"So you're Muslim? But wait, where are you from?"
Since converting to Islam in 2009, I have been asked this question more times than I can remember. It's a kind of verbal squint: You look white, but...
When they aren't satisfied with my answer — I was born in Maryland — they move on: "Okay, but where are your parents from? Your grandparents?"
They just can't imagine a white Westerner being anything but Christian or maybe Jewish. An atheist even; that might make sense. But a Muslim? I must be hiding a secret Arab grandmother.
But the truth is, I was born into a Christian family. Then I chose to leave. I chose Islam instead.
I was supposed to be a pastor
I was raised in a conservative Christian home. My father was Catholic; my mother was a Seventh-Day Adventist. A lot of my childhood was spent working at her SDA church, going door to door to hand out literature, or evangelizing at the county fair. While other people were hocking fried food, we would set up our booth with books and pamphlets to help potential converts understand why Seventh-Day Adventism might be right for them.
I went to church every week. I knew a lot about my faith. I could quote scripture from memory and explain the finer points of SDA theology better than many of the adults. They were convinced I'd grow up to be a pastor. I was the kid you see on TV who always wore nice khakis and a polo shirt, the stereotypical "good Christian boy." I went to religious school until the eighth grade. After that, I was homeschooled. My teenage years revolved almost exclusively around my Christian faith, and for the most part I loved it.
Then I went to college.
When my faith was challenged, it collapsed
It's an old story: A kid from a small rural town comes to the university. For the first time in his life, his beliefs are seriously challenged. He has a crisis of faith.
Up until this point, I had never met someone who wasn't some variety of Christian. My own faith, where we went to church on Saturday and believed in Christ but not hell, was about as far out as it got. All of my friends, even when I went to day school, had been Christians of some kind or another. It wasn't that I didn't know on some level that there were other kinds of people, but in day-to-day life, there was an assumption that pretty much everyone I met was going to be a white Christian. But now, suddenly, I was surrounded by "new" religions, some I had never even heard of, and even a few people with no religion at all.
All of a sudden, other students and even professors could and did challenge my faith. They pointed out flaws in a system I'd never even questioned before. I was absolutely shocked.
Of course I went to my pastor about this immediately.
He did what the pastor always does in stories like this: reviewed a few Bible verses that were applicable to the situation, tossed in a couple of lines about Satan's tests and trickery, and then sent me on my way.
It worked for a while. Then, eventually, it didn't. There were too many questions.
It was the low point of my life. Up until then I had always felt that God was with me, but suddenly I felt abandoned and alone. I felt abandoned by the church elders too: They acted like they'd heard every question I had before, like they were boring and trivial. I was having the greatest crisis of my life, and they essentially told me to ignore the problem.
The rest of my life wasn't going very well either. I was struggling in college. I had just been kicked out of my parents' house by my father. Thanks to homeschooling, I had entered college at 16 — I didn't have the means to find my own place. I was homeless for a while; eventually, my grandfather let me move into one side of a small double home he owned. On the other side lived drug dealers. Crime was rampant in the neighborhood: The church across the street was robbed three times within four months of my moving in. One day I realized I'd lost my faith entirely. I no longer believed in God.
It made sense at the time, in the way these crises of faith usually do: Look at all the horrible things that have happened to me! Look at all the horrible things that happen in the world, hatred and war and death! What kind of loving God would allow that? I'd been raised a creationist, taught that evolution was a lie conceived by the devil. Now I was calling myself an atheist. But it wouldn't last long.
I started trying religions at random
The truth is I could never accept, deep down, that everything was the result of random chance. Whether we call it faith or the will of God, I always have felt and probably always will feel that there is something guiding us. Maybe it's what remains from my upbringing, but soon after I lost my Christian faith, I realized that calling myself an atheist wasn't quite right. I believed that there was a creator, even a god, just not the Christian one.
So I did what anyone might do when seeking answers to life's deepest questions: I walked into a local library, checked out as many books on religion as I could carry, and walked back home to read them. You name a religion and I had read a book on it, from Judaism to Jainism, from Hinduism and Sikhism to Buddhism and paganism. For about six months I consumed every piece of literature I could find on religion and philosophy.
I decided reading wasn't enough: No prophet, mystic, or guru ever received revelation by sitting and reading without putting his full heart and mind into the task. So in November 2008, I decided to try a different religion every month. In the first five months I was a Zoroastrian, then a Buddhist, then a Hindu, a Jew, and a Jainist.
The one faith I wasn't planning to try was Islam. The only book I'd found on it at the library — The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam by Robert Spencer — had spooked me, and I'd decided to stay away.
But none of the religions I was sampling felt right. For a while, I took bits and pieces of every religion and put them all together into something I liked, but that ultimately felt like cheating.
About half a year after I first walked into the library, I found myself talking to a local community college professor and telling him my whole story up to this point. When I finished, he laughed and gave me a number to the local masjid (mosque). He said I should visit, not necessarily to try it out but because I had a very skewed idea of Islam. And that skewed idea made me uneasy: Muslims were evil hellspawn, bent on taking over the West and killing everyone who wouldn't become one of them, right? But I trusted this teacher, and decided to give it a shot.
