Megan Lovelady is one of three people who have converted to Islam at the Christchurch mosque where 43 people were shot and killed. The 22-year-old cafe worker, who emigrated to New Zealand with her family as a child from the United States, now wears a full-face veil, has started calling herself by an Arabic name and prays five times a day with her Muslim brothers and sisters. But it hasn't come without difficulty. Lana Hart reports.
When Megan Lovelady stood in the entranceway of the Masjid Al Noor for the first time, she knew she was home.
It was only two weeks after a gunman stood in the same spot firing hundreds of bullets into the people that she would soon call her Muslim brothers and sisters. Inside this same building, she would convert to the Islamic faith.
Lovelady is one of three people who have converted to Islam at Al Noor Mosque since the attacks of March 15.
One is a former drug addict and homeless man who attended a funeral for one of the victims.
Lovelady now wears a niqab (full-face veil) - a decision made after we visited her - has started calling herself by the Arabic name Nabela and prays five times a day like her Muslim brothers and sisters.
At first, the 22-year-old Christchurch cafe worker just wanted to help. The day after the attacks, she had heard Muslim women were scared to leave their homes wearing hijab for fear of their personal safety.
Born in the American state of Tennessee and migrating to New Zealand with her family when she was 7 years old, Lovelady decided that day to wear a headscarf in solidarity with other Muslim women. "I watched a billion YouTube videos," she says, "about how to wear a headscarf so that I wouldn't offend anyone."
Later, she laughs now, she realised there is no standard practice and Muslim women don't tend to be judgmental about the way in which the headscarf is tied.
As she walked through Christchurch with her head covered, she felt as if people looked at her more than usual. She hoped this small gesture of support would help people accept the wearing of a headscarf as "more normal".
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She continued wearing a headscarf for several days. A week after the massacre, she got off work early to attend the vigil in Hagley Park, along with thousands of others, where Friday prayers were held near Al Noor Mosque.
"When the imam recited the Koran , it was so amazing," she says.
"Something sort of moved inside my chest. I'd only ever felt that once before but to a smaller degree."
It was when she was 15 years old and she was baptised in a Christian church. Back then, she'd felt the same sort of shifting of energy around her heart, but it wasn't as intense. It was as if something said, "Hey, I'm here . . . but you're not quite in the right place yet."
Shortly after the Koran recitation, hundreds of Muslims knelt to pray. It was an emotionally powerful sight for Lovelady, and she wanted to join in the prayer movements too, but "I didn't know how. So I just stood there in my hijab and cried."
After that, Lovelady wanted to know more about Islam. She also had an almost desperate need to help the Muslim community that was suffering from the attacks.
She approached the welfare centre that had been set up as a central gathering place for the affected families and looked for a woman in hijab outside the building so she could ask how she could help. With none she could see, she began talking to an armed police officer.
"I asked him about his firearm," she recalls, "and then I asked him how we can help these people. He looked at me weirdly and nearly laughed. 'Just go in,' he said. I was like – can I just go in? I was really shocked that it was that simple."
Lovelady starts to cry lightly as she explains, "He's the reason for all of this. I just want to thank him for bringing me to Allah."
Lovelady ran inside and "from the moment I entered that place, I was called sister and it was beautiful".
After helping out in the kitchen for the afternoon, she met a woman who asked if she wanted to know more about the Koran . Lovelady had thought, "Sweet as, sure – I'm open-minded. I've got time."
Until then, none of her efforts to volunteer or to wear a hijab in support of Muslim women was about wanting to understand their faith. Instead, Lovelady says, "I'm always very hungry for knowledge and have looked into many different religions before, never looking to follow one, but always just interested in the information."
As the Muslim woman spoke to her about the principles of the faith, Lovelady says, "It was like, yeah, I believe that. I understand that. I agree with that. The way you're saying it right now makes a lot of sense to me.
"Someone gave me my first Koran ," continues Lovelady. "I read and read and read and kept going back to the Welfare Centre. Then it closed down.
"I wanted to see the friends I had made so I went to Al Noor Mosque. I had no intention of becoming a Muslim, but by now I was very much curious."
On April 2 Lovelady walked into a mosque for the first time. "The only way I can describe it was like: 'You are home'".
Two other visitors at Al Noor Mosque were asking one of the Muslim brothers questions and Lovelady soon joined the small group.
"It got to a point where he kinda turned around and said to me, 'Well, why aren't you a Muslim then?' He told me about the Shahada and the five pillars of Islam … it ended up in my taking the Shahada that day."
Shahada, or "the testimony", is a short declaration of a person's belief in one God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God's prophet. It is the first of the five pillars of Islam and is spoken by a new convert first in Arabic and then in English, stating, "There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God."
Was it that easy to convert?
"Well," says Lovelady, "Allah is going to know if you're not genuine and it's about what's in your heart as well. It has a lot to do with your personal relationship with Allah."
There are sometimes several witnesses to someone taking the Shahada, and the focus is on welcoming them as part of the Muslim community, says Dr Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand.
"Islam is not a religion that has a lot of monitoring, or a group of elders, or big structures like cardinals and Popes. It is entirely up to you how you manage yourself and your relationship with God. There is a lot of freedom about how you worship and that appeals to some people."
