A Pathway to God
This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 8, 2012).
Andrew Esnouf tends to be vague when people ask him what he does.
It’s not that he’s embarrassed to have dedicated his life to Christian ministry. He just understands more than most people the level of stigma attached to such a responsibility.
“I’ve had to sacrifice the respect of my high school friends,” he reveals. “A lot of them tell me I’m an idiot, or call me Jesus.”
Andrew recalls one experience when he was volunteering at a high school. “One of the teenagers I was talking to called me a paedophile,” he laments. “There’s a pretty big stigma attached to priests in Australia.”
For the first 15 years of his life, Andrew was an atheist. But an unlikely phone call from a local youth-group leader brought him to an Anglican church for the first time. It was a predominantly uncomfortable night for the then-year-nine; he remembers complaining afterwards because one of his peers opened up a Bible.
Now, eight years later, Andrew is on the other end of the phone. As a youth leader studying theology and ministry, his job is now to encourage young people to engage with the Christian message.
“When I was a teenager, I was going through a pretty rough time,” Andrew recalls. “I knew that when I grew up and got a job I wanted to help people so that they wouldn’t have such a crap time as I did.”
He acknowledges that winning universal acceptance is unlikely in Melbourne’s predominantly secular society. But Andrew nevertheless feels comfortable with his career choice. “I’m pretty confident I have a reasoned approach as to why I’m a Christian and why I want to be a minister.”
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Sheikh Moustapha Sarakibi shares a similar confidence. For the 28-year old, making a lifelong commitment to Islam has never really been in question. More pertinent to him has been determining what this religious service looks like.
After studying sharia law in Medina for four years, Moustapha returned home to Melbourne. He began work here as a prison chaplain, a role that allowed him to interact with Muslims who had found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
“We’ve got a very over-represented Muslim population inside prison,” Moustapha laments. Indeed, there are over 400 Muslim prisoners in Victoria alone, eight percent of the total prison population.
“Prison chaplains, regardless of the denomination, are extremely important,” he explains. “Most individuals who are incarcerated generally go through a tremendous amount of grief and have much time to ponder over their relationship with God.”
Moustapha considers chaplaincy important for not only the prisoners, but the Muslim community at large. By assisting prisoners with their assimilation back into the real world, he feels his work is contributing to a brighter future for Muslims in Australia.
While Moustafa considers his social justice work rewarding, his main drive is his faith. This motivation is evident in his unwavering commitment to Islam, regardless of his profession. “If I wasn’t working there, I’d probably try and establish something to do with Islamic finance or Islamic insurance.”
Even outside of work, Moustafa is committed to defending Islam. For every negative news story about Muslims, he sees an opportunity to publicly speak about his faith. “Some people have an incorrect perception of Islam,” Moustapha says. “But I try to correct that in how I speak with them – it’s a religion that fosters peace and harmony.”
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Johanna Banks’ decision to pursue a life as a sister has been reasonably straightforward. “There’s nothing else I really want to do with the same level of passion,” she explains.
Currently a student at East Melbourne’s Catholic Theological College, the 20-year-old was recently accepted to join the Missionaries of God’s Love convent. There, she will train to become a sister, before beginning a ministry of evangelism, mentoring, and social work.
Unlike Andrew, she has received “overwhelming” support from her friends, even from those without a religious background. “I’m not quite sure why that’s the case,” she concedes. “I can’t imagine it would make a lot of sense to them for somebody to live such a radical kind of lifestyle.”
By radical, Johanna refers to the significant costs she must incur; as a sister, she will be making vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Such vows prohibit Johanna from ever finding a partner, or holding onto her personal freedom and autonomy. “I’ll be surrendering my whole life to God to let him take control,” she explains. “That’s a challenge.”
As such, it took some persuading before Johanna decided, at 17, that this was the correct path for her. “I had been wrestling with God for a few months, saying ‘no, you can ask anything of me but that’,” she reveals. “But then I asked myself ‘what else would I do?’ and I came to the realisation that I had to become a sister.”
“I feel I’ve been called to this way of life. That’s where I’ll be the happiest and that’s where I can live the best way I can.”