Islam was not at all what I expected
I was still nervous about going to a masjid. I was genuinely worried, after my upbringing, after reading Spencer's book, after everything I'd heard since 9/11, that they would force me to convert to their religion under penalty of death. So instead of going to a local masjid, I traveled about an hour away to one a few towns over.
The experience sparked something in me.
I didn't know anything about Islam. I didn't know what to do, and I looked out of place. But despite this, everyone was incredibly welcoming. They humored my curiosity, showing me the basics of how to wash for prayer and pray. During the service, everyone sat close together, literally shoulder to shoulder, and it made no difference that I wasn't Muslim.
I remember the sermon. I half expected something about conquest, about subjugating the infidel and a thirst for blood. But the imam told a story about a patient man.
When the man was praying, people would pour waste on him. He didn't mind — he kept on praying with no ill will. When the man was beaten, he didn't fight back. When stones were thrown at him, when he was mocked and driven out of town, he opted to forgive the people and return to try to help them again.
This was not the faith I'd read about, and so I decided my professor was right: I'd been unfair. I decided to give Islam a chance.
Over the course of the next week, I went online and read how to pray. I downloaded a couple PDF copies of the Quran, and read different introductions to Islam by a wide variety of authors. During the day I would wash and pray in English whenever I had the chance, and during the evening I would read the Quran.
The more I read about Islam, the more it harmonized with me. Nearly everything I read was a conclusion I had come to on my own, something I already knew to be true. Nearly everything I believed and actively tried to practice in my life was present, to my great surprise, in Islam.
Growing up, I felt like religion was top-down, constrained by leadership and tradition. But Islam didn't have that limitation. The Quran urged people to think and contemplate the teachings of Islam, and often mocked those who do not: "Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason."
I was drawn to Islam's preoccupation with equality. Race did not matter, nor did income. Piety, my forte since childhood, was what mattered. One of the five pillars of Islam is prayer, and when you pray in groups you stand shoulder to shoulder. A homeless beggar could stand right next to a king because it doesn't matter — in Allah's eyes we are all equal.
And yes, I liked that Islam was, at times, willing to fight. There is violence and hatred in the word, and at times you have to meet fighting with fighting in order to survive. Despite what many Westerners think (and despite even what is practiced in "Muslim countries" today), Islam does encourage seeking peaceful solutions whenever possible. But the world does not always allow for the possibility. Islam only allows two reasons to go to war: if you and your family are under direct threat, or if you or someone else is being threatened or persecuted. If so, the Quran holds that you have an obligation to step up and protect yourself and others.
Finally, Islam also demands that Muslims try to learn and better themselves. The Prophet Mohammed does not say that Muslims should try to learn more in their spare time or whenever they are not busy. He says: "Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim." Not many other religions demand that their followers try to learn more about everything, not merely their religion. But for Islam it is a required duty. Along with seeking knowledge is self-improvement. The Prophet Mohammed once came back from a battle and said, "We have returned from the lesser struggle to the greater struggle." He was implying that going out and fighting in wars was the easier part, but coming home and trying to be better — a better husband, wife, father, mother, a better person in general — was the harder and more rewarding of the two.
It soon became clear that Islam had an answer to everything I had struggled with. It was, at least for me, the faith I had been searching for my whole life.
And so in August 2009, I said my shahada and officially became Muslim.
Now I'm stuck in the middle
Since my conversion, it hasn't been all roses all the time. People, even Muslims, are imperfect. Despite the Islamic emphasis on equality before Allah, a lot of Muslims mix their culture into the religion, and sometimes it becomes hard to figure out where the culture ends and the religion begins. It becomes difficult to make friends in the community: Simply communicating and being around other Muslims in my area can be a challenge because we do not have a common cultural background. Things I would never think twice about are seen as insults by those with another background, and vice-versa. The learning curve can be brutal, especially when — like me — you don't speak the first language of many of your fellow congregants.
But the far greater struggle has been outside the Muslim world. Ever since my wife and I converted, she has worn a hijab, and despite being traditionally "American" in every other way, the amount of hate and bigotry this inspires from strangers is appalling. We have been threatened in stores, asked if we're terrorists at our jobs, and even told we would not be allowed to work with a beard or hijab on.
Worse, and perhaps predictably, we have been downed by family, cursed and screamed at for our choice. At bottom, it doesn't make me angry so much as sad; it makes me understand why Muslim communities are more and more insular, why it's painful to interact with the non-Muslim world in this country.
And so we're stuck in the middle, isolated from both sides. Cultural and language barriers keep us from fully integrating into the Muslim community; bigotry keeps pushing us further from the conservative Christian nation around us. But we work through it, remembering that excluders in the community do not mean, for the most part, to hurt us; that the bigots outside it are a minority and do not represent most Americans or Christians. We have each other and we have our faith, and this has been its greatest gift of all: the strength to continue in this journey that has taken my whole life.
Jeremy Spencer writes a biweekly blog on life, business, and the web.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.