My first realization about the Christian idea of salvation came after I was baptized into a Southern Baptist church at a young age. I was taught in Sunday School that “if you aren’t baptized, then you are going to hell”. My own baptism had taken place because I wanted to please people. My mom had come into my room one evening and I asked her about baptism. She encouraged me to do it.
So, the next Sunday, I decided to go to the front of the church. During a hymn at the end of the sermon, I walked forward to meet with the youth minister. He had a smile on his face, greeted me, then sat beside me on a pew. He asked a question, “Why do you want to do this?”… I paused, then said, “because I love Jesus and I know that he loves me”. After making the statement, the members of the church came up and hugged me… anticipating the ceremonial immersion in water just a few weeks later.
During my early years at church, even in the kindergarten class, I remember being a vocal participant in the Sunday School lessons. Later, in my early adolescent years I was a member of the young girls’ group that gathered at the church for weekly activities and went on annual retreats to a camp. During my youth, I attended a camp with older members of the youth group. Though I hadn’t spent much time with them before, they recognized me as “the daughter of a youth coordinator” or “the girl who plays piano at special occasions at church”.
One evening at this camp a man was speaking about his marriage. He told the story about meeting his wife. He had grown up in the US where dating was normal, but in the girl’s culture, he could only be with her if they had a guardian with them. Since he liked her, he decided to continue seeing her. Another stipulation is that they could not touch each other until she had been given a promise ring. Once he proposed to her, they were allowed to hold hands. -This baffled me, yet held me in awe. It was beautiful to think that such discovery of another person could be saved until a commitment was made. Though I enjoyed the story, I never thought that the same incident could occur again.
A few years later, my parents divorced and the role of religion changed in my life. I had always seen my family through the eyes of a child – they were perfect. My dad was a deacon in the church, well respected, and known by all. My mom was active with youth groups. When my mom left, I took the role of caretaker of my father and two brothers. We continued to go to church, but when visiting my mom on weekends, the visits to churches became more infrequent. When at my dad’s home we would gather at night every night to read Corinthians 1:13 (which talks about love/charity). My brothers, father, and I repeated this so often that I memorized it. It was a source of support for my dad, though I could not understand why.
In a period of three consecutive years, my older brother, younger brother, and I moved to my mom’s house. At that point my mom no longer went to church, so my brothers found church attendance less important. Having moved to my mother’s house during my junior year of high school, I was to discover new friends and a different way of life. The first day of school I met a girl who was very friendly.
The second day of school, she invited me to her house for the weekend – to meet her family and visit her church. I was automatically “adopted” into her family as a “good kid” and “good influence” for her. Also, I was surprisingly shocked at the congregation that attended her church. Though I was a stranger, all of the women and men greeted me with hugs and kisses and made me feel welcome.
After continually spending time with the family and attending church on the weekends, they started talking to me about particular beliefs in their Church of Christ. This group went by the New Testament (literal interpretation of Paul’s writings). They had no musical instruments in church services – only vocal singing; there were no hired preachers, but elders who would bring sermons each Sunday. Women were not allowed to speak in church. Christmas, Easter, and other holidays were not celebrated, wine and unleavened bread were taken as communion every Sunday, and baptism was seen as immediately necessary at the moment that the sinner decided to become a believer.
Though I was already considered a Christian, members of this congregation believed that I was going to hell if I didn’t get baptized again – in their church, their way. This was the first major blow to my belief system. Had I grown up in a church where everything had been done wrong? Did I really have to be baptized again?
At one point I had a discussion about faith with my mom. I told her about my confusion and just wanted somebody to clear things up for me. I became critical of sermons at all churches because the preachers would just tell stories and not focus on the Bible. I couldn’t understand: if the Bible was so important, why was it not read (solely) in the church service? Though I thought about baptism every Sunday for almost two years, I could not walk forward to be baptized. I would pray to God to push me forward if it were the right thing to do – but it never happened.
The next year I went to college and became detached from all churches as a freshman. Some Sundays I would visit churches with friends – only to feel critical of the sermons. I tried to join the Baptist student association, but felt that things were wrong there, too. I had come to college thinking that I would find something like the church of Christ but it was not to be found. When I would return home to my mom’s house on occasional weekends, I would visit the church to gain the immediate sense of community and welcoming.
