Patricia Raybon is an award-winning author of Christian books and essays. Her next book chronicles the mother-daughter journey that led them on different religion paths. BrassyBrown.com’s editor Kelly Harris talks to Patricia Raybon about her new book:(from Thomas Nelson/W Publishing Group).
When your daughter told you she was converting to Islam, what were your initial feelings? How did you respond?
With God’s good grace. That’s how I described it in an article for Today’s Christian Woman. As I put it, my daughter Alana’s conversion to Islam has challenged, humbled, and even broken me. But God has used it to help me admit I needed more of Him—instead of just losing sleep over what she had chosen. When she first left the church, we argued constantly about religion. Then over time, when you take a problem to God—and leave it at His feet—God starts to first change you. That’s how Alana and I were able to start talking again. Talking about our differences. Our hurts. Our fears. Our hopes. I’m amazed how God still keeps teaching me in the meantime. Not because I’m so wise. But because He is. That, in essence, for me, is the Christian journey. No matter what happens, you keep going with the uniting God. Then as you go, you and your loved one can sit down and talk about what’s dividing you. We tried to share this journey in our book. I pray it comes across just like that. Go to God. Then sit down and talk! Then as you walk this path, keep going with God. That was our journey. We hope it inspires others.
Did her conversion to Islam shake your faith?
Shake it? Never. But I felt confused. Our family loves Jesus. We’re Christians. But life happens. I had marriage troubles. Job concerns. Family setbacks. The stuff of life. In the middle of all that, when Alana left the faith, I felt betrayed. Not by the Lord. But by my daughter. How could she “do this to us”? Worse, how could I feel that way about my own child? In turn, I had to ask: Does she love me? Her own mother? Suddenly, with a daughter following a new faith, you have to negotiate these things, plus day-to-day interactions—meals, holidays, clothing choices, saying grace at the dinner table. These faith practices became huge tugs of war for my daughter and me. The only way out for me was to take it all to God. Now I make it my business to follow even closer after Christ. Then I can love my daughter like a mother. As a result, despite everything, my faith seems to have grown stronger. As my late pastor used to say, until your faith has been tested, you don’t have a testimony. In some ways, I’m surprised my faith held. But it did. And that matters most. Believe me, I am grateful.
How was your relationship with Alana prior to her conversion?
As a child, she was always fun, curious and loving, but she was always independent-minded. In grade school, she attended a British Primary School in our city she was taught under the Montessori method, but also in ways that were downright experimental and out-of-the-box. One result is she never became a traditionalist. During high school and college, Alana pushed back a lot against family rules. Being her own person seemed to be her No. 1 priority. That’s how it felt anyway. As a parent, I found myself embroiled in mother-daughter drama and power-struggle pushback all the time. I mean, we argued over every little thing. In hindsight, my biggest problem was I wasn’t sharing the love of Christ in a way that shows Christ. I was talking as if I knew Him, but not acting like it. Just because you know the Bible doesn’t mean you know how to show love. I was a task master and a rule enforcer. To be honest, I didn’t love enough to make family life appealing and preferable. I was big on control and rules and not as committed to loving, listening and supporting. That’s how my generation was raised, so I thought that approach was right. No questions asked. My advice to parents now would be to love more, be available more, encourage more, listen more. I’m still learning how to do that with my daughter, and also with my husband and other family members. Our story is as much about learning to love as it is learning to make peace. The path, in many ways, is the same.
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Did you ever feel you had failed in your Christian parenting?
Big time. Like many mothers, I confused being in church with being in Christ. For Alana, that meant church every Sunday, youth activities, choir, Vacation Bible School…the whole nine yards. I introduced her to organized activities under the roof of a church, not to Jesus. When you know Him, you don’t walk away from Him. So, yes, I felt responsible—and guilty. But guilt unresolved is a negative emotion. A downward path. God wasn’t holding the guilt trip over my head. I was. Turning from guilt lets me serve other people (I’m an author and writing coach), love my family better, worship God more. One day I realized, as a parent, I did the best I could. The best I knew how. But I can’t go back. It’s time to move forward. That’s what we did with our book. We made it our business to examine the past but grow in the present, discussing it and debating it, then we can move on. Undivided. That’s possible for the most broken family. If my daughter and I can sit down and talk to find peace, other families—regardless of what’s dividing them—can sit down and find peace, too.
What were some of your initial assumptions and fears about Islam?
I was familiar a little with the Nation of Islam because of Malcolm X. When I was a college student, Black students on my campus would gather in groups and listen to his recorded messages. You know: Black Power! Self-affirmation! (I was a college student in the late Sixties and early Seventies.) Nevertheless, I was a Christian. I didn’t think of Islam as a threat or a problem, just a different faith. When Alana announced in college that she was converting to orthodox Islam, as she called it, and started introducing me to classmates from the Middle East, I recognized I was getting introduced to a new world. I actually didn’t know what to ask. I just shut down. So for years, we just stepped around her faith choice. We didn’t talk about it. That’s not a good way to be a family. Doesn’t work.
