Lauren’s Road

I first met Islam when I was eleven years old, through a group of girls I’d befriended in my sixth grade homeroom class. I was raised in a home with a devout Apostolic Christian mother, and an “I’m-only-practicing-because-my-wife-makes-me” Christian father. I’d accepted my mother’s beliefs as a kindergartener, but that didn’t stop my thirst for and curiosity about other religions and cultures. I have always been very spiritual and my heart has always desired to please God. I’d read about Judaism, the LDS faith, and Taoism by the time I reached middle school, and I was always making up my own religions to which the residents of my imaginary country could adhere.

I’d met my new friends, Chelsea, Jasmine, and Serah* at a good time. My childhood best friend was a year older than I, and we were beginning to grow apart now that she’d been in middle school for a year and was making new friends and getting excited about high school. The girls from my homeroom class were nice to me and treated me as one of their own, although it was obvious that they shared a deeper connection to one another than to me. In conversation, they used words I didn’t understand. Assalamu Alaikum…Insha’Alla…Masjid…And it wasn’t until close to the end of the school year that I realized these girls were not only friends in school, but spent time with each other outside of school as well.

During the summer between sixth grade and seventh grade, my friends all went to a Muslim summer camp in our area where their ties to one another and to their faith were really strengthened. I stayed home alone every day that summer while my parents were at work, and I wished that I could have a been a part of something religious where I could get to know God and others better as well. When I talked to my friends on the phone, I listened to them discuss who was going to start covering and who wasn’t, who’d started learning the prayers, and which boys at the Masjid were the cutest. By now, I could comprehend their religious talk, although my formal introduction to Islam wouldn’t take place until the middle of seventh grade.

Ramadan fell during December that year, and Eid Al Fitr took place in January. A girl named Frances* – who’d attended the Muslim summer camp with Jasmine, Chelsea, and Serah – had just begun coming to public school (before that, she was homeschooled). Frances and I hit it off really well, and I was invited to the Eid party at her house at the end of Ramadan. It was there that I met Frances’ mother – a woman who’d converted to Islam from Catholicism – and a plethora of Frances’ friends from the Masjid (Mosque) that they attended. There were perhaps fifteen girls there, breaking the fast. I ate dates for the first time, and Frances’ mother made a really good chicken dish! I remember being worried about whether or not I would be able to get seconds, with all the people around. I watched the Muslims perform the Maghrib prayer that evening and I asked question after question after question – all of which the girls answered sweetly and patiently.

All through seventh grade, I studied the Islamic faith intensely. I read books, my friends gave me tapes from lectures at the Masjid, we listened to MYNA (Muslim Youth of North America) rap songs that explained the faith through music, and one of the girls gave me a Qur’an. Frances took me under her wing and we passed notes all year about Islam. I was completely taken with what I was learning. It opened my eyes to understanding God in a more beautiful and reverent way. I began to look at everything differently – nature, people, life. The faith was logical and tangible in the sense that it focused not so much on having a spiritual experience like speaking in tongues or falling out, but on action – what I could do to please God, humility – how my thoughts could please God, and balance. So, in the summer before eighth grade, I took Shahada – the Islamic confession of faith – and became a practicing Muslim.

My parents were not happy about my decision, and did everything they could to keep me from turning to Islam. Endless arguments with my mother made me tired. Horrible accusations from my father made me cry. And ridicule from my younger sisters about “just wanting to fit in,” made me feel disrespected. I wasn’t allowed to hang out with any of my Muslim friends, and my mother had thrown away all of my Islamic books and my Qur’an. People at church clicked their teeth in disappointment and shook their heads. Things only got worse when I decided to cover. By the time I reached the middle of my ninth grade year, I’d decided to give up. I had gone to a different high school than my Muslim friends, and I had no support from anyone. It was too hard to be fourteen, going against the religious culture of my family. I thought that if I gave up now, I could return to Islam when I turned eighteen and left my parents’ house.

Things didn’t work out that way.

