Michel Martin is an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for ABC News, on primary assignment to 'Nightline' and 'This Week.' This essay was adapted from a speech she delivered at Sacred Circles, a women's spirituality conference held at the National Cathedral in November, 2002.
I want to tell you a seeker's story.
I bet many of you share my story. I did not grow up in a particularly religious household, but it wasn't anti-religious either. Some of my Jewish friends have a useful phrase for this-they call it being culturally Jewish but not religious. So by that standard I guess I would say we were culturally Christian, but not especially religious. We went to church off and on, sometimes regularly, most times not. We said our bedtime prayers, and we observed major holidays but without much thought about the underlying reason.
At some point I became aware of grace, although I didn't know to call it that. It happened in small ways. I grew up in a fairly rough neighborhood in a fairly rough time in New York City. I went to the kinds of schools where you didn't go to the bathroom during the day for fear of what might happen there. I was sitting on the school bus one day and got out of my seat to pick up a favorite pencil that had dropped out of my book bag. At that very moment someone threw a firecracker in the window and it exploded in my seat, in what would have been my lap had I been sitting down. When I told my mother about it later she said, "God works in mysterious ways." And I thought, "Yes, that's right." Because I felt really lucky and grateful but I knew there was nothing I had done to deserve that luck, nor would I have taken it as a judgment if I had had bad luck. It just was. And I felt really happy. And I learned to recognize that feeling of being happy for unmerited good fortune; I later learned to call it grace.
I was also fortunate to have been able to attend a religiously affiliated high school where I learned more of the vocabulary of religion, and I learned more religious habits. I learned about the benefit of regular attendance--mainly because it was required--but I would still say, I was culturally Christian. Not quite a bystander, not yet a participant. But all the while that sense was growing of a larger presence--a large hand in the world that works, through love, to bring grace and peace to me and to the world. I didn't know what to call it, but I had a sense it was there.
I felt it when I went to Nairobi after the American embassy was bombed there in 1998. After a long flight I went straight to the embassy where the recovery efforts were still underway. Just as I arrived, a loud cheer went up and it was because a man had been found, alive under the rubble, after I don't know how many hours. I saw him being handed gently down a slope, a huge pile of rubble. And when he came down he said there was someone else down there with him in a nearby stairway or elevator shaft. Her name was Rose. And so the search started for Rose.
In my experience, disaster sites--a bad car wreck, a bombing or an earthquake-- are really noisy. People are shouting, they're scared, they're trying to bring order to the chaos. People sometimes ask me how I can stand these stories, and the answer is that people are at their most human at times like this; they are at their best and worst. People would gather up injured people whom they didn't even know and had never seen before and would never see again and drive them to the hospitals and sit with them for hours to help them get treatment. People just show up to help, they bring equipment. It's chaos, it's frightening, it's loud. But at some point, if you're trying to find people, everybody has to be quiet. You have to listen to hear if you can still make contact with the person.
So there in Nairobi, every so often, everything would just stop. Can you imagine? Hundreds of people, on a hand signal from somebody, they just stop. And we would all just listen. We listened for Rose. There was something so beautiful in that listening-- hundreds of people listening for the faint voice of one lost woman. And the hope that that one woman might be saved seemed like something so beautiful and awesome it covered all of us like a blanket, like the very hand of God.
The search went on for days. And they did find Rose. But by the time they found her it was too late. She became one of the hundreds of people killed in that bombing, many thousands more wounded, about 5,000 in all actually. And we later learned that the bombing, and the one on the same day at the embassy in Tanzania, were committed by the Al Qaeda organization, which is believed to have carried out the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
And so those of us who believe in God have to face both sides of that story, don't we? That the God who so loved one dying woman, who inspired hundreds of people to come to her side day after day to try to save her life is the same God called upon by the men who made that bomb, planted that bomb and detonated that bomb. And who called his name in doing it. They say--they believe--they did it for God.
Grasping all that is why some people say they have no time for religion. This is certainly not just about Islam. Every religion has such moments of violence, violence that is validated by the religion; made righteous by it. Is there a group of believers who have not killed in the name of God? I think that those of us who care about faith, need to acknowledge, to embrace, its shadow; because it makes people do things. It makes people put bloody strangers in their cars and hold them in their arms and stay with them for hours. It creates new and powerful ways of thinking and understanding the world. It changes things. And it can make people kill. And that's why it scares me. That is why certainty scares me. And that is why I, as a witness to faith, want to witness to doubt.
Or maybe a better word is skepticism. Certainty is the first cousin to absolutism, which is the mother of fanaticism, which is the father of "I'm right and you're wrong and now you have to die for it." But skepticism, a willingness to question my own beliefs, is what leaves the door open. Just when certainty is most intoxicating, comes that breath of fresh "Wait a minute here...?" And that's a way to know that when you do walk out that door, you're really walking in faith, not the infatuation with being right.
Oddly enough the more I question, the more I grow in faith. Because it leads me to dig deep, to go beyond the easy answer. When you think you know it all, you miss things, most of all a moment of discovery that what your mind can hold at the moment may not be nearly all there is to know.
One of the best ways I've found to do that is to be in constant contact with people I don't agree with. One of the great gifts of being a journalist is the ability to be the moth drawn to the flame...so I can draw near to the very thing that frightens and appalls me. I seek out the very thing that most troubles me-but I commend the method to all of you.
Because that is one way we truly know what we believe. And it is a way I grow in my faith because I have learned that the more I question, the stronger I grow in my faith because I continually find out that God can take it. God can take it. Because God is bigger than me, stronger than me, and has thought of things that would never occur to me.
I chose my faith. Amazingly, the more I push and pull at it, the more it chooses me.