CHICAGO -- Mosque Maryam is nearly full this day as hundreds of the curious and the faithful have come together to hear Nation of Islam leader Louis T. Farrakhan.
Women sit on the right, with members of the Nation resplendent in their white garb and headdresses. Men of all ages sit on the left, the true believers standing out in their trademark bow ties, suits and close haircuts.
Before joining the Nation, they saw themselves as the spiritually dead people of North America -- the lost sheep that Mr. Farrakhan wants to lead to nationhood.
The group's stated goal is to establish a world away from what many of these people have experienced in America, a place brimming with businesses, good will, high morals and opportunities for black people.
Much of the talk from the pulpit is about these ideals. But on this recent day no one is here for a theology lesson.
Instead, they want to hear about Mr. Farrakhan's brush with the "enemy" -- the nation's political and media establishment and, yes, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which they believe is bent on destroying the Nation of Islam.
They want to hear about how Mr. Farrakhan had confounded and infuriated those forces by simultaneously chastising and exalting his representative, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, for his speech Nov. 29 at Kean College in New Jersey. In that now infamous address, Mr. Muhammad attacked and mocked Jews, the pope, whites and even the filmmaker Spike Lee.
Called upon to repudiate his deputy, Mr. Farrakhan demoted him and condemned the "vile" manner of his speech. But he also stood by the "truths" Mr. Muhammad spoke -- leaving many people flabbergasted.
But here at the epicenter of the Nation of Islam, that defiance is cheered. As many as 1,000 faithful have gathered from throughout Chicago to celebrate their oneness, to gird themselves against their enemies and applaud Mr. Farrakhan for his refusal to capitulate under international pressure.
"Contrary to what your enemies want you to believe, Minister Farrakhan would not bow," an assistant minister boomed from the pulpit. "Remember, they don't like brother Farrakhan. Why don't they like him? Because he is independent."
Those words brought loud applause and shouts of approval that seemed to reach to the mosque's soaring rotunda. And the power of that message also seems to resonate in the working-class and poor communities of Chicago.
"For every so-called registered member of the Nation there are probably 10 or so who would go see Farrakhan speak on a moment's notice, and another 10 who would listen to him on the radio or on television," said Robert T. Starks, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University.
"Black people may not all tune in to his theology," he added. "But they tune in to his analysis."
In attendance at the mosque were a school board member and two members of the Chicago City Council, including one running for Congress against Mel Reynolds, the black congressman who dared to speak harshly against Mr. Farrakhan for failing to rebuke Mr. Muhammad more forcefully.
Alderman Allan Streeter is opposing Mr. Reynolds in the March Democratic primary. And, as far as the Nation is concerned, Mr. Reynolds has caved in to their enemies. Knowing that, Mr. Streeter -- not a Muslim -- stands and waves to the crowd in the mosque as Mr. Farrakhan offers him a political blessing.
Members of the Nation take this talk of enemies very seriously -- especially now in the heat of the latest controversy.
"This is not a good time right now," said James Muhammad, editor-in-chief of the Final Call, the group's newspaper, in turning down an interview request.
The Nation seems perpetually braced for assault: Anyone entering Mosque Maryam undergoes a thorough frisking, including security people.
The same is true at the other Nation of Islam properties prominent across this city's South Side. And audiences are patted down before the scores of speeches that Mr. Farrakhan and his representatives make nationally.
And at Mr. Farrahkan's Hyde Park mansion, security people quickly materialize to politely confront anyone who lingers.
Charges by Jews
The Nation's preoccupation with its "enemies" troubles Jewish leaders, who accuse Mr. Farrakhan of feeding anti-Semitic feelings they believe are taking root among blacks.
"Why are the Jews so [angry] with Farrakhan?" asked Murray Friedman, director of the Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. "Because he unfairly puts the finger on Jews for the black condition.
"Mr. Farrakhan talks about a lot of things that people find admirable, the economics and self-help," continued Mr. Friedman, who is working on a book about black-Jewish relations. "But on that wave of good feeling he sends a message of straight-out, old-fashioned anti-Semitism."
At Mosque Maryam those charges are simply waved away. Weighing more heavily in the minds of members of the Nation are what they call 438 years of white domination of blacks in America and the innumerable horrors blacks have endured at the hands of whites.
