Cherry Hill pastor slammed over controversial charter school

The Rev. Amir Kahn opens the service with a song at Solid Rock church, which he has expanded to host a network of nonprofit institutions.
The Rev. Amir Kahn opens the service with a song at Solid Rock church, which he has expanded to host a network of nonprofit institutions. (GIANNA VADINO / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 20, 2011

Neighbors in Cherry Hill have denounced him as a liar. The township school district is fighting him in court. Even the mayor has accused him of being out for self-gain.

Since the New Jersey Department of Education announced in September that his application to open a charter school in Cherry Hill had been approved, the Rev. Amir Khan has been under attack.

Khan downplays his public-relations problems. The naysayers will come around, he has said.

But last week, after a grueling town-hall session in which skeptical taxpayers pummeled him with questions about his Regis Academy charter, the pastor of the township's Solid Rock Worship Center was second-guessing himself.

"I was thinking maybe I shouldn't open it up to questions, that something like this would happen," he said. "Most people were open-minded, but there's this group of people there's no convincing."

The movement to take charters beyond their traditional urban setting into the suburbs, where residents expect a quality school system in return for higher property taxes, has turned New Jersey into a battleground. And the church campus where Khan plans to open the secular Regis Academy is ground zero.

This month, the high-performing Cherry Hill district took the rare step of challenging Regis' charter approval.

The projected $1.9 million in state aid redirected to Regis would detract from the education available to the township's other public students, the district said. The state appellate court is expected to issue its decision no earlier than March.

The 55-year-old Khan - a college dropout turned businessman turned evangelical minister, who graduated from Cherry Hill schools himself - may seem an unlikely charter-school champion.

At Solid Rock, which he founded nearly two decades ago, he ministers to a growing, largely African American flock whose ailments he promises to heal through prayer.

He is famous for his spirited sermons. The charismatic minister once pretended to snort cocaine, then hurled a television against the wall as he exhorted his congregation to cast off the burdens preventing them from spiritual fulfillment.

"I could sell a bikini to an Eskimo," Khan once boasted.

He says the charter school will continue the charitable mission he inherited from his father, beloved Camden physician Mustapha Khan, who served the city's poor for nearly a half-century.

"To serve the underserved has been the foundational purpose of our lives," Khan said of his family. "I got the bug. I started a lot of businesses, but a good amount of my funds went back into what we're doing now."

The Regis Academy - which would serve kindergarten through eighth-grade students from Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Lawnside, and Somerdale - also is key to Solid Rock's dream of establishing a permanent home.

This year, the church fell behind on its rent to the Camden diocese, which owns the former Holy Rosary Catholic Church campus where Solid Rock moved from Clementon. Solid Rock has entered into an agreement to buy the Evesham Avenue parcel for $2.9 million and will rely on the academy's annual $550,000 in rent, Khan said.

Aiding Khan in his charter mission is an influential coalition of African American ministers led by the Rev. Reginald Jackson. Group members have won approval to open five charters in districts around the state next fall with the aim of closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.

"Many of the minority children in these districts are not doing well, and we need to find out why," said Jackson, of St. Matthew A.M.E. Church in Orange, N.J.

In an interview, Cherry Hill Superintendent Maureen Reusche acknowledged that test scores for African American children in the district lagged behind those of other students, but she said the district had made progress toward changing that.

"The district can meet the children's needs," she said.

The four districts from which Regis would draw are projected to lose a combined $2.8 million in state aid. In Cherry Hill, that could mean larger classes and teacher layoffs, according to the district.

Race is a subject close to Khan. In the mid-1960s, after his parents won a legal settlement stemming from a car crash in which his mother nearly died, Khan and his family moved from their Camden rowhouse into a 4,000-square-foot home in Cherry Hill once owned by singer Frankie Avalon.

Within the first week, someone had shot out a window with a BB gun, according to Khan's brother Ricardo.

A football player and top-ranked wrestler, the easygoing Khan was a popular figure at Cherry Hill West, where he graduated in 1974. But he endured racism, said Bob Sheldon, a gaming executive and school friend.

Sheldon recalled walking to his car with Khan and finding a racist note. Khan got upset, but not angry, Sheldon said.

"It was more, 'How stupid people can be,' " he said. "It was almost like Amir was bigger than that."

Khan attended Rutgers on a wrestling scholarship but left in his junior year. In high school he had started an Italian-ice business, running a fleet of trucks, and he wanted to try the business world.

His ventures have run the gamut. He bought airtime on Philadelphia radio stations that he sold to churches that wanted to broadcast their sermons. In the mid-1980s, Khan got in on the ground floor of the cellphone business and took his company national, until the industry shifted and he was forced to shut down, he said.

"He takes the time to understand people and what their needs are, which is rare. And he can translate into common-sense language the technobabble we speak," said Jesse Russell, chief executive officer of IncNetworks, a wireless-network start-up on whose board Khan sits.

Khan's backslapping style and salesman's bravado have not won over some of his Cherry Hill neighbors, who question whether Regis won't be just a publicly funded private school.

It didn't help, Khan acknowledges, that soon after Solid Rock moved to the Holy Rosary property, an ex-convict who worked for the church broke into houses in the neighborhood.

"The things I've seen with Pastor Khan, I have little faith," neighbor Rita McClellan said last month.

Khan began to minister full time in the early 1990s, building on workshops he had run out of a Christian-themed bowling alley he owned in Willingboro. That led to Solid Rock, which the married father of three has enlarged into a network of nonprofit institutions.

Among them are a Bible institute for missionaries; the Camden County Hospitality Training Institute, which has a state contract to train the unemployed; and the Children of Promise school and day care. All are on the church campus, though the religious school would close when Regis opened.

Khan says he draws no salary from Solid Rock or its offshoots, though he says he has during slow points in his business career. (As a religious institution, the church does not report to the IRS.) Solid Rock pays the mortgage and upkeep on his Spanish-style house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Voorhees and the lease on his Cadillac.

"Most of my living expenses are covered," Khan said.

The flap over the charter is not the first time Khan has made headlines. Last year, his Nehemiah Group in Camden, which primarily works with ex-offenders, made news when it moved residents of Camden's "Tent City" homeless encampment to a Cherry Hill hotel with the aim of helping them conquer their social and drug problems through job training and religious instruction. The effort produced mixed results.

But within the walls of the former parochial school where he delivers his sermons, Khan is a larger-than-life figure.

Dressed in French cuffs and pinstripes on a recent Sunday, Khan joked to parishioners about the perils "Red Lobster and Golden Corral" posed to their wallets and impressed on them the need to increase their contributions to the collection plate.

As the faithful filed in and out, Celeste Battle, a Solid Rock regular, said the treatment Khan had received was unfair.

"It's a lack of understanding," she said. "When something comes before you [that] you don't understand, you feel threatened."


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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