My mother gave me a Bible as a high school graduation present. I don’t remember exactly when she gave it to me, where I kept it afterward, how often I used it or whether I even used it all, even though its margins are filled with my handwriting. My mother’s gift surprised me — we were not a religious family by typical standards. My father stopped attending regular mass sometime between university and his first job, but the religious flame in my mother never went out. Looking back, I realize that in a significant sense, I grew up with one foot in each world. I grew up on a combination of packed school lunches and dinner prayers; I went to a math tutor every Saturday and Sunday school every Sunday. While my mother gifted me a Bible to take with me to college, my father gave me a shot glass. I brought both to college.
Despite their doctrinal differences, my parents are actually very similar when it comes to parenting. But in other ways, they had — and have — widely different interests. My dad went to school to become a scientist. He still loves the natural world and expresses that love through cooking and gardening. My mom joined a Bible study group and gospel choir while at school. That’s how she met many of her university friends, friends she keeps in touch with to this day.
Following my mom’s example, I thought that I’d meet new friends through religious communities. I mentioned this to a fellow first year, who responded with: “That does sound interesting. It’s not something I would normally consider, but I’d be curious to see what they do.” It was this moment that I began to understand that being outwardly Christian at Yale is not a popular pursuit. For the first time in my life, I began to attend church service less and less. The Bible I brought with me to college began to sink further and further into my dresser drawer.
I can remember opening my first Bible during sermons at church. I was maybe ten years old. Pastor Wong, who was old enough to be my grandfather, didn’t preach in English, so I would tune out pretty quickly. There were Bibles left in the pockets under each pew, and I would pass the time by leafing through them, pretending to follow his reading of the weekly verses. I was actually searching for interesting stories. At that age, attending sermons was not the main reason I went to church. No, I went to church for the community of people I found there. I went to church for the retreats in which I’d play pick-up soccer and listen to university students regale us with tales of college life. I went to church for the community in which everyone felt like extended family members. I went to church for the community that, when my uncle passed away, provided us with a never ending stream of prayers, cards and home-cooked meals.
At Yale, I hesitate to describe the small church I grew up in as “evangelical.” In the minds of many at this university, the phrase “American evangelical” will conjure images of large, white, organized, Southern churches. The church I grew up in was small, comprised of Chinese immigrants, casually disorganized and in New Jersey. We also called ourselves evangelical, but the only thing we had in common with the socially conservative, fundamentalist groups that regularly appear in the news was the belief that the essence of Christianity is faith in Christ.
Yale prides itself on its readiness to support every student here, regardless of their background. We are well known for our community building efforts regarding minorities and for our activism regarding the marginalized. That said, I am surprised that the loudest voices, among students with opinions about the relevance of religion, will often categorically reject the value of any and every religious community out of hand.
I am not trying to evangelize to others at Yale, nor do I wish to pass judgement on the value of actual religious teachings. I simply want to point out that there is value in community, including community that happens to be built around a church. Any other response simply does not match the backgrounds that Yale students have: A significant portion of Yale students observe some form of organized faith. Any other response also fails to understand what a religious community does, which, if I were to distill my experience of Christianity into a nutshell, is to support every person, regardless of their background
The Bible I brought to college is well worn. The leather texture is beginning to peel from the corners of the outside cover. The gold-colored lettering on the front is fading. Stray sticky notes poke out from inside the pages, and many of the page corners are dog-eared. Sentences squeeze into the margins, ink lines knit themselves into boxes around key verses. The marginalia look like the annotations from a college English class. The Bible my mother gave me now stands next to the shot glass my father gave me. In my coming years at Yale, I hope to find more use for both.
Lance Tan is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .