On My Way to Becoming a Lutheran Minister
By Jamilah Kolocotronis
I sat in my night class, in my first semester at the community college, daydreaming as usual. I thought about my future and wondered where it would take me. Suddenly I had a revelation. I wanted to become a minister. I wanted to devote my life to spreading God’s Word.
Two years later, in 1976, I transferred to a state university two hundred miles away from home. Still pursuing my dream, I immediately contacted the pastor of the local Lutheran church and told him I wanted to help in whatever way I could. For my first assignment, he sent me as his representative to a welcoming picnic for new international students. At that picnic, I met my first Muslim.
I learned that Abdul-Mun'im came from Thailand. He had a nice smile, and he was polite. As we talked, he often mentioned God.
That seemed very strange to me. I had always been told that anyone who was not a Christian would go to hell. I wondered how someone who believed in God, and had good manners, could be condemned to eternal punishment. I felt sorry for Abdul-Mun'im. So I set out to convert him.
I invited him to attend church with me. He came, but he brought his copy of the Qur’an. I was so embarrassed. After the service, he told me a little about Islam and the Qur’an. I had never heard those words before. I had heard the word “Muslim,” but only in a negative sense. During the 60s, many whites across America believed that Black Muslims planned to overthrow white American society.
I had a baby sister, born a few days before I received my undergraduate degree, and I watched her. I tried to see the sin in her.
Over the next two years I stayed in contact with Abdul-Mun'im, and a few other Muslim men, through my involvement with the International Club. I continued in my crusade to convert them, and remained steadfast in pursuing my goal of becoming a minister.
In the 1970s, many churches refused to ordain women. I received a letter from one seminary informing me, in no uncertain terms, that women were “not allowed to speak in church.” It’s in the Bible, in one of the epistles of St. Paul. I wondered if the passage had been revealed by God, or simply reflected the personal bias of Paul.
Anyway, times were changing. I found a Lutheran seminary which accepted me. After graduating from the university, I packed up and headed to Chicago to begin my training for the ministry.
I had some very positive experiences in Chicago. I got along well with my two roommates, and made other friends. I studied Latin with a Polish priest who couldn’t hide his excitement when he learned that the newly-selected pope was Polish. I listened to lectures by scholars at the nearby University of Chicago, and even landed a job dusting the apartment of one old professor. I heard Handel’s Messiah performed in an old cathedral by a professional choir. I soaked up the atmosphere of life on the Southside of Chicago.
But my studies were disappointing. One professor told us that while Christian scholars had determined that the Bible was not infallible, we should not tell our parishioners this. When I asked questions, I was told to “simply believe.” Then there was the seminary social life–parties, drinking. I packed up and left Chicago after one semester, extremely disillusioned.
My parents, though disappointed, welcomed me back into their home. I decided to spend some time searching.
I knew that Muslims did not believe in original sin. I had a baby sister, born a few days before I received my undergraduate degree, and I watched her. I tried to see the sin in her. But I couldn’t, because it wasn’t there.
While trying to decide my next course of action, I signed on with a temp agency and took secretarial jobs. Some of my assignments were in downtown St. Louis, a long bus ride away from my parents’ suburban home. I used my commute time for reading.
One day I walked into a bookstore and bought a paperback translation of the Qur’an. I had a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion, and a semester of seminary training, so surely I possessed the skills I needed to expose the errors in the Qur’an. Then I would be able to persuade my poor Muslim friends how very wrong they were.
I read, looking for mistakes and inconsistencies, and found none. I became impressed when I came to Surat Al-An`am 6, verse 73. [He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in truth. On that day when He says, Be, it is.]
When I was a little girl, attending Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, I learned about how God created the world. “God said, ‘Let there be light’,” the Bible says. “And there was, and it was good.” Be, and it is. I started to wonder if Allah was the same God I had always worshiped.
I paid closer attention after reading that verse. For the first time, I wanted to know more about Islam.
I decided to return to my old university to study for my master’s degree in Philosophy and Religion. I began attending some of the Friday prayers, just to observe. I also continued to go to church and eat ham and cheese sandwiches. I wasn’t ready to become a Muslim. But I felt adrift. I needed answers.
I felt as if I had been treading water, and I finally found land.
I searched in earnest. My Muslim friends at the university clarified some issues, such as how Jesus could have been born of a virgin and not be divine. I wrote a paper for my one of my classes in which I explored the concept of “logos”. In the Bible, the Gospel of John, it says, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This verse is often used to support the divinity of Jesus. So I explored the concept, tracing it back to ancient Greece and the writings of Plato. I studied the evolution of the doctrine of the Trinity, researching the various Christian opinions on this issue before it was codified at the Council of Nicaea in 325. I read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations. I had many questions, and I needed to know.
