I was Muslim, then nominal Catholic, and then I met Jesus on Good Friday

Content warning: Aziza’s story includes references to sexual abuse and murder.

I was 16 years old, heading home from school on the train. The head boy from my school was sitting nearby and we struck up a conversation about our plans for the weekend. He was a kind and friendly guy. He mentioned that he was performing in an Easter play at his church on Good Friday and invited me along.

The next evening, my mum dropped me at the church, and I bumped into some friends from school who I didn’t know attended. They included one of my good mates named Mat Green from English class, who was lovable, funny and annoying (and who later became my husband). It seemed so easy to get there, to walk into the building and sit with a few people I knew. But looking back, I see how much had happened to bring me to that place.

The first 12 years of my life were in South Africa. When I was four years old, I lived with my dad and our Muslim family in Durban. I attended an Islamic preschool, which was like any school except on Fridays we wore hijabs and learned to read the Quran and pray in Arabic.

I loved it. The rote prayers, the rules, the ritual and the repetition were a steady rhythm in my otherwise tumultuous little world of simmering conflict – my parent’s divorce, separation from my mother and a very sad and alcoholic father. I loved my dad and I was loved, but he couldn’t pull himself together enough to be the father I needed. He worked as a panel beater, drank heavily every night and picked fights outside the pub ad nauseam.

I loved the stained-glass windows and the sense of peace I felt in church.

After moving back in with my mother a year later, I discovered she had a new boyfriend who was very quiet and Catholic. We moved to Cape Town on the other side of the country, and for them to marry, my mum had to convert to Catholicism. She suggested I do the same.

I eagerly dove into catechism classes, first holy confession, rosary beads, more prayers to memorise and first holy communion. I later found out that my dad and family in Durban were furious about all this. But I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved the stained-glass windows and the sense of peace I felt in church. I even got my first Bible from my stepdad, which had a special place on my bookshelf.

That pretty, white New Testament Bible remained pristine for years because no one taught me how to read it. While I had plenty of youthful enthusiasm, my experience of faith was shallow, mediated by the “real” servants of God. I learned the prayers and clung to religious artefacts with awe and desperation, but I couldn’t find a way to explore a deeper relationship with a present and loving God.

I am grateful for my Catholic experience, but my childhood fears and very real pain caused fractures to my faith rather than drawing me closer to the compassion and mercy of God. Slowly the mystique and the ritual dulled as fear, shame and turmoil swelled inside of me.

There was a court case, an uncle was found guilty of sexually abusing me, and we moved back to Durban. By then, we were nominally Catholic, attending church occasionally. My stepdad maintained his quiet, steadfast faith, but my mother and I were half-hearted.

That was the year I experienced my dad’s rage about my conversion from Islam for the first time. One night, he raced in his car through the streets of our city, telling me through clenched teeth that I was born a Muslim girl and that I’d always be a Muslim girl, and he’d rather I die with him in the car than be anything other. He didn’t seem intoxicated then, but I wonder about that. I wonder what would have happened if he’d lost control of the car like he lost control of his feelings in that moment.

My grief was ugly, angry and inconsolable.

Not long after, my mum, stepdad, baby brother and I moved to New Zealand to start a new life with more opportunities and less chaos and violence. I remember saying goodbye to my dad. He barely said a word to me, he just held me, buried his face in my hair and cried. Within the year, we received a phone call that my father was in hospital, badly burned and fighting for his life. He had beaten someone up after a session at the pub and really humiliated the guy. That guy walked into my dad’s workshop with gasoline and a lighter and took his revenge. Within days, my father was gone and everything went dark.

My grief was ugly, angry and inconsolable. I raged through my early teenage years, throwing myself into a new kind of ritual, secretly drinking behind my parents’ backs and trying to obliterate the putrid self-loathing growing inside. I lived a double life, remaining a “good girl” for my family and pursuing my new religion of partying hard most weekends. I was always smiling around others, but alone in my bedroom, I was frequently distraught. I lived with a quiet terror that everyone I loved would die imminently.

I started talking to God without the rote prayers around this time. I’d take long walks through the rural area where we lived, talking to God and deconstructing my religion. I decided that I didn’t need church to talk to God. I decided I didn’t need the trappings and the restrictions of religion.

When I was 15 years old, my small family immigrated again from New Zealand to Australia. I was the new girl again in a very cliquey school. It was grim. I was very lonely, nursing the loss of friends and reckless “fun” that had carried me through difficult years.

As I watched that local church passion play, the story of Jesus came to life.

One day I was walking around my new hometown, talking to God. By then, I was fairly cynical and antagonistic toward religion in general, but still connected with God in my own way. I started to think about Jesus. What purpose did he serve exactly? What difference did it make if I believed in him or not? I decided that I didn’t need him, and I’d continue exploring a new spirituality in my own time, and maybe get serious about it when I got older.

Not long after that decision, I walked into a church at the invitation of a guy from my school. As I watched that local church passion play, the story of Jesus came to life. Jesus wasn’t just a distant, religious concept; he was a living person. One of the play’s final scenes was a video of Jesus carrying the cross. The other characters were shouting and hurling abuse at him, and something in me broke. I truly saw him for the first time. I saw what he did, and suddenly I knew I needed him. I saw that I was his all along.

After the play, there was an invitation to respond to salvation, and I responded. A young adult leader prayed with me, gave me a Bible and invited me back to the Sunday service. When I got home, I lay on my bed, talking to God. I was trying to process what all of this meant. At that moment, I didn’t know what to make of it. The only thing that felt very clear to me was that I would never be alone or abandoned again. Despite my rejection of God and all the ugliness inside that made me feel so unworthy of his love, I knew I had a friend forever.

Aziza is a writer and a PhD candidate in digital theology, researching what digital wisdom might look like for the average Christian pastor, priest or ministry leader. You can get touch or follow her research journey via SubStack.