By Hakim Abdul-Ali
This is an article that’s written with references to a young inmate I had the fortune of meeting when I used to be a volunteer minister in an upstate New York prison many, many decades ago. Those were some of the most unforgettable and memorable times of my intriguing young life.
You see, I was a Muslim imam going to into various New York state correctional facilities from New Jersey during the late 1970s and the early to mid 1980s to teach and bring the message of Islam to men who were incarcerated behind prison walls. There was a great demand for wanting to learn about Islam then as it is now with men and others in the correctional facilities and beyond across America.
Back then, I did this religious activity mainly on weekends as I lived in Newark, New Jersey, where I worked in my regular 9 to 5 professional vocational occupation. I started doing my religious obligations at Elmira Correctional Facility and ended with a strong commitment to the brothers at Green Haven Correctional Facility, not to mention a few other correctional institutions in between.
Going into all of those correctional facilities, to say the least, was both a very rewarding and challenging experience. I felt immensely humbled to be able to help other ethnic “hue-mans” learn about and understand the true religious messages of orthodox Islam.
My visitations to the penal institutions of New York were meaningful religious episodes in my advancing, widening life because the overall spiritual work that was done was humbly satisfying as I could see that the men welcomed me with anticipation and respect. The experiences gained from those long forays from Newark to the correctional facilities in New York state were and are still long lasting in my mind’s eye.
So, I’d like to share one of those experiences with you today and, hopefully, you’ll get something from it because I think we all can learn (a little something) from some of, if not all, of the different and sorted episodes in the living process. We can and should be able to easily do this if we only allowed our minds and hearts to engage in the consummate learning initiative.
On one occasion in the early eighties when visiting one of the prisons, and while I was talking to a Muslim inmate, another inmate, who heard my conversation with the Muslim brother, interrupted our conversation. This individual, who I didn’t know at that time, said to me that he had listened to some of my earlier speeches, comments and lectures over the years when I’d been coming to that particular institution for Islamic holiday celebrations and select visitations.
As I intently listened to this young inmate speak, he said he wanted to share something with me concerning something I had uttered in a past speech about three months prior at the correctional facility. He said that when I, in a single-minded speech, challenged all of the incarcerated prisoners, Muslim and non-Muslim brothers, to do, or use, their time in prison to elevate and educate their minds and not let their time in prison do them in by idly letting it go to waste, he took what I said to heart.
He said that even though he had always been considered and labeled a poor student in the outside world, after hearing my conclusive speech, he felt empowered and eventually asked one of the Muslim brothers who he was close with to help him, which he gladly did. This inmate told me that he was unashamedly now learning how to read more effectively, with better comprehension, and that he was learning so much now by “doing time” and not letting the time do him.
Looking back at that statement and experience today, I felt humbled by this young man’s sudden leap into positive action and dropkicking procrastination out of his lifestyle. Believe me, he was nothing short of enthusiastic about what he was doing with his life as his words seemed to leave an imprint on my mind about what positive action can yield if one really wants to take charge, grab a hold of and do something meaningful with his or her life.
This well-spoken brother, who I think was from the Bronx, said many other things to me at that sit down, most of which I’ve forgotten. But one additional key thing that I certainly did remember that he uttered, and it has resonated in my subconscious after all these years with a penetrating remembrance, is the following statement he made to me as he looked me straight in my eyes.
I recalled now that at the conclusion of the inmate’s conversation with me on that day, he said, “Sir, because of the way you fired us up here at the prison, I’ve learned that ‘You cannot change the winds of time, but one can most definitely adjust the sail because time waits for no one.’ “
That rather elliptical motto has lingered in my subconscious for decades now with an intensity that spurred me to do when things that didn’t necessarily go the way I thought they should, or may. If you’re seriously reading this with your thinking cap on, what does this mysterious motto say spiritually and emotionally to you?
I’d like to believe that if you’re an introspective thinker and, as such, you get the overwhelming and basic underlining vibe that the living experience is like the changing winds, or episodes, of time because nothing remains the same. And in order to exist in a heathy progressive norm in today’s transitional and topsy-turvy worlds of existences, we all have to change, or adjust, to whatever challenges, or situations that comes our way.
Maybe, if you think that because an incarcerated soul laid something heavy on me to mentally digest, you may feel removed from giving vent to what impact the all-inclusive message said. I, again, hope not because life’s windy signs are everywhere, and they can come from any anywhere, at any time, and if you’re spiritually in tuned to them, you can adjust your sails, or positive tendencies, in meeting them head on.
That goes for any and all states of thinking and being in the living process that may put a damper on my, your and others’ parades from here to there and back. The young inmate apparently understood as much back then, even in what I’m sure you’ll agree was, and is, a taxing environment called prison.
Listen, I frankly assume that in many instances, we all could be said to be living in the jail houses, or prisons, of ignorances, especially when we don’t know, realize, recognize or acknowledge who the Creator (Alone) is. Respectfully, I believe that’s the very worst kind of confinement, or ignorance, to be in, and without the Most High Alone’s mercy, guidance and aid, we’d all be lost in the winds of life’s changes. “Time waits for no one.”
Remember that only you can change your life and legitimate, authentic and truthful education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to aid yourself in navigating through life. Please keep in mind, “if you don’t like something, adjust, or change, it.” For today and always, that’s, “As I See It.”