first person

Breaking the Faith

As a teen, I gave everything to Christ. As an adult, I’m finally getting it all back.

Photo: Yumi Nu
Photo: Yumi Nu
Photo: Yumi Nu

I don’t have a specific memory of when I gave my life to Christ. I do recall, as a teenager, desiring the same thing I saw in people around me who had devoted themselves to a higher power: radiance. These people, to this day, are some of the kindest I have ever met, and I wanted to give that same kindness back to the world.

Fourteen-year-old Yumi would not go near present-day Yumi with a ten-foot-pole. She would look at me with disappointment and shame because I walked away from God. She would pray for me, though, truly believing in her heart that I’m a lost sheep in need of finding my way home. She would believe that any happiness or healthy love I have in my life won’t last because it now stems from sin.

A few months after my 14th birthday, my family moved from Maryland to Orange County, California, into the home of my Japanese Christian grandmother. A Newport Beach resident for four decades, she was deeply involved in her local Evangelical church and had enrolled my 10-year-old sister and me in the same affiliated middle and high schools she’d sent my mother to. I was coming from a public school and a nonreligious upbringing.

From the moment I stepped onto the school grounds, things were crystal clear: Christian beliefs were interwoven within our curriculum, our textbooks, and our classes. It wasn’t something anyone could tune out. In retrospect, I was the perfect candidate to be converted in a space like this because everyone followed an identical belief system on the daily, and no one — especially not myself — wanted to be the only outlier.

It was the fall of 2010 when I sat down in Mr. G’s third-period Bible class. (Some names have been changed throughout to protect their privacy.) On the agenda: debate.

“So let’s talk about adoption: If there’s a child to be adopted, and there’s a choice between two gay dads in a healthy relationship, where you could guarantee a happy life for the child, versus a bad life in a Christian home with heterosexual parents, which home should the baby go to?” Mr. G asked.

“Raise your hands for gay dads.” Only a few of my classmates did so.

“Raise them for the Christian home.” The majority of hands flew up at this choice.

“Okay, let’s talk about why you raised your hand.”

A boy with spiky blonde hair next to me eagerly waved his arm. “Well, if the child grows up in the gay household, there is a chance they could be influenced to live a sinful lifestyle like the parents, and they may never hear about Christ. But if they grow up in the Christian household, even if there is abuse, they will still hear about Christ.”

A few students who voted for the opposite opinion groaned and argued under their breath, but most others nodded, raising their hands to add to the discussion. That was the last distinct memory I had before I stopped questioning things. That was the last time I felt my gut truly say, There is something wrong here. 

When you’re young and impressionable, you believe your textbooks as factual and what’s taught by your teachers as gospel — sometimes literally. These learning years are critical to who you become.

Slowly but surely, I accepted my indoctrination.

As my sister and I brought home our newly adopted beliefs, my agnostic father — a big believer in science both then and now — challenged us on every debate we wished to hold. We would run to his office in the garage after Wednesday night service, begging him to believe and asking him fear-based “what if” questions:

“What if you die and Heaven and hell are real? Wouldn’t you want to believe just in case?”

“What if Jesus is the answer to everything you’ve been searching for?”

“What if we’re actually right?”

I would buy him Bibles, leaving notes throughout its pages so that if the Rapture ever came and all believers got airlifted into the sky, he would have a guidebook on how to meet us there. I feared for the lives of everyone I loved who didn’t believe in Jesus, and I feared for my dad’s the most.

That same fear was the biggest drive in any social interaction I had during those years: fear of hell, fear of punishment, fear of separation. Every conversation with friends and family outside the church became conversion opportunities. I talked endlessly about how Jesus changed me and saved me from my potential damnation and how he could save them too — if they just believed. As the weeks drew on, some of my close friends from Maryland claimed they couldn’t recognize me anymore. We lost touch.

Some time in the earlier days of social media, I became a Christian YouTuber, gaining a small community of young Christian followers, some intensely conservative and others moderate. At the peak of my channel’s existence, I had around 20,000 subscribers. I posted videos of myself talking about my Christian perspective on many taboo topics I felt weren’t covered enough but with a friendly, youthful tone. Back then, viewers looked to me for answers and picked me apart when they didn’t like what I had to say. Before long, I attached my worth as a believer, and my level of holy productivity, to how popular I became.

My church’s biggest obsession was sex. There were endless sermons on sex, the holiness of marriage, and chastity. As a teenager, I attended so many purity conferences and “women’s studies” sessions led by my community because I was going through puberty and needed answers. Time and again, I was informed that any sexual desire, even if it was just a single thought, was wrong and that such fantasies were put in our heads by Satan. This was especially terrifying because it was the woman’s responsibility to make sure men did not fall into sexual temptation. Anything we wore, any way we walked, any behavior that felt slightly too suggestive or expressive had to be patrolled. As “godly” women, we had to invest extensive effort into keeping ourselves prim and proper, all in preparation for becoming holy wives, so our husbands could successfully lead their households.

