The smoke of burnt incense fills the measureless rows of pews as each churchgoer fervently bows their head in intense prayer. Stained-glass windows encompass the brick sanctuary and I hear the childrens’ choir singing “Amazing Grace” — the inspiration for my name.
In the evening, I drive to my aunt’s house for Iftar, the meal eaten after sunset during the month of Ramadan. The sound of the sizzling halal chicken on the grill is drowned out by ardent conversations in Arabic, Chaldean, English or a mix of all three. With both sides of my family all together, I become aware of the uniqueness of my circumstances. Not many people can say they began their day in Catholic mass and end it with a traditionally Muslim celebration.
I’ve had an uncommon family situation my entire life. I’m a first-generation American with a Catholic-raised father from Iraq and a Muslim-raised mother from Lebanon. Even though my extended family has been vastly accepting and tolerant of our dual-religious dynamic, I find it difficult to explain to my friends, teachers and even strangers that it is possible to be raised inter-faithfully. This notion was seemingly too complex for the masses to comprehend. The Muslim community viewed me as a complete outsider and my Catholic school classmates didn’t even consider me to be a “real” Catholic. I felt as though my completion of Baptism and Confirmation was invalidated merely because I didn’t regularly attend Sunday mass.
Regardless of the unsolicited criticism from my peers, I consider myself vastly fortunate to have been brought up with such religious duality. I learned religious tolerance from a young age, and I never devoutly practiced one religion or claimed I belonged to one. Rather than my parents negotiating a settlement between Catholicism and Islam, they celebrated both and were transparent with the differences between the two faiths instead of surpressing one. Growing up surrounded by both Catholicism and Islam has allowed me to integrate two worldviews despite the fact that both faiths have been in conflict with one another my entire life. In fact, as I emerge into adulthood and further delve into what I truly believe, I have gained a greater sense of respect for my parents for not coercing me to follow a singular religion and allowing me to make my own decisions about what I believe. My dual-faith upbringing has given me the freedom to compare and contrast in a way which is often hardly encouraged in a single-faith setting.
Of course, there are myths that growing up with two religions causes a child to become confused or forces them to ally with one side, but in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. Both faiths embrace certain truths which resonate with me. Despite the absence of my allegiance to one religion, I have still been able to dissect the aspects of each faith I feel as though I truly believe in: humility, selflessness, courage, peace and patience.
I’ve recognized the inherent similarities of each religion, and I don’t believe them to be so different. At the end of the day, there will always be Catholics and Muslims who hold judgements against my dual-faith upbringing. Despite this, I will always embrace my unique identity and be exactly who I was intended to be in the eyes of my Creator: “Amazing Grace.”
Grace Garmo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org