Photo: Natasha's Baptism
Growing up an Alawite Muslim, to the daughter of Lebanese/Syrian migrants I never felt part of my family. I refused to believe something just because my parents believed it.
On April 23rd 2011, my life finally received meaning. My life of all a sudden made sense! Everything that I'd been searching for was found. The night of my Baptism! To me this was not just an ordinary day.
I attended a Public High School. In year 12, I decided to attend a Bible study session during lunchtime, only because my PDHPE Teacher was running it and I was very fond of her. During that session, we learnt about the Ten Commandments. As a Muslim we were always taught about the Prophet Moses and the Ten Commandments. But on that very day it was a true eye opener. I thought to myself, 'if only everyone in the world adhered to these simple laws.' I was intrigued and needed to find out more about God's plan. So, I took the Bible home, knowing I would have to hide it.
The following Saturday afternoon I was home alone and saw a good opportunity to read the Bible. This time I decided to read the New Testament. I was in my room, a beautiful summer's afternoon, and I read the Gospel of Matthew. Being a good English student, I had a love for reading and had read many novels. I immediately fell in love with the New Testament. In secrecy I read the New Testament in a few days. After reading the Gospels for the first time, I thought to myself 'there is no way this narrative could have been written by any human.' This plan is too perfect for any man's capacity. Despite what Islam taught me: (1) the New Testament has been changed many times to what it is today, (2)Yes, Jesus was a great Prophet and because He was such a great Prophet God wouldn't allow for Him to be crucified, a stunt body was used instead and (3) because God is one entity, Jesus cannot be God the Son. The more I read, the more I realised how much I don't know. I cannot put into words the hunger I felt to learn more. God's mystery was there, it was a gift, and only by the grace of God was I able to receive this gift.
On the Monday, with excitement I met my teacher after class and I told her the profound and intimate encounter I experienced with the Bible. My teacher told me that I encountered the Holy Spirit. Growing up in Wiley Park, the neighbouring Catholic School was named Holy Spirit College Lakemba. I thought 'Oh the school Holy Spirit'. At that time I didn't have a complete understanding of what the 'Holy Spirit' really was. I explained how in awe I was with the narratives and by Jesus. Out of the blue my teacher said, "Why don't you convert?" At that moment I laughed as said "Oh yeah what's my dad going to say?" We left it at that. However, I will never forget that conversation because deep in my heart I knew that it was the right thing to do, because I believed.
John 20:29, "...blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." This Bible passage speaks to me personally because I have not seen Jesus crucified, I was not alive at that time yet in my heart I know that it is true. I did not grow up in a Christian tradition and had minimal exposure to it. The New Testament and Christian concepts were all new to me and yet I was able to fully embrace it. This gift was a grace and I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by. I understood that I had to initiate or make the first move. James 4:8; "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you."
A few weeks had passed and I kept reading the Bible. I was mesmerised. It was the best love story I had ever read. The love that God had for human kind! I kept attending Bible study and loved it more each time.
I then told my teacher that I was ready. I no longer accepted the Islamic religion which I was brought up in. My teacher stayed back one afternoon and I confessed Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. And that was it. That was all I had to do in order to become a Christian. I thought, 'that was easy'. Little did I know the challenge I was in for.
I thought I could be a Christian on my own. Just Jesus and I on a private island. I did my best to keep my Christian identity hush hush. But I didn't stand a chance against the girls in my year. The students were predominantly Muslim and they found it very difficult to understand why I was exploring Christianity. The fact that I was attending Bible study really upset them and the rumours soon spread. It got back to my parents and they sat me down and told me that I was born a Muslim for a reason and that if I changed my religion then I didn't accept God. Just to keep the peace, I agreed with them.
The last year of school is supposed to be about making happy memories. But for me my last year at school was a very lonely time. The teacher that had led me to Christ was now on maternity leave. I had no one to talk to. No one else understood. I didn't have the will power to tell everyone about the glory that I found in Jesus Christ because I knew the repercussions. The girls outcasted me, alienated me and secluded me from social and school events. Knowing that I only had a few months left, I had to persevere. In my heart of hearts I knew that this was right. That there was no other way for me to live; Jesus is love, God is love and I also wanted to give my love to those around me. Whenever I was scared I would say 'I plead the blood of Jesus' and immediately felt a sense of peace. The Islamic (or Middle Eastern) culture of the school was: finish school, get married, have kids and serve your husband. While this lifestyle was inevitable for young girls from Muslim Lebanese backgrounds, for me I knew there was more to life than just that.
I started a degree in Teaching at the Australian Catholic University, majoring in Literature and Theology. I had never intended on becoming a Catholic. I was still proclaiming to be a Christian without making it official. I then had to do a practicum at Marist College Penshurst. This prac was life changing. Not because I got to teach my own classes for the first time, but because of my encounter with the Marist tradition. This was the start of my true journey in becoming a Catholic.
