My first year after leaving Islam and coming to Christ was wild–a roller coaster of emotions. I have often said that being Muslim is to be in a crowded universe. I had the habit of using Arabic phrases, like Insha’Allah (God willing) and Al hamdulillah (Praise be to Allah). Then there were dietary restrictions—no pork or alcohol; and behavioral habits—praying five times daily, plus fasting during Ramadan. There were restrictions on interpersonal relationships, like not being alone with a female not my wife, not going to a party where alcohol would be served, and not going swimming where there would bikini-clad women. Life was busy and very complicated.
While happy to be free from certain restrictions, when they were gone, I experienced a void. I even continued a few. For example, certain Arabic phrases stayed with me for a while. When answering the phone, I’d say: As-salamu Alaykum (Peace be with you), and then be embarrassed and frustrated at the silence on the other end of the phone. I missed hanging around good friends at the mosque, and generally felt lonely and disconnected.
All along, of course, I was attending church and developing Christian friends, but it was a slow process, and I took some hits during that first year. I got tired of answering questions about what in Islam made me leave. In fact, I didn’t feel pushed out of Islam because of its deficiencies, so much as pulled toward Jesus. I got tired of Christians wanting me to talk about weaknesses in the Qur’an. I wanted to talk about the Bible, not the Qur’an. I loved the Bible, but many Christians kept wanting to pull me back into thinking about the Qur’an. I understand this, and am not angry about it; it just wasn’t helpful.
Perhaps my loneliness was intensified that first year because I felt as though I was being treated like a trophy. I was a token Muslim who’d become Christian and all that went along with an externally imposed status. There were labels, such as MBB (Muslim background believer), as if my identity was still wrapped up in Islam, and felt like there was no exit–not from Muslims–but by Christians. I didn’t want to be an MBB, only to follow Jesus and grow in that identity.
Almost immediately I got sucked into feeling as though I had to make a choice about what flavor of Christian I was to be. Evangelicals told me to avoid Roman Catholics because they weren’t true Christians, and stay clear of Episcopalians and Lutherans because they were too formal. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists were suspect because they were too liberal. Of course, Mormons were off limits. Pentecostals were suspect because they were too hyper and not enough into apologetics. Although it wasn’t stated, it was implicit that I had to define what I “was not” more than what “I was.” It all seemed so partisan and negative, when again, I simply wanted to follow Jesus and thought this should be simple.
Those were some of the challenges, but there were marvelous moments. I remember hanging around 20-something Christians—I guess we now call them millennials. They were less about labels and more about living the Christian life, and loving those not yet believers. I found community outside church walls that was real; although not very structured, it was a place to be with equals who listened to my questions and doubts without judging me. I got to experience faith, that was not just in the head but joined head and heart, as well as connecting me to others in the body. I loved those times, and even now when much older, still hang out with that age group because I feel as though I can breathe and not listen to right-wing political Christianity that seems to be infecting today’s church and clouding Christ’s image.
I attend church; after all, I am a pastor and have made peace with the past, because it isn’t really the past—it informs my present and is part of who I am. I continue to make peace with the church, the formal structured church, because Christians are there and I love them even when struggling to connect. Yet, I feel blessed because early that first year, young Christians took me in and accepted me as I was. God’s grace operated through them to heal the loneliness of leaving Islam, the alienation of feeling like a trophy in the Christian community, and sense that some wanted only to hear all that was wrong with Islam.
I have learned never to despise past negatives because God redeems and transforms it for good. This informs how I currently interact with Muslims, and despite my pushy NYC personality (ok, sometimes downright aggressive), I’m not pushy when it comes to loving Muslims and sharing my faith and life with them.
No single group is the answer to the problems within the church; we all need to get along and stop the nonsense and the focus on the divisive trivia. We can do it if we let fellow-Christians simply be followers of Jesus without hyphenating their identity. We must love Muslims and help them see what it means to imitate Christ rather than my pastor, my church, or my brand of Christianity. We can do it, with God’s help–and if we do–I think God will look down and say, “And that was the morning and evening of that day, and it was good.”