It has taken me since June 5, 2021 when I said my first prayer in a Turkish jail cell to now, September 17, 2021 to be ready to speak about the incredible and terrifying experience I had and how it has changed my life. I’m telling this story in the hopes of softening the hearts of any atheists, agnostics, or formerly religious people out there who think there’s no way back to God. If I was able to go back to Him, anyone can. Allow me to explain from the beginning.
I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school. I was very serious about my faith as a child until I was in sixth grade, when my precious devout Catholic Grandmother to whom I was extremely close suddenly and tragically died. My Grandmother was like a mother to me, and she was also my spiritual guide. The spiritual and emotional void this loss left in me is indescribable.
When I was sixteen I fell hard for a guy who I learned a couple of weeks into dating was an unbaptized Jehovah’s Witness. I was compelled to begin studying with the JW’s in order to stay in the relationship. I attended their services three times a week (6 hours per week), and even ‘went on service’, witnessing door-to-door every Saturday. My religiosity was again lit on fire for a time.
At age eighteen I vehemently rejected the validity of the Bible, Christianity, and theism after spending 2 years studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. At that point, I began on a downward spiral in regards to morality and life choices. My enthusiasm for the Lord turned on a dime into hatred and rebellion against Him, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, in turning away from God, I was by default surrendering my life to the Father of Lies, for, “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” – 1 John 5:19
I won’t go into details of all the years where I was anti-God and anti-Christian. I’m quite certain that anyone who knows me who is reading this could tell you horror stories. I will say that I am ashamed of much from those years and I am spending the rest of my life trying to make up for them through fervency for Christ and daily religious practice. I hurt a few people in those years pretty badly, but most of all I regret depriving my children of the Catholic upbringing I was blessed to receive.
I was a hardcore atheist. I was obsessed with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. I wasn’t just irreligious, I spent years, decades, actively hating God, Christianity, and the Bible. I shared inflammatory Hitchens videos on Facebook, alienating many. I constantly argued the topic of religion with my Dad. I called people bigots who followed Biblical morality even as I embraced the upside-down ‘morality’ of the world.
I now realize if I had not believed in God on some level that whole time, I wouldn’t have spent so much time fighting and rebelling against Him. This antagonistic attitude toward God was in some strange way, better than if I had been the dreaded ‘spiritual but not religious’ as God has no patience for apathy. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” – Ephesians 6:10-11
The Turkish Incident
When I first joined Twitter a year and a half ago, I followed primarily atheist and anti-theist accounts. One of them was an ex-Muslim atheist Uighur girl living in Turkey. She was reaching out on Twitter for help to emigrate to the West to escape her extremist family. I began talking with her and offered to help in any way I could, if only to be a supportive voice. Over the span of a year we got to know each other, video chatting and texting daily and became very close. I started to think of her like a daughter, and so I helped her start the process of getting an F1 Student Visa to the U.S. I registered her for school, paid for her courses, and filled out the required documentation to sponsor her and promised the U.S. government to pay for her schooling and provide room and board to her while she was in school. I was planning on adopting her. We registered her for classes at the local college. She had her I-20 completed and approved and her F1 application submitted and was just waiting on the Embassy to open up from the Covid lockdown to get her Visa interview.
My husband and I decided to fly to Turkey and set her up in an Airbnb until her interview. The Achilles heel in our plan was that she ended up deciding to leave her family’s house the morning before her eighteenth birthday. If she had just waited until midnight, she would probably be here with us now, and I may have never had my ‘come to Jesus’ moment.
We spent one beautiful day together, and then around 5 pm, when she was just 7 hours away from turning eighteen, there was a knock at the door and two plain clothed police officers told us we were coming with them to answer questions about a reported kidnapping. We were taken to a police station. She tried to explain the situation to the police. There were many tears and she was clinging to me like a child the whole time, begging them to let her stay with me and not to send her back to her parents. She sent the police documentation of her school registration and Visa application and told them of her dad’s abuse and threats of honor violence. The police were kind to us once the whole story was out and evidence was provided. We were told we’d be free to go after we made our statements. Oh, what sweet, naïve children we were to believe them!
