Holly Yiping Wang
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
– “Take Me to Church” by Hozier
Of the three people in my family, two are Christians. My father is an atheist who prefers to believe humans master their circumstances. He believes that religion can touch a person’s heart, but it cannot change the course of one’s life. Human beings must make their own choices, pursue their own destinies, and when necessary, choose their own paths.
My mother was raised a devout Christian, but became more secular under my father’s influence. Before my mother was married to my father, she was a zealous believer who attended church every Sunday with my grandmother, a devoutly faithful Christian. They prayed every night before sleep and before every meal, and they did missionary work regularly. My mother copied my grandmother’s behavior willingly, never questioning my grandmother’s will, or the will of God.
Growing up, I was not as religious as my mother, but because I was brought up by my grandmother before the age of five, I read the Bible, prayed, and considered myself a Christian. One of the reasons I selected the English name “Holly” for myself is that the name is pronounced similarly to “holy.” My mother and I usually went to church once every two months, an amount that my grandmother at first found unacceptable. It was not that we were not religious. It was simply that our lives were filled with so many other issues that going to church, an activity similar to going to an art museum, didn’t really fit into our busy schedules.
My parents and I lived in harmony. We had quarrels sometimes, but these small arguments always ended with peaceful negotiation. My parents have always been my strongest supporters. I could always hear their muffled applause in the background when I was discouraged by others. My mother, especially, loved to express her love to me. She would say, “I love you” to me more than ten times a day. Sometimes I would say, “Oh stop it, I know you love me!” just to change the subject. She wanted to be involved in everything that happened in my life. She always felt comfortable asking me personal questions. “Do you have a crush now?” “Did you get back together with your boyfriend?” I answered questions the honestly, but I would usually reveal only parts of the truth.
However, this was all before May 2015.
On May 2nd, I came out to my mother as a queer. To this day, I can still remember how nervous, scared, and helpless I was when I showed her a 5000-word article I wrote about how I had struggled for years due to my sexual orientation, how my sexual orientation shaped my personality, and what it meant for me to be a queer. In the article, I wrote about the difficulty I had accepting myself, and I thought I was stricken with some kind of mentally illness. I had searched online about so-called “conversion therapy,” which could allegedly change one’s sexual orientation, yet these non-scientific methods did not help at all.
After she finished reading the article, I got down on my knees and begged her to accept me. The whole thing caught her by surprise, so it took her five minutes to get her head straight. I didn’t see any sorrow or joy in her eyes. It was as if she was looking at the ocean, straining to see some movement in the immense, blue waves—anything to convince her that what she saw was real. Then she looked down, held my hands and said, “I love you no matter what.” Those six words carried an immeasurable amount of weight. I hugged her as tightly as I could. I felt like I had been reborn, and that I was a complete human being who could enjoy love, even though sometimes it caused pain. I was so overwhelmed and excited that I overlooked how strangely calm she was when I hugged her. Looking back, I now see the flaw in what I thought was a “picture perfect” memory.
For the first few days after, my mother seemed normal. She did her routine and treated me the exactly same way. But as time went on, she began showing some unusual signs. One day, coming back home from work, my mother asked me to go to my room with her. She quietly locked the door, slowly turned to me, and then silently stared at me for at least ten seconds.
“I searched online for the information about bisexuality today, which you told me is almost the same thing as queer, right?”
“Yes,” I replied with caution.
She continued, “And you told me that once you are bisexual, you will always be that way?”
Again, I said, “yes.” Then I added immediately, “Sexual orientation is pretty fluid, but I think my affection for girls and boys have existed for years.”
She shook her head and said loudly, “Dinner in thirty minutes,” and then abruptly left my room. My father, who was sitting cluelessly in the living room, shouted back, “Okay! Can’t wait, my dear!” I did not respond. I just sat on my bed and tried to figure out what her questions meant.
Later that week, on Saturday morning, she asked me if I wanted to go to church with her the next day. I gladly agreed. My mother looked satisfied. She patted me on my shoulder and said, “good girl.”
A week later, she asked me the same question again. This time, I declined her invitation, because I had an exam that Monday and I needed to study. I was also skeptical of her true motivations. However, she cleverly suggested that I should see those two hours in church as a chance to relax, that taking time off from study would help me concentrate. What she proposed seemed reasonable enough, so I agreed to go to church with her.
Weeks later, she did not stop asking me whether I would go to the church with her. On the contrary, she started to demand that I go. She even wanted me to go on Wednesdays, when there would be some English-speaking foreigners praying together.
“It is good for your English speaking practice. Don’t miss the chance,” she said.
I prayed often now, to a point that my prayers were trivial. I prayed for my broken phone case and the blind dog I bumped into. It was not that I only thought to pray for silly things, it was that I had run out of the real things to pray for. I had no idea why there were so many things my mother could not handle on her own, and I asked God for help. Even if I asked her what had happened, she would merely smile and say “nothing.” Still, it was confusing that she had such a long list when I had run dry by the third trip to the church in a week. I also had no idea why she had to take me whenever she went there. She had many friends at church and sometimes she ignored me while talking with them, so it wasn’t because she suffered from loneliness.
The truth always comes to light in the end. To be clear, I did not intentionally try to seek out the truth. The truth came to me. Sometimes when I looked back to this, the impact of the issue is so large that it has become a landmark in my life. My relationship with my mother and my opinion of her has perhaps forever been affected because of this singular moment in church.
It was a cloudless and calm Sunday when as usual I went to the church with my mother. I was tired of dressing up, so I only put on a white shirt and a pair of black leggings, nothing formal. Since we were running late, I didn’t even comb my hair. Secretively, I took my phone with me, which my mother disapproved of. On our way there, I was listening to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” The song was a hit at the time. I tried to keep my mother posted on the music trends and had previously played this song once when she dropped me off at school. She said it was “just okay,” the same reaction when she listened to “Gangnam Style.”
