By Mark Ellis —
After she came to Christ, her Muslim father told her she was ‘dead’ from that moment and she was never to grace the doorway of his home. But despite her father’s rejection, she found a new and living way to blessing from the Father of Lights.
Sophia Marsh-Ochsner, the daughter of a Muslim Pakistani father and a Roman Catholic mother grew up in the industrial heartland of West Yorkshire, England. Before her parents married, Sophia’s mother accepted her fiancee’s strict requirement that their children be raised under Islam.
“She assumed that some faith is better than no faith,” Sophia recalls. “She assumed we all believe in the same God.” Sophia’s mother was not allowed to mention Jesus or practice her faith inside the home.
Sophia did her best to straddle two cultures. Raised under the tenets and pillars of Islam, she also wanted to adapt and fit in with friends at school. But from an early age, she sensed something missing in her visits to the mosque. “There was a vacuum of God’s presence,” she thought. She struggled to understand the recitations uttered in Arabic and relied on her father for interpretation.
One day a friend in high school invited Sophia to a Christian church. She went without telling her father, and experienced something completely new. “I felt the Spirit of God for the first time,” she says. She left the church wanting to know more about Jesus.
About this time, Sophia’s father was getting more serious about Islam. “It became his only focus, to some degree,” she notes. He went on several pilgrimages to Mecca and spent more and more time in the mosque. “It alienated my mom and caused a lot of friction.”
When Sophia visited the home of the Christian friends’ who invited her to church, she saw an environment within their home that was strikingly different. “I saw grace, peace, and mercy lived-out,” she says.
One day Sophia asked her father about the claims of Jesus Christ. His face darkened, as if she had uttered a curse. “If you ever question Islam – if you think Jesus is the Savior, you will be out on the street,” he warned her.
“I got the message that Islam must be surrendered to, in blind obedience to everything,” Sophia notes. “There was no freedom to wrestle with my faith. I was forced to own it.”
A new world opens
Sophia won a scholarship to college in the United States, and landed in Los Angeles in 1989. In addition to her studies, she began to work her way up from the bottom in the film and television business.
She met a young man from Kentucky who was a nominal Christian. After a year, he asked Sophia to marry him. “My dad said you can marry him, but he must become a Muslim. Surprisingly, her young suitor agreed. He said, “Okay, if that’s what it takes to get your father’s approval.” They married at a mosque in South Central L.A.
Within a year, the young newlywed realized he made a mistake. He didn’t want to be married anymore. He had met another young woman.
Feeling blindsided and heartbroken, Sophia placed a phone call to her mother-in-law in Kentucky. Sophia poured out her heart over the phone and then the older woman shared a profound statement. She told Sophia: “You don’t need my son; you need The Son.”
Sophia had expected a much different reaction. “It really struck me because I expected her to rant and rave about her son and defend him.” A God-shaped light bulb began to flicker in Sophia’s soul.
Forty-eight hours later a brown, non-descript package arrived on Sophia’s doorstep. When she picked it up, she immediately knew it was a book – a heavy book. Her mother-in-law had shipped Sophia her used Bible.
Inside was a personal note, “I went through a divorce and this is the Bible that helped me through.” Sophia’s eyes widened as she opened the Scripture and could see her mother-in-law’s “blood, sweat, and tears” on its pages.
Sophia didn’t really know where to begin reading, but she noticed that 1st John was heavily marked. She never read the Bible for herself and was startled by what she found. “I was floored that the word ‘love’ and ‘God’ were in the same sentence,” she says. “Could this be a God who is relational…who loves me?” she wondered.
The God she grew up with in Islam was distant, strict, and judgmental – much like Sophia’s father. “In Islam, I had to work my way toward God.”
During this difficult period after the divorce, Sophia surveyed her life. “I felt forgotten, overlooked by God. I was in an angry phase. Why am I here?” she asked. She fought against a deep sense of loneliness. “I felt like I had been so obedient to Allah, yet here I was. What did that get me?”
Still, if she accepted Jesus, her family would probably disown her, she thought. She knew that for her to become a Christian would be the worst thing to her father.
A phone call to her brother
In the depths of her personal pain and a spiritual battle that seemed to be raging for her soul, she decided to place a phone call to her brother, who lived in San Francisco at the time.
“I’m on a faith journey and I’ve been looking through the Gospels,” she told him. “I don’t believe the Koran is the truth. I want to learn who Jesus is.” She held the phone at a distance from her ear, afraid she might hear a harsh response. Instead, there was a long silence.
“That’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve been on a faith journey in San Francisco and I’m thinking about becoming a Christian.”
After their phone call, he connected Sophia with a church in Los Angeles. Sophia visited the church, then went to meet with the pastors. She unloaded every question that burdened her heart.
