Today I would like you to meet a new friend of mine.
Okay. I know it sounds strange, and perhaps somewhat creepy, to say this about someone whom I have never met and I only know because I happened to read one thing he wrote online. But still. His story is a poignant and powerful one, and one which I can relate to on many levels.
His name is Charles Featherstone. He has written a book entitled The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, which tells the story of his journey to faith in Christ. He wrote a piece for Christianity Today entitled “Saved from Islam on September 11“, which gives a very brief thumbnail sketch of his faith journey. He blogs at The Featherblog.
Featherstone’s journey to faith in Christ started in the Lutheran church. Both his parents were raised Lutheran, but his mother never had much use for religion and his father lost his faith in the goodness of God while fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. As a result he had very little in the way of religious upbringing. After experiencing violence from his father and bullying from teachers and fellow students, his journey took a detour through Islam, where the emphasis upon a God who cares how human beings treat each other and the sense of belonging that he experienced in the Islamic community were a refuge for him. He was drawn to the radical elements of Islam, which gave him a theological framework to deal with the anger he felt in his soul as a result of the violence/bullying he experienced in his childhood. At one point he considered going to fight in the Bosnian conflict of the mid/late 90’s with a group that turned out to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. But he was married at the time, and he viewed that as a higher calling than going to fight that war. He pursued a career in journalism, and as a result had a front-row seat to the cataclysmic events of September 11. This was a defining experience for him, one which propelled him out of Islam and into Christianity.
He joined a Lutheran church, because that is where his wife was raised. He felt the call to seek ordination and minister to the homeless, but twice he went through the candidacy process only to be told he was unfit for ministry. At this point he is out of work, unable to find work as a journalist because that world is dominated by younger, hungrier people with fresher clips, and unable to find church work because most churches prefer the comfortable and familiar and have no interest in someone like him. But as he says, “I don’t know if I’ll ever work again, but I know who I am and whose I am and what I bear witness to. And that’s no small thing.”
Read this Q&A piece at internetmonk.com, in which he goes deeper into several aspects of his faith journey, such as his childhood, his time in Islam, his experience of 9/11, and his unsuccessful (to this point) attempts to pursue a career in ministry.
What stands out to me is his intense desire for belonging. On a certain level I can relate to this. Though I never experienced anything like the violence and bullying he experienced in his childhood, I know what it is like to be on the outside, to know deep in my bones that I cannot quite seem to belong, to want what everyone else wants the way it should be wanted. I have had seasons of life where I have struggled to find a home professionally, and I know what it is like to know that people just don’t quite know what to do with me because I don’t want what everyone else wants the way it should be wanted. I am part of a church community that has been very good to me over the years and given me a great deal of latitude to be who I am, but even at that I am sure that there have been many times when they just didn’t know what to do with me.
For our talk about individualism, and even freedom, America is a deeply conformist society. Freedom is basically the ability to want and to choose the right things, to voluntarily conform. I suppose it has to be that way, or else nothing would hold the society together, but it also means that conformity is very internally driven. It also means there is quite a clash between what we as a people confess and how we actually live, and demand those around us live. And we really don’t know what to do with non-conformists. We really do not know how to accept those who, in their bones, cannot seem to belong, to want what everyone should want the way it should be wanted. I really wanted to belong, to be accepted, to be part of something in high school, and I kind of was — marching band, maybe — but mostly I was alone. I had friends, and some intense friendships, but not really the deep web of belonging I think I have been aching for much of my life. To be part of a people, enmeshed in them, and to have them be a part of me.
He explains how Islam satisfied his need and desire for belonging, how the Islamic communities he was a part of came alongside him, recognized he was an outsider, and very deliberately and purposefully taught him everything he would need to know to fit in:
But the Muslims I met understood something — that I was an outsider, I had not been raised in their faith or in any of their cultures, and so I would need to be taught. And generally speaking, they taught me. Not just the mechanics — how to pray, how to wash before prayer, how to read and recite in Arabic, what to memorize, which school of Islamic jurisprudence to follow and why — but manners and cultural cues, the little things no one thinks anyone needs to learn. A group of Saudi graduate students at Ohio State, where I finished up my bachelor’s degree, took me in hand, and had I been able to keep with it, they would have pretty thoroughly Saudi-ized me. I’ve been told repeatedly I speak Saudi accented Arabic. They understood what I didn’t know, and proceeded to teach me. Very deliberately and very purposefully.
He reflects on how the American church is inextricably tied to American culture and does not know what to do with outsiders:
The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too….The American church wants the comfortable and familiar, thinking it can reach the lost and lonely that way. And maybe it can reach some, I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t really reach me, at least not on purpose, and that I don’t belong. Not anywhere.
Read the Q&A piece at internetmonk.com. Let it soak into you. Let it break your heart that someone with a strong calling to ministry, especially to the last, least, lost, and little who are so near and dear to the heart of Jesus Christ, cannot find a place to minister anywhere in the church as of this point. Let it break your heart that he has had to struggle so long and so hard to experience belonging in a world where he just does not want the same things that others want, the way they should be wanted. Let it break your heart that the American church is so enamored of the safe, the comfortable, the familiar, the tried-and-true, and that so many people for whom Christ died are not being reached by it. If this does not break your heart, then please, get alone with God, get on your face before God, until it does.