A Short Memoir Of Religion And Faith
Warning! No, sorry a Note: This is an intellectual exercise, so please hold your religious fanaticism and zealotry.
Robert Vamunyah Sesay, Contributing Writer
One of my first experiences of religious divergence as a child was seeing the statute of The Virgin Mary with the young Jesus in her arms. I was probably six or seven carrying a bag of produce on my head to the weekly Bolahun Market. The statute hung in a chapel up the hill at the entrance of the town. Bolahun was and remains a hub for Christian education since 1922, when the Holy Cross Episcopal Church opened its doors in the town.
I vividly remembered the sarcasm my friends and I, and even some adult family members, summoned as we stood staring at the statute; and mocked the idea of God having a child.
“How could God have a child?” We questioned, bewildered and yet cynical at the same time, about the entire idea of Christianity relying on God being the father of a child called Jesus.
I was born a Muslim. My Father wasn’t only the Iman of the town’s only religious center, but he also owned the mosque. So, before I turned ten, I was already deep into observing all the tenants of the Islamic faith. I wasn’t only praying five times a day, but I’d learned to fast at least half of the thirty days that is required by the faith for adult worshippers. Reciting the various Quranic verses was a nightly past time in our household.
My father, Dwuanah Sesay, was a Mandingo trader who migrated from Macenta, Guinea as a teenager at the beginning of the twentieth century. He settled in northern Lofa County, Liberia, in a village called Boawolohun. By the time of my birth, my father’s glorious days as a trader were behind him.
But as he once told me, one of his proudest moments was when he built the first house with a zinc roof and opened its first store, among many firsts. According to him, this inspired the rest of the town to build houses with zinc roofs. And because of the success of his business, his household quadrupled. By the time I was ten years old, I had six stepmothers and roughly twenty-six siblings, some old enough to be my grandparents.
For decades, my father worked to convert more than half of the town residents to the Islamic faith. Growing up in Boawolohun, there was no church, hence everyone was either considered a Muslim or Kafalee: the faithless who would burn in Hell perpetually. Many of the faithless were usually destitute or drunks who we looked down upon.
But I started to question my faith in elementary school. At first, it wasn’t for any reason other than the harassment I received from my older siblings about observing the tenements of the faith.
It was a turn off for me.
There was a lot of ambivalence towards me for my lukewarm embrace of Islam. Inspite of the large number of children in our family (I was probably child number 23), I was the only one sent to Western school. (According to my mother, that was because when the town opened its first school, the elders of the town were mandated to send one school-aged child. So I went representing our family.)
The rest of my brothers were sent to Madrassa school in Guinea until they reached manhood, and then left to learn a trade or try their hand at business. My older sisters were all married out at 17. But it was my brothers’ fate that puzzled me. Why spend all those years learning Quran and then just abandon it for another trade? I asked my father once. He told me the Madrassa was meant to prepare one for life and the understanding of Mandingo tradition. I still didn’t get it, but he told me I would someday when I became a man. The truth is I never have.
I was also probably one of three of my father’s many offspring who never learned how to speak Mandingo. Everyone in our household was bi-lingual (Mandingo and Gbandi). Even my mother, who was born Gbandi, learned to speak the Mandingo language fluently. But for some reason, me and my younger siblings didn’t. And our older siblings held that against us, perhaps consciously or otherwise.
So, the first reasonable explanation for my lukewarm attitude toward Islam in the eyes of my family was SCHOOL. They believed that school (western school) had turned me against Islam. And as a teenager I took that narration and ran away with it.
Earlier as a pre-teen, when I finally left Boawolohun for Kakata to stay with some of my older brothers, things were a lot easier on me. I quickly observed that religion wasn’t a thing of concern. What mattered most was the bustling and hustle of making a living. Except the fast month when everyone was holier than the Iman, religion was used only as an intersection between decency and morality. They had managed to remain Muslim, but without the commitment.
