Words: Hassina Obaidy
Photos: Tearsa Hammock
The first step is often the hardest. Stephanie Skoog has dreamt of this day countless times-the day when she reveals her new identity to the world. She’s not without inhibitions, though. She imagines all the comments construction workers will say when she walks by.
Skoog begins this particular morning as she would the rest from here on out: she wraps a silk maroon scarf, a gift from her friend in Libya, to cover her hair and neck. She wraps layer upon layer around her face and neck, making sure her hair and light skin aren’t revealed. After finishing up her morning rituals, she dresses herself in a silky, bright pink blouse and black pants. She steps out of her room, walks to the front door of her Richmond district apartment in San Francisco and opens the door. Slowly, she peeks her head out, takes a look outside the apartment door then suddenly closes it shut, overcome with fear. Skoog opens the door once more, this time stepping one foot out, then rushes back inside the comfort of her Richmond apartment unable to take that first, big step.
Finally, she pulls herself together, opens the door and walks outside. This is the first time she had revealed her new identity to the world.
She takes the bus across town to San Francisco State University, where she is a student. There, she makes her way to the Muslim Student Association (MSA) room in the Cesar Chavez building. It is here, on the afternoon of May 2, 2012 that Skoog converts to Islam.
SF State is a diverse and multicultural campus. Student religious organizations like the Muslim Student Association and Light On Campus are helpful resources for new Muslims and new Christians to receive education on their new faith and build friendships within their communities. These students pursue a faith that would fit their lifestyle and transform their identity into one they can be proud of.
At the beginning of the 2010 school year, Ahmina Alenthia James phones her Facebook friend of three years from Illinois and finally makes the decision that will alter her life.
“You believe in the prophet, you believe the Quran, you believe in Islam so why not become Muslim?” says James’ Facebook friend.
“It’s just something I’m trying to figure out, something I’m still trying to do,” she says.
“Even though I never met you, you have changed and grown so much as a person just by conversations. Every time I talk to you, you went from being this girl that was just like wandering and exploring to this girl that actually knows, who actually feels something. There’s three things in the world that you don’t wait for in this life: you don’t wait on marriage, you don’t wait to bury someone, and you don’t wait to recite shahada [‘Muslim declaration of the faith in Islam, belief in Prophet Muhammad’].”
After her brief conversation, she waited a few days then called her Facebook friend again and said, “on September 8, 2010 I am going to become Muslim.”
“Wait sister, you have to make sure you say ‘Inshallah!’”
Ahmina Alenthia James visits the Islamic Society of San Francisco on Jones Street to pray and read. Photo by: Tearsa Joy Hammock / Xpress Magazine
“Yes, Inshallah meaning ‘God willing’ because everything is in God’s power. You don’t know, you might die as soon as you get off this phone with me so that’s why you have to Inshallah.”
“Oh ok. Inshallah, I will become Muslim on September 8th 2010,” James says confidently.
Changing one’s faith can be challenging, yet uplifting for religious seekers. For some students like Skoog and James, they found their calling while attending SF State and constantly researching and asking questions about Islam. As for another student, she began worshipping God during her early teen years.
During the summer before sixth grade, Jinny Li woke up every day fearing that God would kill her and send her to hell forever. After both her elder sister Jenny and brother converted to Christianity, curiosity struck Li. She saw a change, a positive shift in the lives of her siblings. Her elder siblings were hugely influential in her conversion. After Jenny became a follower of Christ, she immediately came home and began to preach to Jinny.
“Jinny, you’re going to hell because you don’t believe in Jesus and God and because of your sins!”
Li was very much disturbed by what her sister said during the many conversations they had about Christianity and God. She knew that her statement was true, so she stopped worshipping idols as a Buddhist.
She was suddenly hit with the reality that one day she was going to die, so she began to question life after death. She began to fear death and God’s judgment of her.
“I knew that I was far from perfect and if God were to judge me according to his perfect standards I would be guilty,” she says.
Her sister told her about the purpose of Christianity.
“The belief that every person has to follow God’s standard, but Jesus Christ is God’s son, died on the cross and takes the punishment I deserve so I can be forgiven if I believe in him, repent, and turn away from my sins,” Jenny told Jinny.
After months of conversing about Christianity, Li finally came to the decision to become a Christian and believe in Jesus Christ.
Although Skoog, James and Li gained confidence in themselves, they all faced the same struggle after their conversions: the relationship with their families.
Growing up in a Lutheran Christian family, Skoog was very shy and self-conscious about the way she looked. Like most young girls, she always worried about her hair, the way she dressed, and her make-up. She never felt she could fit in with her community because she was always “proper.”
Once she started wearing the hijab, she suddenly forgot about her physical appearance and found comfort in herself.
“I like wearing it because it shows that I’ve accepted who I am and proud of who I am and for me that’s the greatest feeling ever,” she smiles brightly. “I also want to say to the world that what I submit to is a higher power than other people. I submit to one God and that’s my guiding force. It’s my way of life, so I really like what it symbolizes.”