During high school, I fell into a deep depression. I was involved in drinking, self-mutilation, and homosexuality. I skipped school, I was sometimes disrespectful to my teachers, and now I really was trying to fit in. No one else my age seemed so concerned with pleasing God as I had always been, so why should I be the only one to whom God matters? Why should I be the one always trying to do what I thought was right – only to end up alone and with no support from my family? By the time I turned 18, I felt that it was too late for me to turn back to Islam. I had already done so many things that went against Islam (and Christianity, for that matter!), I had lost contact with my Muslim friends, and it seemed that the path back to Islam was closed forever.  So, I have lived with a spiritual unrest ever since.

As a junior in college, I went back to Christianity. I didn’t do it reluctantly, but I didn’t do it whole-heartedly, either. Islam has made such an impact on my life that I will never be able to practice mainstream Christianity the way that most mainstream Christians practice. That has become a problem for me, and I don’t know that I can really call myself a Christian, either. Up until recently, I’ve hidden my spiritual restlessness from others. But it’s gotten to a point where I have to figure something out, or I’ll drive myself nuts!

I wish I could write a good conclusion to this story, but there is no conclusion. I am spiritually homeless. All I know is that the desire of my heart is still the same as it was as a child – to please God. I don’t know how to please God, or if I’ll ever return to Islam, but I’m praying that God will lead me in the right direction.

No word yet…


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Deanna’s Conversion to Witchcraft

What I remember of my childhood religion, Roman Catholicism, doesn’t stand out in my life. I remember sitting in pews of oak with knee protectors on the back so you could kneel comfortably during prayer time. I remember not paying attention (I was 7 or 8 years old at this time) and looking at the stained glass windows, the organ, the Bibles, paying attention to anything other than the sermon and wanting to be home already. I had other things going on then that my mind was on, like the abuse from my peers at home and school, and from the teachers at school that I received. At the time, I had been diagnosed with severe clinical depression and debilitating migraines (again, I was only 7 or 8 years old). I was prescribed Lithium for the depression (though not long because I had a “bad reaction” to it) and pain killers for the migraines. The last thing I worried about was Hellfire and God’s wrath. Nevertheless, I was put into Sunday school. I had my first communion ritual, where I was able to received the wine and crackers, and

Deanna's cauldren, sage bundle, and athame

 began confession. 

I didn’t have any sort of relationship to God, and women and girls were taught to be silent and obedient. I confessed to the priest to make my mother happy, but didn’t like being at church or praying to a God who seems to refuse to help me or my family or being in those groups of children because they were particularly vicious when the adults turned their backs. I began to believe that He was out of reach and I was broken and impure and not worthy of anything other than death. No one knew that I was thinking about ending my life. 

A year or so passed and my mother and I stopped going to church. My father wasn’t Catholic to begin with, so didn’t go anyway.  My mother started becoming more agnostic, not liking how the Catholic church was handling things, and in my teen years she became more of an atheist. When I was 12, I found out that my grandmother on my mother’s side was Wiccan. I became interested and a lot of the beliefs that are central to Wicca clicked with me, but soon my life became swamped with suicidal thoughts and unhappy things, and I didn’t look into it too seriously. Family issues arose, and my mother and I left Georgia for Texas halfway through my 6th grade year. My mental state stabilized for a short while before slowly rolling back downhill from lack of friends in the new place.

It took until the 8th grade to find someone who was willing to be my friend. She was interested in the supernatural and her friends, who quickly became my friends, would tell ghost stories and talk about fiction books (we were a group of nerds) with magic and wizards and such. At the apartment’s we lived in, I spoke to some older friends about “Them”. At the time, I didn’t know who They were but They talked to me like the Catholic priest and devote Catholics said God talked to them. I followed what They told me and I became happier and developed more friends and eventually I learned how to smile again. I grew less shy and quiet and my true personality started showing. 

I remember telling one guy friend while on my way home that I was a witch, and the way it felt in my mouth and in my soul was sublime. I was surprised to find that I truly felt like I was a witch.  That night, and for two years thereafter, I began heavy and intense research on Paganism and witchcraft. I delved into that world, reading all I could and devouring all the knowledge. I joined forums and talked to experienced practitioners of the faith. I did not practice anything, instead I made absolute sure that this is what I wanted. 

