Finding new spiritual paths
By CAROLYN LORIE
Thursday, May 1, 2003 -- Unlike the archetypal stories of religious conversion occurring in a moment of divine inspiration - the blinding light on the road to Damascus - for most people the process is a long one that begins years before the actual rite of conversion. While the particulars of each convert's story may vary widely, there are common elements that run through most: a spiritual hunger that triggers a search for a more meaningful existence; a period of intense study of the chosen religion; and then, once the conversion has taken place, a feeling of having come home. The following stories are offered not as portrayals of what conversion to each particular religion is necessarily like, but as sketches of individuals who have changed the course of their lives by changing the nature of their faith.
Scott Lucas grew up in Summit, N. J., one of two brothers in a white, upper-middle class Protestant family. On Dec. 2, 1995, when he was 22, he walked into a mosque in San'a, Yemen, and before an Imam and several witnesses declared his belief in God and in the prophet Muhammed. So began his life as a Muslim.
As a child Lucas, who is now a visiting professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, spent most Sundays in church with his parents and brother. When he was very young the family attended a Congregational church and then, as he grew older, a Presbyterian church. Still, he says, the family was not especially religious. It was at Yale University, where Lucas studied from 1991 to 1995, that he was first exposed to extremely devout believers. There he met people whose lives revolved around their religious beliefs in very specific ways - like the students who refused to travel on certain days of the week that were considered holy.
Lucas says his academic studies overloaded him with information but not necessarily the kind he sought. "There was a lot of knowledge dumped on me," he says. But he adds, "People need some sort of guidance. In college I definitely felt that there was a lack of direction. There was an emptiness I felt."
Lucas began studying Islam, as well as political science. He says that initially his interest in the religion was purely academic, but that after he spent his junior year studying in Yemen his interest became personal. He found himself attracted to a way of life that was completely structured by one's faith in God - it dictated what one ate, how one dressed and when one prayed.
As his study of Islam intensified, Lucas began to consider converting. "I felt like I was swimming on the surface of the lake of Islam but not diving into the water," he says.
By the time he returned to Yemen in 1995 to study Arabic, Islam was no longer just an academic interest for him. "I was reading the Quran more as I got closer [to converting]. I was starting to feel hypocritical. Studying the Quran, studying the religion and even believing it. 'Why am I not doing this?' " Lucas remembers asking himself.
According to Sister Shamshad Sheikh, adviser to the Muslim community and chaplain to the college at Mount Holyoke, before someone can convert to Islam his or her belief has to be more than intellectual. "One of the first pillars of Islam is to believe from your heart. It doesn't mean anything until you submit to God," she says.
There is no formal process for converting, she says. Anyone interested is encouraged to study the religion by reading the Quran and talking to people who are already Muslim. Once someone is ready to declare his or her belief, that person appears before an Imam and recites the Shahada - a declaration that there is only one God and that Muhammed is his prophet.
Lucas remembers his heart pounding the day he walked from his apartment in the capital city of San'a to the mosque. It was the first time he had been allowed to enter the mosque, as it is open only to Muslims. After reciting the prayer before the Imam, Lucas wept. The witnesses, who were students of the Imam, rushed to him, offering their congratulations.
Before leaving for Yemen, Lucas says, he had hinted to his parents that he might come back a Muslim. When he returned to the United States that December, he decided not to tell them right away, out of concern that the news might dampen their Christmas celebration. But his mother figured it out. "Moms always know what you're up to," says Lucas.
It is only recently that his parents conceded how hard his conversion had been for them, says Lucas. Despite this, they have remained supportive of their son, and a year ago the family celebrated Lucas' marriage to a Palestinian-American woman, Maha Nassar. The couple met while Lucas was in graduate school at the University of Chicago.
At the wedding, says Lucas, there were two rooms - one for the women and one for the men. Lucas and the other men were allowed to join the women in their room only when the women were wearing their head scarves. While some Westerners are critical of this custom, Lucas is not.