Her family and her father, in particular, is not pleased with her decision. The first conversation about Skoog’s conversion was the most difficult time.
“I never want to see you wear that rag on your head,” he said. “If you ever wear that in front of my face, you are not my daughter.”
“So a hat it is,” she thought to herself.
Every year or so, a family portrait is taken for the church directory of Timothy’s Lutheran Church. When Skoog wore her hijab for the portrait, both her mother and father felt it was inappropriate. They felt uncomfortable and urged her to take it off. However, Skoog took a stance and refused to take her hijab off. She thought of replacing it with a hat, or some sort of headpiece that would cover her head, but they did not agree.
Meanwhile, her sister supported Skoog.
“If she’s not going to be in the picture, then I’m not going to be in the picture either,” her sister said. The family portrait was taken with the parents only.
When Skoog is around her father, she doesn’t wear a hijab, she covers up with a bandana, or a hat. Her mom, however, watches out for Skoog, making sure that the family is together and happy.
James, on the other hand, didn’t quite tell her family. She showed them.
“I slapped on a hijab before I was Muslim and just walked around my family and showed them I am Muslim,” she says.
James’ grandparents from her mom’s side saw her wearing a hijab for the first time and their response left her flabbergasted.
“Oh my god, my granddaughter joined those terrorists,” says James’ grandmother.
Her grandfather didn’t take it easy either and was upset for a few months. He gave her lectures on what he witnessed in the Muslim community and asked questions even though James wasn’t a Muslim at the time. During family outings, some of her relatives are not comfortable with her hijab, but she still embraces it anyway. James says she learned from this experience by realizing what she knew about Islam and what she needs to know.
Despite her family challenges, James is trying to immerse in the Muslim community.
“It’s a cultural challenge…like my family is here with black people whereas the Muslim community is a cluster of all types of people,” she says. “So do I bring the Muslim community to my family or my family to the Muslim community? And will they fit into either one?”
Regardless of the challenges she faced, James feels welcomed and accepted by the Muslim community.
Taking a different turn, Li was raised worshipping Buddhist idols. Her father, an atheist, and her mother, a Buddhist, were not happy after learning about her conversion to Christianity. They were completely against it and tensions built up in their home.
Her father believed it was “dumb and a waste of time” while her mother believed Jinny wasn’t being true to her Asian culture by not worshipping to Buddhist idols. Although her parents hated the idea of Jinny being Christian, they have since accepted it.
Meanwhile, the relationship with her siblings became stronger. Since both her elder brother and sister first became Christians in the family, they now know how to love each other and accept each other by not fighting and arguing all the time like they used to do.
Now, before these three religious pioneers journeyed through the rocky roads, they wanted to make sure they knew everything about their new found religion before taking that big leap toward a new life.
Before Skoog stepped into the MSA room on the day of her conversion, she was seeking the truth. At the age of 12, she decided that religion wasn’t for her. She had a lot of questions about God and the faith, but was told to never ask questions and to just have faith. Since that wasn’t enough for her, she became agnostic and then atheist for half of her life but never gave up searching.
“The second I decided there was nothing out there for me, my first thought in my mind was there was hope in Islam,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about Islam, I know it’s similar to Christianity, but I don’t know why I didn’t think about Judaism. For some reason, I just kept thinking ‘I should learn more about Islam.’”
Skoog began asking questions about women’s rights, democracy, equality, and many other controversial topics in Islam. But she realized asking her fiance, Khalil, was the wrong person to ask about these issues. Khalil told her to speak to Muslim women about these topics because he didn’t have enough knowledge about these issues and did not want to give her the wrong information.
Stephanie Skoog prays in the MSA room in Cesar Chavez Student Center. Skoog says “hijab” is more of an adjective than a nous among Muslim women. She dresses fully hijab because she desires to express her faith visually to others. Photo by: Tearsa Joy Hammock / Xpress Magazine
She attended a few lectures, took an Arabic language class at SF State, and befriended a few Muslim converts that answered her questions.
“I never knew how many rights women really have in Islam. The media assumed women were oppressed, but we are not a symbol of oppression, we’re a symbol of liberation, a symbol of our commitment to God,” she says.
After a whole year of questions and soul searching, Skoog converted in the MSA room. The night before, she sent a Facebook message to the leader that she wanted to convert during one of their weekly meetings.
When the day arrived, the leader sent out a mass text message to its members, which said “you must come to the room, something amazing is going to happen!”
The members rushed to their second home and the room was filled with a diverse group of Muslims. Once everyone settled she began to perform the Shahada in Arabic.
“I bear witness that there is no God but one God and Muhammad is his prophet and messenger.”
“That day I was walking on air. As soon as I said it I started shaking and couldn’t help finding a tear fall down my eye,” she said. “I felt like..it was very physical, such a physical response, never felt more elated.”
When the shahada was over, she was showered with hugs and uplifting comments of “congratulations!” and “Mashallah!” This was the happiest day of her life and on that note, she had to attend class as soon as it was over.
