Kai Wingo, M.Ed., is a 37-year-old American-Muslim home educator, mother of 3, and owner of Split Moon Publications, a small business dedicated to creating Islamic products that help families bond and enjoy quality time together. This is Part 1 of her journey to Islam.
Can you tell me about your upbringing in Oklahoma?
In our house we didn’t have much organized religion, so we weren’t going to church frequently. However, when I was in about third grade, my grandparents volunteered to pay for me to go to Catholic school.
My dad sent me to Catholic school for a year, but I wasn’t Catholic. I felt really alienated there. There were a lot of things I couldn’t do because I wasn’t a confirmed Catholic. So I was only there for one year and then my dad pulled me out to homeschool me.
He homeschooled me for the fourth grade but homeschooling then wasn’t how we do things now. Back then it was, “I gotta go to work, so you stay here and here’s your work. Have it done by the time I come home and I’ll check it,” which turned into me watching TV all day long, waiting until 30 minutes before he got home, doing all my work at one time, and then saying “can I please go out and play with the kids because they’re home from school?” So that only lasted a year, too, because I wanted to be with other kids.
On the weekends my grandmother would pick me up and I would go to church with her sometimes. I had a really fun experience with my grandma; we really bonded. On other weekends I would go with my dad’s other side of the family which was strict Pentecostal Baptist. You don’t cut your hair, you wear skirts, you don’t wear makeup; they were very strict.
So I was exposed to a lot of different forms of Christianity and my dad was always the person who didn’t want to force me in one direction or another. My father was always really open. My mom was definitely against organized religion and I think because of her negative experiences growing up with Catholicism, she really turned towards alternative practices like Astrology and Buddhism. My aunt, on the other hand, was a practicing Buddhist. I even have a cousin who is Hindu. So I have a very eclectic family.
How did you view religion and spirituality when you were young?
SubhanAllah (Glory be to Allah), I feel that there was always this strong desire for me to be part of something religious.
In fourth and fifth grade I started to go to church with two of my classmates. Their father was a pastor at a Black Baptist church. We became really good friends and before you knew it, almost every weekend my dad was letting me go with their family to church. It was an all Black church and I was the only little white girl there. I sang with them and on my own accord, I was even baptized in their church.
I feel like I always had a strong inclination to seek out Allah, even though it took me a few tries to get to Islam. When I went with my friends there was a lot of emphasis on praising Allah even though at that time I was being taught that Jesus was the son of God. There was still that original fitrah (natural or innate inclination to know God) of knowing that Allah is real.
What was it about the Baptist faith and that particular church that you felt connected to?
There was a really strong sense of community there. There was a choir, and we would sing together and learn songs together. We would read the Bible together.
The Bible study was very different from what I had experienced in Catholicism where you’re reading from a book that someone else compiled important things you should know. In this particular church, we were getting into the Bible itself. We were opening the Bible and creating a relationship with it. I felt like I was more connected to Allah that way.
Let’s fast-forward a bit. When and how did you come to Islam?
I went to college in Pennsylvania, and after changing my major a couple of times I finally realized I was going to become a Spanish teacher. I graduated and moved to Connecticut to stay with my mom and step-father. At that point in time, I got a job working for a high profile magazine in Connecticut. I attended photoshoots and helped create the magazine. A part of my job was to attend restaurant openings, wine tastings, and all of these fast-lane, “high money” type of events.
The more I was entrenched in that community the more I realized how much I wanted to get away from it as fast as I could. Although a lot of these people had plenty of money and were really well-off, their character and manners were not there; they weren’t really nice people all the time. There was a lot of backbiting, looking down on people, and just valuing things in a way that I wasn’t used to.
So I signed up for Teach for America and, Alhamdullah, Allah allowed me to get accepted. It was during this program that I started meeting kids who are Muslim in Philadelphia where I was placed. It was the first time I ever heard the name Yahya.
As I was going through this intensive [teaching] program I realized that I was still behaving like a typical college girl. But what I really needed to do was start going back to church. For the longest time, I tried to get my close girlfriends to come with me to church but it kept falling through. Something would happen or someone would get sick and I would never get to go.
I decided I would start looking into different religions online. I looked up Judaism, what they believe and what was needed to become Jewish. But then I thought, “NO! I love Jesus, peace be upon him.” So that didn’t work out. Then I thought about my aunt, who is Buddhist, and remembered my mom when she started meditating but when I looked into Buddhism, and read about reincarnation, it was too far away from my comfort zone.
What came up next was Islam. I got a copy of the Quran in English and started reading. Then I started emailing mosques asking for help with my questions. I found a mosque in New Haven that was doing Intro to Islam courses and I started attending. I was so nervous, I wrapped this thick Pashmina scarf around my head. I didn’t even wrap it properly, but I knew it was something that I should do, and I went in and took this course for six months while teaching highschool at an inner-city school in Connecticut.
At the class, I met a Nigerian sister who was born Muslim. She was going to a Catholic college and came to the class just so she could be at the masjid. She invited me to attend a Turkish halaqah (gathering for learning), even though I still hadn’t taken shahada.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been with the Turks, but they know how to do it right. All these sisters would come, they would all bring food, and we would listen to the class and then I could ask questions directly, and have intellectual conversations. That’s when Islam started making so much logical sense.
All the questions I had when I was Christian that were passed off as “Oh, you just have to trust me,” there was a logical explanation being given to me in the Quran. And I thought, “wow, this makes sense.”
May Allah reward those Turkish sisters. They will always have a special place in my heart. They really took me under their wing and I think that’s what, a lot of times, converts don’t have.
About nine months into my journey, friends and I were driving to Boston to listen to an Imam speak at an event. Along the way, my friend’s husband was shocked to learn I still hadn’t taken shahada yet. When he asked me why, I told him I was “waiting for the right time.” But he encouraged me that there was no time like the present. I agreed that I was ready and he arranged for me to take my shahada at the masjid with the same imam we went to listen to.
[After the prayer] the imam had me repeat the shahada after him and I started crying. Not just tears, but sobs. I ugly cried in front of the whole masjid. It was like, at that moment, Allah allowed me to release all this baggage from pre-Islamic life. It was just falling off of my shoulders and I was overwhelmed emotionally. I just cried and cried, even after I sat back down.
And then, I was Muslim.
–This ends Part 1 of Kai Wingo’s journey to Islam–