I studied other religions also. I read the Bhagavad Gita, examined the life and teachings of Buddha and talked about peace with Baha’is. I needed to find the truth.
By the summer of 1980, I had come to appreciate many of the teachings of Islam. But some things still bothered me. One of the greatest was the need to make ablutions before prayer. God should be accessible at all times, I thought. Why did Muslims feel the need to perform a special cleansing ritual? I couldn’t see the logic in it.
On the night I accepted the necessity of wudu', I was ready to accept Islam. I walked over to the small mosque near the university, on the night of the nineteenth of Ramadan, and told the men there about my discovery. One of them, Adel, gave me shahadah.
It took a few days, but I started to feel at peace. I had been searching for so long. I felt as if I had been treading water, and I finally found land.
But my struggles weren’t over. For one thing, I had no idea about hijab. The three men who were present at my shahadah were from Jordan, Egypt and Thailand, and they told me nothing about it. In those days, most of the women in their countries didn’t cover. On the day before `Eid I traveled with them to a larger town, and they took me to the apartment of a Sudanese woman. Soon after my arrival, she handed me a robe and a scarf and told me to put them on. I was stunned. She was very nice, though, so I did as she said.
When we returned to our small town, I took off the robe and scarf. That was not for me. It was hot—this was in August—and I felt strange. And, besides, I didn’t want one of my professors to know that I was a Muslim. I knew he would be displeased.
My next challenge was trying to figure out how to tell my parents. Three weeks after my conversion, I wrote them a letter. I tried to explain my struggle and years of searching. They were shocked. They hoped I was just going through a phase. They worried that I had joined a cult. They didn’t understand. But they never turned their back on me.
A few months after my conversion, I began to wear the scarf. First, I wore it to keep my ears warm on winter mornings in northern Missouri. Then one day, after being treated rudely by one of the men on campus, I decided to wear it full-time. My professor wasn’t happy, but he didn’t say too much.
Seven or eight months after my shahadah, I met another student who was interested in Islam. She already knew something about it, and wanted to learn more. We talked and talked. One night she told me she was ready. I gave her shahadah.
Even though some Muslims degrade women, Islam elevates us.
All during this time, I kept in contact with Abdul-Mun’im. He was one of the three present when I made shahadah, and he helped me adjust to my new faith. A month after my conversion he left to pursue his doctorate in Indiana, but we continued to write. When I told him about Sr. Aisha’s conversion, he invited both of us to travel with him and his friends up to Ann Arbor. A brother and sister with a large family hosted Aisha and me. Community members gave us Islamic clothes and books. We felt very welcome.
In the spring, Abdul-Mun’im invited me to apply to his university. I was accepted, and they offered me a doctoral fellowship. In the summer, Aisha and Fauzia, a Pakistani sister, helped me move to Indiana. They stayed there with me during Ramadan. At the end of Ramadan, Aisha and Fauzia moved back to Missouri. Abdul-Mun’im asked me to marry him.
We have been married for twenty-four years. We have six sons and, in sha' Allah, we will soon have our first grandchild. During most of our years together we have worked to establish and strengthen Islamic education.
Even though I have been a Muslim for twenty-six years now, I still feel new. My Arabic lessons stopped after my first son was born, and even though our youngest is now ten I have not returned to them. I have continued my studies in Islam, but I never feel I know enough.
I do know that I will always be an American. My early years had a huge impact on my life, and America will always be my country. I did try, for the first twenty years, to blend in with the immigrant culture, but I realized that I was denying who I really was. I can’t turn my back on my first twenty-three years.
One aspect of my conversion which my family still finds puzzling is my willingness to renounce, as they see it, the feminism of my youth. It is true that I no longer seek to become a religious leader. But, in Islam, I have found a fuller expression of what it means to be a woman. I do get irritated when brothers from other countries try to impose their cultural beliefs, suppressing women and not allowing us to be heard. When that happens, I only need to turn to the Qur’an or remember the example of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Even though some Muslims degrade women, Islam elevates us.
I am still learning, and still struggling to be closer to my Creator. And I am still working to integrate my American self with my Muslim self. Life is a journey, and I’m still on the road.
Jamilah Kolocotronis is a writer, teacher and the mother of six sons. Originally from St. Louis, she attended one semester of Lutheran seminary before becoming disillusioned. She accepted Islam at the age of twenty-three.
She and her husband live in Milwaukee, where he is principal of Salam School. Jamilah teaches part-time and writes novels about American Muslims. Her latest novel is Echoes.