August 23, 2017

Sept. 11 Special: Interview with Charles Featherstone

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Note from CM: I first met Charles Featherstone over a cup of coffee at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago a couple of years ago. Even in our brief interaction, I was intrigued by him and the story of his wilderness journey. I learned only a small portion of it then, but now that Charles has written his compelling book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, it’s out there for all of us to read. This is a journey you won’t forget — and it’s not over yet. I encourage you to read his book, and if you want to read a good article summarizing his story even more than this interview, read the piece Charles wrote for Christianity Today: “Saved from Islam on September 11.” Charles also blogs at The Featherblog.

For our post today, I’ve asked Charles a few questions that trace the outline of his journey, with the events of September 11, 2001 right in the center.

• • •

1. Charles, you write that this book “is the story of my struggle — to find a place in the world into which I had been born, a world that was all too cruel — unwelcoming at times. A world in which too many people didn’t seem to know what to do with me.

What are some of the particular ways in which you experienced the world’s cruelty? Was it in your family? At school? In the neighborhoods in which you lived? Is there a particular instance that stands out? And what do you mean when you say that people didn’t know what to do with you?

Well, I met it in my family — I had an early sense that my father didn’t particularly like me, and for some years, he was sporadically violent, sometimes horrifically. I could never know.

But there was also school. For a few years, particularly fourth through sixth grades, at Citrus Elementary in Upland, California, I was bullied pretty incessantly. It was mostly verbal, being teased constantly, but there were also threats. I was easy to threaten. And in fifth grade, my teacher, Ms. Johnson, was also part of the abuse. She was chief bully; she hit some students, but she never hit me. She organized all the other bullies, though. It was unrelenting. She was a monster, and I don’t use that word lightly. I can still see her face, red with rage, and hear her voice — which was always some kind of yell. She called me “stupid” a lot, and once told me in front of everyone during class that she was going to fail me so that I would have to spend another year with her. Then she laughed. She did those sorts of things a lot.

I lived in a world in which no one could be trusted, no one protected me, and the only value I seemed to have to those around me was as something to abuse. It only lasted a couple of years, but it was enough.

After that, beginning in junior high school, I wasn’t bullied anymore. But I didn’t really know how to belong. For our talk about individualism, and even freedom, America is a deeply conformist society. Freedom is basically the ability to want and to choose the right things, to voluntarily conform. I suppose it has to be that way, or else nothing would hold the society together, but it also means that conformity is very internally driven. It also means there is quite a clash between what we as a people confess and how we actually live, and demand those around us live. And we really don’t know what to do with non-conformists. We really do not know how to accept those who, in their bones, cannot seem to belong, to want what everyone should want the way it should be wanted. I really wanted to belong, to be accepted, to be part of something in high school, and I kind of was — marching band, maybe — but mostly I was alone. I had friends, and some intense friendships, but not really the deep web of belonging I think I have been aching for much of my life. To be part of a people, enmeshed in them, and to have them be a part of me. I didn’t know any of this at the time, of course, I was just lonely and anxious and very angry and feeling my way toward something I was incapable of describing. I was the kind of person who could have been a school shooter given the right circumstances — I was THAT angry at the world — but it was the early 80’s and no one was shooting up high schools yet.

When I was 17, and I graduated from high school, I had three questions of the world — will anyone ever want me, will anyone ever love me, and will I ever be good at anything? Because I didn’t know the answers to ANY of those questions. I don’t know if that’s a common experience, but it was mine. And I struggled hard to try and answers those questions. Mostly, I failed — like with my 20 months in the Army — because I had no idea what I was doing and almost no guidance. I’m not sure I would have listened to anyone, but there really wasn’t anyone there to help or walk with me. Life isn’t a journey we are designed to take alone. We really do need each other.

Finally, what impact do you think these experiences had on your personal and faith journey?

