#5: Patricia and Alana Raybon 2016

Torn by Faith, Healed through Writing, February 3, 2017

Memoirist and journalist Patricia Raybon and her daughter Alana recount their ten-year struggle to find a new equilibrium after Alana left her family’s evangelical Christian faith and converted to Islam. Interviewed here by writer Jana Riess, mother and daughter describe how writing their book Undivided together helped them work through grief, anger, and stubbornness, determined to keep loving each other well. They conclude that “peace is a choice.” Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and writer Jana Riess.


RESOURCES

  • Patricia Raybon and Alana Raybon, Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace
  • The Faith Club
  • TRANSCRIPT

Intro

[music]

Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.

Today we’ll listen to Patricia and Alana Raybon’s interview about writing their book Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. Patricia and Alana discuss the truths, troubles, and triumphs of co-authoring when the collaborators are struggling not just to write a book but to reconcile their deepest difference. Patricia Raybon is a journalist and the author of four books, including the memoirs I Told the Mountain to Move, a finalist for Christianity Today’s 2006 Book of the Year, and My First White Friend, which won the Christopher Award. Alana Raybon, who converted to Islam in college, writes and teaches middle school in Tennessee. And to help introduce the Raybon session is Jana Riess, who did a wonderful job of interviewing the Raybons at the 2016 Festival itself. Jana is a senior columnist for the Religious News Service, a veteran editor, and the author of several books, including Flunking Sainthood and The Twible.

Conversation

[music, phone ringing]

Lisa: [00:01:34] Well thanks so much for joining us Jana. Where did we catch you today?

Jana Riess: Oh, I'm just sitting at my desk with my long to-do list of things that have to get done today. It's a nice break to talk to you.

Lisa: Oh, wonderful, thanks so much! [laughs] So how did you first get introduced to the work of Patricia and Alana Raybon, and what grabbed you about their work?

Jana: I listened to the audiobook when the book first came out. I'm a big audio fan—and I say it's reading: I know there's this raging debate whether you can say you actually read something if you listened to it on audio, and I say absolutely you can.

Lisa: Good to know.

Jana: Right, so I listened to it on audio which was an interesting experience, and I think there were a few things that resonated with me in particular. The first is that it’s that kind of classic mother-daughter relationship. I have a daughter who is on the brink of adulthood, and some of those issues of a child asserting independence, making decisions that a parent may not necessarily share, in this case it was a major life decision that Alana Raybon decided to become a Muslim and Patricia, who’s an evangelical Christian, has a really tough time accepting and understanding that.

Another thing is that I am in an interfaith family myself, so the kinds of tensions and discussions that they referenced really rang true with my experience. Maybe not now, where everything has been settled for a really long time, but when I first converted a lot of those issues were at the forefront.

And also I would say, a third reason is just that we are living in a time when it has never been more important for Americans to understand Islam, and to not demonize Muslims; and so just from that perspective alone, you can learn so much about Islam just from the lived experience that's described here. There is, as Alana is trying to teach her mother about her experience of Islam and about what she loves about Quran, you learn those things too, and it's a wonderful way to be invited into another worldview in a way that is, I found, quite lovely and friendly, you know, very accessible.

Lisa: I want to talk a little bit about the writing piece of this that Patricia mentioned, which was that dynamic of the energy and where you spend your energy when you're working on a writing project. But when you're writing a book, how much do you talk about that book with people. How much do you talk through the ideas while you're actually in the process of writing?

Jana: So me personally, or the advice that I give to authors generally, which is not the same? [laughs]

Lisa: [laughs] Do you practice what you preach? [laughs]

Jana: Not always!

Lisa: Maybe tell us what you tell people and then tell us what you actually do. [laughs]

Jana: [00:04:36] Okay, so I really, strongly encourage people to share their writing as they go, and to be as public as they feel comfortable with, to show it not only to the people that they know are going to be supportive, you know, their family and friends, but also to people who are capable of having a professional opinion and capable of giving constructive criticism that is specific and that is actionable. In my own life, I try to follow that advice, and I am in a writing group, but at this point, honestly, after nine years, we have become such strong, good friends that I worry we're no longer capable of ripping each other apart, [Lisa laughs] because we just kind of finish each other's sentences now.