To be told I was just a vessel being used by the devil when I felt any sexuality only layered on trauma and confusion during my coming-of-age. There were numerous times when I truly believed I was evil and could not be redeemed — or even be worthy of forgiveness in the first place because I had strayed from piety.

We were taught that God created sex to be a holy desire only within marriage between a man and woman. That meant any marriage that didn’t adhere to this was unholy and sinful — as with many religious communities, this was how the installation of homophobia began at our church. We strived to be holy above all else, and we could reach that pinnacle only if we identified as heterosexual. According to our teachings, we are all born into sin, so one can be born gay, but it’s a conscious choice later on to pursue a “sinful” lifestyle. There were many “ex-gay” attendees and leaders in our midst, either believers who had decided to remain single because they couldn’t “heal their desires” or ones who promoted their “recovery” from homosexuality by pursuing heterosexual marriages and bearing biological children.

For years, I confronted the choice between trusting God or supporting some of my closest friends. I had met my best friend, Evan, during seventh grade while still in Maryland. When I relocated to California, we remained in touch, video calling and texting daily; he would even come visit me every few months. He was a firsthand witness to my transformation into someone he didn’t recognize, but unlike others, he decided to stay. When we graduated high school, he came out to me even in the midst of my visible homophobia.

In Orange County, there was Austin. He came out to me during my sophomore year. In the months after, I was with him when he shared the same with his Christian mother; I was with him as he cried at her insistence that “this is a choice,” and I was with him when he got expelled from our school for “violating the honor code” with his sexuality. I was angry for my friend — at how he’d become a religious outcast in a short span of weeks, at how his own parent, who had an opportunity to wrap him in her arms and welcome him as he was, sided with the church. I wanted to fight for and protect him, but at the end of the day, I was no better than his mom because I was too afraid of the consequences to my faith, how stained it might become if I supported him.

While, in my heart, I wished to be present for people like Evan and Austin through the best and worst of times, I was too afraid of my own damnation and chose to be selfish. I chose those beliefs over fighting for acceptance. I chose to cherry-pick what I cared about in our friendships, leaving out the parts of them I thought were sinful. They remained friends with me through it all, but I’m sure not at a small cost.

In 2017, my parents decided to leave California and move to Nevada. I had to choose to go with them or set off on my own. It had been a dream of mine to live in New York, so at 20, I headed there for the summer to test out the experience. My aunt who lived in the city was spending the summer months in Europe, so I house-sat until she returned in August. Without any other friends in the city, I started to feel lonely not long after settling in. Naturally, I thought it might be a good idea to seek out connections via a local church, and a new Christian friend named Lara recommended hers. Lara had bright-blue hair and a ton of piercings, so any congregation of hers was one that piqued my interest. She told me about weekly dinner parties around the city that believers would host in their small apartments. That following Wednesday, I brought my relatives along and headed to my first gathering.

Photo: Courtesy of Yumi Nu

After a 15-minute walk, we arrived at a building in the East Village, where we rang the buzzer before trekking up five flights of stairs. Sounds of chatter and music echoed through the staircase and into a small two-bedroom apartment. A kind-eyed brunette welcomed us in, explaining that the evening would be broken up into a casual dinner, a mingle session, and a recap study of what Sunday’s service was about.

When we sat down, I observed the room, noticing that several guests were drinking alcohol. The sight made my heart drop since it was unthinkable in Orange County. As the night went on, I would overhear conversations about people partying the night before or catching up on someone’s latest hookup story. Each time, a shock came over me. Are these people for real? Am I in the right place?

Without a doubt, these believers — “city Christians” — represented all the things my church told me not to embody. They told their stories with laughter and not an ounce of shame. I was appalled.

Post-dinner, the leader stood up and announced that the study was about to begin. One by one, people went around the room, giving their thoughts on Sunday’s service. To my surprise, their faces glowed with the same radiance I recognized from people back home, and they seemed no different from any other believers when they talked about Jesus. What they conveyed was authentic and impossible to ignore, and within minutes, my long-held idea of what a “good Christian” represented was shattered.

For the first time, there was a snip at the cord of righteousness that had ensnared me so tightly.

After a summer in Manhattan, I decided to move back in with my parents in Nevada. The plan was to spend a year there to save money before giving Los Angeles a try. One day, I received a random email from a guy named Owin. He sent something along the lines of “Hey, Yumi, I found you through your YouTube channel. We’re both Christians, half-Japanese, and live in Nevada. I just moved here, and I’m looking for some new friends. Let me know if you want to hang out sometime.”