At the end of 1982 I moved to Monrovia to stay with couple of uncles (from my mother’s side) where secularism was the norm. Neither of my uncles or their wives went to church or were Muslim. In fact, religious was never spoken about. I enrolled at the New Kru town Junior high school, in New Kru Town. It was there I got my first brush with Christianity. One morning, a religious group distributed a pocket size New Testament Bible among our class. It was my first encounter with the Holy Bible. I read the entire New Testament from cover to cover within 15 days, and from there on I was hooked on Christian literature like a Jesuit. But I also yearned for more answers.
I had a myriad of questions on the Bible and the religiosity of Christianity as a whole. I was surrounded by churches everywhere in New Kru Town, and yet, my young mind was not hungry for seeking salvation or the ascendancy of my soul to Heaven. Rather, I wanted an understanding of how we ended here on Earth and what the Holy Bible can tell us if any of it. It was that yearning that turned me to the ELWA Radio Station outside of Monrovia through a correspondence course program.
In one of my first letters to the program, I remembered specifically asking series of questions such as: Why has Jesus not returned for almost 2000 years? When he returns, will all children be allowed in Heaven? What about kids who are forced by their parents to join other faiths; should that be reason for not going to Heaven? How do we know the world is about to end? What would happen to non- Christians, like Muslim and others? What happened to all the people who were born before Jesus Christ? Will they all go to hell, even though it’s not their fault Jesus wasn’t born yet? Where did God come from? Is God White? These were some of the burning questions that eluded my young brain at the time.
For these questions, the moderator who told me he was an American missionary sent me a box full of Christian literature through my school. I still remembered how excited I was when the box was delivered to me at school. However, after days of combing through it, I was disappointed. None of the literature even touch on any of my questions. But, a note from the moderator termed my barrage of questions as “normal teenage inquisition about God” and urged me to read the Bible, as all my questions were answered in the Bible. I wrote back telling him about my reading of the New Testament, and yet none of these questions were answered. I never heard from him again. I did an additional half dozen correspondences, but he never got back to me.
He gave up converting me. I was greatly disappointed.
For the next few years, I was in a religious wilderness. I didn’t identify with either of the two leading religions in Liberia, Christianity and Islam, though my family assumed that I was a Muslim. The vacation of 1984 found me going back to Kakata to spend the time with my sister Maima and her new husband, Uncle Musa, whom like my father was a Guinean and a devout Muslim. The observance of the Islamic faith took center stage in their home. It was on that vacation my disagreement came to a collision course with my family. My sister physically dragged me into the mosque to pray each night, which I despised to my core, especially the morning prayer. My dislike was rooted in two things; one, my faith as a Muslim had been shaken, and two, it was just very difficult to observe the five times prayer a day. So, I told my sister that I’d converted to Christianity and I was no longer a Muslim.
She was devastated, and she wept. She told me she hoped it was a phase that I’ll get out of soon. She begged me to change my mind. But I told her my mind was made up – my decision was final. My sister told the rest of my family in Kakata, who were all equally appalled. The culprit, in their eyes, was that because I never went to Madrassa, hence, my Western education was to blame even though I had only been promoted in the 9th grade. Nevertheless, my family wasn’t ready to give up on me. Sister Maima who had almost adopted me ever since I was a child, by buying all my school uniforms, materials and paying school fees, threatened to withhold her support.
As she put it “Jesus will have to pay for your school fees and uniforms from now on.” And she was darn serious about it.
So I returned to the mosque, but with different intentions that would lead my sister to describe me as devilish with a good chance of burning in Hell. I concocted a plan that infuriated not only my family but the rest of the worshippers in that mosque. In fact, the Iman verbally banned me to never again step into his mosque; which I accepted gleefully. My plan was simple: whenever the rest of the men were kneeling to recite the Quran, I was standing up, and when they were standing up I was kneeling. After that prayer I was considered a lost cause. A Qafir, a kalafee, a sinner who will burn in hell eternally.
