I returned to school almost two weeks after I’d left for the funeral, and I was numb. While I was gone, I’d missed most of my mid-terms, and although I was given an extension for them all, it was difficult to study or remain attentive in classes. I was still coming to terms with all that had happened, and all that I had learned. My anger, naturally, was subsiding, but its slow retreat was giving way to a weighty melancholy laced in regret. The latter emotion I attributed mostly to the conversations I’d had with Reginald and my mother the night before my return.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went to and from my classes and dorm room as if in a daze, and I kept playing and replaying in my mind the moments I spent with Darnell. In none of them could I recall appreciating or even liking him a great deal. Besides the day of the ruined Monopoly game, neither could I recall any of my aloofness in his presence perturbing him in the least. And that hurt most.
I resumed attending church and Bible study, but I couldn’t bring myself to fully participate as I had before the funeral. Whenever the minister or Bible study members discussed the need for Jesus as a person’s salvation, I thought of Darnell. I couldn’t comprehend his receiving eternal damnation. Yet, I couldn’t comprehend his receipt of eternal bliss either. He didn’t seem to deserve either.
I fought these thoughts because I was doing what I had no right to, seeking to understand ultimate Judgment. I knew it was a task I could not succeed in, but that didn’t prevent the incessant doubts and questions regarding Darnell’s fate. They just wouldn’t go away. I felt as if there were a missing piece in my own faith, as if I were somehow not whole.
One night I lay awake analyzing my unrest, determined to understand my self torment. I started by asking myself what I truly believed.
Do you believe Jesus is the son of God?
Do you believe that it is through accepting his personal sacrifice on the cross that a person’s goes to Heaven?
Do you believe that Jesus is your Savior?
Do you believe that Jesus is God?
The last response didn’t shock or disturb me because it was what I’d always believed, what I’d always been taught. It was one of the teachings of The Church. Of course, I never shared this with my Bible study members for the same reason I had kept to myself at school. They would never understand. It was sufficient for me to relax on the points of agreement instead of harp on those of disagreement. They believed in the divinity of all parts of the Trinity, and I simply believed in the Trinity as the Father—the Divine, the Son—Jesus, and the Holy Ghost—the divinely guided Spirit. All separate, but one in the sense of a unity of purpose in guiding people on earth. In my mind, I pictured a triangle, the Father at the top vertex and the Son and Spirit on opposite vertexes beneath Him.
It was this last thought that gave way to my understanding my unrest.
If they believed that a person had to accept Jesus as God to go to Heaven, and I believed you only had to accept him as the son of God and that it was in fact a form of idolatry to worship the cross or Jesus, then that would mean I believed that they were going to Hell, and that they believed I was going to Hell. And it was clear what we both believed about Darnell.
My cousin was merely a distraction, collateral damage in my search for faith, for truth.
I was disturbed because I was walking a thin line myself. Who was right? They or I?
Right then, I felt sick. Because, no matter who was right and who was wrong, one thing was for certain. I was a hypocrite. I was hiding in the ranks of sectarian Christians because it was the closest thing to belonging I’d had since high school—where I’d never, in fact, belonged at all.
I knew at that moment, whatever it was that I believed, I couldn’t hide anymore, even if I would ultimately stand alone. I was determined to “wake up” and analyze my father’s church with new eyes and compare it to all the “sects” of Christianity that I could read about in the library and talk to others about on campus. I absolutely had to know who was right. It felt awfully lonely holding on to The Church when the rest of the world held on to their own. At least for them, there were many branches of their sectarian beliefs. For me, there was only one. My father’s. Could I rationally accept that my father’s congregation would be the only ones to enter Heaven?
But perhaps, there were other congregations like The Church, those who believed in the purity of Jesus’ message and in not corrupting it with their own.
It took me less than a week to conclude that my father’s teachings were most closely related to those of Jehovah’s Witnesses. All the other branches of the Protestant church, at least the ones I had read about, held fast to the belief that Jesus himself was God incarnate and that God himself was three-in-one. This latter belief was something I just could not bring myself to embrace, and it gave me solace to realize that it wasn’t only the members of The Church who believed that Jesus was a separate persona from the Creator.
It was a late Wednesday afternoon in November and I was walking across campus to get something to eat when I saw my fellow Bible study members, my personal evangelical group, holding flyers and stopping to talk to students about Christ. I walked faster, not wanting to run into them for fear I would be asked to join their activities, especially since I had been the brainchild of the forum to be held next week. It was entitled, “So You Think You Know Jesus?” I was still debating whether or not I would go. I had already told Natasha, one of the members I’d grown close to, that they should find someone else to take my place since I was still nursing my grief over my cousin. She said that it was no problem, that she understood, and that she would just see me there.