I went looking for belonging and meaning, some way of making sense of the world and my place in it. I didn’t know that at the time, because as I read once, spiritual journeys are supposed to guided journeys, and I was groping around in the dark all by myself. I belonged, for a time as a teenager, to a non-denominational church in Upland, a rapture-obsessed church that rose out of California’s suburban culture in the 70s and 80s, and I was active for a time. But the questions I had about meaning weren’t questions that theology was capable of answering. What is the point of my life? What is the purpose of suffering? What did my suffering mean, and how did it have value? So, I drifted away. I was unaware there was a substantial Christian heritage out there. I found some answers, in the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example, who helped me see a redemptive value to suffering that fed me and kept me going. But I had no idea there was a religious tradition, a heritage, to any of this.

I was also looking for belonging. I wanted to be wanted by other people, to have value to them as a human being, to be useful to the life of a group of people. I wanted that so bad sometimes it almost made me ache.

2. At one point you became a Muslim. Tell us a little about how that happened. What attracted you to that particular faith and community?

It was early 1988. I was at San Francisco State University, and I met someone in a Russian language class who had some similar experiences as I did. Particularly a failed stint in the Army. John and I bonded quite quickly. He had become Muslim during a high school year abroad in Morocco, and he introduced me to the Qur’an. And I was intoxicated to find a God who cared about how human beings treated each other. It was stunning. I was hooked.

But I was also welcomed. Really, truly welcomed. By the African American and Palestinian Muslims who met me and began instructing me in the ways of Islam. I tend to over-romanticize it right now, given all that has happened, because not everyone was good at it (more than once someone handed me a book and said, “read this, it will teach you all you need to know,” which I did, but it’s not how much of anyone really learns to live out and practice a faith). But the Muslims I met understood something — that I was an outsider, I had not been raised in their faith or in any of their cultures, and so I would need to be taught. And generally speaking, they taught me. Not just the mechanics — how to pray, how to wash before prayer, how to read and recite in Arabic, what to memorize, which school of Islamic jurisprudence to follow and why — but manners and cultural cues, the little things no one thinks anyone needs to learn. A group of Saudi graduate students at Ohio State, where I finished up my bachelor’s degree, took me in hand, and had I been able to keep with it, they would have pretty thoroughly Saudi-ized me. I’ve been told repeatedly I speak Saudi accented Arabic. They understood what I didn’t know, and proceeded to teach me. Very deliberately and very purposefully.

At the same time, Islam gave me a way to deal theologically with my anger at the world. And I was angry. Angry at what I had lived through, angry that no one considered the child me worthy of protecting. I didn’t set out to find a way to deal with my anger, but I found what I called revolutionary thinking — Islamist writings and practices — and found them fascinating. It was never far from the surface in the communities I prayed in, especially if there were Palestinians present. To be Palestinian is to live an unavoidably political existence, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the secular revolutionary spirit that had driven the PLO and other left wing Palestinian groups in the 1960s and 1970s was beginning to evaporate. I admired their struggle, their faithfulness, and yes, their commitment to fight for their dignity. Dignity was very important to me — I’d been robbed of it and had to fight for it. The Hamas Palestinians I knew lived with much greater dignity, self-respect, and even restraint, than did the Christian and secular Palestinians and San Francisco State.

So, for a time, I was enamored of political violence. I could justify all sorts of things. And I did. Like the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

I found a group of like-minded souls at Ohio State, and we studied Egyptian theologian Sayyed Qutb and Pakistani thinker Maulana Maududi. In our group was at least one American veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan. It was mostly theory — what a properly Islamic society would look like if we ever got the chance to build one. About this time, the war in Bosnia was at its brutal worst, and I gave serious thought to going and fighting there. I had a connection, that same Afghan War vet, who also spent a year in Bosnia. Everything about the war in Bosnia angered me, but mostly it was the European peace keepers who stood around lecturing the Bosnians on being good victims while doing nothing to stop the Serbs. That’s how I saw it at the time. I didn’t so much care about saving the Bosnians, it wasn’t a humanitarian impulse, but rather a desire that these people fight and win (or die) as human beings, with some dignity. That if they are going to perish, it isn’t because some overfed Dutch in light blue helmets kept them from defending themselves, but because they stood their ground and fought and died like men.

