As a young woman, Jamillah Ali-Rashada prayed that Allah would let her live to raise children. In return, she promised that she would serve others for the rest of her life. She’s kept that promise by trying to be a vessel for the Spirit and its guidance. When Jamillah joined the LDS Church three years ago, she found her path leading to new and profound avenues for serving God’s children. “I have been purposed and called to this for such a time as this,” Jamillah says.”If that is the work and the service that I am supposed to perform, then it is my Heaven.”
You were raised Muslim in America. What was your upbringing like?
My childhood was kind of interesting, yet just like normal children. I grew up in San Francisco and we played, we fought. I had brothers that drove me nuts and sisters that I didn’t get along with. I grew up in a very large family. We grew up with a father who worked a lot because we were taught in my world that fathers were the breadwinners, so they took care of the responsibility of providing for the family and my mother stayed at home. I grew up like everybody else basically in the neighborhood, where this is what you do. Education was very strict, very much so! And most of us were athletes, so I ran track and I played volleyball.
How did you first encounter the Church?
When I first moved to Nevada, I moved to northern Nevada and my very first friend that I met, her name was Carla and she was LDS. She kind of embraced me and helped me along, and when she got married she invited us. Because Reno in that area did not have a temple, she got married civilly first and then they were going to go to Utah to get sealed, so I was at her civil wedding when she got married. Then she moved to Utah and we didn’t get keep in touch. But then throughout, there were other Mormons. Elder Oakleberry, he was a missionary, in the 70’s I studied with him and I was like, “Yeah, right! I am not interested! I am okay.” I was married before, to a Christian pastor, and one of our church members left the church in 1978 right after the priesthood ban was lifted, and went to the LDS Church. I couldn’t understand why she would leave our church and go there. She was African American too, so I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I never thought anything else of it, and then life goes on and I keep running into these Mormons.
Then when I moved to Las Vegas, when the temple opened my youngest daughter and I went and she filled out the card for the missionaries to come visit. I yelled at her, “Why would you do that?” Of course the missionaries showed up and so I took the lessons again. I really wasn’t emotionally ready to deal with that. I can tell you in 35 years off and on, I have had Mormons in and out of my life. Eventually, one person who came into my life [Dominique] and I didn’t even know she was Mormon. She and I had done some business together and I had known her for quite a while. One day after my world had come crashing down [after the recession], she invited me to church and I said, “You go to this church?” And she said yes! I said, “How long have you been going to this church?” And she said, “All these years!” And I have been coming ever since.
What is interesting is that through all of that nobody had invited me to church. Dominique invited me to church–and she was African American–Dominique invited me and then it was real. Once I came and I started listening and hearing, it was a conviction. There was something different. For me, it took a while but the steps were good because I was more certain of my footing. I knew that this is where I was supposed to be. It had given me a chance to grow.
And there was getting to the temple! When [my husband] Rahim and I were baptized, our whole focus and purpose was to do those things necessary to earn a recommend. I have a strong testimony of the temple. I take absolutely nothing for granted when it comes to my work and my testimony because it is so profound to me. What sets this apart for me is the temple work, and truly turning the hearts of the children to the father. I have only been in the Church for three years and there is so much to learn. When I renew my covenants with the work that I believe I am called to do, it makes me feel honored to be a part of something much greater than myself. The words can’t truly describe the depth of that growth or the desire for growth in my walk and in my testimony.
I love the thought of learning and growth, and it seems to be the part of the Gospel that you hungered after. How do you feel you have been nourished and growing?
I believe that in the scriptures there is the letter of the scripture and then there is the spirit of the scripture. I can perform according to the letter, or I can allow the Spirit to perform through me. When I move out of my way and allow the Spirit to take hold, there is so much of a deeper presence and meaning in what it says for me. I believe that the Spirit teaches me; as I learn the words, I know the Spirit will teach me and give me the guidance to perfect me. I don’t have to be all that, I don’t have to be the smartest, the sharpest, the best of whatever, I just have to be true to myself and the scriptures and honor my covenants, and everything else will be handled. That’s where I live on a daily basis. And I live that way better on some days than others. The scriptures and being a member of the Church have given me a guidance and direction to be just that: To just be a vessel.
I am going to tell you a story about something that happened to me when I was a young girl. I was always getting sick growing up, and one time I was really sick and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I was in the middle of appendicitis and I had grown so quickly, they said I was just having growing pains. I was about 13 or 14 years old. But my appendix had burst, so they had to do an emergency appendectomy. In the path of the emergency appendectomy they found that I had some major issues with my reproductive organs, so they took out one of my ovaries and the left the other ovary that was seriously diseased at a young age. They said that I would probably be okay, but I would never have children. So they took me home and I remember lying in bed one night and I was praying—you know, I prayed to Allah—I prayed with a sense of urgency and I prayed to Allah that if He would let me live and have at least one child by the time I was 21, I would do service the rest of my life. Things change, I got better, and life got good, I moved on with my life, everything was cool. And I got pregnant. My first child was born and I was lying in the hospital and I’m breastfeeding and all of a sudden (gasps) I remember! And my mom says, ”What’s the matter?” And I said, ”Oh my gosh,” because all those years I had totally forgotten what I had promised. My oldest daughter was born just before my 21st birthday.