So it's just important. It's important to get other people's feedback and also being part of a writing group gives you a deadline. Sometimes when you're stuck in the morass of a project, you kind of don't know where to go next. If you bring something that's very quarter-baked to your writing group and then they say, “Ooh, this is a really good part,” and then you go home and you think, “Oh, well, that's the part that I'll work on next,” and suddenly what seemed like a mountain to climb is only a hill and you can move forward.

Sometimes—I'm a perfectionist, and so I have to struggle against that tendency in my nature to hold something back until I feel like it's really good, to not show it to other people until I think it's truly ready, but that's not [chuckles] the point of the process, and, you know, I'm much better about this now that I was ten years ago, of just, you know, showing something to people and saying, well, here it is, and I'm just right in the middle of this icky, messy project, “What do you think?” than I used to be. I used to want to just hoard that a little bit for myself until I felt confident that it was pretty close to perfect. And, you know, that's just not a way to grow as a writer.

[music]

Lisa: Well, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy day to talk with us.

Jana: Well, I'll cross this off that long to-do list of things that I have to do today. [laughs]

Lisa: [laughs] Yes, well, I look forward to talking to you again soon.

Jana: Thanks, Lisa. Bye-bye!

Session

[music]

Lisa: And now, here's Patricia and Alana Raybon on “Torn by Faith, Healed by Writing” at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing.

[applause]

Jana: [00:07:11] My name is Jana Riess and I'll be the moderator today. Patricia has asked if we could have a little bit less of a formal kind of Q and A. I have some questions here that I'll start, but if at any point you would like to ask them a question, I think we would be open to that, so that you don't have to hold everything until the very end. Now, you've already talked a little bit in the clip here about how you responded, Patricia, when you found out about Alana. Could you describe a bit of your religious background that created the expectation that you would be raising a Christian daughter? And then Alana, I'd love for you to respond about what it was like to make that phone call to your mom.

Patricia Raybon: Well, like a lot of people, well, before I say that, I want to say welcome to everybody. I am very honored as I know Alana is to be here in the chapel having this conversation. I know we could have been downstairs or upstairs, I think it is, over in the Commons, in one of the lecture halls, or in a classroom, but to be here in this sacred space really is significant for me, and I thank you to Calvin, if there is anybody here from the college, for the invitation, but for all of us gathering here.

And I say that, Jana, because like a lot of people here, I grew up on a pew [audience laughs]. Is there anybody here who gets that? [laughs, audience laughs] I am a member of the AME church now, but I grew up in the CME church. The AME church, of course, is the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The CME church is the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, but some of you may know this, that originally it was the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. That's what the C stood for. And that's significant for me because I grew up in the Jim Crow 50s, and the church, I was telling Jennifer [Holberg], the co-director of the Center for Faith & Writing, about this: the church for my family and for me was truly a harbor, a sanctuary. It was the safe place I could be.

[00:09:52] And I loved being there. And we were a family who were there, which is a good thing, because we were at church all the time. Not just Sunday, but, some people here remember this, there was Sunday service, then you'd go back for Sunday evening service, and then on Monday nights my dad would go to a trustee meeting or something like that. Wednesday night was prayer service. They used to call it prayer meeting, and then on Friday nights we'd go to whatever the youth activity was, and on Saturday was Junior choir rehearsal and, I think I heard somebody sigh [laughs and audience laugh]. Vacation Bible School, and, you know, it's just what we did, and we loved it. At the knee of my Sunday school teachers I learned the narrative and the stories of Jesus, and He loved us, [sings] "Oh, how I love Jesus," we sang that, and so I tried to recreate that experience for my daughters, and we went a lot. Right?

Alana Raybon: [laughs] We did.

Patricia: They went a lot. Alana was baptized in the AME church and so it was a surprise in many ways to get that call.

