The earliest memories of my family are tied to religion. When I close my eyes, I can see my entire family at Thanksgiving, eyes closed and voices alight in prayer. I can hear my cousins’ young voices attempting to keep up with the adults. And I can see myself, just a small child, wondering why I had to pray to some omnipotent figure over food that was clearly provided by other people. It’s a harmless thought, one that many children have, but it soon became apparent that this scene would serve as a modus operandi for my relationship to religion far into the future. Now, as a young adult, I have a relationship with religion that is still clouded, if not even more complex.
I had the standard Korean religious experience as a teenager. I was forced to attend weekly Sunday services at the local Korean youth church, where hip, young pastors preached the teachings of Jesus Christ and led us in song. This was where my peers strengthened their relationship with religion. They threw themselves into worship, tried out for the praise team, joined the church’s basketball team, and created tight bonds that followed them throughout their adolescence. For me, church became a representation of fear, boredom, misunderstanding, and conflict, driving me away from religion rather than toward it.
Admittedly, my initial disregard for religion wasn’t due to some mind-blowing observation or philosophical dilemma—it was just a reaction to the bullying I underwent at church. Korean youth churches have a power system similar to the school playground: there are popular kids, bullies, and underdogs. Just as I had been in elementary school, I was the one getting picked on. But unlike elementary school, where I was interacting with my peers five days a week and took many opportunities to redeem myself, church only happened once a week; every single social interaction was amplified in its weight.
For the better part of nine months, I was mercilessly bullied by a specific group of people who all went on to depict themselves as the gold standard for religious teens. With Bible verses in their Instagram bios, they evangelize on social media constantly even today. It’s ironic, watching the same people who left me with deep emotional scars preach kindness. I can’t count how many times I, in tears, turned to God, begging Him to help me with my situation. I didn’t care whether that help came in the form of the bullies choosing to abandon their lifestyle, or simply forgetting my existence, or an adult intervening. But every week I found myself disappointed over and over again, until I finally decided to do something about it on my own terms.
I stopped attending entirely, choosing never to step inside the church building and instead finding refuge in the cafe nearby. There, where I spent my weekly donation money on a bowl of hot ramen, I found comfort and peace. The bullying had ceased, but only by robbing me of my proximity to my peers. By willingly outcasting myself, I solved my own problem.
As I grew into my pimply teens, I underwent the same “revelation” that many young boys on the internet do: in the name of “reason and logic,” I completely dismissed religion and my relationship to it, choosing to call myself an atheist and viciously debating with anyone I could on the existence of God and holiness. It wasn’t my best look. Borne of both a personal vendetta against what the church represented and rage against systemic religion for all of its perceived faults, I found myself doing anything I could to “prove” that Christianity wasn’t real. But when I turned 17, everything turned upside down as I began to discover something deeper in myself: my sexuality.
This isn’t the space for me to discuss my sexuality in detail. But it is a place for me to say that confronting my sexuality and the expectations I had for myself caused me to return to that which I thought I could never return: religion. At first, I was skeptical. How could I ever return to religion if most of the people with whom I sought brotherhood viewed me as a freak?
In the winter of my junior year, though, my favorite band, The 1975, leaked their song “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” on Instagram. It’s a sweet song, filled with quiet horns and melodic guitar strums, but it was the lyrics that captured me. The lead singer ruminates on his relationship with religion, noting a scenario in which he finds himself “in love with a boy I know / but that’s a feeling I can never show.” Listening to the song was the beginning of a new chapter in my relationship with religion, one in which I allowed myself the freedom to question whether religion would be accepting of me as a person.
The truth is, I’m incredibly jealous of religious people. I wish I had that level of security in my life—the knowledge that, despite everything going on, there’s someone behind my back at all times. The idea that everything will end okay, and that the world inherently has meaning to it. It’s a comforting idea that I desperately wish I would allow myself to believe. But I find it so hard to commit; every single time I wish that I was religious, I always find myself cringing at the way that religion is expressed by its followers. Every time I see someone worshipping or evangelizing, I have to actively remind myself that they’re doing so with an innocent love that I’m unsure I can ever reach, whether due to my own inability to come to terms with my sexuality or my previous traumatic experiences involving religion. I would love to meet God; I just don’t know if I can find it in myself to do so.
And now? I don’t know. My quarantine has been relatively relaxing, much of it spent in front of my desktop on Discord. But in the hours of the night when I’m alone, writing in my journal, I find myself panicking. I don’t consider myself an atheist anymore—I don’t think I have that level of confidence in my worldview. But I don’t consider myself religious either, as that requires a level of self-understanding I have yet to reach. And in truth, writing this piece did little to help organize my thoughts; I’m still as scatter-brained as ever when thinking about my relationship to Christianity. I do sincerely hope, however, that I can give myself room to understand how religion can play a significant role in my life going forward.
By Kenneth Kim
Illustration by Julian Alexander