At that time, I also started tutoring two Italian primary school students. In their house, they had a painting of Mother Mary and I got talking to the mother about the Catholic faith. She asked me wether I had ever thought about becoming a Catholic. It wasn't until that very moment that I did and I replied, "Yes, I've been thinking about it."
She gave me a copy of her parish bulletin. It had a notice about the Rights of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program starting in September. It was July. I had contemplated the idea for nearly two months. A week before my 21st birthday I got the courage to ring Fr Remy and enquire about RCIA. He gave me the details for the first meeting and I put it in my diary. The next day I had a dream of this beautiful Church with a statue of Mary in front of it. I thought that it must be a sign; I'm making the right decision. A week later I drove down to the Church putting the address in my Navman and I was shocked when I reached my destination, Our Lady of Fatima, Kingsgrove. It was the same church I had seen in my dream.
The facilitators along with Fr Remy were very welcoming however I would make excuses for not attending the Thursday night sessions. I didn't feel connected to the program. I had majored in Theology at uni and was under the impression (being naive) that I knew everything I needed to know.
It wasn't until I attended the Christmas midnight Mass in 2010 that I understood what it meant to be a true Catholic. It was the most beautiful Mass, my first Mass in actual fact. After the New Year break I attended each RCIA session diligently. During Lent I attended each of the recommended Masses on three different weekends (Sunday 8:30am, 10am and Saturday night 5pm). After each Mass I knew that the Church was my family. The welcoming smiles and hugs from the parishioners made me feel very welcome.
On Saturday 23rd April 2011, at the Easter Vigil Mass I was to be Baptised. I'd been preparing for this night for 9 months. I could feel the Holy Spirit leading me towards this very day. It wasn't easy. However, I wouldn't trade that day for the world. If there's one thing I've taken from my Baptism, it is that God wants to have a relationship with me because he simply loves me. Often I have to stop and think what that really means... God, the Creator loves me! He loves you. He loves the world so much that he gave his only begotten son (John 3:16).
Fr Remy had rung me earlier that week, conversing with me and making sure I was ready for this big commitment. He assured me that the Church will be there for me if/when my parents find out. I assured him that I would never deny Jesus and that I needed to do this. That day was like a scene out of a movie. The time for the vigil Mass was now. All the Catechumens were outside of the Church, with the Priest who was lighting the Paschal Candle. The whole church was silent. It was dark. The feeling inside my stomach couldn't contain itself. I can only describe it as being in the waiting room, waiting to see a family member who's just given birth. New life! There is nothing that beats that feeling. I was now starting a new chapter in my life. I was going to be baptised!
I was astonished at how through the Paschal candle, all the other candles in the church were being lit, one by one. This metaphor was visually inspiring and figuratively remarkable. Sabeena, one of my mentors during the RCIA program gave me advice that someone had given her on her wedding day. That was to enjoy each moment because each moment will last a lifetime. I took that advice willingly and she was right. The Mass had started, and while I was still new to the responses and each part of the Mass, I was absorbing it like a sponge.
It now came time to be Baptised. We were told to wear all black to symbolise death and living in darkness. I was baptised in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The feeling of the water splashing my body was of cleansing: both body and soul. I then changed into my white garments and received my first Holy Communion and was Confirmed. My Right of Passage was now complete. Although the Holy Sacraments of Initiation were complete, the rest of my journey is still yet to be encountered. I am lucky enough to be attending World Youth Day 2013 in Rio, Brazil this year.
I am now an English and Religious Education Teacher at Marist College Kogarah. The mission of the Catholic school is to be evangelical. It is the evangelizing arms of the Catholic Church, to announce and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Living the life of Jesus Christ implies...a living spirituality and authentic morality, strengthened by the word of God in Scripture and celebrated in the Sacraments of the Church. I love my job because each and every day I get to be a living witness to my faith. I am Catholic first, teacher second.
I am yet to tell my parents of my conversion, because I know they will not take it well. I pray to God every day that he finds a way for them to accept my choice. I hope that in the way I live my life I can be a living testament to the love that is found in Jesus. I have faith and trust in the Lord. Nothing else matters, because when you put all your faith and trust in God, everything falls into place. Our human limitations may not understand this at the time, but over time we will always realise that God's plan is always bigger than ours.
I have given every ounce of my trust to God. At the foot of the Cross I give all my sins to Jesus because I have ultimate faith in Him. I honestly thought falling in love was the best feeling ever. That there was nothing like it. I was wrong.
My name is Natasha. It is very unusual for a Muslim girl to be given a non-Islamic name. My sister's name is Mariam, my brothers' Ghadir, Mohamad and Ibrahim. I was the only one with a western name. The meaning of my name is 'Child of Christmas'. And indeed, I am Christ's child!
Finally, a message that has been well received by me from his Holiness Emeritus Benedict XVI: To evangelise means to bring the Good News to others and to let them know that this Good News is a person, Jesus Christ.