Against the Grain: Practicing Beliefs in the Bible Belt

"People sometimes despise that which they don't understand, or something that's different. And yes, were different but you can have a twin an be totally different as night and day," said Rosa Shareef.

Shareef appears different than most Mississippians at first glance just from the Hijab wrapped around her head. As a Muslim, she is different than most in our state, which is known for being the middle of the Bible Belt.

Having lived ins several very large cities, Rosa said the transition to the South was challenging as a Muslim.

"When you have bigger populations of people who are exposed to more, then it's not as much of a conflict," said Shareef. "So when I came to Mississippi, yes, it was a challenge, but life is full of challenges."

Shareef lives among several other Muslim families in the New Medinah Community on the outskirts of Lamar County. It was founded 27 years ago in 1987 and continues to grow.

Mikal Uqdah, who was born and raised in Hattiesburg, worships with the New Medinah Community.

Being from the state that was targeted as the most religious state in the country according to a 2013 Gallup Poll, Makil reverted, as he calls it, to Al Islam as a young man.

"I've always had hunger for knowledge," said Uqdah.

That hunger became devoted to his religious practices. The Muslim faith is committed to prayer, praying five times a day.

"We have to perform steps, you don't just up and pray, you have to come in a state of purity, in a state of purification so therefore we make ablution," said Uqdah. "We wash in preparation to make the prayer, so that means externally we are clean and when we pray, it cleans us internally. We have to have the balance."

While Shareef and Uqdah receive their fulfillment from this form of worship, Kevin Clifton does not.

"I was actually a lay youth minister at one point in my life, I was very devout and very religious," said Clifton.

After personal growth and certain instances that made him question God, Clifton is no longer a devout Christian, but instead an Atheist.

"I just slowly but surely started drifting away because of the fact that I just didn't feel any zeal," said Clifton. "I didn't believe in the word anymore because there's so many contradictions in the Bible."

While he is comfortable with his shift in beliefs, he said the decision to tell others was not.

"I was very afraid because of the fact of a certain stigma they place on non-religious people that we are devil worshipers," said Clifton. "I lead a very normal life, I go to work, I go to school, I live at home.  I'm just like everybody else except I don't have belief."

In Mississippi, it may be hard to consider yourself just like everyone else if you aren't a Christian.

Governor Phil Bryant just last month asked Republican Senator Michael Watson to introduce legislation that would change a part of the state seal.

"With your help, the seal of the State of Mississippi will, from this session forward, reflect the simple yet profound words 'In God We Trust,'" said Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant.

After all, Kevin is just as much a Mississippian as Governor Bryant. However, Shareef said whether we are Muslim, atheists, Christian, or anything in between, it is about living together.

"So if we would just know that we have to get along, whatever that takes, and it is beyond tolerance," said Shareef. "It's about patience, it's about faith, coming together strengthens us."

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