Masjid Muhammad is 50,000 square feet of community. It’s physical space, located on 414 E. Penn St., provides much more to the neighborhood than just a place for worship.
In addition to offering patrons a place to pray, it contains a small general store, a take-out deli, a boxing gym, a beauty salon and a spa. It is also in the process of adding a barber training school to that list, something that is seen as needed since a majority of the barber schools in Pennsylvania are located inside the state’s prison system.
The imam of the Masjid Muhammad is Suetwidien Muhammad. Imam is the title for the leader of a mosque.
Muhammad started this work 20 years ago. When the Masjid Muhammad was initially founded, it cleaned the neighborhood up, offered free food, free clothing and eventually used that as a platform to transition into the services they currently offer. It currently offers services such as after-school homework programs, free tutoring, computer literacy programs and adult literacy programs. “Education is very important to us as people, and we want to instill that importance into those who come here,” Imam Muhammad said. “Being educated means being informed of what is going on around you, and we try to emphasize to everyone to be involved politically within the community to help make it a better place.”
Muhammad is the president of the Muslim League of Voters in the Delaware Valley and believes that politics is a platform for everyone to be heard.
Of course, one of the best ways to make a community better is to reach out to the youth and the Masjid Muhammad provides plenty of service in that regard. In addition to homework help and tutoring programs the organization offers for free, the boxing gym located on the second level provides a safe place for children to be after school. “Most of the trouble the youth of this community and city as a whole get into occurs from three in the afternoon until nine at night, the after school hours,” Muhammad said. “If they come here to box or train, they have a path they’re following and are too dog tired at the end of the night to do anything but go home and rest.”
Muhammad has helped start a program in Philadelphia called “Put Down the Guns and Pick Up the Gloves.” First founded in Cleveland, the program consists of going to inner-city streets and placing a boxing ring down right in the middle of them. The idea is to get everyone from the community together in one place.
The Masjid Muhammad doesn’t just go there to get people off the streets for a few hours. It goes with representatives from colleges and universities and also with jobs in hand for people to apply. “We don’t just do a job fair. What we do is go to neighborhood employers and find out how many jobs they have available at that time,” Muhammad said. In doing that, it offers people a chance to get a job that day. “Put Down the Guns and Pick Up the Gloves” has transitioned into getting some kids off the street and into the structured gym environment at Masjid Muhammad.
The boxing gym, located on the second floor of the Muhammad mosque, has flickering fluorescent lights, no running water, occasionally puddles from a rainy day and no formal locker room. Despite all this the gym is overflowing with unity, support and a little bit of sweat.
Anishia James, a mother who comes to the facility five times a week with her 10-year-old son, Abdullah, definitely sees the unity in the gym. “They all work hard together and its great that there is a mix of ages here. It gives Abdullah and others a chance to learn and teach,” James said.
For a good gym to be run efficiently a strong leader is needed. That leader in this case is 55-year-old trainer Derek “Bozy” Ennis. Ennis has a charismatic nature who has created a tight-knit, regimented environment for boxing enthusiasts of all ages that breeds skill and self-assurance among the men, women and children in the gym.
In addition to working with the youth in the gym Ennis also works with both professional and amateur fighters who compete in events not only locally but across the country.
“[The kids] have positive people to look up to and every time they come in here they say ‘I wanna’ be like him,'” said Ennis, referencing the fighters he trains who have won numerous title belts and are receiving acclaim from a global audience.
Nephew of legendary middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, the 147-pound welterweight Demetrius Hopkins, trains with Ennis. Hopkins began boxing at age six and therefore is a staunch supporter of the environment at the boxing gym.
“I bring the belts in every now and then to show [the kids] something positive because they see the drug dealers out there with the nice cars but I tell them they don’t live that long–they’re either in jail or they’re dead,” said Ennis.
Anishia James and her son Abdullah definitely see the positive in this. They have only been coming to the gym for a month now and already are benefiting. “This is helping him in school and in life outside of here, because now he has structure, has people to look up to, and he’s off the streets,” James said.
Structure! Fighters use that term a lot and it takes on special meaning with the younger ones. Structure in a young man’s life can make all the difference in the world as to which path in life he will choose. Having somewhere to go and goals to set and meet are proven ways in which to keep the youth off of the streets.
The mixture of young boys conditioning in the same facility as successful and ambitious pro-fighters is beneficial according to Hopkins. “We’re like a family down here, everybody helps each other out,” said Hopkins, “it’s good for the kids, it keeps them out of trouble.”
Philadelphia’s only female trainer, Sharron Baker, trains her fighters at Bozy’s gym inside Masjid Muhammad.
“All the kids come and Bozy teaches them. They learn structure and discipline. And he’s a heck of a guy and he does it for everybody. He reaches out to the community and gives the kids somewhere to go and some positive things to do,” said Baker.