Despite her threat, my sister continued to support my educational goal. But she reminded me every chance she got that “burning in perpetuality was no fun,” to which I responded, “Jesus will save me from the fire.”
I continued to learn more about Christianity. As I warmed toward its religiosity, the bigger I got and embraced it. Finally, in 1986 I joined the St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Camp Johnson Road, in Monrovia. To get the baptism, I needed to bring two senior members of the church or in the diocese as God parents. I asked Jackson Dunor who have been in the Episcopal church long ago from his days in Bolahun and he accepted gracefully. My other God parent was the late Mother Mary Brownell. When I asked her she asked me a simple question: “Why should I vouch for you to God? Give me one reason I should be your sponsor,” and she quickly added, “and there is no lying young man. This is about God.” I told her I was born a Muslim, in a Muslim family and I’d been directionless until now that I had found God.” She embraced me fondly and said, “You don’t have to say any more, young man. I’ll be your sponsor.”
So much for religion tolerance.
I dived into Christianity with every fabric of my being. I barely missed a service every Sunday. I prayed constantly and did communion weekly in the church. By then everyone of my family had given up on trying to bring me back to Islam. The one thing I’d been able to do was to avoid a direct conversation with my father on this matter.
That ended in January of 1988. I made a trip to Boawolohun, after I graduated high school. My mother pulled me aside and complained that my father might not be happy with me about my change of faith. She suggested that I shouldn’t break his heart as he was old and fragile. “Tell him you’re still a Muslim. Please do this for me. Can you Vamunyah? Your father is old and fragile he might not take it too well.” My mother pleaded with me. I hadn’t seen my father for well over five years now.
So, I was conflicted when I walked into his study. As always, he was swinging in his hammock, surrounded by dozens of Islamic literatures. When he saw me, he gave a broad smile, put his book down, sat in his hammock. I walked over to him and gave him an embrace. My father hadn’t age much. His hairless, boyish and square face, extended chin and a body frame that always reminded me of a retired athlete were in good shape for his age. “You’ve grown very tall Vamunyah.” He quipped and wore a smile with his perfect teeth. He pulled his coffee table that always held a mug with his home-made brew coffee. He poured me a cup and handled it to me. I wasn’t in a mood for coffee, but I accepted it out of respect.
“You’re hungry?” He continued.
“I’m good papa.” I said when my father shouted “Thelma? Thelma?” Thelma (Matenneh) was the name of his first wife, hence his favorite. He lived with her in his apartment within our compound, while the rest of his other wives shared one big house with separate beds all shrouded in individual canopies. Thelma (or Ma Foday as we kid called her) eased in from her bedroom and I embraced and greeted her fondly. She offered me food, but I politely rejected it. It was an open secret in our household that Ma Foday was a bad cook, and yet Papa loved her food above all.
Papa and I chatted for about ten minutes as we both sipped coffees.
But my father surprised me, when he didn’t ask about the elephant in the room. Instead, he wanted to know what I was going to do with my life. He wanted to know what was next for me after high school. I told him I intended to enroll into college and he gave me his blessing. Adding, “if you want to learn, go all the way. High school education wouldn’t give you a town crier job.” He said jokingly. We both laughed over it. That was a surprise for me, because the last time I saw my father, he and my mother had a fight over his lack of interest in my educational aspiration. It wasn’t lack of support, as my sister did all the spending, but my mother wanted my father involved in my schooling as he did with his other kids in the madrassa. Of which my father’s brutal response left me perplexed to this date: “I’m at the end of my life… this child will benefit you more than me. So, he’s more your responsibility than me.” My mother fought back, but Papa was done. He went back to reciting his Quran. He never opened his mouth for the entire five to ten minutes my mother stood there raising her voice. That was five years earlier.
