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Conviction of Faith

Updated: Nov 17, 2022


Having grown-up in a non-observant interfaith family, I am fascinated by the depth of faith that some guests express. Their sense of God’s role in individual lives intrigues me, and I strive to understand their experience.


Two such conversations were those with Cathy Sirvatka, a Christian in Chicago, and Azra Khalfan-Kermali, a Muslim in New York. There are revealing similarities and differences in how each woman experiences and expresses her faith.


Scripture and Prayer

Both Cathy and Azra lean on God, via scripture and prayer, for support and guidance. For Cathy, Bible study developed later in life, as an evangelical Christian. In her Catholic childhood the King James Bible was incomprehensible and only used to press roses from funerals, but she now studies scripture actively.

“I have several Bibles and they're all written in regular English that I can understand. They've been translated to today's English, and I've got underlines and page markers. I mean, my books are used and abused because I go through them so much.”

Mornings include ‘quiet time with God’ – reading the bible and praying. This ‘spiritual food’ comforts her and forms a bulwark against evil and violence in the world. Throughout the day, she knows God is with her, and calls out to God when she’s in pain or at a loss.


Azra noted studying during Ramadan – the Islamic month of fasting, prayer, and reflection. Each year, she learns new information about prophets and the Qur’an, discussing the teachings with other Muslims. As a result, her belief in God’s gifts of her abilities is reaffirmed, motivating her to make a difference in the world. As with Cathy’s morning quiet time, Azra cherishes the annual month of reflection as a time to reinvigorate her religious expression.


Different paths

These two women had quite different childhoods vis-à-vis religion. Cathy was turned-off by the rote Catholic service, which she can still recite, and the absence of religious values outside of services. A loss of connection to devout family members compounded her alienation and led to a falling away from the Catholic Church, though not faith in God. After exploring other options, she found a home in an evangelical church during a difficult period in her life. Her trepidation that the church might be a cult was unfounded, as she instead felt a connection.


“It was the way the pastor spoke. I felt like it was directed at me. It was the weirdest thing, so I came back the next week and it was same thing. Felt like it was directed right at me. It was so relatable. ... So, I kept coming and kept learning and eventually accepted Jesus.”

Cathy’s journey away from the Catholicism of her childhood, stands in sharp contrast to Azra’s life-long Muslim path. Her father’s active encouragement and teaching of Islam was a part of her upbringing. She was given school supplies, such as rulers and pencils, imprinted with ‘I love Allah’ or ‘I love Islam’. Over time, she has come to appreciate his method of instilling the love of God in her and other children.


Connection to other faiths

Given the fervor both women expressed, I wondered about their attitude towards people of other faiths. Cathy is neutral, with the strongest statement coming in our exchange about proselytizing. After mentioning my dislike of this Christian practice, she related similar experiences when she was still a Catholic, whereby evangelicals would challenge her mistaken scriptural knowledge. Such encounters, along with her shyness, means speaking with others about religion is unappealing. Instead, she focuses on her own relationship with God, bible study and prayer.


In contrast, Azra has been expressly engaged in interfaith work, including membership in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom® – a network bringing Jewish and Muslim women together. Additionally, the racial tension and discrimination following George Floyd’s murder inspired her to create ‘Away in a BOX’, a cultural intelligence training program with a multi-sensory approach. Learning about others increases her awareness and acceptance of differences. Here again, she credits her father, noting:


“From a very young age, he always always told us about a verse from the Qur’an, which is verse number 49:13: ‘O mankind, we have created you from a single male and female, into nations and tribes so that you may learn from one another, and not that you may despise each other’.”

Recognizably Muslim because she wears a headscarf, she is alert to cultural differences and seeks ways to increase understanding. “I think through education, people become more aware and accepting of different cultures.” I completely agree.


Conclusion

While the depth of Cathy and Azra’s faith remains foreign to my own experience, I benefitted from learning more about how they live it. Like them, I value regular study and quiet reflection, as well as the connection with both co-religionists and those practicing other faiths. Perhaps our differences are not so great after all.


To hear the episodes discussed, click here for Cathy Sirvatka’s and here for Azra Khalfan-Kermali’s.


The ‘Living Our Beliefs’ podcast is available on Apple podcasts, other major podcast platforms, and through my Talking with God Project website.


Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at info@talkingwithgodproject.org. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli



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1 Comment


Karen Hirschfeld
Karen Hirschfeld
Oct 31, 2022

I love the richness of these examples. Thank you for this! Azra's commitment to multiculturalism is really inspiring.

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