Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini, broke ground at its new location in Dearborn Heights on the site of a former Orthodox church on Beech Daly Road. Flanked by Dearborn Heights Mayor Bill Bazzi, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud and other officials, Al-Qazwini stood at the site holding a shovel in a symbolic ceremony for the beginning of construction in a project Al-Qazwini estimated to cost $8 million to $10 million. A generous donor gave the mosque the land for free, he said.
"We decided to build a new landmark for Islam in America," Al-Qazwini said at the site, which is surrounded by two churches. "I am so grateful to God for giving us this opportunity. I'm very lucky to be in the middle of this Arab Muslim community who has been very supportive and very generous. ... The land was donated for free."
Earlier this year, another mosque opened in Canton, MECCA Michigan - Muslim Educational Community Center of America, led by a son of Al-Qazwini, Sayed Saleh Al-Qazwini. And new mosques are expected to open soon in cities such as Sterling Heights and Troy.
Al-Hadidi said the Redford mosque will primarily be Sunni, but will be open to Shias as well, with a "unifying mission, nonsectarian."
During the Aug. 24 walk-through and prayers at the former megachurch, a leader in the Shia Muslim community, Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, accompanied Al-Hadidi and led one of the prayers alongside Sunni Muslim leaders. Detroit World Outreach was once located in Dearborn Heights in the same building that is currently Elahi's mosque, the Islamic House of Wisdom.
"The founders are practicing Sunnis, but we have very close ties with our Shia brothers," Al-Hadidi said. "So it is going to be a united mosque. ... We will also have interfaith activities."
Elahi said he came to the mosque to show his support, saying it has a similar mission to the church.
"It used to be Detroit World outreach, and now it's World Peace Association," Elahi said. "So in Christian time and now Muslim time, the vision is a big vision of talking about outreach and talking about peace in the world."
At the Islamic House of Wisdom, where Detroit World Outreach was once located, "we continue that mission in different forms," Elahi said. "Islam is the continuity of Christianity ... now we will see that this World Peace is a continuity of the mission of Detroit World Outreach."
Detroit World Outreach recovers from bankruptcy
In December, a judge confirmed Detroit World Outreach's Chapter 11 plan of reorganization to get it out of bankruptcy, said Mark Shapiro, a Southfield attorney who was the trustee assigned to oversee the case. The church went up for sale, listed at one point for $7.1 million.
In July, Dr. Al-Hadidi made a bid with the registered name Islamic Center of Michigan and the deal was finalized the following month, according to bankruptcy court records and interviews.
"The case is still open, but the effect of the confirmation is that the debtor exits bankruptcy," Shapiro said. "The sale of the property paid off DWOC’s debt to Comerica, all taxes owed on the property and relatively soon, it will pay off all of the professional fees incurred in the Chapter 11."
Shapiro said that while the creditors have not been paid yet, he's holding about $620,000 and has a motion pending with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Detroit asking to turn over those funds to Detroit World Outreach to pay their creditors.
Detroit World Outreach is now in a building at 18700 Joy Road in Detroit and is extending a welcome to all worshippers, said Bishop CJ Andre.
Started in 1934, the church has existed under different names and in different locations in metro Detroit, Andre said. Its theological roots are in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, but today does "not belong to any denomination," he said.
"We focus heavily on the 'Word of Faith' according to Romans 10. It is our desire that when someone attends a service at DWO that they not just attend another service, but leave empowered by the practical teaching as we desire every individual we influence to be equipped for everyday life," Andre said.
Andre added that the congregation is "excited for the future of the church."
Under the leadership of the previous pastor, Gibert, the church had preached a philosophy that God will bless with wealth those who are religious. Gibert was at times criticized for living in a tax-free mansion in Northville Township and riding in expensive vehicles, but he defended his lifestyle and prosperity theology, arguing that it can help others.
"You know why I live in a $6 million house?" Gibert said at a service in 2008. "Because I'm concerned about what other folk live in. …You know why I ride good? Because I care about other people riding good. … That's why the Lord blesses me. That's why the Lord blesses us."
Detroit World Outreach also at times spoke out against "Islamic violence," according to a church official in a 2007 report in the Detroit News.
After Gibert died in 2017, there was a power struggle as his wife, Charisse Gibert, tried to assume leadership of the church, but was escorted out of the building by police during a service for what rival church leaders said was trespassing. Charisse Staine now leads another church, Detroit Worship Center.
Mosques grow with Muslim population
Al-Qazwini once led the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, one of the oldest and most prominent mosques in Michigan, for 17 years, from 1998 when it was in Detroit until 2015, when he left to form the Islamic Institute of America in a former Baptist church. He's well known as an interfaith leader and has met with several U.S. presidents over the decades. At the opening in 2005 of the Islamic Center of America's new location off Ford Road in Dearborn, Al-Qazwini was visited by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and other officials.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, a Macedono-Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church, once sat on the site of the new mosque building, but faced dwindling membership and was razed to make way for the new mosque. On either side of the new mosque are two remaining churches, Sts. Peter and Paul Romanian Orthodox Church and Our Savior Polish National Church.
A church leader said the new mosque can help promote unity between Muslims and Christians as the congregations of nearby churches decline while they increase in mosques.
"We are all brothers and sisters of the same God," said the Rev. Henry Galas, a pastor at the Polish church next door who attended the mosque's groundbreaking ceremony.
At the spot of the new mosque, "there was a beautiful cathedral, a Macedonian-Bulgarian cathedral," Galas said. "There was nothing wrong with the building, but they had no people."
Galas said that membership is also declining at his church, part of a Polish denomination that broke off from the Catholic Church.
"If we'll have 10 people on Sunday, it's a miracle," he said.
Meanwhile, the Muslim population continues to grow in local mosques, said leaders.
In recent years, the Islamic Institute of America became too crowded, which is a problem facing other mosques.
"We have a full house at every function," Al-Qazwini said. "We have people complaining about not finding enough car parking space. ... We already outgrew the place we are occupying right now. ... And it is a problem. But it's a good problem. This led us to basically plant the seed, which God planted actually, to move into this place and to build a much bigger place."
Al-Qazwini expects that about half of the costs of the new mosque will come from the sale of their current mosque, with the remainder from donors.
The new mosque is expected to open in 2024 and may include a second building that would be a youth center, Al-Qazwini said. It will be much larger than their current mosque.
"The current place is 29,000 square foot; this one is over 44,000," he said. "The current place has parking space for 220 cars; this one has for 517 cars. So you can see the comparison between the two. The current mosque holds up to 500 people in the mosque in the prayer hall; the new one would have almost 1,000, double. So I believe this mosque will will be another landmark center for our community. I have presided over the building of the Islamic Center of America's mosque on Ford Road. God has given me the blessing to preside over building another mosque in Dearborn Heights."
Al-Qazwini agrees with the pastor of the neighboring Polish church about interfaith cooperation. The previous mosque that Al-Qazwini led, the Islamic Center of America, also sat between two churches
"By being in this place, it is a testimony for how Muslims and Christians can get along and work with each other," Al-Qazwini said. "We are very blessed to be in the middle of two churches. Both priests were very cooperative, supportive and welcoming. And we had them join us today at the groundbreaking ceremony. ... I'm very delighted to be working with our Christian neighbors."
Contact Niraj Warikoo: email@example.com or Twitter @nwarikoo
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Number of mosques grows in Michigan as church becomes Islamic center