After our coffee meeting, I returned to my mother and told her that Papa didn’t ask about the religion issue. My mother said it was an old age. “The Duannah Sesay I know wouldn’t forget. He’s old now, Vamunyah. Time breaks everything. Everything Vamunyah!“ My mother said sounding disappointed that Papa didn’t inquired about my change of faith. I told my mother, all Papa wanted was for me to escort him tomorrow on the coffee farm.
“Coffee farm?” she asked.
“Yes. Why Mama?” I inquired. “Nothing.” She uttered with a faded smirk. I couldn’t understand my mother’s fascination with my father’s acquiescence, or interest in everything I did. But it was important to my mother. To this day, I can’t comprehend why?
The next day we were half way on our trek to the coffee farm when Papa broke the ice about my faith. He turned around slowly and gazed me. “Vamunayah, what is this thing I’m hearing that you’re no longer a Muslim?” My father was well beyond six feet and almost always was the tallest in many gatherings. He stood bearing over me with an unblinking gaze. I took a deep breath and I nodded. “Yes Papa. It’s true. Are you disappointed in me?”
He put me at ease with a broad smile. Yet, he went silent for nearly a full minute or more as we stood in the middle of the path road, in the middle of the forest, which lasted like eternity to me. Then he began to walk forward. Then quickly, he cleared his throat and turned around again. “I’m not disappointed, son. You’re not a child anymore. And when it comes to God, each bears his own. If that’s what you truly want to serve, do it fully. Serve it with everything you’ve got.” My Iman father said and started to march forward again.
I walked over to him and embraced him fondly. He held me tightly and patted my back. From that day I had renewed respect for my father. He didn’t threaten to disown me or disavow me. If he was angry, his demeanor didn’t show it.
“Thanks Papa.” I said and released myself from his embrace.
“Don’t thank me. I don’t approve of it; but as a man you’re pleased to do as you wish, and you take any responsibility that comes with your actions. I was a year or two your age when I left my parents. I knew I was my own man. But I also knew whatever decision I make I’ll bear the full weight wither good or bad.” That was the last thing my Iman father said about me choosing Christianity over his faith, Islam. We reached a log on the side of the path road, he sat down, and I sat alone side him as we both observed nature surrounding us.
Now, looking back, my father was ahead of his time on religion freedom.
Papa looked tired. My father didn’t know his birthday or birth year. But he came to Liberia as a teenager. Judging from some of his business receipts I found after his death, some dating back to 1921, I assumed Papa was around 90 by then. But he had aged gracefully. He never barely ever took a pill in his life, God forbid drink alcohol. But he was a consummate coffee drinker. He never had any serious health issue ever.
As the rebels advanced toward northern Lofa and stories of their decapitation of Muslim and Mandingos spread in 1990, some of my elder siblings rushed to scoop my father and Thelma from Boawolohun into Guinea, but my Iman father vehemently rejected the notion to flee for his faith. “If a man isn’t willing to put his life on the line for his faith, he’s not only a coward before God, but he will forever remain faithless. And I can take a thief and or a murderer any day over a faithless soul. I’ve done nothing but to serve Allah faithfully for my entire life. I’ll continue to do that till theirs bullets penetrate the chamber of my heart.” He told my brothers and went on reading his Quran.
And as expected, Thelma refused to leave her husband of more than 70 years. Most of our entire household either took sanctuary in Guinea or sought refuge in the forest, leaving my father and his beloved Thelma alone. But nature intervened; about four weeks before the rebel took the town, Thelma passed away in her sleep. Seven days later, my father followed. He too died in his sleep. Even after his death, his home study and religious documents were desecrated by the rebels to the glee of some of the town elders.
In my escape of the war that advanced on Monrovia, I’d walked with dozens of friends from Monrovia to Boawolohun, and when I arrived I found my father’s once gregarious compound was like a ghost compound. I spent a week and half there sleeping in the compound in my father bed alone, until the rebels stormed the town one evening. My mother came and dragged me to her father’s house under the cover of darkness. That night, my siblings and I from my mother side departed for the forest where we spent a week hiding from the rebels.
Recently, my ten-year-old daughter asked me when was the exact moment that I realized there was no God? My journey from Christianity to non -believer was a gradual process. It wasn’t a single instance I would point to as the “ah ha” moment. But almost all of it started when I arrived in the US in January of 2000. Perhaps if I hadn’t come to America, I wouldn’t have seen the failing of religion so glaring and impulsively as it is today. The discovery of ancient artifacts and its analysis, some preceding the formation of all major religions by millions of years have impacted my historical context of religions, hence it’s accuracy. Adding to that list would be the daily introspection of religion itself.
The late Christopher Hitchens in his block buster book “God is Not Great” penned that “It (religion) speak of the bliss of the next world, but it wants all the power in this one. This is only to be expected. It is after all, wholly man-made” In proceeding chapters Christopher went on to charge religious intolerance and its avalanches of discord and wars on mankind as some of the many reasons that burns his loathing for religion.
While I tend to agree with Christopher Hitchens on most of his arguments, I however hold religion in higher esteem than he’s given credit for. Granted, religions have been marred by violence and wars for most of its founding and practices, but for the last one hundred years or more, religions have been on the peaceful side for most of its practices. Except for Islamic fundamentalists in some part of the Middle East and Christian fundamentalists in Ireland and other parts of the world, most of the world religions have been peaceful for most part. It’s true, in this era of ISIS, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, religious violence and war seems to be endless. But it’s a small part of the global religion that are engaged in violence and wars.
This dichotomy of my faith and view of religion have baffled many friends and family member alike.
In my household, my young kids frequently ask me of their confusion about my faith and religious affinity. “Why are you still a practicing Catholic despite your lack of faith?” There is no doubt my agnostic view of religion has grown into full atheism in the last ten years or so.
Nevertheless, I tend to overwhelmingly believe that religion is necessary in the lives of the world’s seven billion people. Despite the flaw of religion when put to the microscope, it is one of the necessary bridges or the glues that are holding our civilization together from chaos and violence.
In other words, people need something to believe in bigger than themselves. Something that they will channel their doubts, blame their mistakes, failures and lack of upward mobility on. They also need something that they can channel their hopes, dreams and aspirations through. Religion seems to be a perfect vehicle to channel those frustrations, imperfections, hopes and dreams through.
If the entire seven billion population of the world woke up today and suddenly realized the truth about religion – that the idea of God is rooted in fantasy; that there is no after life and there is no Heaven or Hell and this life is all we’ve got. Or if the entire world population woke up today and realized that man created God in his image and out of the desire to deal with the complexity of the universe around us, the chances of the world being plunged into chaos and violence will be higher than the current religious driven fantasy world mankind is thriving on. Without religion, governments around the globe will have problems keeping peace and the police and the security forces will be overwhelmed in defending peace, law and order.
Without the fear of Heaven and Hell petty crimes and murder will be rampant daily.
Another aspect of religion that I endorse wholly is the social services that the religion communities provide for our common humanity. In short, I still support the humanity that the religion enhances. The Community that the religion lifts. The molding of minds of the youth and it’s community. These and others stipulated above have kept me in the church long after my faith dried off.
It is these simple explanations I have tried on multiple occasions to friends, neighbor and family members as the cruxes for my religion affinity and not the savior or after life or the bliss of it. But as it’s often, my explanation always yields more questions and in the case of my kids they are left confused. For many people you either must believe in the raising of Jesus to be a Christian. Based on that definition, I’m not a Christian. And I don’t apologize for it. But religion goes beyond the abstract bliss of the next world.
More than any single reason, nothing has propelled me to embrace atheism than Science. The achievements and promise of science are the closest there is to a God or any super natural belief.