The police told us they were going to have to detain her in a dorm for the night, just to be held until morning, as she was technically still a minor at this point. We hugged and cried and said goodbye, planning to meet again at the Airbnb the next morning.
I never saw her again. As we were being escorted out we were told that we had to go to one more police station, just to give a formal statement. In the car, my husband and I began exchanging nervous glances as our intuitions simultaneously began to tell us something was very, very wrong. When we arrived at the next police station we were put into a cold, damp, concrete interrogation room with bars on the window and told to wait while they tried to find us a translator. Almost two hours later, our translator came in and told us we were being charged with kidnapping. We were confused and frightened, exclaiming the police told us that wasn’t the case and we were only there to give statements, not that we were being charged!
Later on in our ordeal, he asked us if we had ever seen the movie Midnight Express, and when we said we hadn’t, he said “good, you’d be a lot more scared right now if you had, because this movie is what your situation reminds me of”. Knowing our story and evidence, he felt really bad for us. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch that film, though I have watched the trailer, and that was enough for me. He also asked us whether we understood just how dire the relations between our two countries were right now, and told us he had never seen a Westerner in this part of Istanbul before.
After several hours in the second police station, providing our statements and waiting for them to decide what to do with us, the girl’s parents and brother showed up to confront us. We explained everything to them, and begged them to drop the charges. Seeing we meant no harm and truly cared about her, they agreed to consider dropping the charges if we’d let them be involved in the plans of her studying in the US.
After they left, we waited a while longer in the interrogation room until we were told they couldn’t release us, because we were foreigners involved in a crime, so had to be transferred to an immigrant detention facility and from there likely deported. The translator told my husband this was not turning out to be a good outcome for us.
On the way to the immigrant detention facility we had to stop at a hospital and be examined to prove that they had not beaten us at the police station, then the police car broke down and another had to come and take its place. By the time we arrived at the immigrant detention facility it was about 2 o’clock in the morning. Our translator had to leave us at the mercy of the police who took custody of us, but before he did, he asked the police not to separate us and to put us in a separate cell from the other prisoners. He warned us that if we were separated, my husband could end up in the cells with terror suspects and other actual criminals. Things were getting darker and darker in our minds, as you might imagine. We were beginning to lose it.
They took our mugshots and our fingerprints, but since it was late and nobody was available to run the passport/background checks, we were told it would be about 5 hours of waiting so we could either sit on the stairs to be put in an empty cell where we could at least try and sleep. We agreed to the cell only after confirming we’d be together. At about 4 in the morning, they came and took my husband out of our cell and put a woman in with me, taking him off to the cell with the other prisoners.
At that point I completely broke down. I prayed for the first time in years. I asked God if he was out there, to let me know, and to please deliver us from this situation and to let me go home, to be with my son. I promised God that I would devote my life to Him if I ever got out and got home.
A few hours later, I asked to use the bathroom and begged to see my husband and make sure he was okay. My husband was doing well, as he ended up befriending a young man who knew English; it turned out he was an interpreter for our troops and was detained while trying to escape Afghanistan through Turkey to get to Europe, but was caught without identification. He had been there for 8 months, because without any identification they didn’t know where to deport him, so he had no hope to ever leave and no way for his family to contact him or vice versa. He was an angel for us and I wish there was something I could do to bring him to America, as he told us he was permanently stateless and would be in the detention center indefinitely. I don’t know his name but I pray for him.
My husband asked to use the bathroom and also use his phone. They let him, and he brought his friend with him and ended up contacting a lawyer our first translator had given him in case things got dire, and he explained the situation. The lawyer then insisted he hand the phone to the officer on duty and they talked for a bit before my husband got the phone back and was told that if we weren’t released by 3pm to call back and the lawyer would formally represent us. We went back to our cells to wait.
I lay there on the floor of the cell in utter despair for about 6 more hours. I woke up to a guard calling me to get up. I jumped up as my heart raced, I felt delirious but hopeful. I was led into the police office and my husband was already in there talking with a very sullen police chief. I told my story yet again as our ‘guardian angel’ translated for me.
