What makes someone leave one faith and enter another? What is it like to enter into a new faith, and how publicly do you embrace it? These questions occurred to me as several of my podcast guests, Emi Fermin, Hamzah Henshaw, and Katrina Kincade, have converted to Islam; all from Christianity, as it happens.
While each has a unique story, there are several similarities in their journeys. All three were steeped in the culture and religion of their upbringing, while church attendance was limited or dwindled over time, leading to a fallow period religiously. Emi commented about his parents’ quite relaxed approach after the First Communion:
“[The unspoken message was]: ‘Well, you follow your own path and believe what you wanna believe.” As we got older and we kind of got more away from going to church and I started learning more about other belief systems, I kind of stopped believing [in] Catholicism and I started unpacking Catholicism and the history of it.”
For all of them, though, while they left Christianity, they continued to believe in something greater – God or the Universe, for instance. Hamzah commented: “I think I always had sort of an innate belief in God. I was not particularly observant. ... However, the faith was always there.” This letting go of a formal religious structure while still retaining faith in something larger led to each one being open to other religions.
"...the faith was always there.”
They all found Islam through intellectual exploration or social connections. Hamzah and Katrina, for instance, saw their friends practicing, which offered a natural avenue for learning. Being able to witness their friends’ dedication and positive results without being asked to disavow the faith and culture of their own family drew them in. As Katrina noted:
“[My friends] taught me a little bit about why they love the religion, and I did a lot of research on my own. ... I just kept finding myself drawn to it and drawn to something that brought me peace, like it did my friend.”
The similarities demonstrate a gradual process of veering from one path and discovering another – from Christianity to Islam in these cases, via a fallow period as already described. This, naturally, gives rise to the question of how they identify with respect to their faith. Emi’s response to this question was the most complex. In addition to noting that his Spanish-speaking parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic, he responded:
“That is a difficult question for me to answer, but I guess in the simplest form, my religious and cultural identity is that I am a Muslim. I guess I would say I'm also a Universalist who was raised in a Roman Catholic household and I've also unknowingly maybe accepted Buddhist principles within my life.”
Hamzah’s response was quite straight-forward – he said that he was raised Episcopalian, though was not heavily engaged. Katrina commented that her Cape Verdean Roman Catholic mother had determined her upbringing and stressed a continuation of identity without sufficient reasoning. The priest’s message of “blind faith” was likewise unsatisfying.
The varied denominations along with racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds define their unique profiles. Emi and Katrina both identify as Black and from immigrant parents, whereas Hamzah is Caucasian, and his family has been in Boston for many generations. Moreover, he is the third generation to attend his Episcopalian boarding school.
Are you decisive or hesitant, singular or not, on your adopted path?
Conversion is a big change and reveals your attitude towards new experiences: Are you decisive or hesitant, singular or not, on your adopted path? These three guests are charting their own ways regarding how to be Muslim and how visible to be in public as a Muslim. Emi is not particularly observant and as such, does not demonstrate it publicly. Being part of an inter-faith marriage with an open stance towards beliefs and practices reflects this decision. Hamzah’s use of his Islamic name is public and while his work in education is strictly within the Muslim community, he currently runs the college counseling program as well as overseeing the dual enrollment program at Al Noor Academy, whereby students take courses at local colleges. These roles entail more public exposure. Katrina is in the initial years of her Islamic journey and still figuring out how she wants to present herself. Her public-facing work – as a news reporter and Miss Massachusetts 2022 – presents opportunities to display her faith or not, predominantly by wearing a hijab (or headscarf).
I relate to many of these experiences and perspectives. Like these three individuals, I chose my religion. However, unlike them, I didn’t convert. Rather, from my two inherited religions – Judaism and Protestantism – I elected the former. Unlike these three, I was not raised with any religion, and never really considered my religious identity until college when a rabbi from Hillel, the college Jewish organization, asked whether I was Jewish.
However different our backgrounds, my path of continued exploration and learning mirrors theirs. Especially when choosing a new path, religious or otherwise, exploring and learning about the new landscape is necessary. Questions of how, when, where, and why are all bound to come up and demand answers. The concepts and practices must support us and become an integrated part of our lives. I don’t think that “going through the motions,” or practicing a religion because it is what your parents did or is what scripture says you should do absent your own belief or conviction, is sustainable. Converting to a new religion is a doorway into another world – intriguing, exciting, perplexing, and reassuring by turn – encountering the Divine in a new form.
Click here to listen to Emi’s episode (#21).
Click here to listen to Hamzah’s episode (#33).
Click here to listen to Katrina’s episode (#41).
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli