Interfaith Marriage on a StringPosted: March 27, 2012
“All is change with time / the future none can see / the road you leave behind / ahead lies mystery!” – Stevie Wonder, “All in Love is Fair.”
My mother told me the other day, “You know, I think your brother’s autism saved our marriage.”
Being single in a time of intense want—for a fulfilling relationship, my own marriage, my own family—has made me hyperaware of other people’s marriages. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many marriages, at one point or another, hang by a string. Sometimes the couple recognizes this fragility and this motivates them to make it work. Sometimes couples don’t even know that they’re there, and it comes and goes without their knowing.
I feel like my parents are there right now.
My mother is Muslim, my father is Christian. They met as part of a blind date, became friends who discovered they loved each other. My father’s visa expiration and a youth service obligation led him back to Nigeria, leaving my mother in the United States to pine over him and wait with bated breath for his letters for the next three years. And they married upon his return to the United States. They were Muslim, several years converted from the Nation of Islam, and Christian, the son of Nigeria’s head of the Faith Tabernacle Church, but love conquered all and brought them together.
My mother later told me that their shared values and their conviction against the need to attend a “religious sanctuary” were some of the key practical elements that made the interfaith aspect of their marriage work early on. This was less romantic to me, but it seemed to work out.
Growing up, my parents never argued, at least not to our hearing. My mother sometimes lamented not going out as much as they used to, and my father sometimes complained when his food wasn’t ready when he came home from a long day of work, but that was it. My mother prayed and read her Qur’an daily and my father watched his favorite televangelist, and everything was fine.
They maintained this balance in our home until the summer in 2005. I was 20 when I came home from college and decided, in the worst of ways, to tell my father that I was Muslim. I told him, between tears and snot, that “I will never be Christian.”
And things were never the same in my parents’ house.
During the worst of times, when I was home for New Years’ that same year, my father blamed my mother for my brother’s autism. “If the family had been united in faith and prayer, he could have been healed.” It was surreal to watch my mother run up to their room, weeping. My father seemed unrepentant. He returned to his office in the basement without a word to me. My parents never argued like this. My father had never said such mean things. I had never seen my mother cry. What was happening?
What did I do?
I initiated the stringing of my parents’ relationship. My being Muslim is unacceptable to my father. He’s embarrassed by it. When he goes to church these days and they ask where his family is, he gives an elaborate excuse and tells them that I am Christian when they ask.
I’m sorry he feels that way. I find God best in Islam. This is how he allowed my mother to raise me. This was the way my extended family practiced. I wish my father would accept me.
He loves and accepts my mother. He reflects with sadness that there were some churches he couldn’t attend because some would not consider him Christian because he had a Muslim wife. And I told him that there are Muslims who would most certainly question my mother’s Islam in the same way. But my father loves my mother, and my mother loves my father, and they are dedicated to each other and to their family, both my brother and me.
He loves me, but he does not love my Islam.
My father was so upset to tell his elder brother, my uncle in Nigeria, that I was “leaning toward Islam.” He told him two weeks ago. He can’t bring himself to ever call me Muslim.
“This is huge!” my father told me. “You don’t understand…Nigeria is a big country but mine is a small community. What would people think? They would think this isn’t me. They would think that this can’t have come from the son raised by his father, the son who sat at his feet for every sermon. After the way that I was raised…”
It’s also that I’m Muslim, as were the people who killed my people just prior to the civil war in my country. My father doesn’t understand how I can be Muslim when “The Igbo and the Hausa do not see eye to eye.”
I try to fix it sometimes. Maybe I shouldn’t be so loud about being Muslim. I told my father, “I’m sorry. If I had known it was such a big deal…”
“It’s not a big deal.”
But Daddy, it is a big deal. All you described to me are big deal things….
It’s my fault. Sometimes I feel like my brother really is the unifying factor. My parents may argue sometimes, but if my brother misses his medication and has a seizure, my parents will run to the scene, catch him as he falls and pray over him for the duration of his tonic-clonic convulsions and post-ictal state as he struggles through slurred speech to tell them that he’s okay.
My Islam reminds them of their difference, the very real theological difference between Jesus as personal savior and Prophet Jesus, between God in three persons and God, the one, the only.
“You know, I think your brother’s autism saved our marriage.” my mother told me last week. She then explained that the social isolation from the Nigerian network in our state probably kept her from having uncomfortable run-ins with Christians who would disapprove of her Islam. It probably saved her from arguments with them that may have jeopardized her relationship with Daddy. But she can’t know that…
…and I actually don’t believe that to be true. Their love has always been more than shared aversion of religious sanctuaries held together by my brother’s autism and epilepsy. They are each other’s best friend. They don’t pray the same but they do pray together. They have similar dreams and goals for their children and they love us more than they are able to express. They came together in strength following a diagnosis that was all the more devastating in the 1980s when professionals knew so much less about autism. They’ve stayed together in a marriage unmarred by infidelity and separations, physical or emotional violence or any real discord. They did it! They are achieving interfaith marriage!
It wasn’t just autism. I realize my mother just said that because their marriage is hanging by a string right now, and they don’t know it. It’ll pass. I don’t know how or when, but inshAllah it will. Both love and are dedicated to this family too much, to my brother too much. Maybe one day inshAllah I’ll get married and leave my father’s figurative house and my father won’t feel so responsible for my being Muslim anymore. He can concentrate on loving his Muslim wife instead of trying to convert his Muslim daughter.
Marriage is hard, and interfaith marriage is just one type of hard that a couple can face, that I may face one day, whoever my husband may be. There is no one way to do things, so there is no how-to. This is just one way. It may hurt to tell it sometimes, but this is actually a story of success. Success…on a string.
Chinyere Obimba is in her final year at Harvard Medical school and will begin residency in Family Medicine this summer. She hopes to work with underserved populations, practice obstetrics and participate in intervention planning for health promotion programs. Among her role models she counts her parents, Enyichukwu and Khalilah, who continue to show her what love and marriage is all about. She considers her younger brother Chukwuemeka, who has autism, to be one of her life’s inspirations. When she’s not being a medical student, she enjoys dancing samba, listening to and singing Brazilian music and writing. She also aspires someday to be a wife, mother, and a proud owner of a talking bird.