"How my wife wishes to dress is her own business. I certainly find the way that she presents herself to be much more beautiful than the tight-clothing, hair-dying, tattooing and extreme body-piercing styles that so many young women embrace in their efforts to make themselves more attractive," he says.
"I also find the Western obsession with the head scarf tedious - what matters is what is in the heart and mind of a woman, not what is on her head," he adds.
According to Lucas, the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that swept over the nation following the attacks of Sept. 11 has not affected him personally. "Neither my wife nor I have had any problems. [In fact] we have traveled many times by plane this past year and are grateful that added security people have treated us courteously," he says.
Lucas says that in the seven years since his conversion, he has not spent much time analyzing or questioning his decision, but has simply dedicated himself to being a Muslim. "I have always felt like it was the right thing to do," he says.
"I feel very proud of what I did. I did something when I was very young and I stuck with it," says Jennifer Luddy, 37, of Northampton.
What Luddy did was convert to Judaism when she was 19 years old. She was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, a Jewish studies major and a confirmed Catholic. "At the time, I felt there were more opportunities for women spiritually [in Judaism]," she says.
In retrospect Luddy says she does not believe that Catholicism is necessarily restrictive but that her experience within the religion was. "At the time when I was growing up, the Catholicism presented to me was very one-dimensional. I don't think that I was exposed to the many different layers," she says. Luddy recalls taking part in rituals within the church without understanding their history or theological significance. She was frustrated by the lack of discussion within the Catholic Church.
"I thought that there was more opportunity in Judaism for dialogue within the religion. There was less of a hierarchy, more individual choice," she says.
Luddy, who is the director of institutional effectiveness at Holyoke Community College, is one of five siblings raised in an Irish-Catholic household. Although Luddy's mother is Lutheran, the children were raised Catholic and attending Sunday Mass was part of their weekly routine. Her parents didn't try to block her choice, but Luddy says they did worry about it. "I think they were concerned because they saw it as creating a direction in my life that I may, in later years, question the wisdom of," she says.
After studying with Rabbi Saul Perlmutter of Hillel House in Amherst for a year and a half, Luddy appeared before a beit din (Hebrew for house of judgment or court), a panel of three rabbis who questioned her about her decision to convert. Afterward she was immersed in a mikvah - a pool of rainwater collected under strictly regulated conditions that serves to purify, and in a sense rebirth, the convert. All converts also choose a Hebrew name.
Luddy chose the name Shulamit - part of the word means peace and the other signifies the bringing together of many different pieces to form a whole.
For men the process of conversion can be more complicated. According to Perlmutter, "If a man had previously received only a medical circumcision that did not include religious ritual, then a symbolic circumcision with recitation of the traditional blessings takes place. If he had not been circumcised previously, then he would undergo the procedure at some point before the mikvah and beit din." But he adds, "Not all branches of Judaism follow this requirement."
While proselytizing is not a part of the Jewish tradition, Perlmutter says he is happy to support people in the conversion process. "I just love being a part of it [conversions] because it's a delight being able to help people connect to something that adds real meaning to their lives," says Perlmutter.
Luddy describes converting as a "huge undertaking."
Rabbi Perlmutter agrees. "I think the process of converting is not simply learning factual material. It's also about changing one's identity, one's view of one's self. It's about joining a community." And the wish to join that community can't be born solely out of the urge to abandon another.
When Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton meets with prospective converts he asks about their motives. Are they simply running away from something negative in their own heritages? he wonders. "I try to get their story. I try to find out as much about their own history as I can," he says.
For a time, Luddy says, she distanced herself from her past in an attempt to establish her new identity. She says it was not a conscious decision to do so, but one that grew naturally from her new path in life. "Your whole context changes, your frame of reference is different," she says. As she became more integrated into the Jewish community, her ties to the Christian community naturally diminished, she says.
Several years after her conversion in Massachusetts, Luddy went through an Orthodox conversion in Israel. Once she felt herself to be fully Jewish, her need to distance herself from her past faded.
