Among the greatest challenges facing Imam Bobby Thomas today is getting his congregation back to the norm – in this instance a new normalcy in a post-pandemic environment.
While the COVID 19 pandemic affected how businesses, governments and individuals conducted themselves while adhering to ever-increasing rules and regulations, faith organizations also had to adapt to new and innovative ways to worship.
Mosque Masjid Omar Ibn Sayyid at 2700 Murchison Road is no different. Imam Bobby Abdul Hameed Thomas, the resident imam for the past 10 years, leads his congregation in sermon and prayers on Fridays, and in religious instructions and individual nurturing throughout the week.
Because of social distancing requirements - and in some instances, complete abstinence from possible exposure to COVID - many of the mosque’s programs took a hiatus or were offered through remote social interaction. For example, he moved prayer meetings outdoors and provided members access to the service via social media during inclement weather.
Its programs for children, among them weekend school classes, temporarily ceased.
“We had things going on until March 2020,” Thomas says. “Right now, our challenge is getting everyone to resume normal activities.”
Some have been more ready to resume than others. “Our seniors, the Pioneers, was the first group to meet,” he says. “I have some who have told me ‘I’m not coming back until it’s all clear.’”
The mosque is raising money for a 3,000-square-foot annex. “It’s hard to justify building the annex when we haven’t even used this space (mosque). It takes some of the impetus out of building the annex,” he says.
The building is under “plan review,” and Thomas has no doubt the funding will get support from local and national donors. “Fortunately, charity is one of the essentials of Islam. Giving has been consistent even during COVID. The annex will help us rev up our programming,”
There is one program the mosque never abandoned, even temporarily: its monthly food drive, which has been an ongoing endeavor for 17 years.
“We never shut down our monthly food distribution program. The community needed that program, so we continued it,” he says, noting that associated activities took place outdoors and participants wore masks.
“We did have to move it from Saturday to Friday because during COVID, food distribution warehouses closed on Saturday,” he says.
While a majority of Muslims at the mosque are Fayetteville area African Americans, the mosque also serves other practicing Muslims. “Fayetteville is an international city. On Fridays, you will come here and find Arabs, Yeminis, Indians, Asians, Pakistanis. They are a minority at this mosque,’’ Thompson says.
“We also have a lot of visitors that come through I-95. They Google us and find us, and stop and pray with us,’’ he says. “Often people come who train on Fort Bragg. They have an international mosque on Fort Bragg, but they want to come and see what Islam is for Americans.”
Imam Bobby, as many of his congregation refer to him, grew up in rural Cumberland County, adjacent to Hoke County. He attended AME Zion Church and graduated from Seventy-First High School in 1981. There the 6-foot, 6-inch Thomas excelled in basketball, earning him a path to higher education. He started at Lees-McRae College, then a two-year, Presbyterian-affiliated junior college in the western North Carolina mountain town of Banner Elk. According to Thomas, attending Lees-McRae taught him a valuable life lesson: never judge people before you know them.
“It was a beautiful place, but I thought I was going to live with the Beverly Hillbillies. But I found them to be some of the nicest people. They invited us into their homes and churches.”
After finishing his two years at Lees-McRae, he transferred to St. Andrews College in nearby Laurinburg. He graduated in 1986 after earning his bachelor’s degree in business management. While at both schools, he became keenly interested in religion. He opted to take most of his college electives studying religion - all religions to include Islam.
He says his interest and eventual conversion to Islam was based more on rational academic reading rather than passion. “Islam began to answer questions I had about God and religion. It answered questions I had been asking as a young man,” he says.
Following his graduation from St. Andrews in 1986, Thomas worked as a Cumberland County deputy sheriff at the jail. Because his bachelor’s degree qualified him to teach in a program at Fayetteville Technical Community College, then-Sheriff Morris Bedsole promoted him into a position working with inmates seeking an education. Later, he transitioned to the county’s Community Development Department working to provide housing to the underserved.
In 1989, Thomas “accepted his declaration of faith” and became a Muslim, and added his Muslim name. Just as Simon became Peter and Saul became Paul, Bobby Thomas became Bobby Abdul Hameed Thomas, a Muslim name that basically translates to servant for Allah.
“There is a new mission when men receive faith. I was no different,” he said.