Two years passed and I turned 14. I stopped being able to control my depression, since I had had no form of medication since being taken off the lithium. All my friends split to two different high schools and I only knew one person where I went. I eventually met a girl at the bus stop, but it didn’t do much for my mental state. And to top things off, I had stopped listening to Them and my research lapsed. The dark world of severe depression devoured my feelings and my insides again. One day, I was following my friend off the bus to go inside school, plotting how I was going to end my life that night, when I saw a guy. In that instant, my entire world exploded violently. Upon seeing this man, everything I felt and thought was consumed immediately, my mind was akin to a red hot piece of metal, and my body was unable to respond at all. It was like I was pinned under the claws of a massive dragon who was burning me alive. This feeling was not intense fear, nor was it intense joy, nor any other simple emotion. It was the feeling of being scared, of being surprised, of getting a breath of fresh mountain air after being under water and drowning, of your blood searing underneath your skin while your insides are frozen cold, all at once. My soul felt like it had been brittle glass that had been shattered  then put back into the furnace and added to iron ore. 

This man had been walking towards me and looking into my eyes the whole entire time. Two seconds before he got to me, he turned to my friend and talked to her while he walked her up to the school. My body was on automatic and I still couldn’t feel anything other than this new sensation. Before we got to the school doors, he bid both of us farewell and left. I found out later that he was a witch, and soon I became him student. He taught me how to be a witch without using magick, how to stand up for myself, how to fight, how to be strong on the inside and out. He taught me the Gods and how to reach Them. He taught me that the Gods were not distant, but were reachable and I was able to form a deep, personal relationship with Them. Finally, I had a name for Them and I understood and was amazed that They had found me and had blessed me and had rocked my world so intensely that I could never turn away from Them again. They made Their presence known, both the God and Goddess, and They showed me that They had always been there, and had been waiting for me this whole time. 

Deanna's fox head staff

I did my first spell two years later, for my grandmother, who was dying. I understood the mechanics of how to do it, I was well versed in energy raising, and I had that connection with my Gods. I understood the rules and limits, and I knew that I could not cure her. My father was back with us by then, and we found out that my father’s mother, my grandmother, was dying of pancreatic cancer. My father’s side of the family didn’t think she was going to last very long. The spell I did was not a healing spell, but a time spell. I worked my magick, I invoked my Gods, and I gave her more time. It was two months before we could get the money to go out to Georgia to see her, two months that no one thought she had. We arrived, and spent the rest of the day with her. I had just caught a chicken of my grandmothers and had brought it to the house when they took her out of the house to drive her to the hospice. The next day, she requested that my father and I find a disowned daughter of her’s before she passed away. We did not find her, and were on our way back when my father and I felt her pass away. We found out when we got there that we were ten minutes too late. That time, those precious last minutes, were my punishment for breaking one of the most important rules of spellwork; always ask the person before you cast a spell on them, no exceptions. 

It has been seven long years that I have been a witch, and I have learned much in that short, short time. I am close with my Gods, I have found my spiritual guides, I have joined a coven, and I have cast many spells. I now view myself as a witch, which is different from a Wiccan. I have rules I have to follow, but they are fewer than that of the Wiccan faith. For instance, I do not follow the Rede, which states “An it harm none, do as thou wilt”. Instead, I follow my conscious, and I choose what I do. I trust myself to know the right thing, and to learn what is wrong on the way. Unlike Wiccans, I do not include my Gods into my spellwork every time. I love my Gods, and I know They love me, but They have better things to do than to always pay attention to me, much like a parent has things to do other than pay full attention to their child every second of the day. I ask Them for favors only when I desperately need them, and only when I cannot get them myself through mundane (non-magickal) means. It means that They know when I come to Them for a favor, it is important. I am a hard polytheist, and believe in all Gods and Goddesses, and believe that They are all different except for the few whom share different names, like Venus and Aphrodite. 

