By Lindsay Wise
The Houston Chronicle
June 13, 2008
Mujahid Fletcher runs a nonprofit that produces multimedia items designed to educate Latino Muslims about Islam
Oscar Gomez was hanging out with old friends at a barber shop in Alief when they asked him if he'd seen his buddy Jaime Fletcher lately.
"No, I haven't seen him," Gomez recalled answering.
"Man, your boy is flipped out," his friends told him. "He's Muslim now."
"Muslim?" Gomez asked. "Are you serious? How'd he get into that?"
But his friends just shook their heads and said Fletcher — a young Colombian immigrant they knew as "Jay" — had "turned Arab" and changed his name to Mujahid, Arabic for "one who struggles."
That was about six years ago. When Gomez finally ran into Fletcher at a basketball game, he couldn't believe how much his childhood friend had changed — for the better.
Not only was the former gang leader walking the straight-and-narrow, he was counseling others to leave the violence of the streets behind. He even convinced a one-time rival from another gang to become his "brother in Islam."
Gomez was impressed to see how Fletcher had completely turned his life around. He wondered if it had something to do with Islam. A few years later, Gomez, too, became a Muslim.
In Islam, Fletcher says, he finally found the sense of balance and belonging he'd been searching for since his troubled teenage years.
"Deep inside, I wanted peace, and I wanted justice," he said. "And for God to have given me Islam — it was what I hoped for all along."
Now the 31-year-old multimedia designer and filmmaker runs a Houston-based educational nonprofit called IslamInSpanish that produces a Web site, CDs and DVDs, a public-access TV show, and an online radio program designed to inform Latinos about the Muslim faith and its historical ties to Hispanic culture and values.
Fletcher sees the organization as a tool to counteract some of the misconceptions about Islam that he initially encountered among his own friends and relatives.
"It's very important for people to understand that no matter how much Islam became synonymous with violence (after 9/11), even from the root of the word, Islam is the total opposite, which is peace and submission to God," he said. "I, first hand, can testify that it made me so peaceful in my life."
Fletcher moved to Houston from Colombia with his parents at age 8. He met Gomez in middle school. They lived in the same apartment complex on Corporate Drive between Bellaire and Beechnut.
It was a tough street. In the early '90s, a dozen gangs formed in their school. Fletcher, Gomez and their friends banded together, too. Safety in numbers, they figured.
"We didn't go out there and wear the same shirts and wear bandanas or anything, but we looked out for each other," Gomez said.
They also got into trouble.
"We were very rebellious and very short-tempered, and we just didn't care about life," Gomez said. "We just thought there'd always be another tomorrow."
For Fletcher, there almost wasn't.
He was 16 when members of a rival gang swore to kill him. One night, a group of them approached him at a party, and shots rang out. In the scuffle that followed, Fletcher received a blow to his head. He stumbled home bleeding.
It was the last straw for his parents, who decided he'd be safer back in Colombia than on the streets of Alief. They sent him back to stay with relatives.
Surrounded by about 20 members of his extended family and enrolled in private school, Fletcher had little opportunity to get into trouble in Colombia. Instead, he excelled and rose to second in a class of 60.
"After two years of living there, I was actually feeling like I didn't want to go to America anymore," Fletcher said.
Then his parents called and told him it was time to come home.
When he returned to Alief, Fletcher was depressed for months. He missed the slower pace of life in Colombia, where people made time for siestas and family meals.
At first, he avoided his old friends, setting himself a goal of returning to Colombia after graduation from Houston Community College. But eventually he felt himself falling back into a reckless lifestyle. He dropped classes, lost focus and partied too much.
All that changed on Halloween in 2000 when Fletcher narrowly avoided death again. He was club hopping at 3 a.m. when the speeding car he was driving flipped over on Interstate 10. Miraculously, he walked away with only a few scrapes and bumps.
"It was really scary," Fletcher said. "I knew it would've been a bad ending, because I wasn't living right and I had to get right with God."
Caught up in the throes of a spiritual crisis, he studied Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Kabbalism, a mystical form of Judaism. But it wasn't until he delved into classes at El Farouq Mosque in west Houston that he found a belief system that rang true for him.
Although raised a Catholic, Fletcher had never been devout. He said he was drawn to Islam's simplicity — the emphasis on the oneness of God made more sense to him than the Holy Trinity, a concept that had always confused him. He also appreciated the structure Islam gave his everyday life in the form of five daily prayers and a system of laws outlining everything from diet to manners to business transactions.
"For one year, I studied Islam and I asked all my questions and I had all my arguments, and the more questions and the more arguments I had about Islam, the more clarity I had about life in general. I found my purpose, to submit to God," he said.
At a Muslim convention in Florida in May 2001, Fletcher formally accepted Islam in front of 1,500 people. When he went home to Houston, he was a different person.
"I didn't drink anymore, I didn't smoke anymore, I didn't go out," he said. "Not because someone told me to stop, but because I would've felt dirty if I'd done it. It was a total change."
A week after his conversion, his girlfriend accepted Islam and donned a headscarf. A month later, they married. The couple now has two small daughters.
At first, their families were disconcerted by their conversion. Fletcher's mother, a staunch Catholic, worried he'd been brainwashed.
"Everybody was like, 'What's going on?' " Fletcher recalled. "They thought we'd adopted a different culture, that we'd become Arabs or Pakistanis or something, that we were no longer Colombian."
On the contrary, Fletcher felt it was a combination of reconnecting with his Colombian heritage and finding Islam that had saved him and given his life meaning.
Prompted by a desire to educate his own friends and family, Fletcher founded IslamInSpanish with his wife and father, who converted shortly after he did. His mother also converted three years later. In addition to producing multimedia products about Islam in the Spanish language, the organization hosts classes and social events for a couple of hundred members of the area's small but growing Latino Muslim community.
"It wasn't until after we became Muslims that we found out that the Muslims had been in Spain leading society based on Islamic principles for 800 years" under the rule of the Arabs and Moors of al-Andalus, Fletcher said. "We descended from these people, so we have a lot of Islam in the Spanish culture, from the food we eat to the language."
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