Alana: So, yes, it was a surprise, and for me, growing up in the AME church was a wonderful place, too. It was so welcoming and loving. It was a place where everybody knew my name, all of the elders treated me like I was their granddaughter. And so it was a really loving place, and I think it is the place where I did first begin to know God and learn to love God. And so I enjoyed being there, but I had a difficult time connecting with the idea of the Trinity. And so I struggled with that because I didn't feel that I could share it, and it wasn't because it wasn't a safe space but I just didn't know how to say that because everybody else was so wholeheartedly...

Patricia: Sold out.

Alana: Yes. [laughs] They were so excited and oftentimes during the service, you know, people would come forward and they would accept the church and I was waiting for that feeling, and so I kind of kept that to myself. I didn't talk to Mom about that. But I still did love being there and I loved the feeling of community, and so when people ask, you know—I'm sorry, my shiny scarf is causing all the mic problems so [chuckles] I apologize about that.

When people ask, you know, if I left Christianity, it felt more to me like I always knew God and I always loved God, but I found a different way to connect with God; and so I don't really feel like I left but more like I joined in my own way. But it was very, very hard for our family because, as Mom mentioned, the church was the core, and so me separating myself from that was in, an essence, separating myself from the family, in a way.

Jana: So making that phone call: take us back to that day.

Alana: I was in my dorm room and just waiting for the time to talk to her. I had called other people that were in my life at that time, other people who were also going through something similar to me. And growing up as an African American, I was very familiar with the nation of Islam, just from the narrative about Civil Rights, and so I had first started through that pathway. And I was drawn to a more traditional view of Islam, and so I just kind of decided to go completely Orthodox.

And so I just called her up and I said, “Mom, I've decided to become, to practice mainstream Islam.” And that was basically it. The conversation just kind of was quiet on her end. It was a little awkward actually. But I was relieved on my end because I didn't really want to talk about it. I just wanted to tell her and get that over with. So we just basically hung up and I went on with my life. But I didn't realize, though, that I had just completely told her some really, really major news that was very devastating. I don't think I realized the impact it would have on our relationship.

Jana: [00:15:01] In the book, Patricia, you talk about wanting, for example, to give Easter dresses to your granddaughters, or celebrate these holidays, and that it's hard for you that that can't happen or it would happen differently. What is it like on a day to day basis to negotiate the differences in faith, in love? I know you went through a long period where, you know, it was the elephant in the room and nobody was talking about it even though you were not estranged from each other, you were not able to talk about this. So how did you begin to bridge those divides?

Patricia: Well, we became a family like many families in that we looked cohesive, but we were not talking and speaking about things that needed to be said. Does anybody else in here… [audience laughter and murmuring] I know! [laughs] So we found neutral holiday, Thanksgiving is a really great holiday for us because there's no real strong faith element. So we could sit around a Thanksgiving table and have all of the right foods and say all the right things, except we're not saying the thing that's tearing everybody apart. The sadness of that became for me a place of mourning. I was looking last night again at the Kubler Ross stages of grief, and I went through all of them. The first one's denial, and then there's anger. So when Alana called, I just, I think I said something like, "Oh, thanks for calling, how's your car running?" [Patricia laughs, audience laughter]

Dan, my husband, bought her a used Honda she drove up to campus and, so I had, the stages of denial, and then anger. And I was angry. And I was angry, my friends, because life is hard anyway, and as an African American, I had already spent so much of my life working through the challenge of being different in the world and I had written a book about it, and talked about it.

