By Barbara Falconer Newhall
When Samir Selmanovic converted to Christianity as a young soldier in the Yugoslav army, his Croatian family – especially his father – was heartbroken.
“They hired top psychiatrists to talk to me,” Selmanovic told a gathering of the Religion Newswriters Association in Minneapolis earlier this month. When that didn’t work, “They rang up all of my girlfriends. They came and tried to convince me.” That didn’t work either.
As a last resort, the family contacted an imam.
Like so many intellectuals living in Zagreb in the former Yugoslavia, Selmanovic’s family was comfortably atheist. But the family was also nominally Muslim, Selmanovic said, which meant that, “between the two evils – Christianity and Islam – Islam was the lesser evil.”
When the imam arrived at the Selmanovic home, the young Samir, fresh from his military service, expected a tongue-lashing, or at the very least, a lecture.
Instead, the imam proved “an open-minded, kind, soft man.” He put his hand on Selmanovic’s shoulder and said, “I’m glad you’re a believer.”
Then, to the elder Selmanovics the imam said, “There is no problem with your son.”
That gentle imam had nothing to gain by standing by a new, young convert to Christianity, Selmanovic said. “He was a Christ figure in my life.”
Thanks in part to the Muslim imam, Selmanovic persisted in his faith journey, despite years of painful shunning by family and friends. Eventually he migrated to the United States and studied religious education at Andrews University in Michigan.
Selmanovic is now an ordained pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is a co-founder of Re-church Network and a co-leader of Faith House in Manhattan, an interfaith community that brings together Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists.
Selmanovic’s personal story is compelling. But the theology that grew from his experience as an atheist, a Muslim and finally a Christian, combined with his friendships with Jews, has convinced him that people of all faith traditions – along with atheists – need to open themselves up and experience God in each other.
We need one other, Selmanovic said. And that need should be at the center of our religious feeling. Indeed, he asserts that giving is overrated in religion: Too many religionists take an attitude of imperialist privilege: “I have God, and I’m going to give it to you.”
Instead we – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, atheists – might concentrate on doing less giving and more receiving, Selmanovic said. Because “it’s when you are in need of the other that you are in God’s presence.”