Before reaching my destination, I was distracted by what sounded like a rally on the stone steps of the students’ outside auditorium that resembled the Olympic theatres of old, except the school’s was much smaller. Someone stood at a podium before the crowd on the steps, and near where I was passing, I noticed a table, set up much like the tables that I had begged my Bible study group not to do this year. Moving gently in the wind was a large paper banner taped to the table. In large letters, the sign read, “Ask About Islam” and in smaller letters, “Islamic Awareness Week November 1994.”
I stopped, immediately reminded of Darnell, and approached the table instinctively. I had no intention of asking anything. I simply felt the need to be near my cousin, and the word Islam attracted my attention. I was only vaguely aware of someone sitting at the table as I sifted through the pamphlets and books neatly arranged on the cloth.
“You looking for anything in particular?”
I looked up and found a young man whose complexion and mannerism reminded me of my cousin. But then again, so much was reminding me of him these days that everyday I would think I saw Darnell himself, until my better senses kicked in. I studied the man carefully before concluding that he shared only my cousin’s skin tone. He had a thin beard, my cousin did not. He wore glasses—Malcolm X-type, my cousin wore none. The collar of his shirt bore no bow tie, my cousin’s sometimes did.
Suddenly conscious of my staring, I returned my gaze to the table and shook my head. “No, not really.”
“You’re a student here?”
I nodded. “You?”
I creased my forehead and looked at him, but this time he didn’t meet my gaze. “Then why are you here?”
“For Islamic Awareness Week. I’m volunteering with the MSA.”
“With the what?”
“MSA. Muslim Student Association.”
Oh. I’d never heard of this Muslim denomination and imagined it to be somewhat like The Church, or a branch of Darnell’s Nation of Islam. “Where are they based?”
He lifted his eyes briefly and registered confusion. “The students, you mean?”
“Oh. Right here. They’re Maryland students.”
It had taken me sometime to get used to “Maryland” meaning the University of Maryland instead of the state of Maryland, depending on whom you were talking to. He must live in the area, I concluded and wondered if his branch of the organization was nearby. Perhaps this MSA had a house of worship not too far from campus.
There was an awkward pause.
“Are these free?” I asked, spotting a few pamphlets and books that I wanted to read.
“Yes, all of them.” His voice was overly enthusiastic, but I understood it was his desire to be polite. “Take as many as you want.”
“I will. Thank you.” I took five pamphlets and three books, deciding that if they were truly free, the organization wouldn’t mind if I took more than I had originally intended.
“You interested in Islam?”
The question was so bizarre that it took me a moment to register that it was directed at me. I contorted my face and shook my head. “No, never.” I realized too late that I was being rude.
The weeks following the funeral required me not only to adjust to the knowledge of Darnell’s absence, but to adjust to the sudden changes in myself. I was more tense and reactionary, as opposed to my previous quiet reserve and contemplation before speaking, if I spoke at all. The changes were most likely due to stress, but moments like these reminded me that I was better off with my bed covers pulled over my head.
To my relief, the volunteer laughed. “Okay, no problem. I hope the information is helpful anyway.”
I wanted to apologize, but I could think of no way of saying how sorry I was without making a fool of myself. I didn’t know this guy from Joe, so I owed him nothing. But, then again, I wasn’t raised to talk to people like that. I sounded like Courtney, or Patricia, and I hated it. I tried to think of something to say to keep from leaving with his having a bad impression of me.
“Thanks.” I turned then returned my attention to the table, as if I were intending to leave then decided against it as I recalled something.
“Excuse me,” I said in the kindest tone I could muster, unsure what I would say.
He looked up momentarily then returned his gaze to the table as he nodded, letting me know he was listening.
“Is there a temple or something nearby I could go to to learn more?”
He smiled, and I sensed he was tempted to joke about my apparent disgust with the religion moments before. “Yes, there is a masjid close by.”
“When is it open?”
He paused. “Uh, I’m not sure. But if you want, I can give you their number or I could take yours and have someone contact you.”
“That sounds good.”
A grin lingered on his face. “Which one? Taking their number or giving yours?”
I laughed self-consciously. “Both.”
“O-kay,” he said as he searched under papers and pamphlets until he found a small brochure and handed it to me. Then he slid a clipboard with a list of names and numbers of other students who wanted more information. “Just write your information there, and someone will call you inshaAllaah.”