And then Alana calls and says, “And I'm gonna be a Muslim.” And I just remember it like, I don't, dear God, this was not on the list! [laughs, audience laughter]. That third stage in that Kubler Ross dynamic is bargaining. You know, “What can I do to bring my family back together.” But there wasn't anything I could do, so that fourth in the five stages is depression, and I was very sad. I dragged myself to the mall looking at Christmas toys or Easter dresses or whatever, and just piling it on, “Oh, woe is me,” and then finally you get to acceptance. I said that all in about a minute, but I'll tell you that it took a long, long time. [laughter]

Alana: Sure, well the interesting part of this, Mom, is that I'm just learning this about you now. [laughs, audience laughter] I mean, I knew you were sad, but I had no idea there were so many layers to it. I guess what I'd like to share with everyone here is, there was a point where we were writing the book where I started to feel really guilty because I did learn that she was so grief-stricken and I just felt so bad. I felt really responsible. And I took it upon myself and I was thinking, “Gosh, look what I have done to her.” It really hit me hard. It was a moment where I finally realized that parents have feelings. [laughs, audience laughter]

And that was really huge for me. I felt really guilty for a while and I didn't really know how to process that, but I kind of started by letting her know that I cared about how she was feeling and that I wasn't going to let her think that  it wasn't important to me; but yes, the process did take a long time, and I think we both went through it. I went through a period of denial as well, or maybe stubbornness, like I was very ornery, I just felt like, you know, “This is my right, and you don’t really have a say in it and how dare you make me feel bad for choosing something different?”

[00:20:41] I went through a lot of that, and then I went through, well, now I have to prove to you why I think what I'm doing is right, and that was probably, now looking back, the most naїve stage I went through, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that, I was looking through verses and trying to prove to her, you know, all of this ridiculousness, and then I kind of decided to just step back from it all and I was in complete avoidance mode. And my husband doesn't like to small talk, so when they would come over he would bring up some political topic and they would get into the religious nature of it, and I would just leave the room. [laughs] Like I am not even going to go there, so I went through a lot of, just, “I don't even want to be around it, I don't want to discuss it, I'm just going to live my life,” but the awkwardness of it was, you know, for people of faith, and I'm sure many people in here can agree, you can't be a person of faith and not express your faith in many parts of your life.

So you know, with prayer, with other things we were doing, there was this awkwardness because I was doing these things in front of her. And so I was always looking over at her, what is she thinking right now while I'm praying, or if they were there during Ramadan, that was very awkward and it was so uncomfortable, so it really took me awhile to get to a point where I was ready to talk to her about it without the anger and the trying to point fingers and trying to prove that she was wrong. It took about 10 years [laughs].

Jana: I like the honesty of that. [Alana laughs] So, the book, writing the book, you say, is a big part of the healing process. And so, since everybody here, I think, is interested in writing and the process that that might bring out new things in your understanding, so if you could talk about that. And also the book is kind of epistolary so that you are sharing emails back and forth with each other and it feels like it's unfolding in real time, which is one of the neat things, and I'd love to hear you talk about the decision artistically to do it that way.

Patricia: Well, it's interesting, our agent is here today, Ann Spangler, some of you may know Ann as an author. Where’s Ann? Right here. Ann shared with us a book that was written by a Muslim woman, a Christian woman, and a Jewish woman called The Faith Club, right, and suggested that that structure might work for us, and if you’ve read The Faith Club, which became a best-seller, the women in the book each speaks separately, and I think even the fonts for the voices are different, so it helps you know who's speaking when. That was very helpful, Jana, from a writing standpoint, to put some structure on it. So we weren't just really flying blind.

I'm happy to acknowledge Ann Spangler and thank her today for that recommendation. But then we started, and we couldn't get started. We could not even write the chapter titles without arguing. [audience laughter, Patricia laughs]. Because, you know, we're working on our book proposal, and we wrote the proposal statements in the format of the book, so I wrote my part and Alana wrote hers, and then we had to propose to a publisher how we would work through the topic, and even the chapter titles were points of contention for us. And I should have brought some examples today to tell you what I mean, but I'll say it this way: as a Christian, we speak in Christianese. [laughs]

[00:25:14] And so there was some of that in the language of the titles, some of that as we sort of got started, and that was feeling very offensive to Alana, and so I would have to back up and surrender that and we would have to negotiate that again, and we only had so much, we had a year I think in the contract to write the book. And six months went by and we were still working on those kind of details. So I say to people, it's the hardest book I ever wrote, because we were writing in real time, and we were having to negotiate every step of the way.

