Religion class, but make it self discovery

Writer Irine Le discusses her experiences with religion, social justice and crushes--and how they all intertwine.

Illustration by Rosie Yasukochi
Story by Irine Le

There are two events that happened in April 2012 of my 7th grade year that I viscerally remember and were formative to my adolescence. The first being the album “Electra Heart” by Marina and the Diamonds and the second being my religion teacher telling me I had to have a speaking role in the annual 7th grade Seder meal play “or else.”

I never got around to figuring out what the “or else” meant; whether it was eternal damnation or just a gentle reprimand for my constant lack of participation in class, because before I knew it, I had a script in hand to learn Simon the Zealot’s lines.

My crippling shyness over playing one of Jesus’ disciples quickly faded the moment I realized my crush was cast in the play as well, and he’d be sitting next to me in our recreation of the Last Supper. Then came the kicker. The moment I realized that because he was next to me, I would have to hold his hand for the inevitable “Our Father” prayer when everyone joined hands.

Inevitably, the Seder meal play happened. No lines were forgotten at all. I joined hands with my crush to recite the “Our Father” prayer and the world didn’t end. The said crush never liked me back, but despite that, I eventually got through the whelms of 7th grade melodrama and moved on with my life.

However, I made a note shortly thereafter that, “Wow, religion class isn’t so bad” and from thereon, I approached religion class with more of an open mind. I look back on this and laugh because really? It was from this very moment that I actually began to give religion class a chance?

It wasn’t like religion class was awful before the Seder meal play. It just always felt very unfamiliar. In my 12-year-old mind, I wasn’t sure if the unfamiliarity stemmed from religion itself being unwelcoming, or because I was raised in a non-religious background, unlike pretty much all the kids in my class. I didn’t understand the difference between getting a blessing and accepting the Eucharist during mass—why did I have to cross my hands across my chest while most of my friends could accept some circular cracker looking thing?

Despite being non-religious, my parents sent to a Catholic K-8 middle school at the start of 6th grade where I was thrown into scripture classes, without knowing a single prayer on my first day. I floated through Catholic middle school having only the “Hail Mary” and “Our Father” memorized and never attended a single mass outside of the required weekly Monday ones and every major religious holiday during the school year.

My middle school sex education experience consisted of uncomfortably sitting in a classroom with pubescent boys who thought Minecraft was the apex of technology and discussing with them who my “ideal future partner” would be. The mention of the words “penis” or vagina” resulted in flittered laughter in the room, but I’m sure that’s almost obligatory in a room full of 13-year-olds. All of the TV shows or movies I had consumed that depicted Catholic school sex-ed was always somewhere along the lines of forcing chastity down your throat, “no sex before marriage,” or some other “Mean Girls”-esque “you’ll die if you have sex” trope. I turned the chastity pledge my sex-ed teacher made us sign into a paper airplane and threw it into the trash can to the tune of laughter by my friends at the time. Besides the chastity pledge, there wasn’t any other talk of virginity being some “sacred gift” or whatnot.

After middle school, I went to a Catholic high school where religion was less permeated in all aspects of school. The only time we were required to go to mass was during the major religious holidays, and we weren’t required to say a class prayer together right before lunch every day. This felt like something I could get on board with.

I don’t remember much from my religion classes during freshman year of high school beyond sitting in the back of the classroom, contributing to the conversations about the Old Testament once or twice, and curating Arctic Monkeys playlists for 8tracks and Tumblr. My friends and I quickly discovered that amidst all the differences in our class schedules (such as taking French vs. Spanish, taking honors vs. a non-honors class and different levels of math), religion class was the one class we could depend on to hopefully have together. Since freshmen and sophomores at my school all had to take the same religion classes, we all dared to hope at the start of every semester that we’d have a familiar face in class.

I momentarily thought about how similar this experience was to my middle school Seder play; both times I was hoping for religion class to bring me closer to the people that I probably wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for that very class.

The game changer for me, personally, on how I approached religion class came around my junior year of high school when the themes and emphasis for social justice was introduced into my classes and extracurriculars. There was a bit more leeway in terms of choosing what religion classes to take once I became an upperclassmen. Out of a handful of options like Ethics & Media and Atheism and Faith, I chose to take bioethics and world religions, my junior and senior years of high school, respectively.

Those two classes exposed me to a handful of experiences, people, and subjects that I wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t chosen to take those respective subjects.

My bioethics class introduced me to learning about the history of eugenics, Dolly the Sheep, and discussing the ethics of stem cell research and end of life care. Additionally, my bioethics teacher was a very passionate social justice advocate, specifically in immigration rights and criminal justice and would often bring discussion about these topics into our class curriculum. I learned the meaning of implicit biases, how much less women of color truly make compared to the saying “77 cents to a dollar” (which historically has actually only been true to white women), and the horrific realities of solitary confinement in the criminal justice system. Before this experience, my religion classes had been much more scripture-based and social justice that hadn’t really been covered in my classes.

My bioethics teacher called the integration of social justice within topics of religion “faith-doing justice,” which I’d later learn was a worldwide movement and tenet pretty prominent in Catholic social teaching.

Up to this point, in my almost sixteen-year-old self’s mind, social justice and religion felt like two mutually exclusive things. I had only really been familiar with feminism and gender equality and I was mostly educated about those topics through Tumblr and other Internet resources. Religion was basically what it had been my whole life: something I was only exposed to while in the confines of my 8:30 am to 3:00 pm school day. To have those two concepts intersect initially felt like my Tumblr blog had been exposed to everyone at my school.

Beyond getting my heart crushed in middle school religion class, the other thing that I still remember to this very day was in sixth grade when one of my teachers asked, “despite all religions being different in terms of text and lessons, what’s the one lesson they all have in common?”, to which a classmate had correctly answered, “to be a good person.”

Maybe instead of having social justice and religion intersect to feel like my feminist rant-filled Tumblr page had been exposed to my classmates, those two fields can intersect in a way that can help me learn and advocate about more social justice topics, both in and out of the classroom.

The service learning projects I did throughout high school ranged from working in a senior living community, a summer reading program at a local library, and working and tutoring at a local elementary school. I think for me, being able to put the community aspect of religion into action and being able to help a wide group of people felt the most impactful to me. The ability to build and foster relationships with people in the different pockets of education I volunteered within has been one of my most meaningful experiences.

Even though I’m in college now and haven’t taken a religion class in two years, my experiences with religion is one that is, for the most part, pretty positive and unique. It’s one that’s been marked with constant serendipity; in the form of having embarrassing crush stories that have happened by chance, or having met my best friend on the first day of bioethics when we decided to randomly sit next to each other. It’s also one marked with a lot of learning and acceptance. It’s also been one of the catalysts in my social justice advocating experience, which I’ll forever be grateful for.