Growing up in the U.S. melting pot, kids understand early on if they stand out for any reason. I could feel that I was “different” because of the way I was targeted and treated as a child in school. In my case it always felt like a double whammy: I was Indian American growing up in southern California and practicing a religion different from billions of other Indians, isolating me even more within my own culture.
My parents are devout Catholics who emigrated from India to the U.S. in the 1980s, a fact confusing many who aren’t familiar with the sizable Catholic and Christian population of southern India. I attended a private Catholic school in Orange County, California from kindergarten until sixth grade. My experience there planted the seed for deeply rooted insecurities of being the “other.” Most of my classmates were white, Latinx, Black, and Asian; only two were Indian Americans, both Hindu. Catholicism was all I knew, and its teachings set the parameters for many of my moral truths. I believed in right and wrong, kindness and cruelty, good and evil. I always wanted to be on the side of light, not darkness. This is still the lens I use.
Racist behavior toward me from other students as well as teachers and staff was difficult to process. Kids didn’t believe that my family had practiced Catholicism for generations in India; they thought I was just trying to fit in. Most people associate Indians with Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism. “Go worship a cow,” they’d say, picking the most easily identifiable stereotype. Some people choose to believe the “other” is a monolith, so they can continue to keep us in a box.
I grew up going to church every Sunday, reciting the rosary with my family nightly, and studying religion daily in school. I lacked a broader religious education, so I didn’t have any reason to question the one everyone around me followed.
When my parents could no longer afford the increasing tuition of my Catholic school, I transferred to public school at the age of 12. It was hard to say goodbye to the security and comfort that came from attending a private school. Terrified of attending public school without any friends, the transition unexpectedly marked a key moment when my spirituality shifted.
I remember feeling as if my worldview expanded dramatically after leaving the bubble of private Catholic school. In public school, I met people of all backgrounds and was introduced to atheism, agnosticism, and evolution. My new friends influenced me to break the rules and challenge the norm in several areas of my life. I preferred what I found there.
All of these dramatic personal, environmental, and societal changes led to a natural questioning of my Catholic faith. I distinctly remember writing a poem for my English class in which one line read, “If God created us, then who created God?” Not the most profound line ever written, but a small sliver of doubt was all I needed to begin questioning my faith. The line spilled out before my inner critic had time to censor it. I sat in my seventh grade English class floored by the possibilities presented on the paper in front of me.
If I didn’t believe in Bible stories, then what did I believe in? If I walked away from the Catholic church, how would my life change? In the almost 20 years since writing that poem, my spiritual journey has taken me along several different paths with no clear destination. I’ve turned away from organized religion, specifically Catholicism, due to its conservative doctrines about topics such as gay rights and abortion, in addition to the Church’s inability to deal with its rampant sexual abuse.
I hold great respect for all religions. I see each as something that helps people get through this impossible thing called life, something that serves as a source of love, community, and faith. I believe in the supernatural and I routinely do the sign of the cross when a plane I’m riding in takes off or an ambulance drives by. I still talk to an ambiguous person in the sky or some ever-present being in the universe. I feel the presence of guardian angels constantly protecting and supporting me. I meditate daily to be rooted in the beliefs that the universe does not revolve around my ego and the law of impermanence stating that everything shall pass. My current religion is simply radiating and taking in good energy, and I practice it every day.