I was born to a Puerto Rican couple raised as Catholics, deeply rooted in their culture. I was never baptized as a child, but did attend Sunday school at church, where I initially began to question my faith. The nuns, who were our teachers, had a problem with my frequent class interruptions asking questions like, “If the First Commandment says ‘I am the Lord your God: thou shall not worship any God but Me,’ then why do we pray to Jesus and the statues? And If God is All-knowing, why do we have confessions?” According to them, I was a troubled child of little faith.
Realizing my disbelief, they labeled me a lost soul and prayed for my salvation.
My mother gave me a choice at the early age of eight when she noticed my lack of faith in the Catholic teachings. The last Sunday morning while parked in the school’s lot, she asked me what was wrong and I’d responded crying, “Mom I don’t want to go to Sunday school anymore, I don’t like it. When I don’t understand something and raise my hand to ask questions, they ignore me.” My mom wiped the tears off my face and said, “Ok, mamita (my little one) if you don’t want to go anymore you don’t have to, now let’s go to Carvel’s and share a banana split!”
Some time had passed and my mother suggested I visit a Pentecostal Christian Church where my aunt was an active member. My first visit was a memorable one. They had a band on stage playing along to the Pastor’s speech. The speech was about fighting temptation and being modestly dressed. Throughout the speech I remember hearing “In Jesus’s Name” and “Lord Jesus” being shouted many times as they glorified him. Things took a turn when church members began shouting, dancing, jumping, spinning, and finally speaking another language. They call that “catching the Holy Ghost.” This unknown language is said to be the holy ghost speaking through them, or “speaking in tongues.”
Realizing my disbelief, they labeled me a lost soul and prayed for my salvation. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I experienced a different kind of faith. I noticed a Muslim fellow classmate of mine stepping out of class without a pass every day. I asked him, “Why do you leave class every day at the same time and why don’t you have to get a pass?” He said, “I am Muslim and I have to perform my daily prayer at this time.”
My initial reaction was to laugh, but then I became afraid and wanted to leave. On our way home I asked my aunt how she had learned another language, but she explained that when the ghost would enter her body, it would speak through her and she was unable to recall her own actions. Although my experience was uncomfortable, in our search for truth my mom and I would return every so often but never became members of that church. I continued to live a life without a set faith, simply believing in God, knowing very little about Him, and constantly questioning my purpose.
Years later while I was in high school, my brother married a Christian woman and became a minister at their church. I joined them on several occasions. At this point I was sure that I disagreed with the concept of what they called the Holy Trinity. I argued with my brother who said that God was a “jealous God.” I debated him saying, “If God is a jealous God, then why do you pray to Jesus!?” He answered, “Look, it’s like this, God is three in one: The Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I argued back, “What? That doesn’t even add up, and how can God be a father, a son, and a spirit? So who was Jesus praying to then?”
Realizing my disbelief, they labeled me a lost soul and prayed for my salvation. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I experienced a different kind of faith. I noticed a Muslim fellow classmate of mine stepping out of class without a pass every day. I asked him, “Why do you leave class every day at the same time and why don’t you have to get a pass?” He said, “I am Muslim and I have to perform my daily prayer at this time.” I asked, “You’re a Muslim? But you have a Spanish last name. Aren’t you Puerto Rican?” “He said, “Yes, but I converted to Islam.” So I asked him, “What do Muslims believe?” He gave me the best answer I ever could have hoped for: “We believe in One God, we worship Him directly, we believe In the angels, the original Scripture, the prophets including Jesus and Muhammad, the last Prophet, and the Day of Judgment.”
The very next day he brought me a Dawah package which included basic information about Islam along with a video about salat (prayer). Excited to learn, I read the books and will never forget my Dad’s reaction when I played the salat video and he heard the adhan (call to prayer) throughout the house. He rushed to my room, gave me a serious look, gestured with his finger and said in a stern voice, “What are you doing? Just remember one thing, you’re Puerto Rican and you’re Catholic!” He walked away and left me watching it. Afterwards I remember feeling that for the first time I agreed with a religion. It was easy, clear, and interesting.
However, my interest in Islam did not go any further until I was in college surrounded by a diverse group of students. Living on the East Coast, the tragedy of 9/11 had a huge impact on me. I went through a stage of Islamophobia which, ironically, sparked an interest in me to get to know more about the Arab students around me. During that time, I met a Muslim student named Nada, and I began asking her questions about Islam. We used to talk about it so much that sometimes we’d be late to class. We became really good friends.
One day, after noticing my genuine yearning to know who God was, she advised me with these words: “If you are sincere, and only God knows what is in your heart, do you really think that He will let you down if you ask Him for guidance? Ask Him. Right before you go to sleep turn directly to God, talk to Him as if He can see you but you can’t see Him; be sincere and ask Him for a sign. The sign may be in the form of a dream or it can be in real life but you will know it when you see it.”
I made my way home anticipating my plea for guidance. Before bed, I got down on my knees and with an open heart called out to God saying, “God, Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Buddha, whoever You are, please hear me and answer my prayer, please forgive me for my sins, forgive me for not worshiping You as I did not know how. I need to know the truth and I am so confused, everyone claims to know the truth and I am lost. Please God show me who You are. Only You know what I need, please show me a sign that I cannot ignore.”
I usually dream every night, but the next morning I woke up blank and a little disappointed that I had not seen the sign I was hoping for. I got ready for my classes and as I headed to school, I glanced up at the sky and saw something incredible. In the clouds I saw the name A-l-l-a-h written; it was so perfect I could not ignore it. Each letter was flawlessly molded in a cloud formation where my eyes rested, bewildered. I stood frozen staring at it until it slowly faded away. I was suddenly overcome by an unshakeable sense of fear because although I had been asking for a clear sign, I was scared of the consequences of accepting Allah as my Lord.
I was afraid to tell anyone, thinking no one would believe what I saw, or they would think I was crazy or using drugs. I realized all of the changes I had to make as a Muslim and I wasn’t sure if I could handle the commitment. I was also worried about what my family and friends would say, but none of this stopped me in the end. When I saw Nada again, I told her about what I had seen and felt. She asked me if I wanted to declare my faith in Islam, but I told her I was not ready. I was certain who my Creator was, but I wanted to learn more about Islam. She then offered to take me to the bookstore in the mosque.
The Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC) in Paterson, NJ was the first mosque I ever entered. There in the bookstore I received free literature about monotheism, the basic principles of Islam, ablution, and prayer. Even after receiving a sign from Allah, there was still a part of me that was in doubt, expecting something in Islam that I would not agree with and so I questioned every topic I came across. I did this for several months until all of my misconceptions were corrected and I gained a clear understanding of Islam. For the first time in my life, I had a belief system with answers to every aspect of my life. I eventually declared my Shahada (testimony of faith) with Imam Qatanani at ICPC.
I’ve been Muslim about 13 years now and I can truly say I am happy. Islam has filled a void and given me clear answers. My biggest desire now is to one day be able to read the Holy Quran in Arabic.