This reflection was written by my friend and fellow contributor to Sunshine Faith, Socheata Poeuv. It is a beautiful piece that captures the in-betweeness that many of us experience and feel as we sort out our place within religious and spiritual circles. For more reflections by Socheata, myself, and others, visit Sunshine Faith.
At five years old, my mother would outfit me in pink, itchy, poofy, rayon dresses that Mexican girls in Texas wore to their sister’s quincienera. I was not Mexican, but I was a little brown Cambodian girl, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge genocide just like my parents.
I would wear these dresses (with white patent shoes that I could not help but scuff) to a makeshift Cambodian Buddhist temple on Saturdays and a Southern Baptist church on Sundays. My parents were Buddhist, of course. They could not give up the religion of their ancestors, but they felt indebted to the Southern Baptist church group who took us in when we first arrived in America. At first the whole family went to the First Baptist Church of Carrollton, with services in English and Khmer. Then slowly, my sisters and mother dropped off, then my father. Then it was just me and my brother who were sent on the mini-van every Sunday morning after a breakfast of rice soup and dried fish. My mother would give me a fistful of coins for the donation basket, but we were the offering.
I remember telling my Sunday school teacher that I was so lucky because “I have two Gods. Jesus God and Buddha God.” I don’t remember what she said, but I remember her face falling to the floor. I knew I said something wrong.
My parents’ religion offered little spirituality, only religion. The Buddhism I grew up with consisted of chanting in an ancient language, incense, and spooning rice into the alms bowl of ruddy-faced monks who I couldn’t touch and didn’t dare look in the eye.
At the same time, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the theology of my Southern Baptist church. I didn’t make sense that children in Africa would go to hell just because they had never heard of Jesus, much less accept him as their “personal Lord and Savior.” I wondered what sins justified God destroying the world he loved through an apocalyptic flood. I wondered about the dinosaurs – why weren’t they in the Bible?
From both Buddhism and Christianity, I drifted away. As a young adult, I called myself a secular humanist.
My mother would ask me, “How can you have no beliefs? Even your sisters are born again Christians. How can you be nothing?”
As I grew older, I didn’t want to remain a nothing. I began attending a Presbyterian church with my boyfriend. I longed for spiritual connection. I felt the tugging in my heart when the pastor talked of surrender to a higher being. I wanted to take sanctuary in a Father who loved me unconditionally and completely. But belief never struck me like lightning the way I’ve heard it described by others. I began to believe that I would never experience a personal God, the way others had.
I picked up meditation, a practice that has helped me become more present and more focused. The practice feels right to me. I cherish this connection to my indigenous religion. I still long, however, for that connection to the Transcendent that I would sometimes feel in church.
When people ask me today to describe my religious identity, I usually shrug and say, “well, you know, I’m a little of this and a little of that.” It may sound flaky, but it’s as honest an answer as I can manage. I hope I don’t stay there forever, but if I do, it’s an okay place to be. It’s where I am.