I didn’t go, of course, and I’m quite grateful for it. I suspect the organization recruiting American Muslims to fight in Bosnia was Al Qaeda. I’d hate to think what would have become of me if I’d been part of that. It would not have been a happy ending.

I didn’t go because I looked at my wife and understood that no one would take care of her if I wandered off to Europe to go fight some war. And I was constantly told that marriage was half my faith, my main duty. Bigger than jihad even, depending on who you ask. I’m grateful for that. Between Jennifer and my Saudi friends, I kept one foot on the ground, in the real world.

3. How did the events of September 11, 2001 impact you personally?

twin-towersI was there, that morning, working for a now-defunct financial news service, BridgeNews. And it’s where I met Jesus, underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center, where I understood the voice of God speaking inside me (it was not the first time) while I watched people die, telling me, “My love is all that matters.” It changed me. It bent me and broke me. And that’s a good thing.

Up to that day, I had a very Muslim understanding of sin. No one is born in sin in Islam, we all acquire sins in the world. It is not a state of being. No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another, the Qur’an says — more than once. I believed that, very deeply, and I will tell you I believe to this day that is a much more rational and reasonable understanding of sin.

But that day … I finally understood the atonement, the need for it, for sin being a state of being. For it being bigger than us, for us being captive to sin and unable to free ourselves. That made sense. Not rationally, but intuitively. Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t. But I do confess it. Every day.

I’ve never said this before, but I’ve always been a big fan of Dr. Gene Scott. I loved listening to him, and when he preached the gospel — as opposed to Atlantis or his crap on the pyramids or British Israel or his story of the gospel written in the Zodiac — he was good. And for some reason, the run up to 9/11, that summer, I found myself listening to more Gene Scott than I ever had been. I can’t explain it, and I don’t entirely remember exactly what it was, but he was preaching on something related to the teachings of Paul, and I looked at Jennifer and said, “I think that actually makes sense.” I was Saul, hearing the words of Stephen. They didn’t work on me immediately, but maybe they did work on me.

Mostly, though, I consider 9/11 to be God grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and forcing me to look, and look hard, at what I used to believe. Not Islam, but violence. At what I could justify. At the kind of thing IO once wanted. See what it means to be caught up in the middle of someone’s violent revenge fantasy, to see who suffers and who dies. I consider that an incredible gift.

I’m not terribly traumatized by that day. I’m still very wary of jet planes, but I had to spend two years riding my bike up and down the Mt. Vernon bike trail right by National Airport when I worked in Washington, and that’s pretty well forced me to deal with airplanes. I see a plane, though, I need to know where it’s going. And I frequently panic when I hear airplanes unexpectedly. On bright, cloudless days in early September and late April, I can feel a little uneasy. But I’ve not had any bad dreams. It’s given me an insight into a trauma, though. I also find that tremendously valuable.

4. When I first met you, it was at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and you were lamenting that you were having a difficult time finding your way into ordained ministry. It sounds as though your journey as a Christian has had quite a lot of “wilderness” in it. What happened with your vocational ministry pursuits, and where are you today? 

Nowhere. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tossed me out of their candidacy process for ministry twice, and never really told me why. The first time around I was told I was simply unfit for ministry. I had a tough first internship, and my candidacy never really recovered after that. I was picked up by a second synod, Chicago, but then I wrote and published the book, and said a little bit too much about myself. When I was 18, I had a relationship with a women married to someone else, and I did it again at 19. And I got out of the Army with the help of a psychiatrist. It was a ruse, but of course the paperwork doesn’t say that. (I don’t remember what the paperwork says, and I don’t care to.) At any rate, that made me too much of a liability, so they tossed me out. For good, this time, though some people in the ELCA keep hoping that church will change its mind. It would be foolish to expect that.

