I went to church today for the first time in over fifteen years. I know – this is a blog about a convert to Islam and the title of this post is shalom and I am writing about church. Bear with me. This is part a short, funny story – of which there are many related to being a secret revert to Islam – and a brief background about my family, my relationship, and my religious upbringing.
I was raised Episcopalian and went to church up until the end of middle school. I never loved church; I would have rather slept in on Sundays instead of having to put on a fussy outfit and stand and sit for upwards of an hour. Admittedly, I never paid much attention to the stories, preferring to color in the children’s pamphlet that was handed out, or in later years, count the bricks on the ceiling. I understood the meaning of what church taught: be kind unto others, help the poor, feed the hungry, pray for people, be good. Communion meant a break in the monotony and a chance for a taste of bread and grape juice. I almost never ate breakfast in the mornings so usually by Communion I was starving, too. But the ‘this is the blood and body of Christ who died for you’ always struck me as odd, if not silly. Sunday School was also uncomfortable: I frequently felt like the odd kid out, not knowing others from school or local groups, and the activities were boring. Looking back, I cannot think of a time I was ever really ‘into’ it. There were things I liked, such as the old building of the church and the way the light came in through the stained glass windows, or during the Christmas Eve service when we would sing Silent Night all holding candles while the lights slowly faded in the prayer hall. But all told, it never resonated with me. Church never pulled me in. God did, and I felt in later years after I had stopped going on Sundays that I was still ‘spiritual’ but not really sure about organized religion. I was not against it, but rather confident that I was able to speak to God and have a relationship with Him outside the confines of a particular building or doctrine. That belief – that I could be religious more or less on my own – continued for a long time, even after I reverted. That is a story for another day…
So I was back, for my grandmother’s memorial service. It was a family event, so I had no reservations participating. But, I also wanted to honor my beliefs and stay within my religious comfort zone. I sang the hymns and recited the prayers while skipping over the lines I felt conflicted with Islam. Thankfully, my family decided against having a Holy Communion at the service, for which I was grateful: I am not sure how I would have navigated declining to participate. There really is a lot of overlap between the Christian tradition and Islam – so I was able to substitute lines here and there with verses from the Qur’an to feel like I was keeping with my religion.
During the service, I was looking to see who was there. I was looking for one person in particular, my boyfriend’s mom, and was simultaneously disappointed to not see her but also not surprised she was not there. She had reached out to me when she heard about my grandmother’s passing and mentioned she would come to support me and my family. For normal relationships, that would be a kind and perhaps expected gesture. But my relationship is anything but normal, and her gesture was unexpected: my boyfriend (henceforth A) is Pakistani and his family does not know about our relationship. I have had limited, but pleasant, interactions with his mother over the course of our relationship – so far two and a half years – and I am striving to be in her good graces. But I am certainly nowhere close to ‘prospective daughter-in-law’ territory yet.
Imagine my surprise and utter delight when I exited the church and saw her standing outside. I rushed over to her, in shock but with a smile on my face, leaning in for a hug while offering a ‘Salaam aleikum!’ I was so comforted to see her, as it assuaged some of the anxiety that had been creeping up recently about my distant relationship with A’s family. Plus I am low-key obsessed with her. But then the panic set in. As I engaged in small talk with A’s mom and other guests around me, fielding well wishes and questions, my brain was a frenzy. ‘Who else is going to talk to her? What are they going to say? I hope my crazy uncle does not make a scene. What if my chatty aunt says something about A being my boyfriend? Please let my mom be wise enough to handle their conversation. What will she and my mom even talk about?!’ I was trying so hard to stay calm on the outside, but inside I was legitimately fearful.
To my horror, my chatty aunt who means well but is woefully ignorant ambled over. ‘This is my aunt,’ I offered, introducing A’s mom to perhaps the riskiest family member there is. I prayed it would go smoothly. I expected my aunt to make a comment about the hijab A’s mom was wearing, but instead, she said ‘Shalom!’ I hoped she was barely heard. I cannot even be upset about the faux-pas, but it struck me as a funny exchange. Here I am stressing, sweating, nervous about A’s mom being around my family and assuming someone will bring up religion or Trump or my relationship, and I realize my concerns are over-estimated. Still, it is clear I have my work cut out for me.
Later, at home, I talked with my mom about the service and her conversation with A’s mom. Thankfully, it went smoothly. My mother, bless her, was indeed wise enough to not say anything that would raise an eyebrow. It turns out they talked about baby pictures. It was the first time they met and I hope it is not the last.
My mother said something else, too, that gave me pause. I have always been aware of my mom’s suspicion about my conversion to Islam. I am okay with her suspecting it, but I am still not yet ready to sit down in the living room and have that conversation. ‘I noticed you skipped over some things during the service,’ she began. I felt my face blush and my brain start to think of ways to steer the conversation in another direction. ‘Was that because it conflicts with your religious beliefs?’ she continued. She definitely knows. I deflected. ‘As you know, I do not care what you believe so long as you believe in something,’ she finished. I think I must have blacked out for the minute, as I cannot remember what I said or how it ended. Strange how I yearn to be open about being Muslim, but then go into ‘fight or flight’ the minute someone seems to be figuring it out.
Later, turning over the day’s events in my mind, I am struck by the contrast between an aunt offering ‘shalom’ to A’s mom, and my mother doing her best to make known her acceptance (and keen observations about) my religious beliefs. It too, is a paradox. My experience being a secret revert will never be a clean, orderly, controlled thing; rather, it will be messy and dynamic and stressful and rewarding all at once. It is probable there will always be someone making ill-conceived or misplaced comments, at best. But it is also probable there will come a time in the near future where those closest to me are genuinely supportive and I, in turn, am authentically me.