In our series of letters from African-American journalists, film-maker and columnist Sharmila Tagore reflects on her decision to leave her Christian faith

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The first time this happened happened in college. I was taking a class that
required us to write or read a short paper on something that we wanted to do
with our lives. I was taking a social studies class. This was back in 1990.
The coursework was not at all challenging, and I did not have a desire to go
through college right now. Therefore, I decided to write an essay on my
personal religious preference. This paper, though short was not easy for me to
write, and I knew I could not get the right expression out of my brain. The
crowd of students all around the room began to laugh at this little
essay.

I had the feeling that, as a group, everyone was saying it was funny, even
though we knew it was wrong. I knew we could not be serious about religion. I
was not a Christian and had many friends who were. I knew I was a “theist”, as
that is how people who are Christians refer to themselves, and felt many of my
friends did not even understand what that meant. There were lots of people,
however, who wanted to go the church, or synagogue, or temple, that I was
saying I did not want to attend. These were the same people who were
willing to take a ride to the airport with me on my first date with a girl I
had loved for years.

They were the same people who bought me tickets when I traveled overseas and
who had told me they would “follow” me as I left the country after college.
But when the time came that I would return to my home country, I would not
go to a church or a synagogue. I would go with friends who cared for me. In
fact, I would be disappointed that they did not go to these places for many
years, because I needed to know they cared about me. I needed to know they
weren’t as judgmental as I felt I was. I needed to know they were more capable
than I was when it came to expressing love as Christians. I needed to know I
was not alone, someone understood me, and that I was not weak for making that
choice.

And I felt, in the crowd of people, that those who were like me were not even
real people. They were not real people at all. They were not fully human. They
were a shadow-people, like people who see what they believe in but would not
say for fear of being ridiculed.

The second time this happened was in another college, in my sophomore
year. I had already left my faith. I did have real friends, as I had always
told myself. I was not a Buddhist, but had a friend who was. We went on
dates, and I knew she loved me, and I loved her. I knew I was a real friend.
We were happy together and felt ourselves to be in love.

On this date, however, I found myself in a large group of students who were
going on a hike. We were all wearing the same color of hiking clothes,
everything was bright and colorful, and it was a beautiful day. After a few
minutes of conversation, I began to have a strong desire to talk with a girl.
I needed to know I was not alone, and I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted to
know her name, and I wanted to hear her say she loved me. I wanted to know she
was free to be whoever she wanted, even though I disagreed with her decision
in her life.

I did not know what the appropriate response would be, if I was not talking
to her. All I knew is that I wanted to talk to her, and I felt my heart
ache, a painful burning pain, at the thought.

I found myself in the middle of a sea of people. I was not alone, but I was
among many people who were not alone. Like a river, I stood in the middle of
this other thing that was not a river and stared at each person, waiting for
someone to speak to me. And like the river, I continued to stare at a thousand
faces not moving, and waited for someone to move.

And there was no one to move, to speak to, or even to smile. We were all
staring at a lake of faces. No matter where you turned, there were all
others. This was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. I
knew what I wanted, but never knew who I was supposed to be, or why I was
supposed to feel like this. It wasn’t something I thought would affect me.
I thought I found solace in being with other people with whom I was happy,
even when we disagreed. It wasn’t as though I didn’t have a home, and I
never worried about who I was in the presence of others, because I knew that I
was not alone in anything.

And then I realized there was this thing inside me that was not a person. I
wasn’t even entirely human. I knew that I was not the real me. I was a
shadow-person. This thing that was inside me was the real me, but it was
unable to feel things like love or joy or being me. This thing was not
human. I knew that it was not a person, and yet I was the source of it. This
thing, inside me, was what I was made of.

I was never taught how to love. I was taught to act like a Christian,
believing in love and forgiveness for every human who was wronged. I was
taught to turn the other cheek and to love that which makes me
unhappy. I was taught to love all things and people and in return, I was
taught to love those things that harmed me. In so many ways, the religion of
Christianity was designed for that purpose.

What else, when told to me as a child, had I been taught? What did it teach
me? I never knew what love was. I had never learned what love was. I
thought I was supposed to love people. I thought I was supposed to love God,
and in the process of believing that, I was taught that it was wrong to love
anyone. I was told to love everyone and that meant love everyone that hurt
me and loved the one that helped me.

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