Have you tried to fulfill that promise?
Absolutely, and more so now and that’s why I preface with that story. Redeeming and the work of the temple fascinates me. I am an ordinance worker, and when I am there it feels like Heaven to me. I have been purposed and called to this for such a time as this. It is my place. It is as though I connect with each person for whom I am helping with the ordinances. I can feel the presence—some stronger than others—and it’s more than just going through the motions. You know how sometimes you’re so used to saying something, it just rolls off your lips because you’ve said it and done it so long? It is never that way. It’s as though each time is the first time. To me it’s important because it’s not about me anymore. It’s about that soul, that being who now has an opportunity to accept and move on. I think that is one of the most precious gifts that I can give to my family and my ancestors: An opportunity to be a part of the Kingdom. If that is the work and the service that I am supposed to perform, then it is my Heaven, it’s a part of my Heaven.
As a woman specifically, what do you feel that you have learned about yourself in the Gospel or are learning?
I have always known I am limited by my decisions. I grew up with the knowledge that you can do anything you want to do or anything that you put your mind to. In the scriptures when it says ”I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” to me that’s a testimony not only to the witness but to anyone. And as a woman, I hold to that role because it’s like sometimes we don’t walk in our strength. To me, being a woman is profound. When I look at the scriptures and things that happen, God chose women to bring forth the Savior. You know, a virgin. He brought Christ through a woman. That’s a powerful place. God thought enough of me as a woman to entrust this with me. Not just me individually, but as a woman. That is very important for us to look at as a model for who we are and who we can become in the eyesight of God. I believe that when God fashioned a woman out of man, he made her equal. We have different roles but she is his equal and his helpmate. So if that is the case, that’s a powerful position and I believe as a woman I am learning to walk in the power and have the power to hold the space, because you could have the title and not be able to honor the position. To me, to honor it means that you work on yourself to be the best that you could ever be and let God do the rest.Any religion, but I’ve noticed it quite a bit with Islam, it’s more than just the religion you go to once a week. It’s very much your lifestyle, and it’s also a culture.
So did you feel that you lost some of your cultural heritage in joining the Church, and how have you kept parts of your heritage with you?
Well, you never lose it. I will give you an example: because of my experiences of going to Muslim services and participating, I can be perfectly comfortable and content. To be able to be there and know how to serve those who are where I am. I can also go to the temple and serve. I believe that the experiences that I have had have actually broadened my base because I believe that it allows me to be more multi-faceted rather than locked into one way of service. I remember when Paul in the scriptures was teaching the people, and the essence of what he was saying is: You meet people where they are. You can’t go into some place and teach or guide them to truth if you don’t even know who they are. You live the example, so that they have some path to follow. Because of the experiences that I’ve had and Rahim has had, we could walk a different path to guide people to truth.
You mentioned the priesthood ban. Were the historical context and race issues in the Church an obstacle for you?
Well, there are still race issues in the church. They haven’t gone away. I accept people like they are. You don’t have to like me, but I’m in the Church and I’m here to stay. So my feeling is the priesthood ban didn’t have any effect on me but it is “evident” in many respects that the LDS church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a predominantly white congregation. I wanted to be around an environment that was more ethnically and racially balanced. But I don’t have those kinds of issues per se, not like that.
So how do you live that now?
I am where I am for now. What I bring, it’s important to the Lord. I won’t be put in a box. There is more than one way to be Mormon. Because I have a different racial, ethnic, cultural experience, I don’t think like most of the people at church. Probably not like anybody at the church, not even my husband. And that’s okay because each one of us are individuals and we have our own processes. And because of who we are, we have to be who we are without judgment. I think that’s really important for growth. If all you know is white people, then that’s all you know. You don’t have any experience. If somebody else new comes into your world or your circle, you have absolutely no reference point. If all I ever knew was just black people or just Muslims, then that’s not a reference point and I think it’s about growth. I know that my being in the ward changes the ward.
And for good!
Absolutely! Because we aren’t white and in fact, culturally, Rahim and I are not even like many black people, and that’s okay too! So the experience is there and it’s good because it’s all about growing. If you don’t have the experience you don’t grow. One of my major pet peeves is Mormons only hang out with Mormons. Where is the testimony in that? It’s easier to be a Mormon when you’re around other Mormons. The key is to still be able to be a Mormon, fully, wherever you are. To me that is the greater testimony. It’s easy for me to wear my garments and my clothes as a Muslim but if I could put on my wraps and stuff and be wherever I am, and still hold the culture and the realness that I was told that I was supposed to have as a woman, then that is the true testimony! I just believe that because that’s where we shine. The scriptures talk all the time about ”Let your light so shine,” and growing up we were always taught that you should live your life so that people would want to be like you, because it attracts when you have joy and peace and contentment; then it is easy to be around people like that.
Most of us have not mastered, including me at times, being fully who we are and embracing it, no matter where we are. It is a struggle but that is part of growth. That’s the other thing: I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be.
At A Glance
Marital status: Married
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Interview by Lydia Defranchi. Photos by John Nelson.