The Rastafari Road to Orthodoxy
This interview was published in the Road To Emmaus, and is reprinted here with permission of Michael and Teresa Wilson. This is the first of seven installments on their journey to the Orthodox faith.
In an engagingly open interview, Michael and Teresa Wilson of St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church in Kansas City, Missouri, talk about their decades as Rastafarians in America and Jamaica, their path to Orthodoxy, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
RTE: Michael, what was your background? Did you grow up Christian?
MICHAEL: In my family, we didn’t usually go to church, except perhaps on Easter. My mother and I prayed some and sang songs, but religion wasn’t a guiding force. She tells me now, though, that she knew I wanted a spiritual life, and where I ended up didn’t surprise her. Teresa grew up in a Catholic family, with seven brothers and sisters.
RTE: How did you become involved with Rastafari?
MICHAEL: For both Teresa and me, it began with Bob Marley and his music in the late ‘70’s. We were 18, 19 years old, and just married. One of the things that really attracted us was that Bob had this wild hair and dressed like a simple man, but in his lyrics he referred to the Bible, which blew our minds. I was from Manhattan, Kansas, and at the time I thought that people who read the Bible and went to church had to wear a suit and tie, had to look and act a certain way. I was even anti-church because of those images. It was a new awakening for me to realize that the Bible was for everyone, everyone in the world, not just the stuffy suit-and-tie people I’d known.
So here comes Bob Marley, with his guitar, his dreadlocks, and smoking herb (marijuana), and it all attracted me. He was a person who was there for the poor, the elderly, the kids, and most of all, he was talking about God.
At the time it seemed that he was actually reaching us middle and upperclass white Americans more than black Americans. The people he tried to sing for shunned him.
MICHAEL: Because he looked poor and low class. Some black Americans were looking towards education as a way to improve things, but in our neighborhood most black people were reaching for the gold chains and fancy cars as a way to feel they’d made it. Then came Bob out of the Jamaican ghetto saying,
“You don’t need all that. Love your brother, give yourself to God, live simple.”
That wasn’t something they wanted to hear. At the time, Teresa and I were trying to break the cycle we’d grown up in – “me first, out of my way.” So, he gave us an image to look up to, and little sayings and words of songs that I later figured out were from the Bible.
We knew some of the first reggae artists that came after Bob Marley. You’d go to their hotel room – they’d have been put up in some fancy hotel by the concert promoters – but the TV would be shoved off into the closet and the Bible out on the table. You wouldn’t see any beer cans, but you’d see food spread out for everyone that came: greens, potatoes, tonic health drinks the Rastas make from roots…. The essential part of their group was the cook, not a guy to go find the girls or the drugs after the concert.
RTE: Why a cook?
MICHAEL: They were pure vegetarians with a little fish and they relied on their diet. Coming from Jamaica to America they didn’t want anything to do with our fancy fast foods. They came with big boxes of food from home to cook their own.
RTE: Did you know Bob Marley?
MICHAEL: No, we didn’t know him, but we saw him once when he played in Lawrence, Kansas. It was one of the most amazing nights of my life. There was a time during the show when he was a definite rock star, but there was also a time when something higher came over him. He talked about those times and said that he himself didn’t know what it was. At the time I said,
“God came on him.”
So, we started copying our lifestyle from his… things we’d read in Rolling Stone magazine, stories we’d hear about him. At the time it was what we longed for, something to hang on to.
RTE: How did it affect your lifestyle?
MICHAEL: It changed it immensely.
The next big reggae artist we met was Peter Tosh. He was part of the original Wailers: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who afterwards went on to separate careers. One year Peter Tosh stayed at the same hotel my wife and I were at. He was the first Rasta I actually reasoned with. After the show, we sat into the night talking about spiritual things. Peter showed me parts of the Bible that explained the things that were happening – “wars and rumors of wars.” He was the first Rasta we’d met where we could see the practice going on. To me, it was about simplifying the world. We Americans were raised to be the best at everything, but Bob and Peter showed us that you didn’t always have to be the best, that sometimes being the least was actually the best.
In fact, that night it was crazy because lots of people came to see Peter. I remember being in his room, and everything getting real confused, people milling around, when all of a sudden he jumps out of his chair and says real loud, “Everybody out!” He was a big guy, so everybody heads for the door, me included, but he grabs me by the shoulder and says, “Except you!” So, everyone else left, he sat me down, and we reasoned for hours. After that night I quit smoking cigarettes, I quit doing drugs, I quit lusting. It was the first time I’d met someone who cared about me for just being me.
