For a time during my adolescence, I considered conversion to Islam. The project of discovering myself almost mandated it. When my first cousins arrived from war-torn Liberia in the Fall of 1997, I was starting a new school, in a new world and perhaps I was clinging desperately to some foundational aspects of my being and enthusiastically proclaimed to my cousin that I wanted to study the Koran like he had. I recall peeling my eyes open sleepily at the crack of dawn, realizing my cousin had left the bottom bunk mattress we shared, snoozing as I watched my eldest cousin bend in prostration, wipe her face with both palms and open and close her hands repeatedly to the ceiling slowly catching the blessings showering her from above. Blessings that poured in through the dark morning air, penetrating our 20 floor housing building, and piercing the air molecules of our room.
My desire to convert to Islam was no doubt made more attractive by this intimate personal daily engagement I was privy to, which beat the Christianity my stepfather had decided to force feed us every Sunday morning. “We’re going to Church!” he would exclaim and the dread crept up even faster if the car wasn’t working (it often wasn’t) and church meant a 20 minute bus ride to a 40 minute train ride. Church, at all costs. In fact my mom’s excuses to not join us varied from wanting to have food ready for us when we returned from church (who could argue with that?), to declarations that she was “Muslim!” despite the folded up prayer mat that I had never seen her use.
Meeting my family in Liberia this year, I’m keenly aware once more of my ancestral roots in Islam. My family is of the Vai tribe which is for the most part, majority Muslim in a predominantly Christian country. I attended my cousin’s Islamic wedding ceremony recently and I was honored to be one of those that sat with her as the elder men in the town offered kola nut, recited Islamic prayers, and questioned if she was indeed ready to be given to her husband. The ceremony was beautiful. I knew just when to open and close my hands at each “Ameen”. The songs my family sang recalling my grandmother, my mother, and the past that brought us all together in the moment made me cry. My grandmother, they say was similar. Easy to cry. Emotional. Kind-hearted to a fault. My mom would say someone would step on her foot several times and she’d forgive them. I never got to meet her. I’ve always wondered if I got my agreeability from her. This devout and prayerful Muslim woman who slept with my picture under her pillow.
Yet and still, my mom insists that I find a church to go to. She’s a dedicated Christian now and I suppose life, divorce, children, and circumstances can shift one’s faith indefinitely. I’ve taken to finding spirituality in moments of connecting with the divine higher power from within. Whether it’s during yoga or private meditation sessions. I’ve referenced the Bible very little and have spoken to my inner spirit more. So it is, that I found myself at a church called the ‘Flaming Bible Church’ a few Sundays ago. Blame it on my agreeability. I accepted the invitation after I offered a colleague a bag of oranges at the market. “Why not?”, I thought. Two months into the New Year, five months into my new job and homecoming into Liberia, I thought it prudent to accept.
On this particular Sunday, I awoke determined to go. I grabbed the Bible my mother had given to me when I first moved into college 13 years ago. I wore a pretty brown dress with teal flowers and put on my heels and a tiny bit of makeup. Despite a friend’s warning that accepting just any church invitation, from a coworker nonetheless, was not the best move- he explained that our relationship as colleagues would change after this church visit–I walked out bible in hand excited to go to church. Colleague to church friend fears be damned! When a motorbike pulled up to pick me up from atop the hill across the street, my palms got sweaty. I insisted on finding a taxi instead. The plan was for three of us, the motorbike driver, myself in the middle, and my colleague in the back to ride along to the church which cars couldn’t easily get to. I eventually negotiated my own bike and sat sideways on the bike and held onto the waist of the driver for dear life and we were off.
The pastor was Nigerian. Churchgoers were well-dressed Liberians some in lappa suits, some children interspersed in their Sunday best. I smiled hesitantly as I was directed to my seat and my colleague was directed across the aisle, there was an attempt to wrestle my bible from my hands. I realized later it was par for the course as Bibles were taken and used to direct churchgoers to their seats once placed in the designated chair. After the first few rounds of fervent Holy Ghost prayer, I was singled out. “Sister”, the pastor said. “You, I want you to pray”. “Me?” I thought, certainly you can’t be talking to me. I had told my colleague I was not going to stand up for any “new visitor welcome” and now I was being asked to pray? I thought naively I might disappear into the small church crowd- there were perhaps 3 -4 rows of 8 on either side of an aisle- but here, within the first 10 minutes of my first Liberian church experience I was called out to pray. I don’t even like giving a prayer during Thanksgiving dinner. I pointed tentatively at myself, whispering “Me?”, careful to not let my “seres” (American accented English) slip out too loudly and too strongly as heads and eyes zeroed in on me. “Yes! You!,I can see you are not praying, you are chewing chiclet!”. “Sorry” I whispered ashamed and embarrassed he had interrupted the end of my personal but still, quiet time with God amidst the fervent jumpers and shakers around me. We can’t all pray the same I thought, as I slowly continued to chew. A few short minutes later the usher who had tried to wrestle my Bible away without explanation returned with her hand open to receive my gum. I gave it to her.
I sat flushed and hot throughout the rest of the service and after negotiating one of four offerings to give my 100LD or approximately $1 USD, I decided I needed to make a way out before the pastor began his anointing. A re-purposed water bottle full of oil sat on the pulpit. He had promised that during the final offering we were to remove our shoes and that he would anoint our toes and thumbs. (See: Importance of our toes & thumbs) There was mention of someone in our lives, family or friend performing witchcraft that was metaphorically cutting off these important appendages. Somewhere after, he explained that anything less than 50LD was too small an offering (demonstrating as he pulled a $5 LD or the equivalent of $.05 USD from someone’s hand to make a point, although he did present a disclaimer earlier that said “If you don’t have it, you don’t have it Amen!”; I politely asked for the restroom where I called the motorbike driver who had brought me. I apologized for interrupting the end of his own service at a separate church and I stumbled with him through the rocky and dusty terrain in my heels as folks watched me maneuver myself onto his bike sideways again (my dress), hand held tightly around my Bible, my purse, and his waist and we set off for the main road again.