I owe my life to my Gods, and to my friend who taught me my ways. No two pagans are the same, no two pagan’s experiences are the same or viewed the same. This path is intensely personal, and has changed my life radically. Nothing about it was easy, and it will not get easier as I go forth. I look forward to that with relish.


Maria’s Journey into Islam

Please welcome Maria as she shares her story of struggle and exploration into the world of Islam.

My parents split up when I was 9 years old and my mom and I moved to NC to live with my grandmother. Apparently this was a time for soul searching for my mother and that is when she found Islam. I was a young child so I didn’t really pay attention. I went to spend the summer with my dad and when I got back to NC my mom picked me up from the airport wearing a headscarf. She explained to me that she had become a Muslim and will wear a headscarf as part of her belief. At first I couldn’t believe, here was my mom who I never saw without makeup, used to go every weekend to Miami Beach to tan and dress very modern with a scarf on her head and no makeup! Also, I didn’t want my friends to see her because I felt that they would make fun of me. My mom made it clear that I was free to choose what I wanted to believe in, if I wanted to stay with her I had to respect her new way of life and if I wasn’t comfortable I could go and live with my Dad in Miami. Also, she decided to put me in an Islamic School when I started 5th grade. This was the only thing she ever forced me to do and the condition was that if I didn’t like it I could go to public school but I did like the Islamic school and the new environment I found myself in. It was a small school so I became friends with everyone and I was pretty popular since there weren’t many Latino Muslims. I found myself really liking Islam, it all made perfect sense to me. How we don’t associate anything with God, what a great role model Muhammad was, how I was still able to believe in Heaven, Hell, Angels, Jesus as a Prophet and of course Mary as the mother of Jesus. So when I turned twelve and reached puberty I told my mom that I was ready to start covering my hair and wanted to start practicing Islam.

That summer that I spent with my Dad was a real eye opener for me. Since I was born I was surrounded by a lot of alcohol and abuse. I would see my Dad get drunk and then physically abuse my mom. As a child this was traumatizing for me and from there I started having fear of my Dad.

Before my mom got a divorce I remember her asking me if it was okay for me to be away from my Dad and without hesitation I told her YES!! I was so scared of him and what he became when he got drunk; I knew that life without him would be better. I’m sure my mom saw that fear and realized that it was time to take me out of that abusive environment. So from there I never really had a good relationship with my Dad. Also, I didn’t like the way men were starting to stare at me, especially my behind. Several times, men would whistle or say something provocative and I didn’t like the way that made me feel at all.

So having experienced this I realized that more than anything I wanted to live in a home without alcohol or abuse. Wearing the headscarf for me was so easy. I loved it from the moment I put it on. It gave me so much freedom, it defined who I was. I didn’t need to have perfect hair, perfect size 0 body to fit in. So all from 5-8th grade I attended the Islamic school and loved being a Muslim. My dad and his side of the family stopped talking to us for awhile since they thought my mom was crazy and had brainwashed me, I couldn’t care less because I was finally happy!

My mom got remarried to an Egyptian man. That was hard on me, for the first time in a long time I had to share her and I didn’t want to. My step-dad was strict and he made me wear very loose clothing, took the TV out of my room, decided who I could be friends with, barely let me out of his sight except for Friday nights at the mosque for youth events. I didn’t take this very well but I would pray and ask God to give me the patience and strength because even though I didn’t like him, but I was glad my mom had found someone to take care of her. In my mind as soon as I turned 18 I was leaving home anyways and I didn’t want her being alone.

For grades 9-12 I attend Athens Dr High School and it was the first time that I was really exposed to standing out in a new environment. However, nobody EVER gave me a hard time nor did anyone ever tried to pull off my headscarf. In fact, I had friends who looked out for me. If my hair was showing or my neck they would tell me, they wouldn’t curse around me and I even had a guy who wanted to see my hair badly, he begged! I think thought a lot of that had to do with my personality. I’m not a loud vocal person, I’m actually very shy and I’m terrified of public speaking but I’m not shy in a small group setting or one on one. I would always tell everyone that if they had any questions about my headscarf or belief to please ask instead of making stuff up or listening to the news which doesn’t make sense half the time anyways. I was always nice and respectful to my teachers and peers and in return they were that way with me. See to me it doesn’t matter what you faith you have, we are all people and want to be treated with respect but in order for people to respect you gotta give that respect back. This is not religion, it is just common sense!