Alana: [inaudible] The funny thing about that was, the first chapter I think is, “Can We Talk?,” right Mom?

Patricia: Yes. [laughter]

Alana: So I kept calling her and I was like, well don't we need to talk because we write about what we talked about. [audience laughter] And she was like, [singsongy] yeah, so I was like, well, when are we going to talk? And then she said, can you look in your schedule, and I was thinking, we're trying to schedule a time to talk. It was so funny, and so we couldn't even talk, so finally...did you wanna add to that Mom?

Patricia: Well, I'll say this: here's some writing context for that. When you're writing memoir style or a journal style, part of, as all of you know in here, part of the discovery is in the writing. So in my mind, everybody, I was thinking, if we talk this out, just like we're talking, you know how this works, when you get to the writing, you've already given all the energy of it, and I was really cautious about that, and so I was saying, you know, we'll talk as we write. In hindsight, Alana made a very good point, we would have served the book better if we had done some of that real talking first.

Alana: Well, but that was the turning point, though, for getting it started, was also me realizing that that was the process, that we were going to talk through the writing, so I didn't realize that at first. And so I think also because of the frustration I had with my adolescence and we really didn't talk about really deep things, things of the heart, because we did argue a lot when I was a teenager, and it had nothing to do with me [audience laughter] just kidding. But we did have a history of not talking...

Patricia: We had a history, yeah.

Alana: So, it took me a while to realize, oh, we are talking on paper. So the thing is, Mom was my, we were like in counseling, but she was also my writing coach, [laughs] and so I was amazed that she was able to separate herself from the situation and say, ‘Okay Alana, this is how you need to approach this writing project, you know, you're actually writing down, through memoir, in a way as if you're talking to me, what you'd like for me to know,’ and so that was really, Oh, okay! and so it was great because finally I got to say everything I needed to say [Patricia laughs] without having to worry about what she was going to say next, and that was liberating, just knowing that she was reading every word on the page. So once we got through that hurdle, things started to move a lot quicker, and we were able to really cover some ground and really learn a lot about each other.

Jana: One observation and one question, and then I would like to open it up, because I said at the beginning that I was going to take questions throughout, and I didn't do that. [Patricia chuckles] Sorry. Okay, so the observation is that the way that writing itself helped you resolve, or not resolve, maybe, but at least discuss openly this difference I think is a very beautiful thing and I would also say that even though there's this, as a parent, you know always this deep disappointment when your children make very different choices than yours, but your daughter, you're grooming her into being a writer, even despite your religious differences, there is also this sense in which you are still such a profound influence over her life.

Patricia: Mmhmm.

Jana: It's really beautiful to me.

Patricia: Thank you

Jana: [00:30:04] So the question, though, both of you have spoken about race and being African American. When I read this book, I actually listened to it as an Audible, through the wonderful Audible app, both of the actresses that were hired to play you are white. [audience laughter] What is that about?

Audience Member: Bad publishing.

Jana: Yeah. [laughs, audience laughter]

Alana: Well, the funny thing about that is you know when we heard the voices, it was so funny because I was thinking, she just doesn't sound like me, it just sounded so strange to hear someone talking about my life from the first person like that, it was very odd, but you know, I guess they get who they get, who's talented and everything. [laughs, audience laughter]

Patricia: You know, you pick your battles, and in publishing, that was a fight I decided to relinquish. I've had to defend that, because people ask me all the time, why didn't you demand that they use African American voices? Or record you yourselves? In the course of life and all the things we were trying to do and get the book finished and work with our publicist, I just took that off my list, and I did not look back. And so, Jana, if there is another opportunity for a book that I write, in my own case, to be recorded for Audible, then I think I'll be more ready, but I had taken on all the fights I could take, and I just was not ready to take on that one.

Jana: Yeah, I understand the sense of kind of stepping back saying, well, this is probably not the hill I want to die on, right now, [Patricia: right] with my publishing house, but you shouldn't have been put in the position of having to make that choice, you know, it strikes me as a tone deafness on the part of the people who made that decision. So, okay, I'm done.