I wrote a good book, but it isn’t selling, and it doesn’t even seem to have sparked significant interest. You’d think a book about an American’s conversion to Islam, flirtation with terrorism, and meeting Jesus on 9/11 would sell, but mine isn’t. There aren’t even any major reviews of my book yet, and it was published in January. I don’t know what to make of that. I was hoping someone would read the book, go, “he needs to be our next pastor,” but that hasn’t happened either.

I’m a little lost right now. I’ve simply not been able to find work. No one will hire me to write, as I’ve not worked in a newsroom in almost a decade. Book or no book, there are younger and hungrier people out there with much fresher clips. And all of the churches that advertise online are more conservative theologically and politically than I am. Or I’m just not a good fit culturally for them.

It all really comes back to how culturally determined Christianity is in America. Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. (This is not the same as telling people do’s and don’ts.) Nowhere in the church have I come across anything as welcoming and understanding of that as what Muslims showed me. Half of what sunk me with the Lutherans, I think, was the fact that I simply did not understand Lutheran culture in America, not enough to function pastorally for the comfort of most typical Lutherans. The seminary understood this, and thought I opened the ELCA to ministry prospects it might not otherwise have (I led an ad hoc worship service one afternoon with a Chicago street gang mourning the loss of a member in a drive-by shooting, because they were neighbors and I felt the call of the Spirit to be in their midst). But the ELCA opted for caution and safety, and I’m honestly not sure I can blame them.

But the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too. I’ve done a miserable job at looking for church work, but then most of the churches I’ve applied to have been Baptist or heavily influenced by whatever corporate ideals demand “leadership” that there’s no way in hell I’m getting past anyone’s board of elders. (A couple have been kind in responding, but it’s all been a resounding if very polite and even apologetic no.) The American church wants the comfortable and familiar, thinking it can reach the lost and lonely that way. And maybe it can reach some, I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t really reach me, at least not on purpose, and that I don’t belong. Not anywhere.

That saddens me. I’ve wanted nothing more in my life but belonging. But I’ve also had to accept that maybe the belonging I really want I cannot have. I know I belong to Jesus. I have made some very intense and important friendships at seminary. I learned a new story — the story of God’s people Israel, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and that story gives my life a meaning it never had. I don’t know if I’ll ever work again, but I know who I am and whose I am and what I bear witness to. And that’s no small thing.

I’m still called. I know this. I know Jesus has called me to follow and feed sheep and tend lambs. So, I’m going to have find some kind of work someplace, and then wherever I am planted, I will simply have to start my own worshiping community. I’ve had a lot of good, faithful believers suggest directions I should go in — the winner by sheer numbers is, believe it or not, Eastern Catholicism — but unless some church leader comes to me and says, “let’s talk,” I’m unwilling to subject myself to another round of trying to justify my life and choices to a committee of people who’ve not lived my life and wouldn’t even know how to begin to understand it. And I think it more likely the Caliph al Baghdadi will convert to Methodism than a church leader will welcome me at this point.

So, I’m going to have to be the welcome I want in the world. And I am learning how to do that.

Comments

  1. Eckhart Trolle says:

    Now how would you like it if somebody titled their essay “Saved from Lutheranism on Reformation Sunday”?

  2. This story is my story in parts. The other parts *could have been* my story if I had stumbled into a Muslim community in college instead of an evangelical megachurch.

    God be with you, sir.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > The other parts *could have been* my story if I had stumbled into a

      Yea. I look back on some of the things I thought, and wrote… what I could have been if I’d not for the ‘benefit’ or rural isolation and midwest banality. Funny the things one can, in hindsight, end up being thankful for.

      > God be with you, sir.

      Ditto.

      • Eckhart Trolle says:

        You know, al-Qaeda is not the only variety of Islam out there. Most likely, you would have ended up like my dentist.