"[Converting] takes a lot of effort," she says. "You have to connect culturally and you have to separate. And then eventually you have to pull it all together to be a whole human being."
"I think that whatever choice we make in our lives, that genealogy, that history is always part of us. You take it with you, " she says.
The reconnection to her past was made easier by her family's acceptance of her conversion. "As my family got more comfortable, they felt more able to bridge the gap," says Luddy. Her mother, for example, purchased a menorah which she sets out every year. She also bakes Hamantashen cookies, which are a traditional Jewish treat.
Despite her parents' initial concerns, Luddy says, they are both accepting, even proud, of her level of commitment to her faith.
Some of that was evident during her wedding preparations 12 years ago. Luddy married a Jewish man in the religion's traditions.
She said her mother took an interest in the whole process. "I think that for my mother it was this sense of real excitement that she was being exposed to something very different through the way I was living my life," says Luddy.
Luddy's two children visit their grandparents at Christmastime. It's knowing that her Jewish identity is fully formed, she says, that makes the visits possible. "I'm very clear about who I am and who my kids are. In the end it's been a great benefit to understand the world through another lens. My kids will have both lenses," she says.
According to Rabbi Perlmutter, the process of conversion is a long one but in the time that he counsels people - about one year in most cases - he notices a shift in their perspectives. "At some point they stop saying 'they' and start saying "we,' " he says.
It's a change that Rabbi David has noticed many times. "People talk with a new vocabulary. It's not just jargon - it's a tone of voice. They talk about going to shul [the Hebrew word for synagogue]. If they say it with a certain ease and casualness - they are here," says David.
Soon Luddy will have spent more of her life as a Jewish person than not. Although she says the process was long and sometimes difficult, she believes that she is precisely where she should be. "At a certain point in your conversion it becomes your total psychological makeup. It takes a long time. I would say in the past few years I can say that I feel more at home culturally, psychologically, religiously, socially - in every way - when I am in a Jewish community," she says.
Believing in God has never been a struggle for Barry Magnus of Amherst. "I knew there was a God. I believed there was a God. But the different religions were so contentious," he says. It disturbed Magnus, a 49-year-old physician, that so much fighting and strife had been the by-product of religious differences.
He was raised within the tradition of Reform Judaism and, he says, his parents were casual about his religious upbringing. They didn't insist on a bar mitzvah nor did they compel him to worship on high holy days. The family was more interested in the humanistic side of religion, about being a good person in the world, says Magnus.
Ideas about goodness and compassion seemed to fulfill Magnus' religious needs - at least until he was 18. Then a classmate at UMass invited him to a Baha'i gathering. Known within the community as "firesides," the meetings introduced Magnus to the history and basic tenets of this relatively new religion. Founded in 1863 in Iran by Baha'u'llah, the faith proclaims the unity of all religions and of all humanity. Believers accept the teachings not only of Baha'u'llah, but also of Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, among others. Social ethics, a balance between science and religion, and the equality of men and women are all important facets of the faith.
"Within two months [of the first meeting] I knew that this was what I had been looking for, although I didn't know it until I found it. It awakened something in me that was dormant," says Magnus.
Following the declaration of his faith - which officially initiated him into the Baha'i community - Magnus remembers feeling spiritually renewed. "I had more energy, more sense of purpose. [Before my declaration] I was sort of just drifting along," he says.
Not only was Magnus attracted to the socially progressive nature of the Baha'i faith but he also was impressed by the mix of races he encountered. "I saw a diverse group of people who were working in harmony that I didn't see anywhere else. It involved many backgrounds - black, white, Latino, Asian, Persian, Indian. That was an indication to me that the community was actively working toward the oneness of humanity," he says.
In 1979 Magnus married Hughia Anderson, an African-American woman who is also Baha'i. The couple have three children. "Being in a diverse community prevents us from feeling isolated, and helps us be connected to our various backgrounds," says Magnus. "There is also a level of acceptance that makes it easier to go about our business as a family."
According to Magnus, his mother and father took his conversion in stride. "My parents - true to form - were pretty open and supportive about it. If it made me happy, they were supportive," he says.
