In case you are unaware, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan recently ended. It is a month of spiritual focus, primarily including fasting from dawn to dusk every day. I mention this because it was four years in Ramadan that I converted to Islam. Hence I felt this a good time to share my story . ..
So, to tell the story of my journey to Islam, I think it’s best to start at the beginning– where I came from, my roots, my foundations– to better understand where I am now. I have always been a very spiritual person; very modest; the “good girl” stereotype. So it came as no surprise to my Muslim husband when I accepted Islam. Although he knew it long before I did, I already had Islam in my heart. Allah had already been with me my whole life, planting seeds and thoughts, teaching me how to live as he intended. It just took me some time to realize it.
When I was about ten years old, my family became more religiously involved. We began attending church regularly. I have always been a good student, and Sunday school was no different. I paid close attention and learned eagerly. I took the lessons to heart and always tried to do what I thought I was supposed to. As an example of this, one day in Sunday School the teacher told us that all worldly music– if not Christian and singing praises to God– was sinful. It was evil and from Satan. Listening to it was like following Satan himself. This terrified me, since my family often listened to ‘worldly’ music. Later, I was in the car with my family when they turned on the radio. I began crying and screaming, covering my ears. My mom was shocked and didn’t understand what was going on. When I explained, my mom tried to soothe me and explain that it was okay. I understood that she was upset that someone would tell a child such a thing. When I was older, my mom admitted to me that she felt that that church was too extreme and its values and ideals did not match what she believed. (They also practiced speaking in tongues– something I never felt was authentic, even when I was much deeper into Christianity.)
A year or two later, we ended up moving to another nearby city. A friend of my mom’s encouraged us to join her church, the First Baptist Church; so we did. Over the next few years, I slowly became more and more involved in the church, and especially with the Youth Group. When a new youth pastor from Texas came to the church, it was a great opportunity for me to become even more involved. My younger sister and I both interviewed with and became apart of the Youth Leadership Team.
Concurrently, I had also joined another religious organization: Job’s Daughters. Many are probably unfamiliar with what that is, so let me try to explain it briefly. Job’s Daughters is a Masonic organization for girls between the ages of 11 and 20; the easiest thing to compare it to is Girl’s Scouts, though it’s really quite different. Based on the Book of Job from the Bible (the Prophet who lost everything, including his family, during a trial by God), the organization teaches girls many valuable life lessons, including honesty, faith in God, charity, modesty, leadership skills, etc. It attempts to bring up young girls into strong, educated, faithful young women.
Most of my teen years were absorbed by my participation in the Youth Leadership Team (and other church activities) and Job’s Daughters. Looking back, I actually don’t understand how I was able to fit so much into my life, including other activities like softball, band, and babysitting. The church and God were crucial parts of my upbringing. I will always be grateful to my mom for involving us in the church, since it is what instilled in me a love of God.
I applied myself whole-heartedly to the church and to what I felt God wanted me to do. I was frequently at the church, which was easy to do since it was only a short walk away. At a minimum I was there on Wednesday nights (going around 5pm for Youth Leadership Team meetings, and staying through the Youth Group gatherings in the evening) and for most of the day on Sundays (Sunday school, church, and at one point also Sunday night services). But there were often many other activities, including small groups, in addition to that. Our Youth Pastor was very motivating, as well as very knowledgeable of Christian theology, having majored in it. The focus of our Youth Leadership Team meetings was for us to be servant leaders– to lead the other youth in our church by example, and to serve others in the same way as Jesus had. We were inspired and encouraged to participate in many service projects, especially within the church– to be involved in the church ministry. I also participated in the Youth Praise Team which led worship during Youth Group, and later also the Church Praise Team that led worship for the whole church on Sundays.
As a Christian, I prayed whole-heartedly; I worshipped God the best I knew how; I read the Bible and memorized verses as much as I could; I listened exclusively to Christian pop/rock/praise music for at least 3 years; and I learned how to evangelize.
There were often opportunities for me to participate in retreats outside of the normal day-to-day events. Among these, there were several experiences that were especially influential. One of these actually happened after I graduated high school (I’m not sure if it was the year immediately following or the one after that) — the annual worship conference at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. This church is well-known to many Christians as it is one of (if not THE) biggest churches in the country. (If it sounds familiar, it’s likely because it was in the news recently when the Pastor Rick Warren’s son took his own life). The other, and most significant experience I had was actually held over three separate years: PaceSetters at Dallas Baptist University. For three summers during high school, our Youth Leadership Team took a road-trip down to Dallas, Texas for this camp. It was a stringent, week-long leadership training camp where we were immersed in all things Christian, including frequent Bible studies and worship sessions. I still value it as an incredible experience that helped make me who I am today.
Throughout my life, I have always been a person with a strong conviction, strong sense of morals and values; I also feel that I have the gift of discernment– to truly understand a situation, to see behind people’s actions to get at least a hint of their intention, and to have an innate feeling of truth and justice, right and wrong. I use the word discernment because this is actually what I was told while I was in Youth Leadership Team– when we had to take one of those tests about your spiritual personality that give insight into your strengths. I don’t believe it just because that test told me so, but because myself and others agreed that it was true, because I’ve always felt that I had that gift. It’s why I became a social worker. Many people, before and since have told me that I am “wise beyond my years.”
I bring this up because it is this — my own discernment– which made me begin to start doubting and having trouble with Christianity. The deeper I got into it, the more I felt that for many people, it was all a show, an act. They talked the talk, and they pretended to walk the walk, but it wasn’t authentic. But before I go further into this, let me just say one thing. I have met some amazing people in my life, and many of them have been Christian. I believe that people can find God in different ways, and Christianity can be a path for some. It is not my place to judge whether they are going to heaven or hell because of their beliefs– that is God’s place. Only God knows their heart. And I have met Christians in my life whom I believed to be truly people of God, true followers of God in their hearts.