  3. (T)he church is so tied to culture in this country… it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too.

    This ought to be printed out and nailed to every church door in America.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      +1 There is a lot of content in that short statement.

      “””The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too.”””

      I would ***love*** to see a round-table of priests, pastors, and church leaders of various stripes asked to unpack and discuss what they think this statement means. That would be fascinating.

      • David Cornwell says:

        Willie James Jennings is one person who should be invited to such a table. I heard him speak several times last year and he has a deep understanding of what has happened, what is happening now, and how healing can come. He has written a book, “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race” described by Amazon as follows:

        “Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained segregated societies.”

        But what he has to say goes beyond the boundaries of race, and points us toward true meanings of both Church and Kingdom.

        He has degrees from Calvin College, Fuller Seminary, and Duke University, and now teaches at Yale.

    • Yes this is spot on and a valuable insight. I’ve come to the conclusion that many American Christians simply have no concept of a personal, private spirituality. It’s all social and cultural for them. And this from an people whose ideology supposedly highlights the struggle between them and “the World”. But they are the world and they don’t see how much their spirituality is tied up in the larger culture as Charles writes. And when they perceive a cultural shift that ceases to privilege their point of view, well…look at the news.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > American Christians simply have no concept of a personal, private spirituality

        Interesting. I read it exactly the opposite way. Spirituality is personal and private – entirely. Meaning it is not expected to have any manifested or demonstrable effect.

        American Spirituality, in both mainstream and Evangelical, Christianity – at least for the white middle-class – is a perfect representation of The Suburb. Orderly, which an emphasis on privacy and individual, with everything held at a proper distance. Fear-Of-The-Stranger [or if not Fear then at least Suspicion-Of] is the core value in so much of supposed Christianity. If I turn on the Christian radio and listen to almost any of their talking heads I can start counting Fear-Of-The-Stranger statements within a few minutes.

        • Adam you left off my qualifying “many” but I ask, if their concept of spirituality is entirely personal and private why would they freak out about the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision or some silly Satanist joke Baphomet on the court house lawn? Seems to me it’s only the folks who expect the culture to privilege their beliefs and the laws to conform to their opinions that do that.

          I’m not psychic but my perception is that for many American Christians their concept of spirituality is public and social. People wishing others a Merry Christmas rather than a Happy Holiday, or having prayers at football games may seem utterly trivial but if that’s all you got then of course you see efforts to change such things as a profound attack on your values.

          • I just want to point out, FWIW, that though many Christians DO think this way, I beliveve it is fundamentally contrary to Christianity. In our churches (Lutheran), we explain it in terms of the “two kingdoms.” We can and should expect some of these things within the church. We can’t and shouldn’t expect them outside the church. To the extent that the church has a transformational effect on society, these things would be good, but we need to call a spade a spade and be willing to concede our own impotence rather than blame those we’ve failed to reach out to.

          • “IF THAT’S ALL YOU GOT”

            quoted from STEPHEN’s words:
            “People wishing others a Merry Christmas rather than a Happy Holiday, or having prayers at football games may seem utterly trivial but if that’s all you got then of course you see efforts to change such things as a profound attack on your values.”

            you know, STEPHEN, I never quite thought about it that way, but I can see the wisdom in what you say.

            if people are stridently angry, worried, and fearful . . . and crave isolation from ‘those other sinners’ in order to maintain the ‘purity’ of their beliefs, I can’t help but think they are bereft of the comfort of Christ’s holy peace . . . almost as though they were actually cut off from the Spirit of the Church that came at the moment of Pentecost and had never read the actual words of Our Lord on ‘worry’ and ‘fear’ as no longer needed among Christian people of faith

    • +1

  4. Regarding his being taught how to be Muslim–

    My immigrant mother checked out etiquette books and had me read them because she could not teach me herself how to be an American. I was still learning Americanisms in my 20s, like water is drunk in a glass and not a mug. And as a parent, I’m still learning–like Halloween?

