Jacksonville’s Muslim Community Remains Resolute, Caring and Giving In Difficult Times
My hometown has unfortunately made the national news once again, for the another attack on the same mosque. Several years back, it was believed Sandlin Matthews Smith detonated a bomb in front of the entrance of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida or ICNEF. In 2011, he died in a shootout with police in Oklahoma who cornered him regarding this incident.
Another extremely tragic situation has been thwarted by local authorities. Local law enforcement prevented a man from carrying out a planned mass shooting at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams recently announced police arrested 69-year-old Bernardino Gawala Bolatete after he tried to buy a gun silencer from an undercover officer.
Police began investigating Bolatete after receiving a tip from a confidential source Bolatete was planning a mass shooting at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. An undercover officer contacted him and arranged the sale of the silencer. During taped conversations, Bolatete repeated his plans for the shooting. He was arrested after the silencer was delivered. Sheriff Williams indicated Bolatete already possessed the weaponry necessary to carry out the attack. Bolatete is being held by the FBI and more charges are pending.
On the afternoon of December 10, 2017, I attended the “Solidarity and Peace Gathering at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville, FL. I’ve always admired the beautiful architecture of the mosque as I passed by on my numerous trips from the interstate. Further, I previously worked under a local medical director whom I knew was a member of this mosque. The foiled terrorist attacked prompted me to be present at this event.
Upon my arrival to parking lot of this meeting, I was struck by the police patrol car sitting at the front entrance, the number of security cameras in place as well as the sign prohibiting firearms on the premises. I’d never seen such things at any religious institution in all my years. Sadly, these are the precautions one takes when they know they are being hunted.
The event was full of local, well respected activists who voiced their outrage, concern and willingness to provide support to the Muslim community. At times, it was a real tear jerker at the thought of what could have been along with the appreciation of unity.
Together, we shall overcome and we will overcome.
ICNEF’s members take an active role in the Jacksonville community, by operating MASS, a free health clinic that focuses on offering care to residents that fall below the poverty line and are uninsured. Since opening 7 years ago, the clinic has served more than 2,000 patients. It features a staff made up entirely of volunteers – both Muslims and non-Muslims, and also partners with We Care Jacksonville to provide specialty services for other free clinics. MASS is open to all, regardless of religious affiliation.
In addition to MASS, the center provides meals for the city’s homeless population several times a year at the Sulzbacher Center.
The center has also been active in interfaith dialogues around the city, seeking to foster peace among the different faith-based communities in Jacksonville. Why would anyone wish to rob our community of such valuable members?
The Islamic Center of Northeast Florida attempts to aide in the process of understanding and mutual respect through its monthly “Explore Islam” meeting. The meeting, which takes place on the first Saturday of each month, aims to introduce non-Muslims to their Muslim neighbors. It began two years ago, and attendance is growing. I plan to attend one of these events with family members in the very near future.