I learned to read with the Bible. I can’t recall which book or epistle I read, nor the miracles that were performed in each chapter. What I can remember is this: I was a nine-year-old Chinese-American girl living in a white suburb in northern Texas. We were isolated by most standards, but my mother always managed to find kinship through the church.
My father immigrated to America after the fright of the Tiananmen Massacre, arriving in Texas with two caramel leather suitcases. He left stability for a shot at an unformed dream. But the day his bank account fell to three digits and he ran out of frozen pizza, he was serendipitously invited to a Friday church dinner by an elderly Christian Chinese couple. Though an atheist, he went. Witnessing how these people dedicated themselves to newcomers like himself, with no expectation of return, he was confused. Soon enough, though, he was a believer. Christianity became a key part of my childhood, even before I was born.
In the fourth grade, a tornado-like thunderstorm whipped through our neighborhood. When it wiped out our power and cut off our water, I was in the shower: alone, in the dark, with bubbles in my hair. After drying off and slipping on a T-shirt, I crouched against the bathroom wall, hugging my knees. I didn’t cry — I prayed. I repented for every sin a 10-year-old could commit: for talking back to my mother, for not practicing “Turkish March” on the piano enough times, for opening my eyes during last Sunday school’s closing prayers. I sat on the white tiles, mumbling to God until my mother found me. Astonished and proud, she would often tell other aunties and uncles this story to brag about my faith. But did I actually know why I believed in him? Not really. I was simply a child who thought God was a giant invisible man wearing a toga, holding a bright blue-green marble.
Before I was Chinese, I was Christian. In 2005, when immigration policies forced my father to move to Canada, me and my mother’s daily life changed. We didn’t go out to eat anymore, we didn’t go to museums anymore, we didn’t go to Toys R Us before Christmas anymore — but we continued to go to church. Church didn’t abandon us, even as America did. My church life became a pillar that I relied on and lived for, a foundation that remained unwavering. I never once doubted God — until I entered high school.
In my sophomore year, I invited a boy in my art class to Sunday service. He replied, “Why are you a Christian?”
Eager for the opportunity, I began rambling, “God helps us become less stressed. When you’re worried about something like your calculus test, you pray about it, and he’ll help you do better, you wi—”
“So, you like God because he’ll give you what you want,” he responded curiously. “Why should I rely on someone to give me what I want? I believe in hard work, in myself.”
Blinking hard, I nodded and weakly added, “You should still come with,” but at that moment, I no longer knew why I should go to church. Did I pray religiously every night because I wanted things from God? Feeling guilty for doubting him, I studied the Bible for an answer. I came to the conclusion that I was Christian because I’d been saved by my faith through the grace of God, to paraphrase Ephesians 2:8. Ambiguous — the Bible no longer seemed ever knowing.
Soon after, I signed up to volunteer on a mission trip to Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, I observed that while the Haitians were kind, their streets were filled with oil-burning cars, dust and restless people. But every Sunday, the streets became empty. Then, as now, everyone dressed in their Sunday best and attended church from early morning, before the sun rose, until late evening. Their praise lasted all day.
I’m not a pessimist, but will attending church stop corrupt politicians from embezzling money? Will it refresh the soul of those with watery diarrhea caused by contaminated water? Will it comfort the increasing population of orphans? I couldn’t reconcile how powerless Christianity felt in the face of imminent problems. While Christianity had helped my parents take root in America, it couldn’t protect Haiti’s people. Instead, tangible solutions — donations from the U.N., nonprofit workers who started schools and entrepreneurs who created businesses to lift women out of poverty — seemed more useful.
After my dad found a job in Texas again, my family was reunited. As we found our normal footing, we slowly stopped attending Sunday church services and Friday bible studies. Deep inside, I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. At the time, I felt guilty because God had lifted us out of dark times, only for us to leave him after our hardships passed. Now, I wonder if it was his works or our actions that helped us survive that difficult time. I wonder if he was simply emotional support, an outlet to discuss our insecurities and goals, a nonexistent presence that kept us accountable. I began to grapple with what exactly “faith” was. If believing couldn’t solve real-world problems, why do it?
I held onto that faith for sixteen years, yet lost it after a week. I haven’t found it yet. And to be honest, I don’t know if I will.
Michelle Fang is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .