Saturday, 19 July 2014

Jennifer's Bridge over Troubled Water

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is Sister Jennifer Giove’s journey to Islam.  It was a long, painful journey for her and serves as an inspiration for the rest of us.  To understand where she is now, we need to understand where she came from.  Here is her story.

When I was about 10 years old, my mother became a Jehovah's Witness, so from the very start, my religious world was very black and white.  If you were not a member of ‘The Truth’, then you were going to Hell.  Only those people who were Witnesses were going to make it through to the earthly paradise after the end of the system of things.  That is a heavy thing to place upon a child's shoulders: that the rest of your family is bad and is going to Hell because they did not believe in the same things you do; that it did not matter if they were nice people; and that it only mattered how they prayed, how they dressed, how they spoke, and so forth.  When I was 12ish, I heard my mother behaving inappropriately with someone.  I cried because I ‘knew’ she was going to Hell, because that is what I was taught.

My mother was also an alcoholic, although I did not know it.  I just thought that the reason why she would beat me was because I was bad.  I was not her only child; I had a brother with Down’s Syndrome.  I was fiercely protective of him yet at the same time, he was my annoying older brother and we fought a lot.  He could not speak so I felt torn between treating him like my brother and treating him like someone who did not know any better.

I lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood and so, anything out of the ordinary was noticed and judged.  I was poor, from a divorced household, with red hair, with a brother with Down’s syndrome, and to top it all off, a Jehovah’s Witness.  I was food for the ridicule machine.  Children are cruel in the best of circumstances.  I was tormented.

When my mother became an apostate, my friends in the congregation seemed to abandon me.  There I was, 15 years old and my world went upside down.  My mother was drinking and fornicating openly; she was still torturing me.  I was also getting sexually abused by the son of her boyfriend and my grades were falling in school.  What I did not know was that I had a learning disability.  My parents knew but hid it from me.

While my mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, my father was a Buddhist.  He taught me the peaceful side of humanity.  He taught me how to live simply and eat healthy foods.  He lived in a yurt with no running water, electricity or even an enclosed toilet.  His parents were immigrants from pre-WWII Germany.  His father had passed away long before I was born.  They came here as Jews escaping Hitler and became Congregationalists.  His father later becoming a preacher in a church.  My aunt was a Born-Again Christian and my mother’s family were non-practicing Christians which meant that they did not go to church but believed in Jesus (a.s.).

By the time I was a teenager, I was already familiar with an abnormally large chunk of the world’s religions.  That is to say, I knew they existed.  I was able to move away from the abuse and torture of my mother and moved into my father’s house.  It was traumatic since I was going from a high tension, high survival instinct environment to a non-violent, peaceful home but far away from any of my friends.  I was starting over, but because of the continuous denigration, I was socially inept.

My father did not condone drinking and drug use, especially amongst teenagers, but he knew that trying to stop it was pointless and would just push it to be done in secret.  In order to feel ‘normal’, I started to smoke pot and drink and smoke cigarettes.  When I started 10th grade, the school system decided to change how a student was going to graduate each grade level.  They changed it from a letter scale to a pass or fail system.  I knew I was not going to be able to pass and since I was having such a hard time at school anyways, I decided to quit and just join my friends on the streets doing drugs and drinking all day.


Time went by and after a summer of being homeless and drunk and doing things just to get what I thought was loving attention, I entered a program for at-risk youth.  I was placed in a rooming house and started to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.  I was also working on getting my General Education Degree so that I could attend perhaps college.

That is when it happened.  I was 17 years old and that evening, I was supposed to stand up in front of everyone and give them my ‘recovery’ story, kind of like how I doing, only that it centred around my journey to being sober instead of my journey to religious belief.

Part of Alcoholics Anonymous is a belief in a higher power.  It did not matter what one believed just so long as you believed in a higher power: God, Allah, Wiccan, Christianity… it did not matter, just so long as the power of control was out of our hands.  I suppose that an atheist would have a problem there.

I was terrified.  When I say terrified, I mean nervous breakdown, crying, screaming, pulling-out hair kind of terrified.  You know how in some countries, when a woman experiences a death, she thrashes around wailing over the dead?  That was me.  Standing up in front of everyone meant opening myself up for judgement and for someone with my history of rejection, this was too hard to face.

There I was, wailing, laying on the floor or the bed, and sometimes both, crying out to God.  Since I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I called out the Name that I understood to be God’s ‘personal’ Name, Jehovah.  I knew I had to face my fears but I could not do it by myself.  I asked for His Help.  I told Him how I felt.  I told Him that I knew that this was something I had to do.  I also said that I knew He was the Creator.  He was God and there was no one else.  He had all the Power and I was nothing.  I told Him that I was going to leave it to Him.  I would trust in Him to Protect me from my fears, and that I knew that I was not worthy of His Love.  I said that it was His Will.  I said there was nothing I could do to make Him do anything but that if He was going to Send me to Hell, that was His Choice and I would accept that.  If He Chose to Allow me to enter Paradise, that was His Choice as well.  I told him that I know He had the Power to do anything and communicate in any way He Chose.