So I graduated High School and got into NCSU psychology program. I would say for the first time in my life I was given a big test and yep I’m sure you know what day that was, September 11th. I remember I was finishing up my 2nd class of the day when everything on campus just kinda stopped. Such a surreal moment that I’m sure nobody will forget. I know I won’t. That day I got spit on, ignorant people called me racial names, cars honked their horns at me. I was finally an outsider, I was being called a terrorist for wearing a headscarf! My faith that I loved dearly, that had given me so much peace was under attack.

My mom was scared that somebody was going to hurt me so she insisted I take of my headscarf out of my personal safety but I told that no way was I going to do that. I didn’t do anything wrong, even if I took of my headscarf, I’m not blonde blue-eyed, I’m still an outsider and no way was I going to let a bunch of ignorant people take away something that I believe in. For the headscarf to me is more than covering my hair, it is my modesty, it defines who I am as a woman. I don’t need males staring at me, trying to get my number, trying to get my attention, for what? I was actually glad that in Islam we don’t date because I saw how much trauma that was in my friends’ lives and really who needs that when you’re already going nuts adjusting to being a teenager. With my headscarf I felt that men respected me as a person, not as a piece of meat. Anyways back to September 11th, I went to class the next day with my head held high and ready to face anything. I stood up in all my classes and told me about me and why I chose Islam as my way of life. Afterwards, I had people write me notes telling me how much they admired me and even a few guys offered to walk me to my next class as my bodyguards. There will always be some good out of some bad. God is so fair and even the disasters, bad news, etc are there so that we can appreciate the good. If life was always good and happy, we wouldn’t appreciate it.

I love being a Muslim woman, I feel that Islam gives me so many rights. It hurts me when I see how the media and news portray Muslim women. They think we’re oppressed for wearing a headscarf but what about all the girls out there with anorexia/bulimia problems that are dying just to fit into a mold of the perfect female? Isn’t that a form of oppression too? I have many Muslims friends who don’t wear the headscarf because they want to fit into American society, but I have found a way of fitting in without sacrificing my beliefs and my headscarf. I truly believe that the best way to teach anyone of your faith is by example. Actions speak louder than words. Like I said to me Islam is more than a religion, it is a way of Life. 

 


Songs of Omar: Spiritual Seeker

Omar, who asked me to use only his first name for security reasons, was raised a “staunch Muslim” and is now more open to the more subjective experience of the divine. He shares his spiritual/life journey with us here in the form of poetry. Enjoy!

I. Seeker

 

 I’ve approached God in

 so many ways,

 you wouldn’t know what’s right.

 

 I’ve found Him in music,

 heard him pulling at my heart,

 knowing He is heard therein.

 

 Sometimes I find him in power,

 the power that makes men

 answer the call

 to action, to bleed.

 

 I find him in revelry,

 in the promise of a new day’s

 projects, dreams, impossibilities.

 

 I find the holy in the destruction of all

 that is profane,

 especially that which pretends to be

 high and mighty;

 It falls like castles of dust in my mind.

 

 I have longed to be with You

 in every place,

 in my geography,

 in my life;

 

 my attempts start and stop,

 like the changing of weather in my city by the lake.

 

 Yet there is a focus;

 each time I jump start.

 

 99 names of God on my wall.

 I took one down this year,

 passed it around my being,

 saw what I could make of it…

 

 My God, give me 98 more to explore.

 

 II. Circle

 

 

 We were all born

 unknowing of facts

 of what is what

 and which is which

 and who is who

 

 Knowing only what is right

 what is free

 what is love

 

 and as we age

 we pretend we have always known

 what we have learned

 

 and look down on those whose paths

 stop short of ours

 or go askew

 or leap ahead

 

 and as we age

 we forget the truth

 that was born with breath

 that speaks without words

 and rules without logic.