What have you learned about Islam and your daughter that you didn’t know?
I learned I’m not a student of Islam—and the main thing for me was to learn more about Christ. Trying to explain a different faith can be a theological rabbit hole if you allow it to be, especially for an ordinary parent—who’s not a theologian. At first, I tried to argue with Alana about different points in Islam. The more valuable thing for me has been learning to accept my daughter’s right to make her own choice, then also respect her as a person. The word “respect” comes from a Latin word meaning to “see again.” (The word “spectacles,” as in eyeglasses, comes from the same word.) So my challenge has been to take another look, literally, at the choice my daughter made, and to take a closer look at her as a person.
She is my daughter and I love her, even if she isn’t still a Christian. She’s also an adult, no longer my “little” girl. Like all adults, she has to make choices and answer to God. The same is true for me. How can I make peace with that? How can other parents struggling with the challenge of an adult child’s faith life? By trusting God more ourselves. God is still in control. I work on letting him control me. I’m more useful to the Lord when I do that. I represent him better when I do that. Otherwise, I’m stuck in drama. Then people can’t talk, learn or listen. Can’t go back there!
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a Christian Mother?
To tell Alana my feelings. That I was hurting. I miss celebrating Christmas with Alana. I miss sharing the Resurrected Christ at Easter—and all year long. But the Lord blesses with joy anyway. I finally made the choice to receive His joy again. To be intentional about joy. At first, Alana was surprised. Are you really happy, Mom? Even though I’m still a Muslim? I had to figure out how to choose joy despite my situation. Choosing joy is a choice, indeed. I decided to make it. To count my blessings every day, not obsess over my problems. It makes a world of difference.
But what about Alana’s salvation? Some Christian friends ask me that. My answer is if God came and found me in my early life, He can do the same for her. When I get impatient or feel down, I ask God to help me. So I pray like the Canaanite Woman of the Bible. “Lord, help me.” Simple prayer. Any person’s life can feel a lot better when we make that deliberate choice to trust God. Then we have joy anyway. A woman can change her entire household when she faces life with this attitude. But first I had to open up and share.
Religious disagreement is tough to navigate. Sometimes impossible. What are some best practices for respecting other religions?
See people first as people. As African Americans, we truly understand what that means. We know how it feels not to be “seen” just as yourself. So this is a gift we can give others, especially people of other faiths. So start with hello. I see you. I’m open to knowing you. I’m not trying to change you. I just want to reach out, person to person. I used to think I should evangelize everybody immediately, the second I met the other person. But the Lord tells me to start with relationship.
I’ve tried to do that with Alana’s Muslim friends. Once I went with her to a friend’s home for a huge dinner during Ramadan. The women all went to the family room and the men stayed in the living room. I didn’t see my husband until it was time to leave and go home. I tried to connect with some of the women. Some were nice enough. Others didn’t say much to me. Later an Islamic friend of Alana’s told me some immigrant Muslim people I meet may be fairly new to the U.S. and may not feel unsure in social situations themselves. Other people are may just be shy people.
Muslim men may not shake a woman’s hand when introduced if they’re not related by family. Many practices have felt foreign, literally, to me. Other people are extremely friendly and hospitable. My daughter and her husband have friends who have invited us to their homes, served us loads of food and hot tea and shown great hospitality.
In those situations, a best practice is to tell your stories and listen to other people’s stories in return. Alana’s friends know I’m a Christian. None has ever asked me about Christ, however. When they do, I am ready to talk about Him. For now, however, the best thing is to show who He is by showing His love. Seriously. Help me, God, to show love. The world needs a good dose of love for sure.
What advice would you give to parents who are struggling with decision(s) their child has made?
Ask God to help you talk about it all. The surprise will be that, as we talk to the one we’re struggling with, we start to examine our own lives. Then along the way, we change and grow first ourselves. The tendency is to try to change other people first. But be honest first about yourself. As we ask for help, God will give us the words to explain ourselves to ourselves—and then to others. Talking to Alana that way I finally heard her say: “Now I understand you, Mom.” Talk about a breakthrough. With each answer, we get wiser. When we hit a road bump, I returned to God in prayer. So this road to peace isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. You walk it. You choose it. You talk it. Then before you know it, you’re living it. Writing our book helped me discover peace is possible anyway. By reading our story, I pray others will reach the same conclusion. I believe my daughter will return to Christ one day. How? I don’t know exactly, but I choose peace in the meantime. Of course, peace is “God work.” To have a family “without the shouting,” God has to be in the midst. But it’s possible. A family doesn’t have to be torn. They can be one again. Even if they have differences. Just open your mouth to speak with love, then trust God in the meantime. It’s remarkable if you try.
Visit www.patriciaraybon.com for more information about Patricia and her new book.
Kelly Harris is a poet and founder of BrassyBrown.com