2002 was such a significant year for me. An intimate relationship had come to an end and I found myself confronted with old wounds from the past. I was in the process of letting-go of a series of close, yet unsatisfying, friendships. I had also had a fall whilst on holiday that Spring, which had led to major surgery on my left eye. As part of my inquiry into the physical and emotional wounds I was bearing, I found myself visiting Nigeria after an absence of almost 14 years. At the time, I felt that in order to move forward, I needed to retrace my steps. Prior to the visit, I had reached the conclusion that something was still broken in my life; despite trying to cover ‘it’ up in so many different ways – via career, relationships, friends, travel and ‘stuff’. In my inquiry, I decided that there was one place that had not yet been fully searched – the Spiritual Path. Therefore, on my return from Nigeria in Autumn 2002, I joined the Interfaith Seminary and a new chapter of my life began.
One of the exercises I had to do as part of the entry into the Seminary was to write a ‘Reflections on my personal religious experience, my spiritual journey and what led me to join the Interfaith Seminary’. I have not looked at the reflections I wrote, since 2002. Reading it the other day, brought to mind the shadows I have wrestled (and in some cases, continue to wrestle), whilst longing and searching for the Divine. I share with you here, the unedited reflections. I have resisted the temptation to edit the piece, with a view to gloss over some aspects of my journey. For I am gradually learning that there is something so powerful and transformational in simply telling it, as it was then. And that its okay to feel whatever emotions come up – the highs, the lows and everything in between; those emotions are simply shadows and when I shine the light on them – by sharing my story consciously and authentically – those shadows simply disappear in the light.
I do not actually remember what age I was when I first thought of God. The earliest memory I have of religion was when I was around seven, my parents had left London to return to Nigeria. On arrival, we had moved to Kano, the northern part of Nigeria. Arabic and the study of Islam was one of the subjects we had to learn at school, Kano being a Muslim state. I remember being so into the subject. Whenever we visited my grandfather in the south, I would always show off what I had learnt. My grandfather was a practising Muslim and I had in fact been given a Muslim name at birth, Harun. I would join my grandfather and aunts in prayer and during the Ramadan period I would make attempts to fast with the rest of the family.
I soon dropped Arabic and the Muslim faith when we moved to the South. Around the age of nine, I started going to a Baptist church with one of our neighbours. My parents pretty much left me to it. My father was a non-practising Muslim. My mother had also been born a Muslim, but considered herself a Christian. She had grown up in a Christian household, like my father she was non-practising. I forget how long I went to the church, but I remember that it was around this time that I started to think about God. I would lie in bed at night and wonder where the world came from, I would wonder about heaven and hell.
Around the age of twelve, my mother and I discovered a ‘spiritual church’ – Celestial Church of Christ. I had developed alopecia at the age of ten and in our search for a cure; my mother and I had visited a number of herbalists – spiritual doctors. This new Church had been recommended by a family friend. At the church, the prophets would see visions about the future, the past and the present. Rituals were part of the course – shoes were not allowed to be worn in the church, special prayers would be held to warn off evil spirits, one was forbidden to wear black and red. The prophets had said that the alopecia had been caused by evil spirits; all my prayers were therefore around asking God to get the evil spirits out of my life. I went to the church until around the age of fourteen, perhaps fifteen. My father had said that he did not like me going to the church and that suited me fine. I had gotten bored with the length of the services, the never ending rituals and like the rest of my friends, I wanted to be able to wear black jeans. So many years on, my mother still attends the same church.
At seventeen, I started going to a Pentecostal church – Deeper Life Bible Ministry. I was so into attending, my mother recently said to a friend that I would brave the storms just to attend the service. Even during my exams, rather than stay home to revise, I would go the house fellowship, the regular service and any special services put on by the church. I am not quite sure whether it was the love of God that made me get so much into religion, at that stage of my life. Looking back, I think I wanted something to hold onto and religion was the one thing that seemed to give guaranteed hope; hope for a better tomorrow. I started to question my attendance, when during one sermon, the pastor said that affliction was a mark of the devil and if we had an affliction in our life, it meant that the devil was in it. As I had alopecia, which in effect had been deemed to be an affliction, I would have these debates in my head as to whether the devil played an active part of my life or not. Those thoughts soon passed and I continued attending the church until I left Nigeria, at the age of nineteen.
On returning to England, I dipped in and out of a few churches, until around the age of twenty-five, when I found another Pentecostal church – KICC. Again I really got into attending; looking back I think it was the familiarity that drew me to that particular church. Not quite sure how long I had been attending, perhaps a year or so, but for some odd reason the pastor in his sermons, would from time to time refer to issues around sexual orientation. His comments were always negative and condemning. This did not rest well with me, for years I had avoided issues around my own sexuality. I stopped going to the church, after one of the pastor’s now familiar sessions. I was beginning to learn that just because something was familiar, it did not necessarily mean that it was good for me – I find myself still learning that same lesson.
Around the age of twenty-eight, I joined a Black Gay Christian Fellowship. I attended for about a year or so – on and off. I had been so enthusiastic when I joined, I felt that I had found home. Not only was I in the presence of black gay men, but ones that had an interest in developing a closer relationship with God. In the midst of it all, I found that searching for God had little to do with my orientation or my race. It was more about treating the people who come into my life with respect, compassion and love – and vice versa.
At thirty, I became interested in self- exploration and getting to know myself more. Part of this process included keeping a journal. I would read all sorts of books, ranging from those by Iyanla Vanzant, Louise Hay to Gary Zukav. I did not initially see this exploration as spiritual and I certainly did not cross-reference the experience with searching for God. In fact I avoided all books that made reference to God. Somehow along the way I had developed this idea that God was not interested in anyone who was not heterosexual. I therefore went out of my way to avoid him. Nonetheless, during this whole period something led me to the wonderful book by Deepak Chopra – How to know God. It resonated with me and I found myself wanting to know more about God. I no longer saw him as this father figure who was so quick to punish, particularly if his wishes were not followed. Since reading the book, which I have re-read and am doing so again, I have tried to understand the fact that each person has their own vision of God – religion being one of the mechanisms that brings the people who have the same vision together, so that they can worship collectively.
I am drawn to the Interfaith Seminary because it feels right and I feel my journey so far, has led me here; it is embracing, rather than condemning. I also want to develop my own spiritual practice further. While I do consider myself a Christian – it being what I know, I do not attend church. Even though I was born a Muslim, I do not attend a mosque. My practice at this point in time involves starting my morning by spending some time consciously acknowledging God, through prayer and meditation. I end each day in pretty much the same manner.
19th October 2002
Well, those reflections were written almost 10 years ago and so much has happened since, in terms of my continual journey down the Path. More on that later in Part 2, which will be shared as we continue to explore the theme of ‘Faith, Religion and Spirituality’ this month.
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