 

 III. Me + You Religion

 

 

 Religion is the intersection

 of yesterday’s dreams

 

 and today’s reality

 

 Religion is the rationalization of humanity’s irrationality

 It is the codification and ritualization of our fears and fantasies

 

 The normalization of our guilt and our pride.

 

 But I have dreams that are fresh

 Fears that are present

 

 And so do you.

 

 So let’s examine those

 

 and pay heed to our living reality 

 and not get lost in the narratives of yesteryear.


Melissa’s Conversion

I’m sure this will come as no surprise to those who know me, but sure, I’ll start this one off. My conversion story.. First allow me to state that I am now a follower of Wicca, and that I hold no ill will toward any other religion, my personal experiences with those that I mention are my own and I do not hold them as indicative of the entire populace of said religions members.

So I am in NC, right here in the Bible Belt, raised by a loving Christian family. I was raised Baptist. Now when I say this allow me to clarify, women were to wear long skirts or dresses at all times, not speak out, church was a solemn and quiet experience. I just felt like I was missing something. I was ‘saved’ and baptized and doing what I could per the bible and the preacher, but it didn’t make sense. Bad things were happening to the most faithful of people. Every difficulty was answered with ‘you have not been faithful, pray about it.’ Even extreme situations where terrible things happened, when I approached my pastor for help I was called a sinner and told to have faith. I realized it sounded like a sales pitch. If you want happiness and don’t want to spend eternity in a pit of pain and darkness and evil then say these words and give us money and do what we say! I started looking elsewhere. My parents went to a Pentecostal church.

Now there was a change. People screaming and dancing and running laps around the church, jumping pews, all during service. I confess I never felt the ‘spirit move’ me as it seemed to the others, but then again I was in my early teens and I got to wear jeans to church now, and sometimes it was entertaining, like when the pastor was hit by a man in a motorized wheelchair mid service. I mean I kind of figured that God could coordinate his movement within people so that Mr. Johnny wouldn’t be making laps with his eyes closed when the pastor closed his eyes to pray. But then I suppose that was my early teenage logic and cynicism.

Then low and behold more bad things happen, and the church offers the same advice. ‘Be faithful.’ I begin asking questions, and I am shunned as a sinner for doubting. I honestly was just confused, some things didn’t make sense. So I continued looking.

I was found by someone who offered me refreshingly simple ideas. Balance, you get what you give, not in terms of money, but in terms of life. Of course bad things happen, otherwise you wouldn’t appreciate the good! This friend mentioned an attuning with nature, how it sustained us and we should respect it. How every single thing has a flow of energy within it. That all actions have consequences, and be careful what you put into the world, you will receive the same thing magnified. But as long as you aren’t hurting anyone, do what you will. Now this had my attention. This made sense. This told me I didn’t have to believe in things I couldn’t feel, rules that didn’t make sense. So I followed it, studied it and became a Pagan.

I later joined a group promising everything I wanted, family, friendship, acceptance, and increased knowledge. It turned out this was anything but what they claimed to be. These people claimed to be Pagan, like me, to have a desire to just be themselves and and be in balance with the universe but they seemed more interested in gossip and parties. This was heart-shattering. I had never before run into such a bump in the road to what felt fulfilling. I appreciated the experience but was disappointed. So I went solitary, just trying to learn on my own. Soon another mentor came, one who knew so much and was willing to help me any way possible. I studied with him, devoted to Wicca and find myself still learning to this day. Do I have any doubts I found the right religion for me? No. Just the same I know it won’t be the religion for everyone, but I like knowing Wicca is okay with that. I don’t feel the need to preach to anyone to join my cause, I feel they should find what fulfills them. Was it terrifying to risk the burning fires of hell to get to this? You have no idea. Then one day I just said I don’t want to live in constant fear of retribution from my God, maybe hell does exist, maybe I will go there. But I am not going to live in fear of something I don’t really think is there. Besides if it is, and God would send me there for doing what I felt was right, I figure me and God wouldn’t really get along anyway.

So I converted. I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’m still learning daily. I have never been happier and felt more fulfilled than I am now. No doubts, no regrets, just peace of mind.