As far as they are concerned, the response many people have to Mr. Farrakhan is an overreaction to legitimate criticism.
"What the Jewish scholars wish to do is lower the speaking of truth to a hate crime," Mr. Farrakhan said. "They know I'm not an anti-Semite. But they put that out there to stifle criticism. But the Jews are not above criticism any more than we are."
The words bring nodding approval and seem to ring true for the people at Mosque Maryam. For behind the Nation's tight line of security and harsh rhetoric is a well-disciplined group of people who display none of the venom sometimes contained in the speeches of its spokesmen.
Instead, for many, the Nation seems to embody the best that people aspire to. They run a school, they have bookstores and other businesses, and they exhibit a level of cooperation and mutual respect elusive in many black communities.
And those are the very things that draw people into the Nation.
Sylvester Baker had admired the group from afar before stepping up two years ago to join the Nation. Before joining, he carried himself in the style of men in the Nation, by keeping his hair close-cropped and wearing starched shirts and bow ties.
He can't pinpoint exactly what led him to join the Nation, other than to say it had something to do with its members' sense of purpose and strong image.
The group appealed to Mr. Baker, 40, although he already enjoyed many trappings of success: He is a college graduate and an anti-gang officer with a Cook County law enforcement agency. Also, he is the divorced father of five children, three of whom are in college. Only one of his children, his 20-year-old son Salih, is a member of the Nation.
"I think I'm attracted by Minister Farrakhan's nationalist attitude," Mr. Baker said. "He is just pro-black. I think most black people like that. I can't say he is more admirable than Jesse Jackson or Ben Chavis, but he sure is up there with them."
Mr. Baker refused to talk about Mr. Farrakhan's latest controversy. But he gladly offered his own views on race.
"I don't blame white people for everything that afflicts black people," he said. "I don't blame whites for all this trash in some of our neighborhoods, or crime. I call that choice.
"Too many brothers simply give up too soon. But I will say this about whites, they think they are superior to blacks. That probably stems all the way back to slavery."
Mr. Baker said the Nation offers him and other members a vehicle for overcoming that attitude. He likes the idea of black people working together for a common purpose. And his notions of a nation has more to do with building community than grand visions of a black homeland.
For members of the Nation, some elements of their vision already are in place. The group provides members who are financially pressed an opportunity to earn money by selling newspapers and the group's line of health care products, or working in the private security firm affiliated with the Nation.
The eventual reach of the Nation would have been hard to predict in 1930, when the late Elijah Muhammad claimed that he met Allah incarnate in the person of Wallace Fard, a Detroit salesman. When Mr. Fard disappeared in 1934, Mr. Muhammad dedicated himself to preaching what many people saw as a strange, new gospel that became the Nation of Islam's philosophy.
The group advocates a strict moral code, rigorous dietary standards and economic self-reliance. They also teach that whites are a creation of a mad scientist and blacks are God's chosen people and that integration is a hopeless pipe dream.
After Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, a split occurred in the group. Mr. Muhammad's son, Wallace D. Mohammed, dropped the racial separatism and submerged his sect into orthodox Islam.
But Mr. Farrakhan, now 60, continues down the path of separatism, and he is working to rebuild the Nation of Islam's economic base, which had dissolved after Elijah Muhammad's death. At one time, the Nation controlled farmland, restaurants and other businesses in many parts of the country.
Although most estimates put the total number of Black Muslims at between 10,000 and 30,000, the group has a strong influence in many black communities across the country.
That much is clear at Mosque Maryam. As hours of lectures about the Nation's latest controversy wound toward a conclusion, Mr. Farrakhan asked first-time visitors to raise their hands.
Scores of hands shot up.
"How many of you feel like what you heard is true?" Mr. Farrakhan asked.
Most hands remain raised.
Then Mr. Farrakhan asked people interested in joining the Nation to step forward. "I don't want you to come up here just to shake Farrakhan's hand," he said. "Come if you really want to join the Nation. And remember, this is no sit-down religion."
With that, a couple of dozen people come forward, seemingly eager to join Mr. Farrakhan's flock.