Patricia: Did you write that letter? [laughs, audience laughter]

Jana: We can talk later about that [Patricia laughs] but I'd love to open it up [Patricia: I appreciate that comment very much] to questions and I would say that as you do, I think that because this is such a touching memoir and a very moving autobiographical story, all of us are tempted to connect it to our own stories, I mean, I'm from an interfaith family myself and when I read the book, I had a lot of points of connection, but when you ask your question, please keep it as a question and not your memoir. [audience laughter] Yes.

Q & A

Lisa: [00:32:44] Hi, Lisa here. I'm breaking in to let you know that we got a lot of great questions for Patricia and Alana, but they're hard to hear because they weren't mic'd, so I'm gonna reiterate the questions as we go. First up, a question for Alana: What is the story of your journey moving from accepting Jesus as the three-in-one God to accepting him as a prophet?

Alana: Thank you for the question. That's actually the first time I've been asked a question as unique as that one, so thank you for it. Growing up in the church, I learned to love Jesus, I mean Jesus was a rockstar. He was amazing and He was the answer to every problem presented in church, and I really am glad that I developed a love for Jesus, and what I felt though, I always felt the oneness of God, and I always saw God as being, I guess you could say, one, and not separated into different parts, and so I never really saw the Trinity, I never really saw that it was in any way how I saw God; but as I mentioned earlier, I didn't share that, so even when I spoke about Jesus or learned about Jesus in church, I still sort of saw Him as a person.

Looking back, in hindsight, with my child's mind, then, I think I still sort of did see Him as a person, but sort of like a holy person. So now, as a Muslim, and looking at Jesus now, again, I see Him sort of in a similar way, as a person chosen by God that has all of these divine abilities, that has led people to being saved, that has helped save people, and so, in essence, I still have Him on a pedestal, but it's not the same pedestal that I would place God, and so, you know, that was the point, [laughter] the hardest thing between Mom and I, and I would try to express, I love Jesus so much, but I just can't, and I had to say to her, I have to be honest with myself, I can't lie to myself, and I think I got to a point where I just had to hammer that down.

[00:35:18] As I learned more about her point of view, I really felt like I understood it more. I probably felt like I could explain the Christian view of Jesus and the Trinity very well to someone who maybe didn't know about it, you know, someone from another faith. I probably could explain it very well to them, but I just could not accept or see God in that way. But, as a prophet, for Muslims, Jesus is a very revered prophet, and many Muslim women are named Mary, in Arabic, Mariam, and so Jesus and Mary, the story of Jesus is one of the most widely discussed stories and one of the most widely used stories for inspiration about how to treat others and about how to forgive others, and also as a model for women: Mary's considered a really important model for women. But, again, that's a really excellent question, but I think that is the really the fundamental, probably the most fundamental difference between the two faiths.

Jana:  Yes?

Audience Member: I would like to hear...

Lisa: The next question is: how have you navigated your religious differences within the context of your relationships with your children and grandchildren?

Patricia: Thank you, I appreciate the question, and I would answer it this way: what's happened in our journey is that the Lord has shown me that there is a bigger story and has helped me to hear where we were struggling. Alana was, after a while, not asking me to accept Islam. She was asking me to respect the choice that she had made. I'm going to get to your question but if you'll allow me to say this: I looked at two words, everybody. I looked at the word respect, and the Latin form for that means to see again, to look again, respect. So I thought, if I look again at Alana, I see an amazing wife and mom, she's an excellent school teacher, good citizen, great friend, wonderful, like her dad, a great people person, and I felt that the Lord was inviting me to engage with all those parts of her, and not worry so much about the faith business, and so when I do that, then I get to be a grandmother, [audience murmurs] and that matters because if we look at the word relate, the Latin of that means to bear or to carry.

So relationships, they take work. You know, you have to bear them up. And bearing them up means doing the things that have light in them, and good things. And, again, when I try to do those things, then I really can release wanting to have my grandchildren settled around the Christmas tree singing Silent Night. That isn't happening and it may never happen, but the Lord has shown me, if you can put your eyes on all the other beauty of the world, you'll be not only a good mom, a good grandmother, a good wife, you'll be a good friend to all of you who came today.

