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Keeping the Faith

by Jennifer Kelley; Photo by Tim Hawk

Solid Rock Worship Center’s Rev. Amir Khan has made waves across Cherry Hill with bold moves like putting up the residents of Camden’s tent city in a township motel and administering a prisoner reentry program out of his brand new Ashland church. Somehow, though, the pastor always seems to have the Lord on his side.

There are some people who believe that when God closes a door, he opens a window. Rev. Amir Khan is definitely one of them. Take the events that precipitated the evangelical pastor’s controversial decision to move his church into a vacant religious complex in Cherry Hill. Having outgrown its former storefront location next to a Big Lots in Clementon late last summer, Khan’s Solid Rock Worship Center was in the final stages of moving into a shuttered YMCA building in Voorhees. At the 11th hour, however, the financing fell through—and Khan was out of the lease, out of options and out of luck. Or so he thought.

A newspaper headline caught his eye the same day: “Catholic churches from Camden Diocese merge.” To ease a massive debt burden, parishes were being combined and church buildings put on the market. Khan smelled opportunity. As September unfurled, he negotiated several million dollars off the asking price for one such site, the five-building Holy Rosary Church complex on Burnt Mill Road in Cherry Hill’s Ashland neighborhood. He then signed a lease-to-purchase agreement, giving him time to raise the full $2.9 million cost of the property. By October, he had a certificate of occupancy from the township and commenced moving his flock. By November, renovations were well underway.

“Accelerated destiny,” is what Khan calls it—or, “bringing your future into your now.” The Voorhees resident and 18-year patriarch of the nondenominational Solid Rock has developed an emphatic vernacular, honed over 35 years as a pastor. Charisma is his defining characteristic. Let’s just say he’s a man who gets a lot of windows opened. Or, in Khan’s words: “I could sell a bikini to an Eskimo.”

But many of Solid Rock’s staid Cherry Hill neighbors aren’t charmed. In fact, Khan has almost as many detractors as he has followers. His works, while often motivated by charitable intentions, have made him a center of notoriety and controversy in the quiet South Jersey communities where he makes his headquarters.

Last spring, when he emptied Camden’s Tent City, a tarp-strung enclave by the I-676 off-ramp, of its more than 50 homeless residents, he not only gave reporters the feel-good story of the season—but he also made waves by bringing the group into Cherry Hill, where many remained through the end of summer. And then, there’s The Nehemiah Group, an outreach ministry Khan founded 12 years ago, with a focus on helping convicts transition back into society. Some of the convicts have received assistance at the Ashland church site. When a string of burglaries in the neighborhood was traced to Jason Bacino, a parolee working and living in the Solid Rock complex, neighbors wanted Khan and his followers out for good. (After Solid Rock failed to pay rent for several months in a row, they almost got their wish; an eviction lawsuit was settled out of court at the last minute in June.)

Today, the fear that Solid Rock could bring more felons into the neighborhood still has the community on guard. “Police presence has been increased in the district and extra patrols have been ordered in the Ashland neighborhood,” says Dan Keashen, a spokesman for the Cherry Hill mayor’s office. As well, “the Township Department of Community Policing has helped residents in the Ashland neighborhood create and organize a new citizen watch program.”

And even though the dust has settled after the initial scuffle, not all neighbors are appeased. “It’s not that we have a problem with the worship center: any religion is welcome here,” says Kim Dimpter, a Cherry Hill neighbor who has kept a wary eye on the site from her kitchen window. “It’s The Nehemiah Group everyone is opposed to. I mean, I’m all for helping people, but it draws drug addicts and felons directly into our neighborhood. This is absolutely not the place for that type of organization.”

Khan sees things differently: “I didn’t see a deed restriction prohibiting us from feeding the homeless or helping the underprivileged. We’re a church, after all.”

And, after all, that’s been a lifelong focus for Khan, who follows in the footsteps of his father, Mustapha Khan, a Trinidad-born physician who treated prison inmates and Camden’s poor for decades. After converting from Islam to Christianity in the 1960s, the elder Khan moved his Episcopalian family from the city to Cherry Hill, purchasing the former home of Frankie Avalon and settling into the suburban landscape. All three of his sons would eventually become ministers.

Still, it was a circuitous path to the clergy for Khan, a 1974 graduate of Cherry Hill High School West who lettered in football before becoming a champion wrestler at Rutgers University. (Today, the stocky, broad-shouldered, 54-year-old father of three still looks like he could kick some butt.)

An entrepreneur at heart, he spent his pre-preaching years running a telecommunications company, a radio station, a newspaper and a bowling alley, among other endeavors, and is the CEO of NextGen Wireless, the Children of Promise day school and The Nehemiah Group. He is also an outspoken advocate for school choice, currently awaiting state approval for his own application to open a charter school next fall, (another proposal that’s drawn vehement rejections from Township neighbors who are concerned that it would be a drain on school district funds). A significant portion of each Sunday service is dedicated toward inciting parishioners to give. And most members of Khan’s nearly 2,000-strong parish donate about 10 percent of their income to the church. That, combined with revenue from an in-house daycare center run by Khan’s wife, Aughtney, adds up to more than $1.5 million annually. Khan says he takes no salary from that coffer, though—just a car allowance for his Cadillac Escalade.

More of a mover-shaker than a pencil-pusher, Khan leaves much of Solid Rock’s day-to-day operations in the hands of his family-heavy staff. (His son, Micah, is the head of The Nehemiah Group. Though he may not be officially trained as a social worker, he certainly has experience working with felons: He spent nearly two years in prison on cocaine and weapons charges.)