Finally in the discussion, they arrived at the issue of sin. “That was it for me,” she recalls. “I finally got the need for a Savior. I was really convicted…undone.”
She began to weep. “Do you mean there’s no longer a need for me to pay and pay and pay? God sent somebody to pay it all on my behalf?
At this moment of powerful recognition, Sophia surrendered to Jesus as her Lord and Savior and was born again. “I was like the eunuch by the side of the road,” she recalls. She told her surprised onlookers she wanted to be baptized immediately. “Baptize me now,” she insisted.
“The whole church has been praying for you, Sophia,” they said. They urged her to wait until they could arrange for everyone to be there.
Baptism in a condominium pool
So many in the congregation wanted to attend her baptism, they could not fit in the baptistery, so Sophia arranged to be baptized in the swimming pool at her condominium complex, which was owned by a Jewish couple. To the surprise of her landlord, more than 300 people came to watch – including Sophia’s mother and brother, who drove from San Francisco.
The pastor allowed Sophia’s brother to baptize his sister. “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?” she asked her brother.
“This is the best decision you’re ever going to make,” he replied.
Afterward there was an opportunity for sharing. “This is really the grace of God,” Sophia’s mother said, “because I wasn’t allowed to share anything about Jesus with these kids.”
For the first time, Sophia felt approval from her heavenly Father as an adopted daughter, part of a kingdom and a story bigger than herself. She received the blessing of her Father above — the Father of Lights.
But approval from her earthly dad remained elusive. It disheartened her to receive letters from him that urged her to return to Islam.
Engaged and married
Four years ago, Sophia became engaged to a strong Christian, Bob Ochsner, who earned a masters degree in apologetics from Biola University. After Sophia and Bob’s engagement was announced, they received a 20-page letter from Sophia’s father that urged Bob to become a Muslim.
Bob replied with his own lengthy letter, a point-by-point rebuttal that stated why he would not. Her father saw he met his match in Bob, but that didn’t stop him from placing an angry phone call to his daughter.
“So you’re saying that 1.5 billion Muslims are preaching an incorrect text?” he asked her. “Are you saying I have taught you lies? Are you saying that Jesus is the Messiah?”
There was a slight pause. “Yes,” Sophia replied.
“You are dead for me from this moment on,” he told her. “Don’t call me. I will not come to your wedding. You are not welcome in my home.” Then he hung up.
Sophia was heartbroken. “I wanted his blessing on the wedding. I wanted him to walk me down the aisle.” She recognized that owning her faith met a greater sacrifice than most people in the U.S. will ever know.
Sophia’s mother walked her down the aisle and it was a beautiful wedding. But after this, Sophia and her father didn’t speak for four years.
She was angry and hurt, but then God convicted her. He spoke to Sophia’s heart and told her, ‘He will never have a chance to understand grace and mercy from me unless you extend it to him – like I have given it to you.’
In response, Sophia decided to place a call to her father. “I respect you as a father,” she told him. “I love you. You are always welcome in my home. My hand is always open to you.”
For the first time in Sophia’s life, her father said, “I bless you,” and then he hung up.
A short time later, Sophia received a call from one of her older brothers, who is still a Muslim. “Dad’s getting close to 80, and I’ve encouraged him to see you and Bob,” he said.
Her father flew to Southern California, and Sophia arranged for them to meet at a mosque in Orange County. It may seem like an unusual choice, but Sophia had recently been involved in bridge-building efforts with local Muslims through her church.
“We need to create points of engagement where we can come alongside our Muslim friends,” she believes. “We can’t love our neighbors if we don’t know them.”
Four months ago, Sophia and her father met for the first time in many years. “It was like a movie scene because there were hundreds of Muslims, and there was my 80-year-old dad, looking frail. The people parted and there we were.”
They wept and hugged. “He felt the loss and I did too. He cried over my husband.”
When they met afterward for dinner, there was more pain. “You’re compromising,” he told Sophia. “I’m going to die soon. I’ll have to give an account of why you became a Christian. If you don’t become a Muslim, I won’t have a chance to get into heaven.”
The words fell like hammer blows. “It was so weighty and so burdensome,” she says. “We said our goodbyes, but we held fast to our faith. It was a real blow to my father. He thinks he will be held accountable for this.”
Sophia continues her ministry involvement as part of a bridge building and peacemaking initiatives team at Mariners Church in Irvine, California. “The majority of U.S. Muslims blame their leadership for not taking a stand against radical Islam,” she notes. “Most here are moderates and they love America.”
“We are missing the boat on what it really means to love people. This is a call to action for Christians to love their Muslim neighbors, to be benevolent toward them independent of what they believe.”
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