Saved from Islam on September 11

As I looked up at the burning twin towers, life-changing words came to me—words I suddenly heard inside my head.
Saved from Islam on September 11
Image: Todd Joyce

I’ve heard that Christians are made, not born. How true that is, I don’t know. My wife, Jennifer, was born on a Thursday and baptized by her father, a Lutheran pastor, the following Sunday. She may not have been born a Christian, but she is about as close as one can get. For me, the path to Christian faith has been far rockier.

Both my parents were raised as Lutherans. But my mother never had much use for religion. And my father, who had taken religion seriously, lost his faith in God’s goodness in the jungles of South Vietnam.

My father hoped to make a career in the Army. So we moved a lot, five times during my first ten years. When he finally resigned his commission in 1977, we settled in a Southern California suburb.

It wasn’t home. It couldn’t be. And by that time, I had been on the receiving end of my father’s intense but sporadic violence for some years. I learned to both fear and hate him, and almost all authority. School quickly became unsafe as well: I was bullied, terrorized, and abused regularly, not just by classmates, but also by my fifth-grade teacher. There was no one to trust. I was frightened, incredibly alone, and increasingly angry.

But whatever I lacked in religious guidance, I never blamed God. I didn’t know how. Indeed, there was an intense God-hunger in my soul. I may not have known where I was going or even how to start, but I knew there was something out there worth finding.

Meeting God as a Muslim

At age 14, I launched my quest for God, attending a fairly generic dispensationalist church. It proved incapable of asking difficult questions about life’s meaning in the face of suffering, much less answering them. The people were kind, but I needed to know more than they could tell me. By the time I graduated from high school, I found myself wondering: Would anyone ever love and value me? Would I ever belong anywhere?

There was a miserable stint in the Army, mercifully shortened by a psychiatrist who thought I had no business being a soldier. There were a couple of romantic relationships with married women. Casting about for something to do, I eventually settled on studying journalism at San Francisco State University.

That’s where I found Islam. A friend introduced me to the Qur’an, and I was entranced by its words, which speak of a God who cares a great deal about the men and women he created. But it was also the people: the Palestinian and African American Muslims who first taught me what it meant to surrender. They welcomed me as no one else had before.

Some people look to faith for ideas of right and wrong, or some understanding of good and evil, or a set of principles with which to order the world. Not me. What I sought, what I ached for, was meaning and belonging. And Islam gave me both.

There is much I keep from that time as a Muslim. The Qur’an teaches that God gives freely to all creation, believers and unbelievers alike, and it is best to respond with thankfulness and wonder. And Muslims in America live their faith with tremendous courage in the face of a frequently hostile culture.

But Islam also provided religious and political fuel for my anger. At one mosque where I worshiped during the early 1990s, I fell in with a group of jihadis. We studied and discussed the texts of revolutionary Islam, mostly the writings of Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb and Pakistani journalist Abul A’la Maududi. One brother went to fight in Bosnia, and I wanted to join him.

But there was Jennifer, whom I’d met at San Francisco State. There would be no one to care for her. She loved me enough to let me go fight a war in a faraway country because my conscience was pulling me there. But I could not leave her. I belonged to her, and she to me.

This was a turning point. The anger that had burned in my soul—an anger that nearly propelled me to war in southern Europe—was beginning to burn itself out.

Jennifer was slowly catechizing me. Not by telling me about Jesus or demanding that I convert, but simply by being with me. Unlike anyone before, she accepted me for who I was, loving me without condition or reservation. It was an early grace.

I strung together something of a journalistic career. I worked in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Washington, D.C., and New York. The job took me to offices in Lower Manhattan, right across from the World Trade Center. I was there on the morning of September, 11, 2001.

‘My Love Is All That Matters’

In the chaos and terror of the streets below, as I looked up at the burning twin towers and watched people tumble to their deaths, life-changing words came to me—words I suddenly heard inside my head: My love is all that matters, and this is who I am.

I knew then that everything I understood about God, about sin and redemption, about the whole human condition, had changed. I had no idea, in that moment or the days that immediately followed, who had “spoken” to me or what those words meant. I just knew the world was now a different place.

At this point in my story, if you are looking for a rationale for why I turned to Christ, well, there isn’t one. This wasn’t an act of reason on my part. What happened was a cataclysm, the kind of divine intervention that drove Abraham to leave home, trusting in God’s promises. The kind of force that struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus.

“I think we should find a church,” I told Jennifer a few months later, after we had relocated to northern Virginia. A pleased little smile spread across her face, and her eyes sparkled—the way she gets when she finally has exactly what she wants.

Because of her Lutheran upbringing, we looked for Lutheran churches, selecting a congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA). The people showed me that it was the risen Jesus Christ who had spoken to me. In word, song, and deed, they taught me the gospel, the story of God walking among us, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins for the entire world and calling his disciples to continue to proclaim that good news.

This is who I had met that horrible day in September. It was Jesus Christ who, in the midst of terror and death, assured me that his love is all that matters.

If my conversion has a precise moment, it would be the Sunday I decided to first take Communion, more than a year after I started worshiping at the Lutheran church. Again, this wasn’t a matter of reason—it just suddenly made sense: “This is for me, this meal, this table, this gift, this redemption. I am part of it now.”

Before I had been in church for a month, much less baptized, people kept telling me, “You should be a pastor.”

But my seminary training didn’t go as planned. The Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago taught me well. Faculty thought I had a clear gift for ministry among the poor, homeless, and mentally ill. But the committees overseeing my candidacy told me not once, but twice, that I was unfit for pastoral service.

I don’t have a church home now. Jennifer and I worship where and when we can, but we don’t feel like we belong in the ELCA. It hasn’t helped that I’ve been unable to find real work in over a year. Jennifer and I depend on the hospitality of strangers and friends. Without them, we would have no place to live.

Yet I know I belong—I belong to Jesus. He saw me in the marketplace and told me to follow. I left everything and obeyed. I still believe I am called to preach, teach, and witness this resurrecting love that met me, grabbed me, and won’t let me go. Abraham also didn’t know where he was going when God told him to set out and wander.

So I trust God. For the first time in my life, I know who I am. I know whose I am.

And that is all that matters.

Charles H. Featherstone is the author of The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death (Cascade Books).

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