RTE: The impression of an outsider is that Rastas are rather relaxed about life: they sing about peace, smoke marijuana, and have a few girlfriends. But you are saying that there was an attempt at a purer practice among those who were serious.
MICHAEL: Among the serious, yes. As with any movement, at first it was a vehicle for good, but later it became a vehicle for anyone from Jamaica who grew their dreads and played music… Not to take anything away from the later reggae artists, but we came to find out that Bob, Peter, and the early Rastas were some of the last from whom you could learn about real Rasta.
The others were rude boys…. hustlers, music-type people like anywhere. To find the real Rasta, even in Jamaica, you went to the hills, to the mountains. You’d meet ten people to get to the one real guy who worked all day in the fields, took care of his kids, didn’t go to town, didn’t go to reggae shows – he was just living. So when you met some of the elders of Rastafari, they’d tell you that Rastafari wasn’t a religion, but a way of life. That was what we were looking for, a way of life. Religion seemed like a corporation.
Of course, the bigger the Rasta movement got, the more temptation there was to get away from the principles. The people who lived in the mountains were the ones really following the simple lifestyle, but this was also because they were really poor. When Jamaican Rastas get out into the world, they are like the rest of us. Unless you watch yourself, it’s easy to get trapped into wanting this and that.
For more about Bob Marley’s conversion see: Bob Marley: Orthodox Christian
Fr. Ryan+ says
I have to say, this has been my absolute LEAST favorite conversion story of all those posted on the site. Something about a beatnik deciding to eventually square himself away and follow a true path after he’s all done having fun and acting irresponsibly is just not all that inspiring to me. And I know some may point to the prodigal son, point out that he had farther to go from the Rastas to Orthodoxy, but even so – this particular story just really turned me off. I’ll read the other 6 parts to see if it gets better, but I’m left with an initial impression that this guy is still a beatnik, now turned aging hipster, eager to tell his “roadie” stories, not a sincere Orthodox Christian, but I guess we’ll see…
This is a fascinating interview! I look forward to future installments. As someone who has visited St. Mary of Egypt here in KC, I appreciate hearing about this couple’s journey. Thank you, Father John, for selecting this conversion story for publication on JTO.
keith staples says
dear sir Not only are you dead wrong about Father Deacon Michael. You display a vast ignorence of what true for real Christianty is about. Where is the awareness of your own sin? Do you know with experience who went home justifyed in the parable of the pharisee and the publican? Are you a ordained minester? What church do you belong to? All of us are dependent on JESUS for MERCY and GRACE. I pray that you have the grace, the integrety to find out how wrong you are. LORD JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON ME A SINNER. keith
Oh wow! I wondered if it was in fact Father Deacon Michael, but I don’t really know him personally. Now I’m really, really looking forward to hearing the rest of his story. Grace and peace.
Fr. Michael says
My dear brother in Christ,
You wrote: “a beatnik deciding to eventually square himself away and follow a true path after he’s all done having fun and acting irresponsibly is just not all that inspiring to me. And I know some may point to the prodigal son, (…) but…”
I’m not so sure that the prodigal son’s motivations for going back home WERE so inspiring. But what a father he had!
There’s a hymn the Orthodox sing at the Vesperal Liturgy before Theophany. A little unusually for us, it has a refrain, repeated many times – as if to drum it into our ears and then our hearts:
“Where indeed would Thy light have shone, except to those who sat in darkness? O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!”
The prodigal’s story wasn’t over when he went back to his old homestead, bedecked in a new set of duds with some fancy bling on his finger. Nor, at the end of part 1 of 7, is Michael’s story done. Or, thank our merciful Father, mine or yours.
keith staples says
dear Father Ryan. I love the times when i’ve been in service; when we ask each other to forgive each other. In that spirit i ask you. Forgive me brother for i,ve sinned against you. I wished i had waited a day to respond to your comments. After spending quite a bit of time thinking, praying, reading over the comments and article; I pray for GOD’s mercy, grace and truth to triumph in all of our hearts. again i ask you to forgive me. keith.
Eric Simpson says
Dn. Michael is a sweet man, an authentic Orthodox Christian, and the godfather to my daughter. I think it is incredibly sad to see the comments section of a site such as this used (apparently by a priest!) as a place to slander others.