My sister and I would not have been born if not for the church. Our parents — people who could not be more different in personality and temperament — were matchmade by people in church. And somehow, miraculously, wondrously, my parents accepted each other. Even if one used a fork and a knife while the other used chopsticks. Even if one spoke English at home and the other Chinese.
Anyway, that’s another story of how my parents met at the church, got married at the church (where they apparently ran out of food because my dad’s egregious family happily helped themselves to lunch), and raised us up in the church.
Me and my sister are what the church calls “second generation Christians”. As the descendants of a Christian family, we never had to face persecution for our faith like some legendary people did. Because Christianity came so easily to us, it could easily go, too. Hence, we could not be complacent; we had to guard our hearts.
Living in the east, we never attended the main congregation gathering (“Home 1”), which was reserved for the first Sunday of the month. Instead, we found a little outpost in Bedok, a landed property, where a congregation of ~100 (“Home 2”) could visit. Due to the lack of a designated building, the church moved locations a couple of times, including to an uncannily big apartment in Siglap, where the kids and youths went to the upper stories and the adults remained in the middle. We should have explored those places more. I remember wearing Heelys when we were still in the landed property, and falling flat on my bum after lunch. Or the giant white swing that the kids would like to sit on before leaving. And the delicious pizza we would eat after church, as a reward for making the time on a weekend morning to attend.
I enjoyed all those moments in church. Looking back, it was something regular that the whole family did together on Sunday morning. My sister and I grew up singing hymns, reading the kid’s bible; and even though we may not be the dutiful ones who finished the Bible from cover-to-cover, a sense of these stories would remain with us for life. It’s when visiting the art museums in Europe, and seeing scenes in the Bible as inspirations for painters in the past, when there is a sense of recognition and history of remembering the surrounding stories, like Judas’ betrayal or the Annunciation of Christ by the angels.
I enjoyed the small gathering of “Home 2” as opposed to the large, impersonal feeling of “Home 1” in Novena. We barely knew the “cool kids” there, and always stuck to ourselves. There was also a certain smell in Home 1 that lingered in the air, and on our clothes when we left. Unfortunately, Home 1 was where we attended all these children and youth camps. I remember having to sleep in sleeping bags in a freezing room, meekly following people around as we went about in our insignificant activities. In one of those years, my sister even cried (??) halfway, and was allowed to leave the camp. I just gritted my teeth and carried on in this empty social landscape where I was the shy, quiet and ugly kid that no one bothered talking to. Looking back, I should have feigned sickness so I could return home to comfort.
When we grew old enough to attend the Youth group, religion took on a more intellectual dimension. It was us moral Christians against all other pagan religions, and the preachers would twist all types of reasons to make us believe that we were believing in the One True God. There could be no other gods as “Our God is a jealous God”. Even other denominations, like the Charismatic Christians who celebrated Christmas, were wrong. These were all false images and gods. Religion also became a signaller of our virtue, where we had to pray loudly before the congregation, and I remember rehearsing the prayers beforehand in my head before praying aloud. When I was 13, I got baptised. It seemed like I was progressing right along the path to be a “good Christian”.
Youth group was also where I met Kylie. Being a fellow East-ie, we studied together in the library, talked about our crushes and wrote stories together. I was less aware of her estrangement back then, as she always seemed like a popular person in the youth group, but later I realised that she could never feel part of church because it was too family-oriented. And people would recognise you as “the child of so-and-so” or “the sister of so-and-so”, but being a complete outsider invited by someone else, she never fit into those categories and was perhaps overlooked by the adults.
I tried to hold on to my religion as steadfastly as I could. I didn’t believe in liberalism for liberalism sake and opposed LGBT because I knew no other reality. So my turning point happened in my first summer at college, when my best friend came out to me. Suddenly it was like a veil had been yanked away from my eyes and I started critically exploring religion more, outside of the lofty proclamations by these know-it-all preachers. And then there was no unseeing the self-righteousness and the blind but unwavering conviction of the Christians in my church.
I continued attending church — and convinced my sister to do so — because it seemed like the only activity the whole family could spend time on as we entered adulthood. My parents, in spite of their differences, remained devout Christians and would never divorce. They constantly thanked God for their blessings and their ability to afford a house, and faithfully donated money every week. We eventually changed churches from the lame-sounding Church in Singapore (distinguished by the more popular Church of Singapore, which people confused us with) to Eden Bible Church — a Chinese-speaking church that was still nice and warm, and slightly closer to our house. My audacious sister became more emboldened to fall asleep during service or listen to a podcast even as she dutifully covered up her tattoo. Now she will say she is more spiritual than religious, exploring mysticism, meditation and Buddhism, being in touch more with experience than with theory. While reading Joseph Campbell, she bemoaned that she wished it was not the sparse and strict Protestantism that we were exposed to, but rather the symbol-rich Catholicism, which could have positively impacted her aesthetics and philosophy now.
I for one am glad that our family dodged the megachurch and cell-group bullets, although sometimes I oblige friends’ invitations to attend their church services. And am thankful for the upbringing that allows me to question perspectives shared in the Alpha Run, to appreciate paintings in the Louvre, and to feel at ease whenever I enter a cathedral.