Technically speaking, you could say Sarah Ashman roamed through the world's religions until she met up with Jesus in a chat room. But, of course, it's not that simple, since matters of faith never are.
At only 28, Sarah's faith journey reveals a wandering path from Judaism to Islam to Catholicism. The daughter of an American ethnically Jewish mother and an Egyptian Muslim father, Sarah's early life was mostly unreligious.
"My mom was culturally Jewish, and my father was nominally Muslim, so as a child I had no Faith."
In her early life, Sarah believes her father appeased her mom by indicating that their children could be raised as Jews. But a trip to Egypt changed everything. “I remember staying with my aunt because my parents were going to the mosque. My mother ‘converted’ to Islam, which meant I was technically a Muslim because now both of my parents were Muslims.”
Back at home in Connecticut, Sarah’s family practiced what she calls “cafeteria Islam. We didn’t eat pork, but my father didn’t pray five times a day and didn’t abstain from alcohol. There was pressure to be more Arabic, though. I took Arabic lessons. But there wasn’t any faith behind it.” By the time she was 13, Sarah’s parents had separated. They divorced a few years later, and Sarah hasn’t seen her father for about 12 years. Ten years ago, her mother married a warm and loving man who Sarah refers to as “Dad.” Finally, the tension of an interfaith home was eased. “My dad is Jewish, but I still wouldn’t describe them as particularly religious. They’re culturally Jewish.” “I had grown up understanding religion as a label. I didn’t have a relationship with God, but I always recognized his existence. So I guess I was always open to faith, but I didn’t have any, per se.”
Interfaith Marriage: Part II
Fast forward to 2001: Sarah, a community college student in Connecticut, meets Jim Ashman, a student at Michigan State University in East Lansing, in an online chat room. “At first, the fact that we met in a chat room was a huge embarrassment to me,” Sarah confesses. “But we just be-came good friends online. We were pen pals for years before we even talked on the phone.” That first phone call took place in February 2004 and lasted for hours. “At that point, we decided we would probably meet sometime in the future, but we didn’t make any plans.”
The following January, Sarah ﬂew to Detroit to meet Jim. “As soon as we met, there were fireworks. After that, we talked every day.” Jim spoke enthusiastically about MSU, and Sarah was at the point in her education when she needed to transfer to a four-year school to complete her degree in English and teaching. “I figured it was a low-risk plan to move to Michigan and go to MSU, because even if it didn’t work out with Jim, I would be going to a great school.” Sarah moved to Michigan in August 2006. By November 2007, she and Jim were engaged. “
Jim was a cradle Catholic, and had been very active in the Church growing up. But, like a lot of college students, his practice was spotty at times. He didn’t always go to church and we didn’t talk about faith a lot, so I never expected religion to become an issue in our wedding plans. But it did.” Sarah wanted to be married in an outdoor, civil ceremony. Jim wanted a Catholic church wedding. “I wanted a modern wedding, and I wanted to write my own vows. And since I didn’t see religion as part of our relationship, I didn’t see why it would be a part of our marriage ceremony.” The issue became contentious, but given Sarah’s upbringing in an inter-faith household, she came to an important realization. “I decided if it was so important to Jim, and because I love him, I should at least check it out.”
Since Jim wasn’t active in a parish, the couple began visiting Catholic churches in the Detroit area and in East Lansing. The process of looking for a parish created an interesting result that Sarah didn’t expect. “My view of the Catholic Church always was colored by the media and by cultural issues, and it wasn’t always positive. But I realized I was looking forward to going to Mass each week and that I felt good leaving church every Sunday.” The process also reignited Jim’s faith. “I think the fact that he had to defend his desire to be married in the Church caused him to re-identify his faith.”
In the fall of 2008, Sarah began the class for inquirers known as RCIA, or the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, at St. John's Student Center in East Lansing. But the schedule of class-es conﬂicted with her schooling. She restarted the classes in January 2009, but not with any intention of converting for their upcoming wedding. “It’s really common for people to start and stop RCIA, and there’s a reason it’s called a class for inquirers. It’s for people who have questions – and I had questions!” In May 2009, Jim and Sarah were married. After their wedding, Sarah kept up with her RCIA classes, but not to please her new husband. “Jim was the hand that led me to the church door, but he didn’t push me inside. He was adamant that pursuing a faith was something I was doing for myself. He assured me he wouldn’t love me any more or less if I became a Catholic.”
Sarah’s conversion ultimately was a matter of the heart. “There wasn’t one day when it finally made sense to me that Jesus died for my sins. It was a slow process to realize that he is my savior.” For Sarah, the biggest issue in be-coming a Catholic Christian was learning to simply surrender herself to God. “I had always looked at people who were strong in their faith with curiosity and even some envy. But I realized that getting to that point meant giving up control over my life and surrendering to God. When I pray, it’s not for myself. It’s just a conversation with God that reﬂects my relationship with him.”
The Journey Continues
Sarah believes her story – unique as it is – simply proves that everyone’s path to God is diﬀerent. Though some family members questioned her conversion, she never does. “Who is Jesus to me? He’s my hope, my faith. How can you know about him and not want to walk in his path or develop a relationship with him?” “I believe my becoming a Catholic is part of God’s plan for me. My husband and his family got to play a role in that, and our marriage is blessed by our both being the same faith. But at the same time, I don’t think it was my choice and it certainly wasn’t my husband’s.”
“Ultimately it was God’s choice,” Sarah smiles. “He chose me.” Know someone who is interested in becoming Catholic? The process of becoming Catholic is a journey with rituals and prayers as old as the Church itself. The journey consists of education, prayer and spiritual direction, and occurs within the parish community. The celebration of the sacraments of initiation—baptism, confirmation and holy Communion—takes place at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. The program for welcoming new adults into the Catholic Church is called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Those seeking to join the Church may have no religious background, be of another non-Christian faith, or have been baptized into another Christian church. Steps to becoming Catholic Inquirers are welcomed into the community and invited to get to know the Lord Jesus. Catechumens learn about the faith through lessons developed from Scripture readings. The Elect study, pray and reflect during Lent and are initiated into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Neophytes continue to deepen their grasp of the paschal mystery and meditate on the Gospel.