I didn’t understand his last words, but I nodded and lifted the pen attached to the board by a string and wrote the required information and slid it back to him.
“Renee,” he read aloud and grinned. “That’s my sister’s name.”
My heart pounded as the comment evoked memories of Darnell and what I’d learned of Denise. I tried to appear disinterested and nodded coolly. “You’re twins?”
His broadening grin and chuckle made me see the silliness of the inquiry. “No. She’s older.”
“Is she part of the organization too?”
“No, she lives in Cleveland. She graduated from college a few years ago.”
“I meant the Muslim organization.”
He gathered his eyebrows and relaxed them seconds later. “Oh. No, she’s not Muslim. She’s still Christian, like the rest of my family.”
My interest was peaked, but I didn’t want to show it. “What sect are they?”
“You mean, denomination?”
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
Oh. I didn’t know what to say.
“Are you Christian?”
I shrugged. “Yes, I guess you can call it that.”
He laughed. “You sound like me before I converted.”
“No,” I said, offended. “I meant I’m not part of any sect or denomination.”
He nodded. “Non-denominational.”
I shook my head. “No, just Christian.”
He creased his forehead. “What do you believe?”
“Everything. Jesus. God. Heaven. Hell.”
“Oh. That Jesus is the son of God.” I didn’t want to say more for fear of offending him.
“You believe in the Trinity?”
“Because I don’t believe a man can be God.”
He appeared distracted. I lifted my gaze and saw two women approaching the table, at least I assumed they both were women. I could see the face of only one of them. I was immediately reminded of what Reggie had said about the Indian and Arab Muslims. That must be them. I decided that it was time for me to go.
“Thank you,” I said as kindly as I could, abruptly turning and leaving, satisfied that I would not be thought of as rude.
Less than a week later I received a call from a Muslim named Sumayyah—I had to write down her name in order to remember it—inviting me to an open house at a local masjid (as I soon learned they called their church). After letting her know I appreciated the invitation, I told her I had no transportation and had no idea how to get around on the bus. She then offered to pick me up herself, and I didn’t know what to say. I was uncomfortable accepting a ride from a stranger. I’d never done that before, but I couldn’t tell her that, so I told her I’d think about it and get back to her. I took down her number and threw it in the trash the next morning.
Three days later, I was sitting against the headboard of my bed with my back supported by a pillow and reading from my advanced calculus book when the phone rang. I answered on the third ring.
“May I speak to Renee?”
Not recognizing the voice, I paused then spoke cautiously. “This is she.”
“Oh, hi Renee, this is Sumayyah.”
I shut my eyes and rolled them before putting on my polite voice. “Oh, Sumayyah. I’m sorry I didn’t call back. I was—”
“It’s okay. I was just calling to see if you were still interested in coming to the open house tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? Oh, that’s right. She did mention that it was this Saturday. “Uh, I don’t…” I didn’t know what to say. Could I tell her the truth? That I really didn’t feel like being bothered, that I wasn’t at all interested in her organization, that I was only being polite to the volunteer?
“I know it’s awkward to just pick up and go to a strange place with a stranger.” She laughed.
I couldn’t keep from smiling in embarrassment. “Yes, it is.”
“That’s why I figured I should call and tell you more about myself.”
Instinctively, I glanced at the clock. It was almost seven o’clock, and I wanted to go out to eat with Felicia later that night. “Uh, I appreciate it, but I’m kind of busy right now.”
“I’m sorry. When is a better time to call?”
She wasn’t giving in that easily. I started to grow agitated. “I don’t know. It’s just that tonight’s really busy and…” I sighed. Why should I have to explain myself to her?
“I’ll tell you what,” she said, as if reading my mind. “I’m going to be on campus tomorrow morning inshaAllaah. Do you mind if I stop by to introduce myself? It’s no problem if you can’t make it to the open house, but I at least want you to put a face with a name.”
I didn’t know what to say. “O-kay. That would be nice.”
“Great. I can come anytime between nine and eleven. When is best for you?”
After giving her the name of my dorm and the number to my room, I hung up, relieved that the conversation was over. For a moment, I considered making certain I was out of the room at those times, but I dismissed the thought. Besides, I didn’t like the idea of waking up early on a Saturday morning to hang out for two hours for no particular reason. And what was I running from anyway? Meeting another human being? I really did need to get over losing Darnell so I could relax and live life like a normal person.
Sumayyah knocked on my door at a quarter to eleven, which was good because I had been awake for less than thirty minutes and had just come from the shower. I was wearing a sweatshirt and running pants, and my damp twists were pulled back behind my head. Felicia was still sleeping but had told me the night before not to worry about finding anywhere else to meet the visitor.