Suddenly, I saw a light, for less than a half blink of an eye, and what sounded like music but in reality, it was more like a single note, every note, sung by millions of people.  I also immediately stopped crying, like a light switch had been flicked.  It was instantaneous.  I also felt held.  Once I calmed down, I restated my belief in Him and His Power.  That He was the Master and I was nothing.  I gathered my things and headed for the shower, still thinking about my experience.  Words really cannot describe it fully yet I can still hear the sound and feel that ‘held’ feeling.  I set my things up and turned on the radio.

The song that was playing was my favourite song, ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’ by Simon and Garfunkel.

When you’re weary,
Feeling small.
When tears are in your eyes,
I will dry them all.
I’m on your side,
When times get rough,
And friends just can’t be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

When you’re down and out,
When you’re on the street,
When evening falls so hard,
I will comfort you.
I’ll take your part,
When darkness comes,
And pain is all around.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

Sail on, silver girl,
Sail on by.
Your time has come to shine.
All your dreams are on their way.
See how they shine,
If you need a friend,
I’m sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind,
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.

Since then, I have experienced many more different religions from the standard, mainstream ones to others like Wiccan.  I kind of look at it as ‘taste testing’.  I had been so hurt by my childhood and being traumatised by black and white religion that I shied away from any religion that was totalitarian and absolute.  I have had a hard life since then: homelessness, epilepsy due to a bad blood vessel in my brain, threatened haemorrhage, the loss of a child in utero due to a chromosomal disorder, car accidents, facial fractures, gestational diabetes, the discovery by police of the bodies of both my father and brother in their home, a month before I moved to the city that my father was born in.  And these are just the highlights.

When I moved here, to Maryland, from Massachusetts, I left behind all my friends and my own ‘ummah’ of the Native American community; a community that I found support and love, a community that helped me grow into a better person, a community that helped me trust ‘belief’ again.  I moved here and I was alone.  I had also left a friend who I had connected to who had a PhD in Islamic religious history.  I felt uneducated when compared to him so I decided to investigate Islam.  I started with the anashyd, went to recitations and then joined a forum.  Unfortunately for me, it was an ultra-conservative forum.  There was no formal shahadah, but I considered myself Muslim from then.  These people did not.  Prior to this, I never knew what a Muslim or Islam is.  It was one of the few religions I had never encountered.

I learned a lot and even participated in Ramadhan that year, for 12 days.  I almost died because of the fast.  I had not taken into account how my body would react to the change in diet and how that would affect my anti-epileptic drug levels within my body.  I ended up overdosing on the drugs to the point where I was hallucinating and got very ill.  I had no idea what was happening but the hallucination taught me that everything was connected, giant circles and that when something happens in one circle, while we may not know it, the affect happens somewhere else.

When I first moved here, I was so angry. I stopped praying.  I told God that He was going to have to be Patient with me and that while I wanted to pray, I could not.  I was angry like a child and He was just going to have to wait.  My friend worked in a job that took him to far off places to do potentially dangerous, potentially fatal work.  He sent me an email telling me that he was going to be gone for a few days, maybe a week, maybe more.  15 days later, he was still away.  I was in a panic.  I imagined the worst things.  I also knew that his girlfriend must be even worse off than me.  I was walking back from the store with 2 gallons of milk and I started to pray. not for me, but for her, for God to Relieve her fears and Calm her.  Three hours later, I received a text message from saying that he was on his way to the East Coast and then home.

I have been learning more ever since.  I have received hate from people who say they are Muslims but because, in their eyes, since I have not stated the shahadah to their satisfaction, I am not only a non-Muslim in their eyes, but a ‘Zionist kafir’ intent on causing division in the ummah.  I have lost friends because I post about Islam but I have also become excellent friends to a woman I once considered my enemy.  It is funny how things work out that way.

Nowadays, I live with a man who, by law, is my husband but due to his indiscretions, I have asked to be divorced from.  Unfortunately, I am unable to financially support myself and my 6 year old son.  He does not seem to know that I consider myself a Muslim, and so I have to hide my beliefs.  He works nights and sleeps days so the only prayer I am able to perform is fajr.  I use a white towel as a prayer rug, wear the too small abayah that a friend bought for me in Afghanistan, and while I speak to whomever I wish, I have no in-real-life Muslim friends.  The whole of my associations have been online.

I still struggle with the whole ‘black and white’ parts of religion, but I am learning to accept that Allah (s.w.t.) Knows my struggle and I can only trust that He Understands and will Move my heart when it is time.  Each day is a new start and each step forward or back is part of the process.  Maybe I learn some things faster than other things.  Maybe, when I think I have reconciled something within me, Allah (s.w.t.) Knows that I skipped something and Sends me back to do it again.  So long as I wake up and keep trying, then it is another opportunity to please Him.

1 comment:

  1. Asalamu alaikum,

    Thanks for sharing :)

    Have you heard about Dhuhaa (Breakfast) Prayer ?

    Take Care

    ReplyDelete

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