By Aisha Qidwae, IOL Correspondent
CHICAGO — Leslie C. Toole has been considering embracing Islam for the past ten years. But when the Chicagoan teacher saw a simple ad on a public bus, he knew the moment had come. "I never truly committed and when I saw that sign I knew that was the final sign to complete my move," Toole, 45, told IslamOnline.net.
Toole had come across Islam on a street corner ten years ago when a man handed him a pamphlet telling him he'll find enlightenment in it.
"And I kept reading and reading and I wanted to make sure that I understand what I got involved in."
Just last month, an Islam advertisement rolled past him on one of the Chicago Transit Authority buses. The sign caught his eyes and eventually he called the number on the giant ad.
"How to become a member of Islam was my primary question."
Toole embraced Islam on Monday, September 29.
His story is similar to that of 17 other Chicagoans who accepted Islam this month alone thanks to the Islam ad campaign of GainPeace, a Chicago area outreach project of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
The group spent $30,900 to place signs on 25 public buses serving across Chicago.
The ads direct people to a toll-free hotline, 800.662.Islam, and a website established to help those who are seeking answers to questions about Islam.
The campaign was initially to run from September 19 to October 20, but it has been extended till November 23 because of the massive positive feedback.
The hotline has received thousands of calls, in addition to more than 300,000 hits on the website.
When curious Chicagoans dial the hotline, GainPeace also provides them with an English copy of the Noble Qur'an, The Message magazine on Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as well as brochures and books on topics related to Islam.
Campaigners say the aim of the bus ad campaign was to find a novel way to steer people toward information on Islam.
"The topic [of the ad] is Islam: the way of life with different prophets' names," Sabeel Ahmed, Director of GainPeace, told IOL.
"The bottom and top message are supposed to generate more interest in people."
Ahmed affirms that with the hotline and the website, people would get the chance to know more about Islam, with the opportunity to call knowledgeable Muslims to clear up any misconceptions, biases or fears.
"We want to create a channel through the website so people can interact with us and work out the commonalities, to get to know each other better."
Toole, the new Muslim, believes that the simple ad which merely says "Got Questions? Get Answers" is a brilliant way to draw people's attention.
"I thought it was a neat idea…I had never seen that before."
The Islam ad campaign does not run in Chicago alone.
ICNA, a New York-based grassroot organization that has 22 chapters across the US, has organized similar campaigns in Seattle and New York.
In Big Apple, 1,000 ads went up on the city's subway cars last month, portraying in a visual format questions that people may have about Islam.
Because of campaign's success, other cities in the US and Canada have asked the group to help start similar projects.
A recent US survey revealed that the majority of Americans know very little about Islam and do not see any common grounds between the Muslim faith and their own Christian beliefs.
GainPeace role does not end with educating people about Islam.
When a person embraces Islam, the group appoints a Big Brother or Big Sister, who becomes a mentor for the new Muslim, proving information, support and advice.
"The mentor is like a guardian angel," says Ahmed, the GainPeace director.
The mentor and the new Muslim meet face-to-face and stay in touch with mails and phone calls.
Toole, who has chosen Ilyas as his new Muslim name, is very grateful to his mentor.
"He's been very helpful. He's provided me with tons of books to move me forward."
GainPeace also provides the new Muslim with the Shahada package, which includes: A How to Pray DVD, a Help Yourself in Reading the Qur'an book, and brochures on various topics about Islam.
It also offers online classes once a week for new Muslims, which Toole is looking forward to joining.
"I'll be able to learn everything from Muslims' lifestyle to prayer practices and the Arabic language."
Toole says that the more he knows about his new religion, the more confident he feels that he has made the right decision.
"It's definitely perfect for me.
"It's hard to explain because when you know something is right, it’s just a deep-rooted feeling inside of you that you found home."