Review: Hiding in the Light

Hiding in the Light

Hiding in the Light, Rifqa Bary. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2015.

Summary: A memoir of Bary’s turning from Islam to Christianity during her teens, her flight from her family when she feared for her life, and her subsequent struggles to prevent the courts from forcibly returning her to her family.

Seven years ago, the story of Rifqa Bary was big news where I live. This teenager, from a Sri Lankan Muslim family had run away from her family after converting to Christian faith, and had taken shelter with a Florida family she met on Facebook. The news coverage showed caring and concerned parents trying to regain custody of their daughter, a diminutive teen age girl who felt her life was in danger, and court proceedings and actions in Florida and Ohio.

This book tells Rifqa’s side of the story. It is the story of a child growing up with Sri Lanka who, even at an early age, had a sense of the warm loving presence of God, was raised with the strict observances of Islam and came to America after an incident of sexual abuse by a male kin, a shameful occurrence not for him but for her. They lived first in New York City, and then in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. She tells a tale of domestic violence where male rage had to be borne by women. She lost the sight in one eye when her older brother threw a toy at her. She claims she was slapped about by her father for the tiniest infractions. At one point, she cried out for God, whoever God was, to show herself to her.

Through school friends, she began to learn about Christianity, started reading the Bible, and unbeknownst to her parents, attended a church. Eventually, she was baptized in a creek not far from, but hidden from her home. She continued to participate in Christian services and events, taking ever greater risks, while deceiving her parents as to her whereabouts until finally they became suspicious, began to threaten her, and limit her activity.

Things came to a head while her father was on a business trip, cut short by warnings from her Islamic Center to the family, that she needed to be dealt with. Given her father’s temper and threats, she fled, with the help of friends, taking refuge with a Florida couple she knew from Facebook. When the couple realized their own legal situation of harboring a runaway, they notified the authorities, beginning a long battle in both Florida and Ohio to keep Rifqa out of the custody of her parents, marked by several attorneys who were zealous advocates for her, and ultimately succeeded in keeping her in state custody, first in Florida, then in Ohio, until she turned 18.

Close to the time that she turned 18 she was discovered with a rare form of deadly uterine cancer. After surgery and beginning chemo, she decided to refuse further treatment and a hysterectomy. At this time, the cancer has not recurred and she is a college student studying philosophy and political science with the possible hope of becoming a lawyer.

I had several responses to this book. Throughout, I was struck by the deep faith that sustained this young woman through prison, fear for her life, court proceedings, difficult foster care situations, and cancer. A recurring theme were passages from scriptures and an accompanying “witness of the Spirit” that brought peace and courage. There is an undeniable genuineness of Christian experience and wholehearted dedication to Christ evident in this story.

I struggled with the deception of and flight from her parents. It troubled me that most of the Christians advising her before her flight were peers or just a few years older. It is clear to me that she made a free and un-coerced choice to embrace Christianity and had strong convictions about pursuing that faith. I don’t know if she would have listened to adult counsel had it been present. She goes against one pastor’s advice to wait until she was 18 to be baptized.  I found myself wondering if both the threats from the family, the flight, getting others caught up in potential legal liabilities, and the protracted court fights might have been averted.

There is also her portrait of her parents, in marked contrast to how they presented themselves publicly. Here, I’m inclined to believe her narrative, given how hard it must be growing up in her culture to speak against one’s family in any way. Were the threats and danger to her life real? I do not fully understand honor-shame cultures but sense she was on good grounds to have the fears she did and to do everything in her power, having fled, to avoid being returned to this situation. However, I would not want to see this one family’s unfinished story used in a Muslim versus Christian polemic. That said, as I argued a few days ago, I believe it is a universal human right to be able to change one’s beliefs and to follow the dictates of one’s conscience and that honor and shame needs to be re-framed within a commitment to such rights.

Finally, I found troubling the descriptions of juvenile detention and foster care in both of the states where she sought shelter. I was thankful for the zealous advocates whose efforts prevailed against political and bureaucratic maneuverings that would have put her at risk of harm. I hope some of those who have oversight of these services will read this book and take a hard look at whether children really are being protected who need protection.

Rifqa Bary lives in an undisclosed location. The book title represents her sense of continuing to live in hiding and yet to be in the light of Christ. I hope for the day when she need no longer hide and that she continue to walk in the light no matter what she faces.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Freedom to Change One’s Mind

Flew and Bary

Antony Flew                                                               Rifqa Bary 

 

It would seem that the idea that a person should freely be able to change one’s mind is, well, a no-brainer. And yet in two books I am reading at present, a change of mind was occasion for controversy, and in one case, at least the possibility of danger. In Did the Resurrection Happen, David Baggett includes an interview with Antony Flew after he announced that he had shifted from a lifelong atheist stance to one of belief in God, albeit an Aristotelian, deistic God. This set off a firestorm of controversy and criticism in the atheist community against its one-time arch apologist.

The other change of mind concerned the freedom of a teenager living at the time in my home metro area, to turn from Islam to Christianity, necessitating, in her account, flight from her family, long court battles over custody until she came of age and continued estrangement from her family. The young woman is Rifqa Bary and her book is Hiding in the Light.

The difficulty with a change of mind, particularly, concerning religious questions, is that we are often part of families or communities that share these deeply held beliefs. Conscientious parents often believe it their responsibility to impart their beliefs to their children. And because these beliefs concern matters of ultimate, and perhaps eternal importance, for a child, or even spouse to turn from these is a grave concern. It can also be a matter of shame with one’s community. When you have been a key advocate, or long time co-belligerent, a change of mind might seem a betrayal, or at least a craven flip-flop.

Yet this begs the question of what is to be done when one can no longer in clear conscience hold one set of beliefs, and as often follows, another sense of beliefs is more persuasive. Is there something sacred about the conscience that dictates that belief must not be imposed upon it? Are their loyalties higher than to family or a community of belief?

To the family or community of belief, I can understand how it would be hard not to say “no.” And yet, to assume this stance is to elevate the family, or community of belief, or in some cases, the state, to a kind of godhood, requiring one’s ultimate allegiance. As troubling is the violation of conscience involved in enforcing belief against the will of another that can only result in either the destruction of personhood, or the alienation of relationship.

A change of mind is unsettling. It may raise the fear of what will happen to the person who has changed. Perhaps it raises the question of whether we have been wrong. It reminds us  that belief for all of us is living in this place between reason and the unknowns of our lives. Yet the fact that we care so much speaks to our shared belief of both the importance of matters of ultimate concern, and the intrinsic value of the person changing her mind.

Might it be that the pursuit of truth is more important than preserving boundaries of families, communities of belief, or states? Might agreeing to this principle actually serve to forge bonds across our differences? Might agreeing to this save families, not from difference, but heartache?

It is for reasons like these that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the following statement in Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Likewise, the flip side of this idea is that no change of belief should be forced. Actually it seems to me a measure of the integrity of any system of belief that it both renounces any effort to compel belief, or to constrain those who would change their beliefs.

Perhaps on this we could agree. Perhaps.