For the record, I would never respond to a cold email like this today, but something inside told me to agree to his request. On a random weekday, Owin and I sat down at a Las Vegas coffee shop. He told me he’d recently relocated with his friends and had just come out as gay while still openly a Christian.

At this point in life — after years of friendships and heartbreaking moments witnessed with Evan, Austin, and many others — I felt a shift in myself realigning with who I really was deep down. Now, at 21, the fear was loosening from my neck, and I sipped my first breath of fresh air.

I told him what I failed to tell so many others: “I support you, and I’m on your side, Owin.”

Around that time, a member of my church in California had moved to Las Vegas to start his own congregation, so Owin and I visited it together. Besides weekly service, we attended a few small group sessions, hoping to forge new relationships within the faith. Eventually, Owin was invited out with one of the leaders’ wives. He was thrilled to spend the day with her, but as their day came to an end, she told him something all too familiar:

“Owin, I love you, but I don’t support your lifestyle.”

He recalled those words to me very casually  — it had been told to him so many times before. But this story filled me with anger and heartbreak for my friend, who had sought acceptance and received something cruel in return.

We never went back to this church.

As the year went on, more of my old beliefs began to change. The tendency toward judgment became a desire to protect. If the God I was taught about was so loving, why did it exclude so many? After years of unraveling, countless emotions and realizations surfaced as I started to reflect upon all the ways fear and shame were instilled in me and how I instilled them in others. There emerged a need to give testimony — though no longer the religious kind.

Music has been a part of my life since my youth, and songwriting has been one of my biggest forms of self-expression. It was always my dream to be a performer, but under the guidance of my beliefs, I couldn’t write music or lyrics about the genuine struggles I was going through because I was taught it could “cause others to stumble.” Even certain beats or productions could sound too provocative, and only religiously pure topics and lyrics were acceptable.

In Los Angeles, I met and began working with many creatives, people who would’ve been deemed unholy or unworthy of Heaven if measured by my long-held beliefs. The more I understood everyone’s stories, the less I could see eye to eye with my past self. Those I encountered were kind and nonjudgmental, always granting me open pasture to be who I wanted to be. For the first time in years, I felt free. I felt more aligned with the love they gave me than with the rules I had been strapped to.

Wrangling myself away from the past, I wrote and wrote. Eventually, with help from my friends Sylo and Demi, the first song about it all manifested — “Sin,” my breakup song to the church. I held it in storage for the past three years until I was ready to confess. Now I am.

Breaking up with the church was one of the biggest hurts in my life. The strong foundation I stood on was made out of playing cards, an illusion that quickly fell apart.

In the years since, I’ve learned how to renavigate the world by myself, discovering what felt empowering for me and what didn’t. I’ve had to strengthen my inner compass to find where I want to go without the outside pressures I used to live by. I’ve climbed out of potholes of shame, trying to find compassion for the girl I once was.

People evolve so rapidly. I am not the same person I was even two weeks ago. There are some who left space for me to grow out of the skin I was in and back into myself again. I am striving to do that for those who taught me otherwise. Every time I think back to my teenage years, one of the most painful parts is the church never equipped us to evaluate what felt healthy and good for ourselves. It taught us only to serve its narrow definition of God. As a result, when you leave and suddenly need a new guide through life, there is chaos. You no longer know what your own right or wrong is because you’ve always had someone else tell you what it should be. Your own boundaries are so fragile. For a while, it was impossible to know what was really me and what was residual fear from my younger years.

When you undergo indoctrination, it can be so subtle that you don’t even realize it’s happening. And when — or if — you thoroughly escape, you are faced with all the ways you have hurt people and inflicted your own shame and suppression upon them. The way I’ve potentially damaged others is what has plagued me all these years. The same cord that wound us tight is the one we’ve wrapped around our family and friends because we were told, “This is love.”

I’m working on forgiveness these days. I’m still not in the place I want to be, but I accept where I’m at and how I’m growing. I look at photos of 14-year-old Yumi and my stomach sinks. I wish that weren’t the case, but it will take time and consistent therapy to recover. All things considered, my resentment toward people who contributed to my flawed education has been slowly losing its grip. I don’t imagine that anyone from that time in my life held ill intent in the things they did, though unfortunately, it still doesn’t excuse the consequences, much of which remain irreparable.

At 25, I struggle to find compassion for my 14-year-old self. There is a tension that lives between us, like two old friends who had a bad fallout. I can’t believe I was ever close with someone like her, and I’m sure she feels the same way about me. After some separation, I’m exploring my new relationship with God and what feels right for me this time around because, just like this permanent connection with my youth, I need to find where and how we go from here.

Breaking the Faith