Religious converts

Kelley Culver grew up in Houston as a Southern Baptist; Fatima Khiyaty was reared Catholic just outside of Cleveland; and Sonja Ozturk was brought up in a Lutheran family in Green Bay, Wis.

Today, these Augusta-area residents are far from where they started out -- geographically and spiritually.

Mr. Culver made a pit stop as a Methodist before converting to Catholicism six years ago.

Mrs. Khiyaty and Mrs. Ozturk left Christianity altogether and are now Muslims.

They are not alone.

Although some people live their lives content with being part of one denomination or faith, others change denominations or switch to a different religion altogether.

Changing from one denomination to another within Christianity is not that unusual, said the Rev. Don Saliers, a Methodist minister and an adjunct professor of theology and worship at Emory University.

"Because of the ecumenical context in American Christianity and a lot more social mobility, shifting from one denomination to another is very different from 50 years ago, though in radical conversion experiences, there can still be great personal trauma," he said. "But shifting denominations is quite common. There is much more 'church shopping' when a family now moves to a new city.

"Often, denominational differences are 'trumped' by convenience, or by such factors as a good children's program or social activities at a given local church."

Steve Tipton, a professor of sociology and religion at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said there is "a lot more denominational switching going on now than a few years ago and indeed a generation ago."

"The rates increase with education and age together, and in particular with intermarriage," he said. "If the Christian woman or man marries a Muslim, one of them is likelier to convert.

"But there's a kind of footnoted pattern with particularly younger folks with a lot of education who marry. They're a little less likely to convert one or the other."

The rates of switching are higher within Protestant denominations than across faiths, he said.

When switching major religions -- such as Christianity to Muslim or Judaism to Christianity -- a lot more is involved, the Rev. Saliers said.

"The conversion from one religion to another requires a much deeper change of relationships -- family ties, cultural setting and context -- than does most inter-Christian conversions or changes," he said.

Mr. Culver, Mrs. Khiyaty, Mrs. Ozturk and the Rev. Steve Rice shared their stories of their paths of faith change.

Reach C. Samantha McKevie at (706) 823-3552 or samantha.mckevie@augustachronicle.com.

LOOK AT THE CHANGES

Barry Kosmin is co-author of Religion in a Free Market, a book that presents the results of the American Religious Identification Survey. The survey tracked adult Americans by their religious traditions and ethnicity from 1990-2001.

In its chapter on religious switching, the book states that "about 16 percent of the nation's population reported that at some point in their lives they had changed their religious preference or identification."

WHO'S MOVING WHERE

Catholics, Methodists, Protestants in general and Jews were among the groups that had significantly higher percentages of people switching out of their faiths.

General Christians, Pentecostals, non-denominationals, evangelicals, Muslims and Buddhists had higher percentages of people switching into their faiths.

The biggest trend he found, though, is a switch to no religion at all, which was the choice of many of the people who left Catholicism, Methodism and Islam, he said.

"The other big trend is mainline, the old people, becoming born-again and joining evangelicals, non-denominational or Christian churches.

In two thirds of marriages where one person switched to the other's religion, it was the woman who switched to make the accommodations, he said.

The switch to Islam occurs mainly among black men and among women who marry Muslims, he said.

FATIMA KHIYATY

FAITH JOURNEY: Catholic to Muslim

HER STORY: Fatima Khiyaty went to a Catholic school as a girl. When her parents divorced, she and her mother moved around a lot but went to church less, and she started going to church with friends. Then, in her early teens, she "lost all interest altogether" and stopped going, she said.

"I guess it's what people did -- gossiping, you go to church and everybody's all good and the minute they walk out of there it's, 'Let's go have a drink' and cussing and doing things they know they shouldn't be," she said. "And it's like 'let's be religious for one day out of the week.' It seemed fake to me."

Two years ago, though, the 47-year-old mother of three felt she needed change and guidance.

"I wasn't leading a very good life. I was drinking, smoking," said Mrs. Khiyaty, who works at a veterinary clinic. "It was like I led two different lives, one life at work and one life at home."

She began discussing Islam with people online, became interested and started researching it, she said. She also talked about the religion with a Pakistani friend. She liked a lot of what she learned, especially the family aspect.

Mrs. Khiyaty did more studying, and in March 2006 at the Augusta mosque, she recited the Shahadah, the Islamic testament of faith, and made the conversion official.

"You say that, then afterwards you go home, you take a shower and all your sins have been washed away; all the sins that you have done up until that point have been forgiven and you start fresh," she said. "And then from that moment on you become Muslim."

Mrs. Khiyaty said she was always a believer in God; she just now calls him Allah. She reveres Jesus as a prophet but "never did really believe the story" of Jesus as it is explained in Christianity.

