When Patricia Raybon’s youngest daughter went off to college, she watched her wrestle with some of the racial and religious questions she struggled with as an African American during the Black Power era decades before.
“Generationally, we were at very different places. I didn’t have patience for her struggle,” Patricia said. “I felt that the Lord had answered the questions I had. How could she still have the same questions?”
Patricia’s questioning ultimately led her to become more rooted in the gospel of Jesus. But her daughter Alana found answers elsewhere.
First, Alana looked to the Nation of Islam, a religious group that combines Muslim beliefs with efforts to improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic conditions of African Americans. But she had reservations about the Nation, concluding that members propagated “a lot of racism themselves.” (Critics call it a hate group, claiming it practices racism and anti-Semitism; the organization officially denies these charges.) So Alana left for orthodox Islam, becoming a Muslim.
Patricia learned the news during a call home from Alana, then attending Fordham University in New York. That was in 2001, and their relationship hasn’t been the same since.
An evangelical author and lifelong churchgoer, Patricia was heartbroken by her daughter’s decision to not just leave Christianity, but to commit herself to a different faith. “I really felt like I had failed as a mother and a Christian and church member and the daughter of my parents,” Patricia said, “failed by not passing onto her what I call a saving knowledge of who Jesus is.”
Alana found Islam connected to her to God in a way that filled a lingering emptiness and ultimately transformed her life; her conversion happened as she turned away from a career in dance to become an elementary school teacher. It frustrated her that her sincere efforts to “live a pious life” were labeled a failure by her mother.
Alana is now 34, married to a fellow convert, and the mother of three children. While she initially focused on defending her decision, she said, “It took me a while to say to myself, ‘Wow, my mother is really hurting.’”
For years, Alana and Patricia declared a religious truce—the default position taken by many families split across traditions. The mother-daughter pair got by on short conversations, skipped holidays, and no effort to address the divide they both knew had come between them.
Then, almost two years ago, they decided they couldn’t ignore it anymore. Together, Patricia and Alana committed not only to talk about it, but to write about it, an idea suggested to Patricia by a publisher. For a year and half, they wrote to each other, journaling honestly about their family’s split traditions.
The result was the Raybons’ book Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, and Their Path to Peace, released last month by Thomas Nelson. Each chapter alternates between mother and daughter’s perspectives on awkward visits, heartfelt breakthroughs, and what’s said and left unsaid during their calls and visits to each other.
When the book idea first came up, Patricia wondered if this would just give her daughter a platform to proclaim her Muslim beliefs. Alana worried they’d try to censor her. But ultimately both saw the project as a way to launch the honest talk they’d avoided for so long.
“I was always aware that if this project failed, our relationship could too,” said Patricia. She had spent years devoted to prayer for Alana—as chronicled in her previous book I Told the Mountain to Move (a CT book award winner in 2006). To draw closer to her daughter, she said, she had to draw closer to God and surrender their relationship to him.
A majority of young adults in the US still keep their parents’ religious affiliation, a figure that hasn’t changed significantly over the past 40 years despite the individualism of recent generations, according to scholar Vern Bengtson, author of Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations.
“For American-born kids, particularly college students, leaving the faith of their parents may mean independence, exercising autonomy, exploring,” said Bengtson by email. “Many highly religious parents find this painful.”
New figures from Pew Research also show that Christians from historically black churches, like the Raybons, are actually among most likely to retain their children in the faith.
Patricia and Alana, whose story has been featured on the Today show and other news outlets, see their dialogue as an example for interfaith families and others who have let lifestyle choices separate them.
Through the process, Alana began to view her mother as an ally, someone with whom she shares a love of God. Patricia began to set aside the negative stereotypes of Islam, recognized the humanity in the Muslim community, and acknowledged the sincerity of her daughter’s faith.
African Americans make up 20 percent of the US Muslim population, and most are converts like Alana. Among all American-born Muslims, about half are African American.
The factors drawing African American women to Islam vary, but include a “dissatisfaction with American Christianity,” said Aminah McCloud, a scholar of Islam in America and professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
Some tired of worshipping a “white God”—a point of contention Patricia herself debated with fellow African Americans back in the ‘70s. McCloud found that other female converts saw Islam promoting the restoration of the black family, affirming respect for women, and upholding a moral code of justice that they didn’t find at church.
Like many Muslim women who wear a headcovering, Alana has been subjected to suspicious glances, excessive airport pat-downs, and unwelcome remarks (“Go home!”). Patricia has witnessed some of these incidents, and believes Islamophobia also runs through the church. She wrote for Her.meneutics about it:
For followers of Christ, our contempt for Islam and its followers may say as much about us as it says about the people and faiths we suspect and revile. Indeed, doesn’t it say we don’t trust God? Don’t believe his ways in our current interfaith dilemma might be better than ours?
Today Patricia and Alana enjoy far more texts and phone calls and visits than before. They can talk about their traditions without needing to prove each other wrong. They are willing to listen.
But Patricia still prays daily that Alana and her husband will come into a saving relationship with Jesus, that someone will witness to them in a way that transforms their view of the prophet Christians know as the Savior.
“I have to admit,” Alana writes in the final chapter of Undivided, “it still stings that when I read how she openly wishes that I become a Christian.”
When I bring this up during our interview, Patricia interrupts her daughter to say, “Not for you to become a Christian, but for you to know who Jesus is.”
Alana pauses. She’s heard this before. “Okay.”
And the conversation goes on.
Even with the book project over and their relationship in a good place, the plan is to keep talking. “When we started,” Patricia said, “we were thinking that peace was this destination that you get to. We discovered that it’s truly not a destination; it is a journey.”
The Raybons have shared 19 tips to handle hurt when a child coverts.
Patricia Raybon is a regular contributor to fellow CT publication Today’s Christian Woman. You can read more of her writing here.
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