    I wonder if we would do better if “converts” were seen as immigrants; immigrants who should be welcomed and could use explicit instruction?

    I hope Featherstone at some point sees how he is among many who don’t belong. He doesn’t seem to be there at the moment and that’s ok.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > My immigrant mother checked out etiquette books and had me read

      We have some local programs that take school children to formal dinners, and help high-school students to job shadow adults and go to mock interviews, etc…

      Perhaps a bit off topic – but we [as a culture, not just a church] leave far to much of this to chance. I felt – so often – as a young person that I was being asked to play in a game/sport for which I was denied a copy of the rule book. It made me angry; and thus even less inclined to learn. Everywhere we should be more intentional about the value of cultural knowledge. Helping people in this way is an act of kindness and grace. Someone who has a guide/mentor is so far ahead of someone who has to discover all these ‘secret’ rules by trail-and-error.

      > I wonder if we would do better if “converts” were seen as immigrants

      Yes. But in terms of the church it equally important to much be clearer about where our faith/religion ends and where our culture begins; and to expect the people of the church to acknowledge that boundary.

      • Michael Bell says:

        Yes. But in terms of the church it equally important to much be clearer about where our faith/religion ends and where our culture begins; and to expect the people of the church to acknowledge that boundary.

        The problem is that for most people their culture is so ingrained within them that they have no idea where that boundary lies.

  5. A beautiful story, with a poignant conclusion. May God guide you on your way.

    And hey, some love for Gene Scott! I never heard of the out-there stuff the guest mentioned, but I loved what I did see of his preaching.

    • Eckhart Trolle says:

      I saw Scott on late-night TV once, singing a song called (I kid you not) “Kill a pissant for Jesus.” They say this was kind of his theme song. He was like some kind of angry drunk. But a lot of people swear that his theology was just dandy despite this. What can I say? Maybe I should give Said Qutb another look too.

  6. Thank you, Charles. You have things to say that we need to hear.

    I would encourage you to read the blog of Fr Stephen Freeman (Orthodox). He writes about many of the things you have brought up, and there is often very good discussion in the comments. I think a good place for you to start would be “Around the Corner.”

    Dana

  7. I expect life lived with loneliness and a feeling of ‘not belonging’ may lead a person into many directions, some of them destructive, but not all . . . I can envision someone who has been bullied and not accepted coming to understand the plight of those in our world who suffer the same treatment and must live on the margins of our society. And that ‘understanding’, which is one gained through suffering, if turned to empathy can then be directed to good use by Christ for the sake of the Kingdom of Our Lord.

    There is only one real sanctuary for all of us. We can ‘hang out’ with a casual group, and get some relief from our worries and troubles by being ‘one of the gang’, but it’s not something that can be counted on when the really difficult times come. Families are dysfunctional, marriages can break up. Friends move away or die. Our beloved pets leave us in time with broken hearts. That we can find some shelter from the storm even temporarily is what most of us settle for, but not all of us have that option. Any person with marked differences is subject to the inability of others to accept them ‘as they are’. And the more vulnerable such a person is, by their age, or their medical, mental, or emotional health, or their sexual orientation, or lack of resources . . . such people bear more than their share of suffering. To be able to be ‘present’ to them and to understand them, and to be willing to be ‘with them’ as a caring person . . . this ability is much needed in our world. There is an old saying which is true: ‘hurting people hurt people’; but there is another side of that coin that is lesser known: that those innocents among us who have suffered themselves are often found in the places where no one else will go, they are around those no one else wants to be around, and they in their humility are given the grace to minister to the ones no one else can reach . . .

    There is a reason for everything. We can’t understand suffering, especially of the innocent among us. But for the ones who are made strong by their pain, the world can offer them a chance to find meaning in being ‘ the welcome they want in the world’.
    God bless these people. They are the bearers of His grace to others.