In my Sophomore year, I spent Sundays singing at the Wake Forest church in the choir because I earned good money. Though I didn’t support the church beliefs, I endured the sermons to make money. In October of my sophomore year I met a Muslim who lived in my dorm. He was a friendly guy who always seemed to be pondering questions or carrying a deep thought. One evening I spent the entire evening asking him philosophical questions about beliefs and religion. He talked about his beliefs as a Shia’ Ismaili Imami Muslim.
Though his thoughts did not fully represent this sect of Islam (since he was also confused and searching for answers), his initial statements made me question my own beliefs: are we born into a religion, therefore making it the right one? Day after day I would meet with him and ask questions – wanting to get on the same level of communication that we had reached at our initial meeting – but he would not longer answer the questions or meet the spiritual needs that I had.
The following summer I worked at a bookstore and grabbed any books that I could find about Islam. I introduced myself to another Muslim on campus and started asking him questions about Islam. Instead of looking to him for answers, I was directed to the Quran. Any time I would have general questions about Islam, he would answer them. I went to the local mosque twice during that year and was happy to feel a sense of community again.
After reading about Islam over the summer, I became more sensitive to statements made about Muslims. While taking an introductory half-semester course on Islam, I would feel frustrated when the professor would make a comment that was incorrect, but I didn’t know how to correct him. Outside of my personal studies and university class, I became an active worker and supporter of our newly rising campus Islam Awareness Organization.
As the only female member, I would be identified to others as “the Christian in the group”. Every time a Muslim would say that, I would look at him with puzzlement – because I thought that I was doing all that they had been doing – and that I was a Muslim, too. I had stopped eating pork and became vegetarian, had never liked alcohol, and had begun fasting for the month of Ramadan. But, there still was a difference…
At the end of that year (junior year) other changes were made. I decided to start wearing my hair up – concealed from people. Once again, I thought of this as something beautiful and had an idea that only my husband should be able to see my hair. I hadn’t even been told about Hijab… since many of the sisters at the mosque did not wear it.
That summer I was sitting at school browsing the internet and looking for sites about Islam. I wanted to find e-mail addresses for Muslims, but couldn’t find a way. I eventually ventured onto a homepage that was a matrimonial link. I read over some advertisements and tried to find some people within my age range to write to about Islam. I prefaced my initial letters with “I am not seeking marriage – I just want to learn about Islam”. Within a few days I had received replies from three Muslims- one from Pakistan/India who was studying in the US, one from India but studying in the UK, and one living in the UAE. Each brother was helpful in unique ways – but I started corresponding with the one from the US the most because we were in the same time zone. I would send questions to him and he would reply with thorough, logical answers.
By this point I knew that Islam was right – all people were equal regardless of color, age, sex, race, etc; I had received answers to troublesome questions by going to the Quran, I could feel a sense of community with Muslims, and I had a strong, overwhelming need to declare the shahada at a mosque. No longer did I have the “Christian fear” of denouncing the claim of Jesus as God – I believed that there was only one God and there should be no associations with God. One Thursday night in July 1997 I talked with the brother over the phone. I asked more questions and received many more pertinent, logical answers. I decided that the next day I would go to the mosque.
I went to the mosque with the Muslim brother from Wake Forest and his non-Muslim sister, but did not tell him my intentions. I mentioned that I wanted to speak with the imam after the khutbah (religious directed talk). The imam delivered the khutbah, the Muslims prayed (which includes praising Allah, recitation of the Quran, and a series of movements which includes bowing to Allah) then he came over to talk with me. I asked him what was necessary to become Muslim. He replied that there are basics to understand about Islam, plus the shahada (there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah). I told him that I had learned about Islam for more than a year and was ready to become Muslim. I recited the kalimah… and became Muslim on July 12, 1996, alhumdulillah (all praise due to Allah). That was the first big step.
Many doors opened after that – and have continued to open by the grace of Allah. I first began to learn prayer, then visited another masjid in Winston-Salem, and began wearing Hijab two weeks later.
At my summer job, I had problems with wearing Hijab. The bosses didn’t like it and “let me go” early for the summer. They didn’t think that I could “perform” my job of selling bookbags because the clothing would limit me. But, I found the Hijab very liberating. I met Muslims as they would walk around the mall… everyday I met someone new, alhumdulillah. As my senior year of college progressed, I took the lead of the Muslim organization on campus because I found that the brothers were not very active. Since I pushed the brothers to do things and constantly reminded them of events, I received the name “mother Kaci”.
During the last half of my Senior year, I took elective courses: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Each course was good because I was a minority representative in each. Mashallah, it was nice to represent Islam and to tell people the truth about Muslims and Allah.