“I was born sick / But I love it / Command me to be well / Aay Amen. Amen. Amen.” Hozier’s voice said through my headphones. I listened, unaware of the foreshadowing that blasted through the ear buds. For that moment, it was just a catchy song that I had listened to countless times.
The church was located on the third floor, and my mother decided to follow the crowd by taking the stairs, because she said she wanted to exercise. On our way up, she politely greeted friends who were almost all in their 70s or even older. I greeted themas well, embarrassedly, but I did not know what to say other than hello. Their conversations were dotted with many religious words that I could never memorize.
We were fortunate to find a place where we could see the preacher clearly. At least, that was what my mother said. I thought it was fortunate that we were both skinny, so that we could squeeze into one seat.
I cannot recall what the preacher said, what hymns we sang, or even whether the preacher was a man or a woman. What I remember was that I was bored, that I had nothing to pray for.
However, I did notice that the new pianist excelled at accompaniment. I used to laugh at the previous pianist, who made every song about the glory and joy of God sound depressing, as if he was playing at the funeral. The new one brought a new energy in the hymns. To be honest, that was possibly the only reason for me to come back to the church, and so I happily let the sound of the keys drown out the words of prayer.
After the last hymn came to an end, the preacher asked us to pray silently. Like everyone else, I lowered my head, but I wasn’t really praying. My eyes were shut. My ears became sensitive to the voices around me. It was very quiet. I could only hear the sound of clothes ruffling as people shifted in the pews. Suddenly, I heard someone weeping. It wasn’t far away. Under such silence, the crying sounded like heavy rain.
I was tired of sitting still, so I leaned towards my mother a little. As I moved closer to her, the sound became louder. I opened my eyes.
It was my mother who was crying.
How I reacted to her sobbing was unusual: I did nothing. I did not even console her. I had a strong feeling that I should wait and see what would happen next. I was never lucky at gambling, and my instinct always led in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, I was right this time.
After listening to her cry for three minutes, I overheard something that changed my perspective on, not only God, but my family. My mother wept:
“Dearest father, please make my daughter a straight person, never a bisexual, queer or even homosexual. May she live in paradise, not in hell.”
I was frozen the moment those words hit my ears. I blocked out the preacher, and all I heard were those hurtful words coming out of my beloved mother’s mouth.
“MAY SHE LIVE IN PARADISE, NOT IN HELL.”
These words were like crows flying above my head. They made such shrill and resounding noises that even if I covered my ears they would find their way, piercing through my fingers and stabbing my eardrum. I could feel physical pain, not only in my ears, but across every inch of my body. I couldn’t hear any more than what she had already said, and whatever she later cursed or blamed caused harm to me, because there was simply no way to kill a dead person.
Maybe this is was what it felt like to live in hell.
Hozier sings, “Offer me that deathless death,” and perhaps this is what he meant.
I leaned back and wrapped my arms around my head. To clear my mind and get everything straight, I closed my eyes again. Thoughts in my head were jammed. I tried to let some of them go and others stay. Gradually, I figured something out.
I knew why my mother took me to church so frequently, even when I had not finished my homework. I knew why she became religious again. I knew why she had been acting so differently. I knew why I needed to be “saved.” I knew what my “problem” was. If going to church was supposed to change who I am, I’d rather betray my faith, because who God loves is not me, it is another girl my mother had conjured.
My mother’s God was not helping me at all. In fact, he violated my right to be myself, and it was my mother who begged him to do so.
At that moment, I was not sure who I was more disappointed with, my mother or God. Maybe it was both of them. I returned home that day as if nothing had changed, but I was convinced that I would not be the same person anymore. I loved my mother, and I would always love her. Yet she did not truly love me. Someone I relied on the most had turned her back against me. It was the time for me to be more independent.
Hozier’s voice is warm and bright when he sings, “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies / I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” He does not weep.
I have not gone to the church since that day, nor have I talked to my mother about my sexual orientation. I lie to my mother and tell her that I pray sometimes. I tell her that I go to church every Sunday in New York. I date girls and boys, though I tell her I only date boys. I have come out to everyone around me, despite her warnings. I have been fooling her, though she thinks that I share all the major events in my life in this foreign country with her. I leave my door only half open to her. She can peek inside, but her her view is limited. I do not think she has realized these changes in me. Perhaps she does not want to know. Regardless, I do not plan to disclose them to her.
When dealing with my mother, I’m half-way out of the closet again, as I was before I came out to her.
I am in a Jesuit school now. There are flyers everywhere about religious events. Sometimes when I think about my mother and how this experience hurt and reshaped me, I will find a flyer and tear it up. Whenever I hear people talking about parenthood, family, and Christianity, tears fall down my face uncontrollably, and my fists clench as if I’m about to start a fight. Hatred may not be the correct word to justify my irrational response. My heart fills with self-doubt, hesitation, helplessness, panic, sorrow, despair, indignation, and the slightest hope that I can stay true to myself.
Like my father, I have learned that I must choose my own path, make my own choices, and break from the destiny imposed on me by my mother’s God. Unlike my father, however, my path forces me to shut out my mother – or maybe it was she who shut herself out – unknowingly. I tried to let her (and God) in. I told them about my sins and, instead of opening their arms to me, they sharpened their knives. However, I am not going to give my life to her good God. My life is in my own hands, and I have a grip on it.
Hozier-Byrne, Andrew. “Take Me To Church.” Hozier. Columbia Record, 2013. EP.