Similar to Skoog, James was also raised Christian, but in a black nationalist family. After a friend from high school converted to Islam, she began researching the ideas behind it. Her intentions during her research was to learn about Islam, not convert. She began to connect with Muslim women including a married woman from Illinois on Facebook.
When James changed her religious views to “confused” on Facebook, the Muslim woman from Illinois contacted her and asked about her “confusion.” Since the name “Ahmina” sounds like an Islamic name, she immediately thought James was a born Muslim.
Her new Facebook friend urged James to give her a phone call and after a few days of hesitation, she did so and never regretted it since. She answered all her questions as they discussed Islam and the Quran.
After much exploring and research, the day of her conversion arrived. She called a friend, Hira Khanzada from Ta’leef Collective, a non-profit organization that educates on Islam, told her about her decision.
“I want this to happen at sunset at the Berkeley Marina,” she says with determination.
“You need two witnesses to do shahada,” said Khanzada.
While sitting on the green grass of the Berkeley marina with Khanzada and looking at a postcard view of the bay area, she waited for her second witness to call, which she says seemed like a lifetime. She began to get butterflies in her stomach and almost came to tears.
Khanzada gave her a bright pink head hijab along with a matching bright pink thezbi (a string of beads to help count prayers) and taught her a few prayers.
Finally, her second witness called and put her on speaker to listen the to the shahada.
Before we start this I want to make sure everything is alright with you, that you are ready for this?” says Khanzada. “Do you believe in one God and one God only?”
“Yes,” says James.
“Do you believe that Jesus is a prophet and not the Son of God?”
“You believe in the last day and hereafter?”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“Ok this is a special moment and I want you to know that you are submitting yourself fully to God and I want you to know and I want you to be ready for that from here on out,” says Khanzada. “Once this happens that you will be fully responsible for all of your actions and that everything that you’ve ever committed is wiped away, you are clean one hundred percent, you are a total new person. Repeat after me.”
“Raise your right index finger and say ‘ash-hadu an Alla Ilaha Illallah, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan Rasul-Ullah’(“I bear witness that there is no God but one God and
Muhammad is his prophet and messenger.”)
After twenty-five minutes of trying to repeat this phrase with confidence, she finally fulfills it and becomes Muslim at 6:45 p.m.
Similar to Skoog and James, Li began to absorb herself in the Christian faith. However, converting to Christianity is more of a long process.
During this process, Li was very confused. Like many converts, she too had a lot of questions, but didn’t know who to turn to. In this case, all her questions were answered by her sister and the Bible. She began questioning the truth about life and whether her own ideas were true.
Jinny Li, an Astrophysics major, believes Christianity is the one way of truth and lives her life as an example for those she hopes to follow her on that chosen path. Photo by: Tearsa Joy Hammock / Xpress
“God further showed me that along with my sin of idolatry, I have committed countless other sins that made me stand condemned because God is holy, good, and righteous and he cannot tolerate sin,” Jinny says. “I was cheating, lying, lusting, dishonoring my parents, and hating people. I was full of selfish ambition, jealousy, and anger.”
At that point, she believed she would never be forgiven for her sins and once Jenny conversed with her again, Li was convinced about God’s grace.
“God is a holy and just God who hate sins but God is also a loving God,” she says.
According to Jinny, “the process of conversion is an individual process that begins with a recognition that God created every person in this world to worship and glorify Him.”
During the summer before the 6th grade school year, she read the Bible a number of times, trying to understand what was being said and asking her sister regarding the ideas in it. Slowly, her mind set started changing and she began to interpret everything in the light of the Bible.
“And the Bible taught that I deserve hell for my sins. But out of God’s love, I can be forgiven if I would repent and trust in Jesus as my Savior and Lord,” says Li.
The moment Li learned of God’s grace, she no longer fears death, nor his judgment.
“That God is so gracious that he not only saved me from Hell but He has also adopted me to be his daughter,” she says. “And I no longer have to fear His judgment but I can look forward to the day when I can forever worship Him as my Heavenly Father with un-sinning heart in heaven.”
“A Christian is one who believes that Jesus Christ is our only Savior and Lord. If an individual trusts in Jesus Christ and His atoning work on our behalf, and makes a decision to follow Jesus Christ from this point forward, he or she can be saved from judgment, forgiven of their sin, and reconciled to God for now unto eternity,” Pastor Alton To of the San Francisco Bible Church.
The accepting and teachings of one God as revealed through Muhammad, the Prophet of Allah and articulated by the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book. Muslims follow a religion of peace, mercy, and forgiveness and teaches that one can find peace by submitting to Allah, the almighty God.
“Buddhist practices like meditation are means of changing yourself in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom. An enlightened being sees the nature of reality absolutely clearly, just as it is, and lives fully and naturally in accordance with that vision. This is the goal of the Buddhist spiritual life, representing the end of suffering for anyone who attains it,” writes the international Buddhist Centre.