Khan himself spends each week flitting between business meetings, his charitable outreach centers and, sometimes, glittery fundraisers in Manhattan. But come Sunday, Khan is greeting congregants by name as they stroll into mass. His booming, gravely voice, punctuated by sweeping gesticulations, makes him an electrifying orator. He paces by his pulpit in flashy suits, working up a sweat as he uses explosive bursts of scripture, dramatic musical cues, and audio-visual enhancements to fire up parishioners, inspiring them to leap to their feet in choruses of “Amen!”

Khan gets himself fired up sometimes, too—which is how it came about that he single-handedly decided to remove a homeless encampment that had been stymieing Camden authorities for months.

He had learned of the tent city only days before renting a massive charter bus and gathering nearly 100 volunteers to help resettle the ragtag colony. Micah had filmed video of the rugged encampment and showed it to his father in late April. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” Khan says. “How could something like this happen in our own backyard? You’ve got people living in the lap of luxury in Moorestown—voted one of the best cities in America—just 15 minutes away from people living under a highway. It broke my heart.” Khan decided there was no time to waste on bureaucratic red tape. “If I see somebody drowning, I jump in; I don’t wait to see who has jurisdiction over the water.”

Khan dedicated that Sunday’s sermon to the plight of the urban campers, begging congregants for donations until he was hoarse. In addition to the $10,000 he and his wife put up, he raised $25,000 that morning toward his quarter-million-dollar goal, and the money kept pouring in for a program Khan launched under the name New Life. That week, Khan victoriously escorted the displaced men and women into Mount Laurel’s Wyndham hotel, where they bathed, received haircuts and new clothes, and were otherwise pampered while he planned his next move.

Working on the fly, Khan’s aim was to house the group in one place for a few months while working with outside agencies and Solid Rock ministers to administer intensive counseling, job coaching, personal finance classes, mentoring and drug rehabilitation. The rub, however, was where to put them. No one wanted homeless Camden transplants in their community, and doors shut all across South Jersey with a collective slam.

Then, Khan says, a miracle happened—a window opened, as it were—in the form of the Inn at Cherry Hill on Route 70. Much to the chagrin of his middle-class neighbors, the owner of the property offered space to New Life for the summer at a discounted rate. Within a week of arriving, 17 members of the group had signed up for classes at Camden County College, others went through drug detox and about a dozen found jobs, the pastor reports.

While Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt’s office and the township police department were besieged by complaints from residents both livid and fearful of the “city” now residing in their neighborhood, Khan remained unmoved. He continued his efforts at the motel, with mixed success, until August, when those who remained in the program moved on to more permanent housing. Critics called the endeavor superficial, as few if any mental health or addiction professionals were brought in, and a number of participants eventually made their way back to the streets.

By the end of summer, the temporary Tent City refugee camp had been cleared out of the township, but the negative impression among neighbors remained—a fact that did not deter the pastor from making an offer on the church in Ashland last October.

But soon the parish fell behind on its bills, compelling the Camden Diocese to allow Khan to borrow from his own down payment to stay afloat, according to Diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd. By the time the spring sale date came around, not only had Solid Rock failed to replenish the borrowed escrow funds, but rent had not been paid for months. “At that point, the agreement of sale was terminated,” Feuerherd says. “Those were the agreed-upon terms, they were violated, and the deal was void.” But Khan contended that Solid Rock was still within its rights to extend the lease and eventually pay the full sticker price. The “real reason” for voiding the deal, he says, was pressure put on the Diocese by the Cherry Hill community.

After all, following Bacino’s arrest word had spread like wildfire, with the smoke soon reaching the office of Mayor Bernie Platt. He and township officials scrambled to put together several public meetings between hundreds of outraged community members and Khan, in an effort to douse the flames. But the volatile, standing-room-only gatherings in early April only seemed to foment them. Tempers flared. Fingers were pointed. Residents demanded to know why they were not informed of Holy Rosary’s sale and its subsequent “secret” occupation.

As for Khan, he says he knew that Bacino had a record, but not the full extent of his criminal history. Micah Khan insists that, while The Nehemiah Group keeps its central office in Ashland, the vast majority of its operations take place in Camden. “We’re operating in the inner city, where we can reach people in need of help directly—not importing them into Cherry Hill,” he says.

“My father could have easily taken ‘Nehemiah Group’ off the website or off the building and appeased everyone,” Micah adds. “But that’s not the kind of person he is.” (Keashen notes that, in any case, it’s not quite so simple: “By law, Solid Rock is not allowed to do anything on the property unless it is connected to education or worship…. Pastor Khan has promised the community and the Ashland neighborhood in particular that no programs related to The Nehe?miah Group would be run on the church property.”)

For his part, Khan has maintained a come-on-in attitude, making a concerted effort to invite neighborhood residents to Solid Rock’s family events, such as picnics and barbecues, as well as Sunday mass. He has also publicized social outreach events: an annual school-supply giveaway, a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, a holiday toy drive, and an Easter food handout that distributes nearly 40,000 pounds of non-perishables every year. As well, Khan says he has implemented new guidelines for hiring or boarding people at his church.

As for the church building itself, the unflappable pastor has managed to pry open yet another window. He managed to renegotiate the lease, bumping the official purchase date to January 2012. “I don’t allow myself to get distracted by negativity,” Khan says. “And I knew we’d eventually win everyone over.”

Cultivating goodwill at Solid Rock’s new location hasn’t been easy, but Khan says he takes it as “an assignment from God.” There were plenty of buildings throughout South Jersey that could have been chosen, Khan says, “but we felt like this was our spot. I was raised in this town, I know this town, and there’s no other place I’d like my church to be. I’m just glad we can continue our mission here—Amen to that.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4 (July, 2011).
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