While non-Muslims call people new to Islam "converts", Muslims call them "reverts."
According to Islam, Farouk explains, "Every living thing – every human, animal, tree – is already a Muslim, because Islam is just the total submission to the will of God ... That's why we don't have any ceremonies; it's just people that are coming back to where they started in the first place."
After Shahada, he says, Muslims encourage the revert to meet other members of the community, visit the mosque regularly, read, and learn the religion in its purest form rather than through a specific culture or nationality.
Most Kiwis don't realise that mosques are open places and that everyone is welcomed there, regardless of their faith or lack of faith, he says.
"When something like [the shooting tragedy] happens, people ask, 'Why were they in the mosque and why were they all killed?' Maybe this is another reason people are so interested in Islam at the moment.
"All of the mosques across the country are very busy and have experienced a marked increase in visitors. I would have to say that because of the way Muslims responded to the attack, the way family members forgave and loved, it informed the population how loving our faith is. They thought – maybe we need to find out more."
Farouk says Muslims don't tend to proselytise or try to convert people to Islam through preaching. If invited, Muslims usually just talk to people privately about their beliefs.
For a woman raised in non-Muslim countries and with lots of new Islamic rules to follow, there must be things Lovelady misses from her former lifestyle.
"Rocky Road ice cream," she affirms loudly. "It has marshmallows in it, which contain gelatine that Muslims should not eat. I was offered some the other day and at first, I said yes because I didn't know.
"Am I going to burn in hellfires because I accidentally ate some Rocky Road ice cream? Absolutely not. It's about intention as well. But you can't just go out there and say, 'Hey I'm going to eat lots of Rocky Road ice cream'.
"But I know that giving up a few things like eating pork means more blessings and that there's so much more out there that I am getting in return. I haven't found one thing that really upsets me or that doesn't fit into my life."
Her mother, a born-again Christian, kicked her out of the family home when she changed her faith, although they are trying to repair the relationship.
"My mother is learning and trying her best while still keeping her own beliefs."
Lovelady now lives with her sister, who has male flatmates and friends, which creates difficulties with Islamic belief that only male family members should see a woman uncovered.
"We're really not supposed to spend any time alone with other men. And I need to leave my hijab on until after everyone goes to bed."
Lovelady is not in a relationship but believes her future husband will be Muslim.
"When I find the man that I want to get married to, he's going to love me for my mind. He's not going to be so obsessed by my body."
She works at a cafe in the suburb of Merivale and says her colleagues and boss have been supportive, allowing her to pray in the small courtyard during work hours if no customers are using it.
Praying five times each day "gives my life structure and purpose", Lovelady says.
"From a western perspective, people think 'oh God, your God makes you pray five times a day - doesn't that take a lot of time?' But really it's only 25 minutes every day in the 24 hours each day that he's given you."
She loves the fact that millions and millions of Muslims are praying all over the world at the same time each day. "And the best thing about it is that you've stood in the same direction as everyone else. It's amazing and the unity of Islam is incredible. It's the fastest-growing religion in the world and there are very good reasons for that."
When asked about how her friends react, her response is: "All my friends are at the mosque now".
Friends in America had made some "disturbing comments" that made her need to distance herself from them, such as that she didn't really understand being a Muslim and that she was being ignorant.
But she says most people in New Zealand have been accepting.
Since wearing the niqab she says she is starting to get stared at a lot more. She was on a bus recently with a group of schoolchildren who stared at her and looked "slightly scared".
So that they would see it was just a "friendly, normal woman's face behind the cloth", she removed it and smiled at them, which was met with smiles back.
Lovelady says Muslim children are taught to look women in the eyes "the mirror to the soul", and that they aren't scared when they can't see a woman's face. She believes Kiwi kids should be taught this way too.
"I've loved wearing the niqab, it makes me feel good. I feel that people in New Zealand need more education about this, that behind the niqab is a real human being."
Lovelady remembers being bullied throughout school for coming from a different country and having a different accent from the other kids. She believes this is one reason why she connects to the sense of being "other," similar to many Muslims living in non-Muslim countries.
"It's terrible. The first thing that gets said when someone is angry at you and you are a foreigner is 'go back to your own country'. It's heart-breaking and I can't believe that all these [Muslim] kids have to put up with that.
"I can't claim to know the extent that all these women have grown up and had to endure that – being the 'other' and being bullied because of their dress and beliefs." Lovelady bows her head and a few slow tears run down her cheeks.
At age 16, she experienced a devastating personal tragedy. "I actually watched my partner kill himself," she says.
"After that, I felt like a vase that had been dropped on the ground and had been shattered. I picked myself back up and glued myself back together, but it was a different picture and Megan wasn't its name any more. My identity had changed, and I started calling myself 'Vee' for 'Vedehlia'."
Farouk is not surprised that more people may be turning to Islam following the tragedy. "There are a lot of people who are spiritually inclined that are looking for a way of life that gives them meaning."
For Lovelady, she claims that changing her faith so visibly and deeply is "not as scary as it seems … if you have misconceptions about Islam, don't hate us. Just come and talk to us and you will see why it makes us feel so good".