CENTCOM Chaplain uses faith to inspire change

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zachary Foster
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing, Public Affairs

“Twenty-eight years ago, on my first day as a chaplain, at my first base, I walked in to shake the commander’s hand,” said Col. Khalid Shabazz, U.S. Central Command lead chaplain. “He refused to greet me because of his preconceived ideas of my religion. It took me nine months of taking care of my soldiers the best I knew how for him to apologize.”

Shabazz is no stranger to the adversity Muslim service members and civilians face every day. As a result, he’s made it his mission to help anyone, regardless of their religious designation, navigate their way to living their life to the fullest.

As the CENTCOM chaplain, Shabazz found the best way for service members to deal with high intensity environments brought on by military life is to embrace their faith.

According to Shabazz, the best part of his career is inspiring service members to take advantage of the resources made available to them, citing, “until you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will never change.”

Among these resources are Arabic classes, beard and hijab accommodations, conscientious objection for Muslims opposed to serving in the Middle East and dedicated memorandums giving service members the freedom to participate in Friday prayers.

Shabazz also took to social media to spread his message, accumulating more than 600,000 followers through his motivational journey converting from Christianity to Islam.

“Every morning I give a motivational message,” said Shabazz. “I tell my conversion story and do my best to use my story as an example for anyone navigating the same situations I had.”

Prior to his career as a chaplain, Shabazz attended Jarvis Christian College, Texas, where he pursued a path towards becoming a Christian minister. It wasn’t until he met an Islamic soldier that he made the transition to the Islamic faith.

“What separated [the Islamic soldier] was the way he carried himself,” said Shabazz. “It was clear he had discipline and that resonated with how I wanted to carry myself. After researching more, I found the Islamic religion had a lot more that fundamentally aligned with my beliefs.”

Now, Shabazz finds himself working closely with Gen. Michael Kurilla, the CENTCOM commander, providing insight into Middle Eastern culture. He also claimed the title of first Muslim chaplain to advise a brigadier general, lieutenant general, major general and now a general.

His shared faith has proven instrumental in advising the cultural context to Middle Eastern politics and religion and has provided him the opportunity to use his religious background to reduce tensions with Middle Eastern counterparts.

“My primary role is to advise [Gen. Kurilla] on the culture in the Middle East,” said Shabazz. “My more important role is to aid in dialogue between our partners in the Middle East through our shared faith.”

A shared faith allowed Shabazz the opportunity to communicate with MacDill’s mission partners on a cultural level, Shabazz recommends everyone participate in open conversation as a method of building relationships.

“The best thing I’ve found to better understand each other is to simply talk to one another,” said Shabazz. “I encourage everyone to have open dialogue about their religious beliefs because I think we’d find we have a lot more in common than you’d think.”

According to Shabazz, 49:13 Quran best describes this ideal, “We created you from a male and a female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another.”

Shabazz explained the quote symbolizes people’s purpose on Earth is to work together towards a common goal. He furthered this concept to encompass the American culture, “Our culture [as Americans] is multinational, multifaceted and multifaith. All of our different perspectives come together to make the dynamic system we live in today. Our ability to interact and communicate with one another is synonymous with our success as a culture.”

After dedicating himself to the Islamic religion, Shabazz renamed himself from Michael Barnes to Khalid, meaning “immortal,” Shabazz, meaning “eagle that flies above all eagles.” The change symbolized his new beginning of his new life, and the Arabic meaning represented the way he intended on living it.

Throughout 28 years of military service, Shabazz’s faith and his desire to help others have served as pillars enabling him to inspire others who face adversity.