At first the police chief was incredulous of our story, as was every police chief at each police station who heard it. The questions I kept being asked were, “Why would you do all this for a stranger in a Muslim country? Why would you spend thousands of dollars, fly all the way across the world, and go to jail to help someone from a totally different culture?” All I could answer was because I loved and cared about her and I wanted to give her a better life. This answer was hard for them to believe or relate to, and they all thought I must have had an ulterior motive.
The police chief continued to interrogate me to find out my ‘real motive’. I told them about my Grandmother and what an incredible angel she was, about how fiercely she loved me and how she taught me to love others with that same energy. I can’t speak about my Grandmother without getting choked up, and as you can imagine I was extremely emotional at that moment. After seeing my emotion, the hardened police chief was touched, told my husband that he had an amazing wife, gave us tea and Turkish pastries, and asked us if we could also adopt him, pay for his college education, and bring him to America; all the other police officers were also touched, had a good laugh over this and joined in asking me to be their mother and adopt them too.
After a while chatting and drinking tea, the chief got a phone call and we were then told the passport and fingerprint checks were finally processed and we were clean, so we just had to sign some final papers and then be released for real and this time given back our passports. We were finally set free around noon, after being in police custody for 19 hours.
On our way out, our translator friend pulled us aside and said, “If I were you, I would leave the country immediately.” We didn’t need to be told twice. When we got back to the Airbnb we immediately booked the first flight home which was in the morning and went directly to stay at the airport hotel. We called the dorm where the girl was staying and they told us she was still in custody. I emailed her saying she could still return to the Airbnb and continue with our plan, but that we had been advised to get out of the country ASAP.
A couple of days after we returned home, I received the final email from the girl, telling me she had been given an option to remain at the dorm or to be released to her parents. Her father promised not to hurt her and to let her continue her education and she went back home. I have not heard from her since. All her social media accounts are disabled. I think her father took away all internet access from her and I suspect he married her off. I don’t know if I will ever see her again or where she is, or even if she is okay, but honey, if you are reading this, know that I will always love you and I am waiting for you to reach out to me again anytime, and that I am so, so sorry about how this all turned out. I hope to be able to help you one day and you are always in my heart.
It has taken me a few months to heal from all of this enough to be able to talk about it. I have been trying to make good on my promise to dedicate my life to God since returning home. My faith did not return overnight. It has been a process. At first I just began praying for an increase in faith, in the spirit of this verse: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. – Matthew 7:7-8
The bridge that got me logically from atheism to Christianity was watching Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series in its entirety, which is 33 hours of lectures on the psychological significance of the book of Genesis. Watching this series gave me an almost miraculous new appreciation for a book that I had previously despised. I am still in awe of how much heavy lifting this series did to allow my faith in the Bible to return. I found a deep reservoir of wisdom in a book I had once said was pure evil. Only after watching this series and praying daily for my faith to return was I able to find my way back to a God.
Next, I became a parishioner at a traditional Catholic Church with faithful Priests who preach true, unadulterated Catholicism and celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass. I went to Confession for the first time in twenty-eight years and had my marriage recognized by the Church. I’ve discovered courageous and inspirational spiritual shepherds like the Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Father James Altman. My husband is in the process of converting to the faith, which is a blessing I will never be able to wrap my mind around.
I know nothing I could ever possibly do could make me deserving of the warm embrace I have received from the Lord after twenty-five years of apostasy and mortal sin. On a daily basis, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humility that I was even allowed to come back into the fold as a Catholic in good standing after what I have done. In the time since I have returned to God, this verse comes to me daily in prayer, and it always brings me to tears: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” -Luke 15:4-7
One would think that it would be much harder for a militant anti-theist to come to God than for one who vaguely believes in a higher power. I have discovered that this assumption is very wrong indeed. I was trying to understand why this was the case when I came upon the following verse while reading the Book of Revelation: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” -Revelation 3:15-16. I now realize that it is a blessing that I am never one to be lukewarm, as it made it possible for me to turn fervently back to Christ.