And I think the world is waiting for Christians to bear witness like that. We are, don't listen to this Alana [audience laughter], we've just been these fighting, angry people, and say “no” people, and blaming, shaking our fingers at people, and the Lord is saying, what if you let that go? How does that feel? Ooh, that feels good. [laughs, audience laughter] And I think the world really would enjoy seeing that in us.

Alana: [00:40:11] Where your question is so important, because when we finish the book, we really hadn't addressed that, you know, we worked a lot out with ourselves, but with everybody else in the family, [Alana and Patricia laugh] that's like book number two. [all laugh] So as a mother, at first, I was like, well, I'm gonna have to explain to the kids that Mom's a Christian and we're Muslims and then, you know, they do this, and we do this, and I was trying to figure out how to go about this, and my husband was concerned that they would try to influence our kids, and maybe not directly, and it was like, we were looking at it from a problem perspective instead of a solution perspective, and so I started to think to myself, especially moving from Houston to Tennessee, we recently did that, where Muslims are a minority, and it's the Bible belt and we're surrounded by churches and my husband and I go to churches a lot, and my daughter is at school with a lot of Christians, so just the change in atmosphere really helped me to think about it this way:

I want my children to see my parents as people who love God, and not necessarily as people who are different from us because of this walk of life versus our walk of life, and so if I look at it like that, then it becomes an embracement of perspective versus, ‘Oh, they're different from us and they believe different things and do different practices during this time of the year,’ but again, I haven't figured that out yet. I haven't figured out, my kids are still very young. But I'm kind of taking that approach because I notice that when I discuss things that Grandma and Grandpa do with the kids from that point of view, it makes my kids feels happy that they know that their grandparents love God. And it makes me feel good too. [laughs]

Patricia:  Can I share one thing about this, and I know our time is almost over. I've never said this to an audience, but Alana's, well, in Alana's family, I'm the brown person. I'm the person that has brown skin. Alana's husband is biracial, his mom is Latina and his dad was actually raised a Mormon. So their children are very light skinned. And so one day, Alana's daughter who turns 8 tomorrow, her birthday's tomorrow, she said to me, Grandma, why are you dark? Why are you brown?, I think she said, why are you brown? And she asked me that several visits because we visit a lot. And finally, I said, God made me that way. And she said, You mean Allah? [audience murmuring] And I, [chuckles] she said, You mean Allah? And I said, yes. And she never asked me again, and for her age it was the information she needed, and it was very comforting to her, and I guess that's the essence, now that I'm talking about it, of interfaith family.

Of you just kind of roll with that. And Alana and I discovered that peace, peacemaking, is not this destination that you get to and then everything's fixed. It's a choice. Peace is a choice. And you get up every day and choose to get along with the people in this circle that God has given you, and sometimes you make mistakes, but then you can get back to it the next day and try again, and there's been much grace in walking in that way. And there's a question right behind you.

Lisa: The next question is: do you believe you worship the same God?

Patricia: I decided that I could get stuck in the weeds of that theological debate, or I could love my family. [applause] And that's where I sit. [laughs]

Alana: [00:45:10] And I think also for me, the idea, I guess because I feel like there is one God and that people just see Him in a different way, and so I guess for me the answer would be yes, but we just see it in a different way. But again, does that conversation really matter? Because when it comes down to it, people make decisions based on how they feel in their heart, and that debate takes away from the reality of life, which is, as human beings, are we serving the God that we say we do? And what are we doing? How are we serving Him in our daily lives? That's more important than the debate.

Jana: Question in the back?

Lisa: The next question is: did either of you feel pressure from your respective religious communities to not accept one another, pressure to argue and to try to convert each other?

