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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

First place — Persons of color essay contest: Nicole Li

Empathy, compassion and redemption

FFRF awarded Nicole $3,500.

By Nicole Li

Nicole Li

It took me 15 years to realize that I was being systemically and nonconsensually indoctrinated. A decade of Sunday school had failed to instill a flicker of faith in me, and I began to question the legitimacy and pragmatism of “miracle” stories and weekly bible drills. I was sent to youth group as if it was day care, and was expected to blindly accept the lectured dogma.

Faith will redeem you, they said. Jesus loves you, they said. Assimilation felt like an obligation, and, at 12 years old, I finally surrendered myself on Baptism Sunday. All at once, religion was everything I knew and all that I didn’t know.

Three years later, I stopped going to church. The institutionalized hypocrisy appalled me (love thy neighbors . . . but only if they’re heterosexual) and the supremacist evangelism was evidently toxic. Religion was supposed to be used for love, not damage. Yet in the name of God, the churchgoers allowed their faith to become politically weaponized — an exploitative tool to condemn, marginalize and pity nonbelievers. Homosexuals were lost and sinful, they said.

Women seeking abortions were wickedly destroying God’s creations, they said. And up until that point, I believed them. Until that day, my worldview was a manufactured byproduct of family tradition and Christian ideology. My youthful curiosity was stifled and molded by an intangible, abstract force that I never understood. My conscience awoke.

Freedom from religion is just as much a sacred right as freedom of religion. Although my departure from the church was met with glaring eyes and guilt-tripping comments, I have since found significant solace in my work as a social activist. Whether I’m canvassing for reproductive rights or registering voters at the annual PrideFest, I now devote myself to reversing and compensating for the foolish bigotry that I had formerly accepted. I do not believe that Jesus condoned inequality, but it is clear that some of his misguided followers are fueling a prejudiced campaign of sexism and homophobia, a dangerous movement of division and intolerance. So, when protesters waved their bibles outside Planned Parenthood, shouting at the patients not to murder and instead to repent, I held the poor women’s trembling hands as they stepped out of their cars, escorting them to safety inside the clinic. When radical “Christians” used Romans 13 to justify the separation of immigrant families, I was proud to fight for human dignity and speak out against the unspeakable atrocities. It turns out that these efforts fulfilled, invigorated and empowered me more than any outdated scripture ever did.

In these valuable interactions, I came to know many strong leaders within the local secular community, yet oftentimes people of color were still vastly underrepresented. I believe that, in order to truly and productively engage diverse voices, we must guarantee them a seat at the table in all community-related discussions. Social change must be spearheaded by those most hurt by evangelism, which predominantly encompass LGBTQ+ communities and people of color. I observed that the most effective leaders were the ones who committed to spotlighting these often-marginalized voices, and I have made a promise to myself that I will be one of them.

Paradoxically, my experience growing up among white evangelicals and my conversion to atheism have catapulted me on an exhilarating journey of self-discovery, individualism and unapologetic existence. Today, I am thrilled to live in confident satisfaction knowing that all of my beliefs are self-rationalized and all of my achievements are mine, not God’s, to celebrate. For 15 years, I was lost, but it wasn’t “Amazing Grace” that I needed in order to find myself — it was just open-minded empathy, unconditional compassion and genuine redemption.

Nicole, 18, is from Memphis, and attends Yale University, where she plans to study politics and economics. She is passionate about civic engagement and has worked with March For Our Lives and Planned Parenthood to organize rallies against gun violence, canvass for pro-choice politicians, and direct a campaign to increase youth voter turnout. Nicole is also a nationally recognized poet.