I opened the door to find a young woman about my height dressed in a headscarf and a large dress, displaying only her face and hands. She wore a jacket over her outfit. She reminded me of the veil-less woman I’d seen approaching the “Ask About Islam” table the week before.
“Hi,” she greeted and stepped inside. “I’m sorry about interrupting you.” She brought a hand to her mouth when she saw Felicia with the covers pulled over her.
I waved my hand dismissively. “It’s okay. She knows you were coming.”
I closed the door and gestured my hand toward my desk chair. “Have a seat.”
She removed her jacket and sat down. She laughed then extended her hand good-naturedly before reintroducing herself. “I’m Sumayyah.”
I smiled, accepting the handshake. “Renee.”
“I won’t take too much of your time. But I did want to introduce myself in person.”
I nodded respectfully. “I appreciate it.”
“Well,” she said with a grin, “I guess I’ll just cut to the chase.”
I sat down on the edge of my bed, hoping she really wouldn’t take too much of my time.
“I’m from Baltimore originally, but my family lives in Columbia now. I grew up Christian and accepted Islam when I was thirteen. Now I’m a junior here at Maryland.”
The last bit of information interested me most. “You’re a student here?”
She nodded. “Yes. But I commute.”
She paused, then asked, “What are you studying?”
“I plan to study math.”
“Really? I’m a math major too.”
I relaxed, my curiosity heightened. “You’re American originally?”
“Yes, I come from your typical Black Christian family.”
I was too shy to ask her race, so I was glad that she had offered the information freely. I knew from her bronze skin that she wasn’t White, but I might’ve guessed Latina.
“My cousin was Muslim.” I’m not sure what made me say it, but Sumayyah was easy to talk to.
“Really?” Her smile broadened. “How did he hear about it?”
I lifted a shoulder in a shrug and smiled uncomfortably. “I’m not sure. But his parents were in the Nation of Islam, so most likely he heard about it from them.”
Her smile faded slightly. “Was he a Muslim or a part of the Nation?”
I furrowed my brows. Her question confused me. “I’m sorry?”
“Was he part of the Nation of Islam?”
Her eyebrows rose. “Oh, I see.”
Her eyes widened slightly but her kind expression made me feel better. She shook her head, smiling as if my words were a private joke. “No, no. I’m Muslim, orthodox Muslim.”
I creased my forehead. “But you’re American.”
Her confused expression prompted me to continue. “I thought only Indians and Arabs were orthodox Muslims.”
Her expression relaxed somewhat and she shook her head. “No, anyone can be Muslim.”
“But you don’t cover your face.”
“You don’t have to.”
“So…” I didn’t know how to form my question because I didn’t know what I wanted to say. All I knew was that I wanted answers. “What sect are you?”
She looked at me quizzically as one side of her mouth creased in the beginning of a smile. “Sect? You mean what kind of Muslim am I?”
Oh. It’s what I would’ve said about my Christianity.
“But people would consider me Sunni. But that’s what Islam is, to follow the guidance of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
The name sounded familiar, and I suddenly remembered Darnell’s conversation with me about my beautiful, African hair and the Malcolm X movie and book, which I never got around to finishing. “Oh yeah, Elijah Muhammad. My cousin mentioned him.”
She grinned. “No, not him. I mean Prophet Muhammad, who was born in Arabia over a thousand years ago. Elijah Muhammad was a Black American who died in the seventies.”
I stared at her. What was she talking about? I felt so ignorant. My speechlessness reminded me of how I felt when I’d first heard Darnell say the word Muslim.
“So which one believes women are forbidden to show their faces in public?”
“Some orthodox Muslims believe that the Prophet commanded women to cover their faces in front of men who aren’t family.”
Okay, good. At least I wasn’t completely off base. “But why?”
She glanced at her wristwatch and stood. “Look, I’m sorry, but I have to go home to get ready for the open house.”
My heart fell. I was just getting started.
A second later, she was opening the door to leave, and I remembered regretfully that I was the one who had given her the impression that she should keep it short.
I stood too and held the door for her.
“Thanks for letting me stop by.”
A broad grin spread on her face as she met my gaze. “Why don’t you just come with me? You can ask all the questions you want there.”
My spirits lifted. I smiled. “Sure.”
“Can you get dressed in five minutes?”
“Then I’ll just wait for you in the hall, inshaAllaah.”
As the door closed, I realized that her last words were the same ones the volunteer had used at the table.
Next… Story 6 of 11 Posted every Friday
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
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