My God could beat up your God, Mr. Youth Pastor
I’ve been pondering my conversion to Christianity recently. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, so I wasn’t indoctrinated with Christian ideas at an early age. When I was very young, I actually thought ‘God’ was a four letter word. The only time I heard the word employed was when my father was cursing about something. It was the influence of the Christians that I knew that brought me into the fold, particularly some very dedicated youth workers. Specifically, the mother (Kathy) of one of my good friends (Joe) happened to be the youth leader at a local United Methodist Church. Kathy was probably the first example of what a Christian should be, to this day I have a great deal of respect for Kathy. She was kind, humble, committed. Though Kathy was not perfect, she was good to me during one of the darker times of my life.
It was really through the compassion and faith of this devoted youth worker that I began considering the claims of Christianity. Kathy was just so nice, and she believed so much, how could Christianity not be true? And so, over time, I came to believe more and more of the Christian message. Understand I was an adolescent and didn’t comprehend everything, nor did I embrace it all at once. But over time through my interactions with Kathy and other Christians, I decided that I too was a Christian.
Granted, my conversion was a bit more complex than that. It wasn’t just my interactions with Christians. But that was a key component. So then is religious conversion really justified by the committed relationship of another to their religion? I’ve been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography Infidel about her journey through Islam. One of the parts I found fascinating was her interaction with a Muslim Girl’s School teacher named Sister Aziza. The influence of Sister Aziza upon Ayaan was very similar to the influence of Kathy upon me.
The first thing Sister Aziza asked was, “How many of you are Muslims?” The whole class put up their hands up, of course. We were clearly Muslims, had been since birth. But Sister Aziza shook her head sadly, and said, “I don’t think you are Muslims.”
We were startled. Not Muslims? What could she possibly mean? She pointed at me. “When was the last time you prayed?” I quaked inwardly. It had been over a year since I had ritually washed myself and put on the white cloth and prostrated myself for the long ritual submission to God. “I don’t remember,” I mumbled. Sister Aziza pointed to other girls in the class. “And you? And you?” All but a few said they couldn’t remember.
We were not true Muslims, Sister Aziza sadly informed the abashed and suddenly silent classroom. Allah did not look on us with delight. He could see into our hearts, and He knew we were not dedicated to Him…
Sister Aziza believed in Hell, there was no question about that. But she didn’t emphasize fear, as all the other preachers did. She told us it was our choice. We could choose to submit to God’s pureness and light and earn a place in Heaven, or we could take the low road.
Her classes were very compelling, but I didn’t become an instant convert. And what was so great about Sister Aziza was that she didn’t mind… She didn’t mind if we didn’t pray five times a day. She told us God didn’t want us to do anything-not even pray-without the inner intention. He wanted true, deep submission: this is the meaning of Islam. “This is how ALlah and the Prophet want us to dress,” she told us [referencing her hidjab]. “But you should do it only when you’re ready, because if you do it earlier and you take the robe off again, you’ll only be sinning more. When you’re ready for it, you’ll choose, and then you’ll never take it off.”
Certainly Sister Aziza was a good woman. And she was incredibly devoted to her faith. Sister Aziza was unlike many of the other local religious leaders because she desired for her pupils to come to appreciate their faith rather than simply memorize the Qu’ran. Sister Aziza genuinely cared for her students. These qualities all applied to Kathy as well (swap Qu’ran for Bible, Allah for Jesus, etc.). Both women were intelligent, compassionate, devoted followers to their religions–but to two opposing religions. This underscores for me that religious experience is simply unreliable in determining religious faith.
What I find interesting is that many (not all, by any means) youth workers from religious sects are very high quality people. With little (if any) pay or praise, these men and women dedicate their spare time (or more) to edifying the next generation. But as often as not, they have no justifiable reasoning to support their religious beliefs. They propagate those beliefs hoping to make the world a better place. What is interesting that if Muslim youth workers and Christian youth workers (add any other religious sect you desire) are hoping to make the world a better place by propagating their beliefs in the next generation, and these sects are by definition opposed to one another, aren’t they simply creating a religiously schizophrenic and incredibly confused future generation?
As I mentioned, Kathy was an incredibly positive influence on my life. Additionally, it was another youth pastor who convinced (and somewhat coerced, heh) me into attending college. Likewise Sister Aziza was a profoundly positive influence on Ayaan. Meanwhile, however, these people filled both Ayaan and myself with a lot of baggage. Wouldn’t it have been better if Russ had worked with me through Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Kathy had influenced me through a community center? I think so.