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“Christianity is not Islam. Islam is a religion of hatred.”

Whenever someone asks about my religious preferences, I point to this quote from my pastor as to why I stopped going to church in junior high. That statement is not acceptable in our modern-day context. It perpetuates our epidemic of Islamophobia in a country that already marginalizes and discriminates against Muslims enough. It conflicted with my fundamental values of open-mindedness and tolerance, and I wanted to separate myself from that negative and poisonous bigotry.

At least, that’s what I told myself then, and that’s how I portray a false image hiding the deeper reasons behind the situation. While I still am very much appalled by that comment, it was five seconds out of a 90-minute sermon, and the way I represent it very much takes it out of context. Claiming that I left to “stand up for my morals” is as oversimplifying of the situation as concluding that this intolerant comment somehow reflected the tone of the entire church.

What I leave out of this conversation is that members of this church were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Upon moving in, they walked to our house and welcomed us into the community the next day. Constantly, they would visit and catch up with our family throughout the week. They would invite me to youth group events even though, at my most awkward stage, I barely said a word to any person there.

One day, my youth group leader, Hank asked us all to close our eyes, and raise our hands if any of us doubted we’d go to heaven. In less than a second, my hand shot up. Even to this day, I think, “Don’t we all sin tremendously? Doesn’t everybody doubt?”

When the Bible study ended, Hank asked me to step into the hall and asked me why I doubted. I don’t remember how I responded, but I remember that his eyes looked in anguish. He would later organize a baptism for me. It was strange to me — why did he care so much for the spiritual well-being of a quiet and awkward kid who’d only been to his church for two months?

“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?” he asked a week later in the presence of the whole church population as an audience. I nodded, and I was immersed in the shallow water. I was supposed to be saved through baptism, yet I didn’t feel any different. “That’s it?” I thought at the time.

Gradually, I began going to church less and less frequently, but it wasn’t because I was disillusioned with it. Frankly, I was staying up too late playing video games or watching a movie late on Saturday nights. In eighth grade, nights like that were all too common. After going to sleep at 5 a.m., my mom would knock on my door three hours later and ask, “Do you want to go to church?” I responded with a terse, “No,” and my mom would go and lie that I had a stomach problem.

Eventually, I had skipped service and mid-week youth group activities four weeks in a row. Hank and another senior church member visited twice, asking about my health. Instead of going downstairs into the living room and admitting I was too lazy to go the past few weeks, I hid upstairs in my room and halfheartedly asked my mom to still pretend I was sick.

They’d visit often over the next couple of months, asking about me when I still didn’t go to service. Over the summer, I had “cross country practice” (I could run any time I wanted during the day). I had “Chinese school” (I stopped going in sixth grade). I even once had to “study for the SAT” (I was going into my freshman year of high school).

They weren’t dumb, and got the message that I lost my interest in going to church. It also meant that I couldn’t possibly go back: the way I avoided them was quite possibly the most disrespectful way of saying, “I don’t want to go to church anymore.”

I left my church because I was a coward. Even, today, I take after Hank and some members of my youth group as role models in how I interact with others — even if I didn’t completely agree with their beliefs. In retrospect, I feel the obligation to stop lying about why I left my church. I feel the obligation when I go home to visit Hank, look him in the eye, shake his hand and say, “Thank you.”

Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on June 14, 2016.

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