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Winding paths and spiritual journeys

Inherently restless and questioning, young people often travel a circuitous route rather than a straight line toward spiritual belief. And even when they arrive at that destination, it is with a set of ideas about God and faith that are far from predictable.

Omar Siddiqi is now more willing
to speak up about his Muslim faith. (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)

Opening up

Sept. 11, 2001, happened to be Omar Siddiqi's first day at Andover.

In the weeks and months that followed, Siddiqi, a Muslim from Salem, N.H., talked often with classmates about the peaceful tenets of Islam, trying to help them see its true face. ''I find I've had to, whether I wanted to or not, speak up for my faith," says Siddiqi, now 18. ''After 9/11, I felt I had to show people that a Muslim could be a fellow student, a friend."

He admits, though, that at first he was uncomfortable with the role of ''spokesman for Islam at Phillips Academy." He wrestled with the question of how overt to be in his expression of faith. But he concluded that to be true to himself, and to dispel preconceptions others might have about Muslims, he should be upfront about his faith. He now wears a prayer cap and a beard. He leads services for other Muslim students and prays five times a day. Other students have approached him to ask what his religion says about such issues as abortion or stem-cell research. ''When I started to show myself [as a Muslim], they've had to justify that in their minds, and maybe think that Muslims aren't so bad," he says.

Catholic, Baptist, and African Methodist Episcopal churches
haven't satisfied Ja-Tun Thomas. (Globe Photo / Stephen Rose)

Without a church, but not without faith

Ja-Tun Thomas says she considers herself ''Christian-based spiritual," but she has not yet found a church that squares with her belief that ''God lives in the ineffable, wonderful state of being that is love. God lives in the things that cannot easily be explained." Thomas, whose parents divorced when she was 4, attended a Catholic church as a young child in New Jersey, but she soon grew restless. ''Being African-American, I would see depictions of black churches, and it was so much different from the church I attended, which was a traditional white church," says Thomas, 20. She began attending services at an African Methodist Episcopal church and was later baptized in a Baptist church. Religion was increasingly important to her, but she grew alienated by what she describes as a preoccupation with superficial matters, such as fashion, among congregants at the Baptist church. Though she doesn't attend church, she says her belief that ''everyone has a very large piece of God within them" leads her to constantly ask: ''What is it we can do, day to day, to make the world a better place?" She expects to eventually return to Protestant worship services.

A healing spirituality

Erica Mena, a junior at the University of Massachusetts at Boston,
found that Siddha Yoga helped her overcome personal problems.
(Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

Religion was not a part of Erica Mena's upbringing in Newton, but her intellectual curiosity sent her ''shopping," she says, through Buddhism, Judaism, Unitarianism, and Bahaism. Her parents divorced when she was 11. At 16, she dropped out of Newton South High School and lived on the streets for a year. Now 23, she says she had a problem with drinking and drugs during that time. Eventually she enrolled at the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, where she made headway with her substance-abuse problem, but her personal life was still in turmoil. Only when she began practicing Siddha Yoga did she find a measure of inner peace. ''It affects everything I do," she says. ''It so completely changed the way I feel about myself." Her brand of spirituality relies on meditation, private prayer, and the recitation of a mantra, but she sees connections with those who go to church on Sunday. ''I believe that everybody who has faith believes in the same thing: that there is something bigger than us," she says.

Cordelia Strandskov, who at one time wanted to be Jewish, found solace with an interdenominational Christian church at Smith College. (Globe Photo / Stephen Rose)

After wandering, she heeds a Protestant calling

Cordelia Strandskov describes herself as ''a former Pagan." Raised in the United Church of Christ, in Minneapolis, she was devoutly concerned with matters of spirituality from an early age. ''At first, I wanted to be a nun, then I wanted to be Jewish," she says. ''I was always searching." Around age 11, she learned of ''the way women had been subjugated by the church, and I decided I was not going to be a Christian." She turned to women-centered spirituality, and began taking part in Wiccan rituals. In her late teens, she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, and at 21 she underwent a hysterectomy. It was a severe blow because she had always dreamed of one day having children. ''I felt very separated from any kind of god or goddess or divine spirit," says Strandskov, 25.

When she arrived at Smith College, she began attending interdenominational Protestant services in the campus chapel, primarily because she wanted the chance to sing. But, she acknowledges, ''there was something pulling me." Amid the hurly-burly of college life, she cherished the quiet contemplation on Sundays. ''A calling surfaced in me that I think was there all along," she says. Heeding that calling, she became a ministerial intern, helping plan and lead services. As president of the Ecumenical Christian Community at Smith, her weeks are filled with Bible study sessions, prayer circles, and fellowship dinners. Next year, she'll attend a seminary in Berkeley, Calif., to become an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. But she will continue to say ''Our Mother" when she says the Lord's Prayer and continue to believe God ''blesses all forms of love, including same-sex marriage."