Since then, she has married a Muslim, Radouane Khiyaty. She does not impose the religion on her daughters, two of whom are adults and one is in high school. She was concerned about how her daughters would feel about her decision since her dress code and other things would change, but said they were very accepting. In fact, over the years she had not been close with her mother or other family members, but has made amends with them.

"This faith is more family focused," she said. "There's a big emphasis on family, your mother and father are very important. ... Everything is based around family."

Not everybody was so accepting, though. After she started wearing the hijab (head cover) to work, some of her customers stopped coming.

"And these were people who had known me for years," she said, "but they didn't agree with me being a Muslim."

Her life is better now, though, she said.

"I'm more calm as a person; I try to be considerate of others; I don't drink or smoke; and it seems that, it's just, my inner peace -- I feel good about myself," she said. "I'm one type of person, same whether at home, at work; or wherever; I'm the same person."

SONJA OZTURK

FAITH JOURNEY: Lutheran to Muslim

HER STORY: Attending a Lutheran church where she was active with youth groups in Green Bay, Wis., Sonja Ozturk had questions.

"Mostly revolving around the concept of the Trinity, just conceptualizing it and how can Jesus be God when Jesus is a person?" she said.

Her teacher explained that Jesus was God's only son, on Earth as a man for a while.

"It just never sat well with me. I thought I was just too young to understand, that it was more than my young mind (could) grasp," said Mrs. Ozturk, 42. "There were a lot of things in the church that I liked, but that was the biggest problem for me."

Her curiosity followed her to college where, in a 1984 freshman English class, she studied the Bible "as literature, not as the Word of God," and found the Bible's "different man-made versions upsetting and puzzling," she said.

"I guess that was what started me on my quest. It was never my faith, my belief in a one-God concept. My quest was more about who is Jesus," she said.

The following summer while taking a chemistry class, she met Haluk Ozturek, a Muslim from Turkey. They would often discuss science and God, and she was surprised to learn how much they had in common regarding their faiths.

"The more we studied believing in one creator, we learned we both believed in the same prophets," she said. "And I was wondering why I didn't know about Muhammad, so in addition to investigating Jesus, I also began to investigate Muhammad."

Three years later, they married in a Lutheran church. She remained Lutheran, and her husband never forced his religion on her. He would accompany her to church sometimes, she said.

Their dialogue continued.

"I liked how my husband explained Islam, and that it was a personal relationship with God. In Islam there's no original sin; you're not born into sin, you're born at the will of God. It's peace through an action called submission," she said. "And I liked that he just was very confident in his faith and the things he told me about his faith just made sense.

"It wasn't anything extraordinary to try to deal with, like a Trinity-type scenario, or tenant. It seemed very straightforward and uncomplicated."

The couple had three daughters -- now 11, 13 and 15 -- who are reared Muslim. Mrs. Ozturk continued to read and discuss questions about Jesus and Muhammad with clergy and lay people. More than looking for a religious label, she said, she was openly investigating what she did and did not believe in.

In 1998, a Christian clergyman she talked to told her she was having a spiritual crisis and recommended a book by Episcopal priest Marcus Borg that discusses a pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus.

"It really helped me understand what was factually known about Jesus and what was conjured about him, and I just confirmed that I believed in the historical Jesus," she said. "And my views just seemed to be lining up with Islam more and more."

Soon after, while at the mosque with her daughter, she read things that she could not refute, she said.

"I ultimately accepted Islam in 2000. I think I became Muslim in my mind and heart in '98, but it took me until 2000 to make the public profession of faith, the Shahadah," she said. "And I think part of that was (that) I'm just a very thorough person and what I do, I knew I wouldn't be entering it lightly and I knew it took me some time to get used to the idea."

Since then, she has been unhappy about mean looks she said she gets, and about people accusing her of converting because of force from her husband, who she said has been patient throughout her faith journey.

It also took her parents time to adjust. They'd been disappointed that she did not baptize her children.

She's happy about her choice.

"I feel very satisfied and very at peace," she said. "I feel like I do have a personal relationship with God, feel like I know my role in creation and I feel freedom from having surrendered."

KELLEY CULVER

WHAT: Catholic moral theology instructor, Aquinas High School

FAITH JOURNEY: Southern Baptist to United Methodist to Catholic

HIS STORY: When he was 11, Kelley Culver was baptized at a Southern Baptist Church in Houston.

"I was getting pressure from the pastor and I made a commitment," he said. "I don't know if it really was a heartfelt action. It was something I felt obligated to do at that age."

Mr. Culver, 54, said he grew up in a "normal situation" in his Southern Baptist family, and even went on to graduate from a Southern Baptist college. There, though, he challenged his professors.

