In the past two days I have met four remarkable people. I met them in two very different religious settings. One was a mosque, one was my UU church. All of these people awed me with their courage and bravery. As I was thinking about them today, I realized that not many people associate faith with courage. At least not most people I know/see. Faith and religion are often seen as a “weakness” and a lack of strength. The misconception is that someone is letting some imaginary “sky daddy” dictate morality for them and refusing to face reality (or something0. I’m sure we are all familiar with the idea of religion being the “opiate of the masses.” But the truth is that while this can be true for some, for others faith takes a tremendous amount of courage. To trust, to believe, to put your faith into something Other and More is *hard*. Harder than most know if they haven’t tried it. It also takes tremendous courage to walk away from the only faith you’ve ever known. Or to choose something different. Especially when you are doing it alone.
The first two people I met were at a local mosque I visited last night. I was invited to an “Iftar” (the breaking the fast service/dinner) during Ramadan) hosted by the women’s auxiliary group. This particular mosque is mostly Pakistani. What’s really interesting is that this sect of Islam is persecuted and seen as not legit by some due to the fact that they believe the Messiah/messenger has come. So many of the people there had fled their home countries when their interpretation of Islam was declared to be illegal.. Like I said, most of the people there were Pakistani, but I met two women that aren’t. One was an older black woman and the other was a middle-aged white woman. Both were converts. They greatly stood out from everyone else. I sat next to the older woman and found her to be like may of the older black women I’ve known: forthright, funny, sassy and earthy. I asked her at one point if any of her family were going to be joining us. She told me “no” and said that she was the only Muslim in her family. I thought of how hard this must have been for her. And what courage it took to fully embrace a new faith.
The black community is overwhelmingly Christian. Our culture is strongly rooted in Christianity. The faith of our oppressors turned out to be one of our greatest tools of survival. The black community is also very much communal. Church is definitely a family/group affair.I knew exactly what converting must have meant to her.
It’s worth mentioning that converting to Islam is NOT like converting to Christianity. If you are an American, even a non-believing one, there’s a very good chance that you are so steeped in Judea-Christian culture that you would have not much trouble learning the ropes’, as it were, of Christian church life. The Holy Book is familiar as are the holidays, the language and the rituals. None of this is true for most Americans and Islam. I think converts to Judaism also undertake a very similar ordeal. Compared to becoming a Christian, becoming a Muslim or a Jew is like the Iron Man (competition) of faith.
As for the other woman, I imagine she had a similar struggle. She mentioned that she was married and that her husband was not a Muslim. She converted after many years of marriage. She said that it was a struggle, but that it felt so “right” to her and was totally worth it. She was so at peace with herself.
I wondered how it felt for these women to be a part of a community where they are very much ethnic and racial minorities. A sad fact of our society is that our houses of worship are just as racially segregated as many of our neighborhoods, clubs and so on. Not uniformly, but overwhelmingly so. My church has around 125 members. I am one of about 4 black members. My faith is overwhelmingly white. Of my family that is religious, all of them attend black churches. My Latino friends attend mostly Latino churches. And so on. I recall being pleasantly surprised at how much a part of the community these women were. I also recall being immediately shamed by that thought. I mean, why wouldn’t they be? But, again, this is the world we live in. People not being jerks is still something that surprises.
Today at church I met two young adults. A man and a woman. Both were ex-Mormons. The first I had personally ever met. I went to high school in an area with a large Mormon population, but all the Mormons I knew/know are currently Mormon, so I was eager to speak with these two about led to them our UU church. Both of these individuals really moved me with their stories and bravery.
The man is an academic currently writing his dissertation for his PhD at the local UC. He left the church because he’s gay. He told me that there is only so much anti “you” stuff that one can listen to every Sunday. That eventually it gets to you and starts to break you down. So he left. But that meant leaving everything. His whole family is Mormon. He is the oldest of 9 siblings. His sister is getting married next month and he can’t even attend. Non-Mormons are not allowed into such ceremonies. He’ll go to the party afterward, but it’s not the same. Both of these people found thriving Mormon communities online for “rebels” like themselves. They spoke of them like lifelines.
The woman is a young therapist. She left the church over her burgeoning feminist identity. She spoke passionately of her “awakening” to the patriarchy of the Mormon church. Particularly, she gradually realized that women don’t have much of a presence or a voice in the Church. They are not allowed official positions of power or authority. Everything is from a man’s point of view. She spoke of being flooded by things she had always just accepted, but never questioned. At one point she exclaimed, “I couldn’t be a party to my own oppression anymore!” For me, that was a “woah” moment. Watching a baby feminist take flight is exhilarating. That said, she was also being torn in two. Her husband is still a Mormon. In fact, he and her young child were attending services while she was at our church. We asked how that was working out for them and she said it was, “Hard.” I could hear how much so in her voice. She told us how she had to sit her husband down and tell him that she wanted to not only pursue higher education but that she wanted to use it. As she said, “I was already not using one degree, I wasn’t going to get another and do the same.” Such a badass.
I admit to thinking that both of my new friends were absolutely adorable. Mr. Academic told me how his nieces and nephews think he’s totally the cool uncle because he isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, left the Church and…now drinks coffee. His parents think he is negatively influencing his siblings with such scandalous behavior. Both of them were like every other Mormon I have ever known: Polite, earnest and kind. Clearly with backbones of steel, though. In our church we always make sure visitors know that we know how much courage it took for them to walk though our doors. I told my new friends that they were in good company here. Our church is full of incredibly strong people who took a literal leap of faith. Our service today was on finding Eden in the here and now. I think faith warriors, like the folks I met, will lead us there.