Patricia: My husband and I were talking about this yesterday. There are a lot of ways to be. And I'm not so much an activist. I know, I respond to the call for justice as it plays out in the AME church, I do that work as a writer in the writing ministry through my church, but I really try not to get involved in arguments. I ask God to show me, as I said, a bigger story, and this will take us way out in another place, but I'll share this with you: I live in Colorado, I grew up in Colorado, and when we wake up in the morning, before the sun comes up, we can hear the birdsong, outside our window, and this time of year we hear the mourning doves and, if you know that call, and then the robin redbreast, and different birds out in our yard.

And so there's that Scripture that talks about Jesus coming up out of the water and the spirit of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And so when I look out in the morning, Jana, at the mourning doves, they are up at the highest point in the trees. I think maybe they're looking for hawks or are doing what they're doing the morning. But then, you guys, when they descend, they, you know, they're kind of gray birds, but when they descend, they spread their wings and then the white under the wings shows, and it's just beauty. And they come down, you know we have evergreen trees and cottonwoods and stuff in the backyard, and they descend, and it's just beauty.

And so the fighting and stuff is not beauty, and I'm really wanting, and if I fight with my daughter, I miss seeing stuff like that. I forget to see stuff like that. And so there's a lot of politics in the AME church and in all the churches, and a lot of talking and all of that, but I ask God to quiet that for me, so I can see this beauty. And to answer the students' question, I believe that Jesus is God with us, Emmanuel, God in the flesh, my friend, ‘Oh what a friend we have in Jesus.’ Am I gonna stay in arguments with Alana about that? Or come to Calvin and have a good time with you guys? [audience laughter] That's the choice! That is a choice.

Alana: It's a really good question from a Muslim's point of view because many people haven't heard, what do Muslims think about this book?, or our journey from, there was such an overwhelming, finally! A Muslim was able to share her experience in an interfaith family in a mainstream platform. That was the response I got from people. Oh my gosh! Finally we're able to have a voice! I mean, people were just really, really enthusiastic about it. But the funny thing is I occasionally blog on this site, muslimmatters.org, and I get so much positive feedback. Very similar to what Mom was saying about, oh my gosh, this is so amazing, this is beautiful, we're so happy about your journey, thank you for sharing, every now and then, of course everyone gets this on blogs, right, there's like a troll, and they're like, no, you should be pushing for converting her, and like this is bad, and stuff like that. So every now and then I get a little of that. But just, being from Houston, we were there a year ago, and there's so many Muslims in Houston, it was just this overwhelming support and excitement about what was gonna come next and how this was gonna open the door for discussions between different faith groups.

Jana: We have time for just one more very fast question. Yes, here in the front row?

Lisa: The final question: what do each of you pray about?

Alana: Well, I pray for a lot of things when I sit down and I think about life, there's a lot on my mind; my children, my students, my parents, but what I don't pray for is conversion of her. I don't pray for that. Because I believe that our hearts are in God's hands and we walk how He wants us to walk, and I'm not here to judge or to condemn, and so instead, I think more about myself and things that I could do to improve myself, the things that I want to atone for. And I might have done a little of that in the very beginning, this phase I was in where I was the pointing finger phase and trying to change her mind, but I got over that, because that was a big waste, and you know, like Michael Jackson said, I had to look at the man in the mirror [laughs, audience laughter]. And I just really, looking at myself a lot is what I normally focus on.

Patricia: Well, I do pray for conversion. I pray for Alana to have saving knowledge of who Jesus is. But I don't have to burden her with that. I really like that, that I can take my burdens to the Cross and leave them there. Alana knows that's my prayer. I want a cohesive family. I do. I want the grandchildren around the Christmas tree. But more than all, I wanna be pleasing to the Lord, and so I take those prayers to Him. And when I leave them there, He sends me back out into the vineyard. And says, okay, I hear you, now here's some other work to go do. [audience laughter]

[applause]

Outro

[music]

Lisa: Special thanks to Patricia and Alana Raybon. You can learn more about each of them and their writing at patriciaraybon.com and alanaraybon.com. Thanks also to Jana Reiss: her website is janariess.com.

Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.  

You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful.

Also, we've got 26 years of festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you've been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at ffw@calvin.edu and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.

Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel. Back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.