By Gloria Oladipo

Being around family for the various holidays this year has reminded me a lot of religion, specifically Christianity, which has been in my life since childhood.

Rules based on Christian teachings were foundational to my upbringing. Using the Bible’s critique of witchcraft, my parents banned Harry Potter from our house. I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween, but when I needed a costume for the church’s annual Halloween party, I could be an angel, never a devil. I went to Sunday School every week, without fail. Saturday mornings were for prayer circles as a family and every third Saturday was for monthly prayer meetings with other religious, Nigerian family friends. We didn’t have cable, so Veggie Tales and other Christian cartoon programs were my main form of entertainment.

As a kid, Christianity was this abstract ritual that I did to make my parents happy. Yes, Jesus has come into my heart. Yes, I’ll pray before I go to bed. Religion wasn’t empty to me, exactly, but it didn’t have a life-altering meaning. Others around me spoke about Christianity as this saving grace, but I just didn’t have that same relationship.

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As I grew older, I began to have questions, many of which the Christian mentors in my life couldn’t answer. No one could tell me why gay people were sinners outside of Bible verses quoted out of context. Little explanation was given for why transgender people weren’t loved in our Christianity. No one had answers for what happened to the children, many of whom were not Christian, who had been victims of drone attacks in the name of “American democracy.” Did they go to hell?

Was our Christianity the same one that had been used by slave owners and colonizers to perpetuate generational trauma against Black people? Did our Christianity believe in science, in modern medicine? What does our Christianity do about poverty, about racism?

These questions weren’t just things I was curious about, but concerns about an interpretation of Christianity that was antithetical to the values I held. I believe in equity. I believe in compassion, in humanity, and love. How could I believe, much less celebrate, a God who called those values into question? I needed a way to take the essence of the Christianity I knew—love, compassion, and respect for all things—with the values, political and otherwise, that I also believed in.

That’s where Alice Walker’s The Color Purple came in. It was a book I casually picked up from the classical section of the library, thumbed through, and ended up keeping months overdue because of my infatuation with the story.

For those who are unfamiliar, The Color Purple follows the main protagonist, Celie, who has suffered severe abuse at the hands of her father, husband, and other male figures in her life. The book tells the story of her journey as she heals, finds love again (within others and herself), and attempts to provide forgiveness to those who have wronged her. A major theme is religion—specifically the role of God in tragedies. Even though Celie had come to the conclusion that God had abandoned her through her trials, Shug Avery, Celie’s lover, convinces her that God has a deep and powerful love for her because she is made in the image of God.

“God is inside you and inside everyone else,” Shug Avery says. “God ain’t a he or she, but a It.”

That quote spoke to me and enabled me to reimagine my understanding of religion. Contrary to what I had been taught, God didn’t have to be this angry, white man in the sky constructed by the Western church to oppress other people. God wasn’t just a conglomeration of rituals and rules. God exists in all things. God has been replicated in everything across the world—in the flower, the trees, and the people who society was so ready to demonize.

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Approaching my religion dialectically wasn’t something I automatically moved towards. Even though I could challenge what I was taught in church to myself, I was anxious to make the same declarations publicly. It wasn’t until 8th grade, when my classmates disputed my thoughts on gay marriage, that I knew I couldn’t just continue to regurgitate teachings that I also found problematic. I had to start speaking from my own truth and values, asking questions and investigating what I was being told.

With the help of an 8th grade teacher and others who welcomed my curiosity, I began to come to my own conclusions. I began to speak boldly in defense of marginalized groups Christianity demonized. It was freeing and empowering to find faith within tolerance.

My re-interpretation of Christianity received mixed reviews among family and friends. My parents, who held fairly traditional views, didn’t appreciate my contortion of the Bible in the name of liberal values. Mentors from my church similarly accused me of compromising on “key” ideals of the Bible such as homosexuality and abortion. While I expected to feel some sort of panic for the condemnation I was facing, I mostly felt frustration at the backwards thinking of those around me. I channeled that energy into continuing debates and dialogues with family and friends, very gradually creating tolerance among people who had thought different.   

The recognition that God was in everything enabled me to hold both my values and my belief in God. I realized that if everything was created in the image of God and, above all, loved and exalted by God, then my values of respecting and caring for those society had criminalized was not only encouraged by Christianity, but demanded in it. It gave me both the moral and religious ammunition I needed to stand up and denounce hate in my faith. If God’s image was created in all things, then, no, gay people weren’t “sinners,” but purposely created by God’s hands.

Oftentimes, I think back to the ways in which Christianity was used to control me, restrict my choices and thinking, when, earlier on, it could’ve acted as stronger force of peace in my life. Maybe I could’ve found God more comforting in the face of bullies, racism, and other challenges of childhood. Even with that regret, I am thankful that I have been able to gain a new understanding that provides the serenity I have been looking for quite a while.

Gloria Oladipo is a Black/Nigerian-American first year student at Cornell University. Based in Chicago, IL.