September 17, 2021

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

The poignant story of the life and faith of an Afghan-American who is Catholic

John ShaughnessyAs we sit across the table from each other in the coffee shop, the young man admits that he is torn.

He believes the Holy Spirit wants him to share his deeply personal story of growing up in the Muslim faith—the faith that his parents, both immigrants from Afghanistan, still embrace with zeal—and then finding his own zeal in the Catholic faith as a young adult.

At the same time, he is sensitive to the heartache his choice has caused in his family, and for that reason and others, he’s unsure whether he wants his name mentioned for this story.

Amid that personal conflict, he begins the story of his life and his journey of faith—a story whose pertinence and poignancy could stand alone in any time, but also has an added depth as thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are beginning to resettle all across America, including Indiana.

He notes that his parents were once refugees themselves, years after the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. They fled to Pakistan and came to the United States in 1989, drawn by the hope of a peaceful and prosperous life that has led immigrants to America for centuries.

He was born here in the United States, “close to the one-year anniversary of my parents moving here,” he said.

The oldest of their three children, he watched his parents closely growing up, and there were two qualities about them that always stood out to him and shaped him.

“The first is ambition,” he said. “There’s a certain level of hunger you see in an immigrants’ eyes when they come to a new country. You feel you almost owe it to them to be that successful child, because everything they did was for me, for their children.

“Also, just having a zeal for their faith. They were very observant of their Muslim faith.”

As a child, he was also observant of the Indiana community where he grew up.

“There were a few Afghan families in the area, and they were welcoming. We grew close to them. But I can’t think of a single time an American, Christian family came into our house or where my entire family was invited into their house for something. Now that I think of it, it was kind of heartbreaking. But we were invited by other immigrants—Asian and Hispanic families—into their houses.”

Still, he worked hard to make friends on his own as a child and felt welcomed by children from all backgrounds. Then came the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. As it did for most Americans, life changed dramatically for the then-fifth-grade boy.

“When 9/11 happened, I lost a lot of friends that I had made. I was looked at as an outcast, an enemy. If you were Afghan and a Muslim, you had a difficult time. That lasted all through grade school. In high school, kids still had a lot of animosity, but high school was enough of a melting pot that I could have my own friend group. My community was Arab friends, Hispanic friends, not many Caucasian, Christian friends.

“After a while, we were able to cut through the noise and understand that even if a person hails from a place or a country that did my family wrong, they deserve love. They still deserve affection.”

His late years in high school and his early years of college were also a time of rebelling and searching.

“I wanted to party, to do whatever was pleasing to me,” he recalled. “I hit a pretty bad low, the lowest I had gotten in my life. I turned to God to get me out of that low. I tried living my life as a Muslim, reading the Quran, praying five times a day.”

Still, as much as he tried, as much as it pained him, he couldn’t find the peace and the joy that his parents and his siblings found in the Muslim faith. He started asking questions of people from other faith backgrounds. That search led him to a fraternity brother in college who was Catholic.

“He did not indulge in a lot of fraternity life, if you will,” he said. “I thought he would be a good person to talk to. He did what any good Catholic would do. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to a Bible study first?’ I trusted and said yes. I went, and the first topic was Jesus asking the question, ‘Who do you say I am?’

“Everybody in the Bible study gave their answers. There was a consensus that he’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. I was the contrarian. He was a holy man, not the son of God, a prophet at best.”

His fraternity brother was patient with him, he recalled. His friend encouraged him to read the Bible first before making any more judgments and then ask his questions.

“He said, ‘Start with the Gospels because everything points back to Jesus. Get to know the person of Jesus.’ I started with the Gospel of Matthew and read the entire Gospel that first night. I cried quite a bit. I never read something so emotional as the Sermon on the Mount. I wanted to believe, but I was fearful of what it meant for me, my family and all my relationships in college that were with Muslims.

“It took about five months of going back and forth with God—that if he’s who he says he is to give me some rooted understanding to believe in him.”

That moment came for him on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2012 when another Catholic friend invited him to a Mass that was to be followed by a procession in honor of the Blessed Mother through the streets of the nearby neighborhood.

His first reaction to the procession was the last thing he wanted.

“At the time, I thought it was a rather pagan service,” he said.

Yet everything changed for him when the procession stopped, and people began making intercessory prayers aloud to the Blessed Mother.

“My friend said, ‘If you want to talk to Mary about everything you’re struggling with, she’ll listen.’ I approached Mary and asked her to give me comfort and peace and help me explain to my family that I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.

“In that prayer, I realized I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. For that reason, I’m thankful to her for showing me how to get out of my way and out of my pride. I felt this overwhelming sense of peace. I knew I’d have to live my life for Christ.”

He soon began taking Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes and entered into full communion with the Church at Easter in 2013.

More than eight years have passed since that life-changing choice. He is now a husband and a father, and the heartache between him and his family continues to heal through the gift of the first child that was born to him and his wife—showing the power of a grandchild.

He even credits his zeal for his Catholic faith to the example that his parents set for him in embracing their Muslim faith.

He also appreciates that his longtime friends who are Muslim still welcome him as a friend.

Still, there are times when he wishes—more than anything—that two of the greatest influences of his life shared more common ground.

“Being Catholic and Afghan, it’s a lonely world,” he said. “Although we’re all united in the Eucharist and our faith, I still desire that connection from a cultural standpoint. If I could mesh those two worlds together, that would be like the second coming for me.”

He has a similar hope as Afghan refugees are beginning to resettle across America, including Indiana.

“We have to be a lot better with hospitality in America,” he said. “We almost have the responsibility as Catholic Christians to welcome them into our homes so they can have a firsthand account of how Christ has ordered us to live our lives. It’s only through our charity and our hospitality that we can break through the stigmas that people have.

“People often ask me, ‘How should I react to these refugees?’ I tell them, ‘Open your doors to them. Share a meal with them. Listen to their stories.’ ”

As we leave the coffee house on a sun-kissed September afternoon, he thanks me for listening to his story.

Once again, the gift is mine.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

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