My initial trouble with the church was, as I said, people who were pretending to be righteous believers– in other words, hypocrites. And there were many of them in my church. People who openly judged others for their actions, but then committed worse behind closed doors. People who preached about ‘loving others as Jesus would’ but then stabbed them in the back. People who flaunted their perceived good deeds to gain popularity and encouraged others to praise them for how good they were.
I think one of the biggest struggles I have had within myself regarding Christianity is to get over the issue of there being hypocrites. The fact is that every religion has hypocrites, including Islam. I had to come to the realization that I cannot judge a religion based on the false followers. That being said, it is an important point because it was a door for me– a way for me to take a step back and begin thinking more critically about modern Christianity and what exactly I was following.
So when I took this step back, I began realizing some things that bothered me. Some of these things I realized as they happened, and others I realized when I looked back on them. For example, I became increasingly aware of the intense focus on Jesus in Christianity– to the point of rarely or never saying “God.” If Jesus were the same as God, then why not use the names interchangeably? Yet some people insisted, in every sermon, praise song, or prayer to say ‘Jesus’ and not ‘God.’ The most recent experience I had with this was actually a few years ago when I was a hospice Social Worker. One of the Chaplains was relating to our team his experience in counseling with a family who was Jehovah’s Witness. He was laughing about it, because as he was talking to her, he kept using Jesus’ name to refer to God, and every time he did, the woman corrected him by saying “God.” Really? You think that’s funny? If you believe that Jesus and God are one and the same, and you know this woman does not believe the same, then why would you insist on referring to Him as Jesus, when to you it makes no difference which name you use?
Another problem I came to have with Christianity was the evangelizing. It’s one thing to want to share with people about your faith, it’s another to force it down their throat or manipulatively convince people and children who aren’t educated enough to defend against your insistence. The church was always focused on ‘saving’ people. It didn’t seem to care what the final outcome was, as long as they got someone into church, got them to say “I believe in Jesus” and baptized them. 1 down, 5 billion more to go! I remember the last time I attended the church I grew up in back home– I left feeling disgusted. It was the service just after New Year’s, and the message was about increasing the number of members at the church. That’s right, it was all about numbers. Not about bettering yourself, refocusing on God in the coming year, or being a better disciple of Christ. It was about getting more church members. If everyone brings in one person to our church, then the church will double in size. I can just imagine the Pastor also calculating in the back of his mind: and double members means double money. It just so happened that the church was also working on raising money for some swanky new renovations to the building. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence.
I myself also participated in this evangelizing at times. I remember at one of the PaceSetters camps– where we often did service and volunteer work– they took us to one of the poor Hispanic neighborhoods in Arlington, where they had organized an afternoon of fun and play with the kids there. But there was a catch. This wasn’t just about having fun with the kids; this was about ‘saving them.’ There were different ‘teams’ divided up over different areas. We were told that the team who was able to ‘save’ the most children would ‘win.’
So after spending some time playing with the kids, we each sat down with a group of them and shared the gospel with them, telling them about Jesus. At the end, we asked them if they believe in Jesus; many said ‘yes’, much to our delight (point for me!) and we then prayed with them so they could accept Jesus into their heart. Looking back, I am deeply ashamed that I ever participated in such a thing. I see many issues with what we did. The first being that we didn’t even know who these children were or if they already were Christian– maybe they were being raised in a Christian household. Or maybe they weren’t, maybe they practiced another religion; what would their parents think if they knew we were brainwashing their children? Which brings up the second concern– they were CHILDREN. And that’s exactly what we were doing, brainwashing them. It’s different when they’re your own children, or their parents brought them to church to learn about their family’s religious tradition, but that’s not what this was. We were using our position to manipulate them. Of course the children were going to like us and agree with us, because we were their new friends. We just played with them and they had fun. They probably didn’t even know what we were talking about, and they could probably care less. Some of them didn’t even speak English very well. I doubt that anything we did that day made a real difference for any of those kids.
This last subject brings up another area of concern I began having with Christianity. The idea that being ‘saved’ was like a free pass, meaning you could do anything you wanted and it didn’t matter, you could still be confident that you were going to heaven. Of course, this is the outcome of anyone who you ‘saved’ didn’t matter– because no matter what else they did in their life, they were ‘saved,’ and they could still count as someone you helped get to heaven. At first, my thinking on this subject was more focused not on the theology of it– the idea that when you believe in Jesus you will be saved and go to heaven– but on the result for many Christians, which was to use it as an excuse to cover their multitude of sins, past, present, and future. Like a free pass to do whatever they wanted, and not be held accountable. In the end, it didn’t matter how you lived your life, as long as you believed in Jesus. As time passed, I began to feel that the problem with this was not just people’s reaction to the belief that Jesus saves you, but the belief itself.
These were some of the thoughts going through my head as I entered, and continued through college. Looking back on it now, it’s easy for me to pinpoint what my concerns were. But at the time, everything seemed to be a muddled mess. All I knew is that something wasn’t quite right. So although I still continued to be a moral and spiritual person throughout college, my participation in church slowly declined over time. Even though I had plenty of opportunity to be involved in local churches in my home away from home, I rarely took the effort to even go to a church. For me, this was the beginning of my spiritual journey: a journey that ended up leading me – much to my surprise — to Islam.
Update: Read Part 2