It took a forced conversion to Islam on the day of my wedding to my Muslim husband to make me realize how much I missed Christianity, my childhood faith. Islam is a great religion, but it didn’t feel right to be mandated to change my religion in order to get married. A West African immigrant, my mother was a Protestant for a number of years and then a Quaker. There were certainly some months where she did not go to church every Sunday, but my mother always spoke with me about the spiritual aspects of nature, social issues, equality and inequality, doing the right thing.
And as soon as I became a mother, I desperately wanted to make sure my son would grow up with Christmas carols and Easter egg hunts. I started going to church, well, religiously. People who knew me, including relatives, were shocked. But I wanted to create a religious foundation for my family. I wanted my son to be baptized and to have some sense of belonging to something larger than himself and our family. We joined a wonderful Presbyterian church in Manhattan.
And yet, it hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be to avoid feeling conflicted sometimes, particularly when it concerns secular considerations, including social, political and racial issues.
I’m a black mom who happens to be half-white, so when the Trinity Church scandal was erupting, I found myself thinking a lot about the political basis of African-American church history. Trinity Church, like so many evangelical megachurches throughout the country, had a superstar pastor, packed services, fantastic gospel singing and ministries that provided essential and admirable support services to the poor, sick, hungry, homeless and downtrodden.
African-American churches have been political gathering spots stretching back to the days of the slave trade. Many pastors and ministers urge their congregations to strive to understand the causes and dynamics of power, money, politics, imperialism and racism. And all of that was great, it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t grow up attending that kind of church, and I didn’t enjoy contentious religious-political debates every week (at church or at the obligatory post-church brunch), plus the worship style was totally different from what I like. I crave sedate, peaceful worship.
One recent Sunday, I struck up a conversation with an amiable African woman on the subway. She was from the same country as my mother and so, predictably, invited me to her church. “I belong to a church already,” I explained. She looked even more concerned when I told her the name and location, a wealthy white area. “Do you really like it there?” she asked as if I were a wounded bird. “Do they accept you?”
On the flip side, whenever some white, non-religious acquaintances learn I attend church, I can feel them pause. Are they wondering if I am secretly in league with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, ready with razor-sharp race-based observations about the divide between the haves and have-nots and their chances at entry into the kingdom of God? But I don’t talk to angels every night about how Doomsday is near. I’m just a regular person.
Even a few seemingly open-minded members of my own church have expressed wonder that we’re there. One well-meaning woman approached me one day when I was brand new to the church.
“I think it’s lovely that your little one comes here to church,” she told me. Then her expression turned solemn as she looked over at my son, who has a Muslim name and a Middle-Eastern appearance. “Get in as much as you can,” she implored me, “before he goes back to his father’s religion.”
In the years to come, I’m hoping my son and I will have some good conversations about religion and culture and society and politics. Which brings me to my son’s father. He doesn’t have any hands-on religious parenting responsibilities right now, as he’s not living in the country. My husband’s pretty liberal, but I expect he will want to talk about religion with our son soon. We both agree that it would be great to have the family participate in some special breaking-the-fast Eid dinners during the month of Ramadan. After all, who doesn’t enjoy sharing a special tasty meal and good company? But my son’s father told me he also wants our child to fast during the holiest month in Islam. Even drinking water is forbidden for children of fasting age, and depending on who you ask, obligatory fasting starts as young as age seven.
“Are you going to fast every day?” I ask my son’s father. He dodges the question, saying something about how mothers from “all religions” like to fast with their children. Hmmm, I don’t recall getting that memo. Clearly our family has more than a few things we need to iron out.
In the years to come, I’m hoping my son and I will have some good conversations about religion and culture and society and politics. I expect there may be some frustrating conversations as well. For now, we’re hardly at the point of discussing the Sunni-Shia divide in the Muslim world or analyzing the Black Liberation Theology Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Recently, though, my son asked me, “Who is that man?” and he pointed at an image of the disciples surrounding Jesus. It was all beautifully etched onto the stained glass windows of our church.
“Who do you think he is?” I asked my son. And he just smiled back at me, a beautiful smile, as if he suddenly knew the answer.