"I got caught up in secular humanism, saying that God is a product of man, that science explains all," he said. "As a teenager I was in the church, but I don't know if I was totally committed to it."

As an adult, he said, he wasn't comfortable with the Southern Baptist church.

"I felt like they believed that if you're not Southern Baptist, you're condemned to hell, that this is the only true religion," he said. "That didn't seem right. I didn't think Christ intended to have this separation."

Mr. Culver, who retired from the Air Force at Fort Gordon in 1995, traveled for years in the military, rarely attending church. As retirement neared, he decided he needed God in his life and was drawn to the Methodist Church because of social justice issues. When he was a Southern Baptist, much of his mission work had been done through sending money away to other mission workers, but he liked the hands-on mission work he did with the Methodists and served as a Methodist youth minister for a few years.

Twelve years ago, he began teaching math and science and was an assistant principal at Aquinas. The Catholic high school respected what he was, he said.

"People thought I'd go be converted to Catholicism by the school and the teachers," he said. "But the school never pressured me."

Still, being at a Catholic school, he wanted to know more about the religion. He began studying it and "really felt at home," he said.

He went to a Methodist conference as a delegate and found himself uncomfortable with the direction the Methodist Church was headed socially, in terms of views on abortion and other issues.

He began focusing more on Catholicism. He realized there were a lot if misunderstandings and misconceptions about how Catholics approach Mary, confession and the involvement of saints in the church.

In an effort to not have people accusing the school of making him convert, he began studying on his own and privately with a Catholic deacon. He also did the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program, which explains aspects of the faith.

Mr. Culver converted to Catholicism six years ago. Since then, he has taught the program at Fort Gordon for five years and Catholic classes at Aquinas for four.

"It was really a matter of transitions in the Methodist Church, some of the changes the church was beginning to go through in how they approached some of the social issues," he said. I felt like I had found a home in the Catholic Church, like all the answers I had been struggling with all my life suddenly all became clear."

His students too, he said, were a part of the catalyst for his change in faith.

"A lot of people still think it was the faculty and school, but really it was my students," he said. "I saw such a vibrant life in them and the way they were committed."

He initially caught some flak from his Southern Baptist mother.

"When I told my mom, the first thing she said was, 'Well, you're OK, except that y'all worship Mary,' " he said. "I told her that's not true. That's a misconception."

When he thinks about it, the change to Catholicism surprises even him.

"It's kind of an interesting thing. I had told someone when I started at Aquinas, I'd never be a Catholic," he said. "Now I couldn't see myself being anything else."

THE REV. STEVE RICE

WHAT: Rector, St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Waynesboro, Ga.

FAITH JOURNEY: United Methodist to Episcopalian

HIS STORY: The Greenwood, S.C., native said he "discovered God and answered the call to ordained ministry" in the Methodist Church.

"I had a wonderful church with wonderful clergy, teachers, youth leaders, and friends," he said. "Some of my closest friendships were forged in my home church, and the lessons learned continue to influence my life and ministry."

The Rev. Rice was a United Methodist pastor for five years. He said that as he continued to reflect theologically, he strongly felt that the sacraments of the church, especially the Holy Eucharist, should be central to the life of the body of Christ. Though he felt the United Methodist Church elevated the Holy Eucharist with great importance, the weekly celebration and centrality the Episcopal Church places on the Eucharist matched what he was feeling inside, he said.

"I began to see worship as not only the corporate expression of faith by the assembled church, but also as the formative identity," he said. "While I've always heard 'we are what we eat,' I began to feel as Christians 'we are how we worship.' The tradition of Anglican worship embodied in the Book of Common Prayer (the book of Episcopal worship) met the liturgical and theological needs my soul was craving."

The point came, the Rev. Rice said, that he could no longer serve as a United Methodist pastor without betraying his theological convictions.

"I wasn't mad with the Methodists, nor did I think they were wrong, but my heart, mind, and soul had found a match in the Episcopal Church," he said. "I did not feel it was fair to the church I served nor was it fair to me, to continue being United Methodist when I felt Episcopalian."

The Rev. Rice said he contacted the Rev. Robert Fain, the rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, and arranged a meeting with the Episcopal bishop of Georgia. They discussed his call and the possibilities for ordination in the Episcopal Church. The most memorable part of the meeting, he said, was seeing a large painting of Anglican priests John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, hanging in the bishop's office.

"That icon made me feel that I did not have to jettison my United Methodist formation, but could in fact celebrate it," he said.

"Leaving the United Methodist Church and joining the Episcopal Church was both the hardest and easiest thing I've ever done in my life," the Rev. Rice said. "I feel completely at home. While every denomination or faith tradition has moments when the frailty of human leadership creates challenges, the Episcopal Church contains the history, theology, polity, liturgy, and biblical fidelity I had been looking for."

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