Despite the fact that he was only 18 when he converted, Magnus says his entry into the Baha'i community was meant to be. "Once you find something that feels right for you, you feel like you were destined to find it," he says.
More than 30 years have passed since Magnus made his declaration of faith, but he says in many ways his conversion continues: "It's a never-ending process. You struggle. You make mistakes. You grow."
F. Jay Deacon:
Reverend Dr. F. Jay Deacon, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Northampton, was 13 when he experienced his first religious conversion. Raised attending a conservative Presbyterian church in New Jersey, Deacon remembers feeling a "spiritual hunger" that wasn't satisfied by the religion chosen for him. So at 13 he wandered into an Assembly of God church, and was surrounded by what he refers to as "liquid love" - a force so powerful that he remained with the evangelical church for more than 10 years.
Looking back on his years of attending church with his parents, Deacon, 56, says, "I was always there, every Sunday, and I always had a headache. I somehow never really connected with [the Presbyterian Church]. It was a place to see and be seen."
Although Deacon says his conversion was a source of tension between him and his parents, he gives them credit for allowing him to make his own decision and not interfering with his newfound faith.
After high school, Deacon attended the Central Bible College, run by the Assemblies of God, in Springfield, Mo. Although he began to question some of the theological claims of the church, he completed his undergraduate degree and then moved to New York City.
In April 1968, Deacon underwent his second conversion - this one triggered by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. Four days before King's assassination, Deacon caught snippets of a speech he gave on television. He says the speech awakened him to the idea that "matters of justice were at the core of religious and human responsibility."
Inspired by King, Deacon became involved in Operation BreadBasket - a civil rights organization that organized boycotts of department stores and schools. (It is now known as PUSH.) The work earned him the label of "communist sympathizer" among members of the Assembly of God. Despite his crumbling faith in the church, in 1970 he enrolled in the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton to become a minister. And then Deacon underwent a third conversion - this one bringing him to the brink of suicide.
When he was 26, Deacon began having a series of dreams, which he understood to be about his sexuality. "Then came the big deal. That was confronting that I was gay," says Deacon. While still enrolled in the seminary, he sank into a deep depression. "It was unthinkable. If all this stuff [that I had learned through the church] was true, then what kind of God would make me gay and then condemn me?" Deacon asks.
The "liquid love" he had first experienced 13 years earlier was now an equally powerful force of condemnation.
To get through the crisis, Deacon began reading works on liberation theology and looking inward for spiritual sustenance. "At times like that you learn to listen to the religious authority inside," says Deacon. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell in 1973 and eventually made his way to the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Boston. The church was founded in 1968 by gays and lesbians who had been thrown out of their churches because of their sexual preferences. Deacon describes joining the MCC as a "huge rebirth experience - very dramatic." He became active within the organization, eventually opening Hartford's first Metropolitan Community Church. He served there until 1978, when he moved to Chicago to work for a larger congregation.
As the years passed, however, Deacon's spiritual needs continued to change. "I read the Bible critically. I talked about spiritual experience more than doctrine," remembers Deacon. Soon members of the MCC in Chicago accused him of no longer being a Christian. After talking with a Unitarian minister, Deacon decided that the accusations were accurate and left MCC, under what he says were good terms. In 1982, he applied to transfer his ministerial credentials to the Unitarian Universalist Society, and he was assigned his first congregation in Bangor, Maine, in 1985.
"That was just a coming home," says Deacon of his entry into the Unitarian Society.
His spiritual hunger, sense of social justice and right to be openly gay are all satisfied within the Unitarian Universalist Society, he says. Despite the many changes, crises and questions Deacon has endured his faith has remained.
For the Reverend Deacon this is a testament to the fact "that we are a part of a larger whole. We live in a covenant with a larger life, that we can deny, we can ignore but we cannot sever."
Carolyn Lorie is a freelance writer who lives in Conway. She last wrote about stillbirths for Hampshire Life.
©Copyright 2003, Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA, USA)
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