I began to silently question Islam when I was twelve. In small ways, I’d been questioning it for a long time, or at least dabbling, fascinated with a God who somehow wasn’t a fist of resistance, indifferent to human emotion, and impossible to please. A God who wasn’t like ours.
I wanted more. I wanted out. I wanted answers. I wanted truth. I wanted freedom in every sense of the word, in any sense of the word: freedom to choose, freedom from pain, freedom from a sterile, hyper-controlling system that dictated my every thought without even caring who I was. I wanted to know that someone, anyone, could hear my cries. I wanted to want, and I wanted someone to listen. And if they didn’t, if they wouldn’t, if I couldn’t get anybody to care, I was done. Done with life.
I meant it.
I was only twelve years old but already torn in half. Alone in my bedroom one night, grasping to survive my suicidal thoughts, I crumpled to the floor, heavy tears smearing my face. A tingle of involuntary shame shot up my back as the cry inside me began to congeal into blasphemy. Yet I pressed into the moment, unable anymore to absorb what my life had become and was becoming. Having nowhere else to go with my thoughts, I stared up toward heaven: “God! If you’re there, if you’re real—please!—stop hiding from me! I don’t care if you’re Allah, Buddha, Jesus—whoever you are—just show me! Because if you are the truth, I will give my life to you. I will follow you—whatever the cost.”
Heaven on Earth
When I got a little older, my parents allowed me to be out of the house a little bit, but only if it involved schoolwork (or later my job). So I lied to my parents one night: “I’m going to study at my friend’s house after school tomorrow.” They didn’t question me, making the deception feel even worse. But I pushed past the queasy feelings as well as the thought of whatever consequences would result if my secret were discovered. I rationalized to myself that it would be worth it. I was invited to church by my friend, Angela, and what she described as “church” sounded worth it.
As the service started and the worship music echoed in my ears, I thought of my own experience of Islamic worship. My mind instantly raced back, remembering a warm breeze coming through the open window of our car as I rode with my father on a summer day. Arabic praise blasted through our radio speakers, recognizable phrases that had been as familiar to me in my childhood as the alphabet. Men chanting “Laaaa illaaha illulaaaaa” (“There is no deity but Allah”) rang through the car. It reminded me of chanting I’d heard as a little girl growing up in Sri Lanka, singing along proudly for my father to hear.
As this memory dissolved, reality yanked me back to Angela’s church, where the united flow of worship filled my ears and thirsty soul with a new sense of guarded delight.
So this is how Christians worship . . .
I felt like I was in heaven.
Jesus Is . . . God?
When the worship music ended, the speaker stepped forward. I wiped my sweaty palms across my jeans, wishing to calm my nerves as I braced for this new part of the service, having finally gotten used to what had been happening up until then. I hung on his every word, listening for something that would truly click, something that would help me make sense of this odyssey, the spiritual trek that had finally led me to this place, to this moment. Somehow I knew he would form a sentence or express a truth that would clear up my questions and lead me to answers.
But it all seemed like a bunch of stray thoughts jumbled together. I couldn’t make sense of anything he said. As someone starting from such a childlike point of inexperience, I had no frame of reference, despite wanting to understand him so badly. How ludicrous it all seemed. And did the speaker just say this man named Jesus . . . is God?
Skepticism kept racing into my mind, even as eagerness fought hard to displace it. Yet the one thing I couldn’t shake, no matter how unintelligible his words, was this: As a child, I had fully given myself to Islam, to Allah. Islam was my life, my family’s life. And despite taking it more seriously than just about anybody I knew, my heart now felt as lifeless as a corpse. Something needed to change. I knew that much to be true.
Perhaps Christianity wasn’t the answer.
But Islam surely wasn’t.
The Moment Everything Changed
The speaker—a man Angela called “pastor”—after wrapping up his short talk, invited anyone who wanted to come forward for prayer. I wasn’t really sure what this meant. Going forward? To pray? And yet as others began slipping out of their seats and edging down toward the front, I strangely felt the tips of my toes aching to join them.
Everything around me seemed to disappear in that moment: Angela and her posse of friends, my own fears and hesitations, the withering stare of my father. This was life and death. Desperate hunger. Was there any truth at that altar? My life depended on what I might find there.
I wanted to go get it and nothing was going to stop me.
It all happened so fast. My mind pushed away all rationality, knowing the shame of what I was contemplating, that it could never be reversed, that I was defying the honor of untold generations in my family line, which would never be the same again. These grave consequences gave way in my mind to a steely determination and a tangible sense that the God of the universe, and maybe even this man called Jesus, truly did love me.
I stepped into the aisle as if drawn by powerful arms, holding me in all my pain and brokenness. His presence was the only power holding me together. I felt like I was breathing pure strength, a sheer sense of confidence that everything would be okay. Any doubts about what I was doing or about Jesus being the truth, all fractured into meaningless piles of vanquished fear as I became engulfed by truth himself. I could no longer deny he was real. I could not deny what I was experiencing.
I didn’t even make it to the altar. Right there, in the middle of the aisle, too broken to wait another ten or twelve steps, my knees buckled to the floor.
Taking a deep breath, looking up in exhausted relief, I caught sight of a large cross that hung in prominent view at the front of the sanctuary. I’d seen numerous crosses in my lifetime on buildings, in artwork, hanging around girls’ necks. But I never really knew what it meant.
It meant freedom. It meant hope.
It meant forgiveness, joy, and unbreakable promises.
But most of all, it meant something I never dreamed could be true.
It meant unyielding love.
Fatima Rifqa Bary, a native of Sri Lanka, moved with her family to the United States at the age of 8. She secretly converted from Islam to Christianity at age 12. When her family discovered her secret four years later, she ran away from home—and her story made national headlines. Still living in an undisclosed location, Rifqa’s passions are prayer, missions, and people. This article was adapted from Hiding in the Light. © 2015 by Rifqa Bary. Used by permission of WaterBrook Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.