Long before our forefathers morphed into what have today become us, there has been no single problem as complexed and unfathomable as the process known as DEATH. The mystery of that process and the fear of the unknown is at the heart of every religion known to man. Even though death is impenetrable or for lack of better words, no one have experienced death and again be able to walk this earth, and yet, all religions have used the fear of the unknown of death to advance their respective interests. Rather than simply saying death is beyond our comprehension, everyone has their own version of what death is or what goes on after the heart stop pumping.
The truth is if mankind has any chance of defeating death, it lies in Science. Yes, not God or Heaven of the after death. It might take two, three hundred years or even a millennium, but if our civilization should survive and continue the current trajectory, there is not a single problem facing humanity that will not be solved by Science.
If there is to be a religion that is fact based, it should be a religion of Science. No, I’m not talking about that other religion of Hollywood elite, Scientology, I mean a religion centered around the truth and promise of Science. The citizens of the world in 3018 might not only seize to worship the God we know today, but if there is still a knack for religion it will be fact based. I know many critics will easily counter-argue that in the case of Christianity the religion has withstood other big adversaries for well over two millenniums hence it will still be around and strong. But look around, what is happening to religion today, particularly Christianity, will only get worst. A millennium from now whatever will be left of religion as we know it today, will be an afterthought. Or maybe Jesus will have come and gone?
No. Jesus is not coming.
But, the advance of Science, especially in the areas of health and technology – (AI in particular) has given us a great hope for the future. A future that will be lifted by less diseases if not diseases free.
With Science, the afterlife that most religions have promised us – a world free of diseases, longevity and abundance of love and food and etc will be achieved predictably at the end of this millennium if not long before. The only thing that will be absence will be Hell and its endless flame.
Psychologists have long sought to find the reasons or motivations that drive man to believe in the higher power. Their findings are as myriads as the sand on the beach, but one motivation that is almost universal for all believers despite their faith or religions is Man reaction to our surroundings. The rivers, oceans, the ridges, mountain, the landscape and the many living organisms that occupied them. From man’s evolution from the ages of the Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens to modern man, it’s been a driving force behind religion irrespective of faith. If these natural ecologies and geologies didn’t happen as the Science teaches us it must have been put there by someone with a concept known as Intelligent Design. In Christianity, supporters of Intelligent Design have often found themselves on the defensive with some of their outlandish claim of the formation of the universe and bridging it with the Bible. But one need not to look further to know that the universe is still forming or evolving and expanding, with new crevices, rivers, mountains, lands, islands forming in the last hundred years. If you exponentially divide the age of the universe about 4 billion years, to the formation of all major landmarks and it’s reformation like the Ice Age and other major reformations of our landscape on planet Earth one can glaringly comprehend the geologies and ecologies of our planet.
In many respects, my father was a pragmatic. For instead, he told me when he arrived in Boawolohun as a young man, he fell in love with the town and its people. It was the reason that he joined the Poro Society, despite what the Quran or Islam might say about indigenous rituals. He said at the time he got heat from some of his fellow Mandingos. “I was the outsider who didn’t speak the language, but also wanted to make this place my home. There were lot of skepticisms toward me and Islam. Before I arrived here many years ago, the only interaction this town had with Muslim was travelling Mandingo traders. But today as you can see the entire town are Muslim worshippers. I’ve to change in other to change the town. I’m proud of that achievement.” He said and wore a wild beam and summed up pretty much to what among to: “when in Rome, be a Roman and hold to your values.”
I have often wondered what would Papa think today about my atheism? Would he still be non-judgmental? Would he finally charge that I’ve gone too far? I would never know. But one thing that counts for me is he let me believe or worship what I wanted. For many in his generation and faith would’ve turn it into a soap opera or family feud. But my father, the Iman was a bigger man with a bigger heart and a bigger idea.
Robert V. Sesay is the author of STOLEN and the forth coming novel, “The Wild Geese” A story about a female child soldier in the Liberian Civil War.