The tree wasn’t always rotten. It was once a magnificent plant that I dearly loved— my first friend and my second home. But when the roots are rotten, the tree can’t help but rot as well. And when the tree rots, it kills all the animals living inside. And I foolishly thought that was okay.
I carefully glimpse out the window and an endless blue sky blissfully greets me in return. Specks of floating dust particles dance like the little girl from my childhood in the radiant sunlight streaming through the window. I swerve my eyes back to the main pastor standing in the podium. His voice is like a washing machine, a dull repetition of meaningless sounds. Cautiously, I dart my eyes around the sanctuary and see heads looking down. Shouldn’t adults know better than to use cell phones during the sermon? My disappointment remains until my eyes reach my mom, Pastor Maria, sitting in the front row. I smile proudly as she diligently takes notes on the sermon.
Ever since my mom crossed the ocean over a decade ago for her permanent honeymoon, instead of finding work to support our family, she poured out everything for this church as an assistant pastor. As a result, I was raised in a bubble called church. But the bubble did not imprison me; the church was my oyster, and it was everything I could've ever wanted. Saying that I was happy during my childhood is a colossal understatement. Life was too good to be true.
My childhood was straight out of a cheesy children’s picture book, and I was the dazzling main character in the spotlight. Not only was I constantly surrounded with incredible people who genuinely cared for me, I was an exceptional student in Sunday School as well. I rigorously ingrained Bible verses into my memory every week. I could only miss church if I had cancer, so I never missed a single week. But even if I had the choice to, I wouldn’t have skipped church for a million dollars. I loved every second of it. Nothing could go wrong. The future didn’t scare me.
Just like most kids, I was absolutely, completely, and entirely delusional. I honestly still don’t understand how the teenage years are full of suffering for everyone, except for the very few who somehow didn’t get nature’s memo. Unfortunately, I was not the minority this time.
As the years went by, my baby fat was no longer cute. My cheeks were no longer squished by old ladies who gave me eccentric candy. My baby fat was now just plain, old fat. And that made all the difference.
Being called fat in high school is different from being called fat in elementary school. Being called fat in private is different from being called fat in front of a crowd. Being called fat in a dance studio is different from being called fat in a church. Being called fat by immature kids is different from being called fat by your great aunt who is also the main pastor’s wife. After many years, I have become a great expert in these nuances.
My great aunt was the main pastor’s wife. Imagine an Asian Cruella de Vil in her sixties. That’s her. From now on, I will refer to her as the main pastor’s wife because I consider her as a disgrace to my family tree.
The main pastor’s wife owned a traditional Korean dance studio, so it was a given that all the church girls would attend the dance studio and vice versa. If you were not a part of both, you became an outcast. When I was child, it was thrilling to perform for large crowds in ravishing Korean traditional clothing with my friends. Thanks to my decent hand-eye coordination, I made quick progress and obtained a few solos as well.
But cute didn’t make the cut anymore. The dance studio wanted beautiful girls. No, they wanted pretty girls. No, they wanted skinny girls. And I was not skinny. Therefore, I was no longer good enough. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t fat. Sure, I wasn’t skinny, but I wasn’t obese. I was chubby. And chubby wasn’t just not good enough. Chubby was wrong. My body was wrong. I was wrong.
I was not the first. Countless of young girls before me were viciously criticized. If you were fat, you could not be a dancer, be beautiful, be healthy, or even be normal. I wish I had a dollar every time the main pastor’s wife told me that I would die early because I was fat.
I was not the worst. There was an older girl, or as we say ‘unni’ in Korean, that I looked up to because of her hilarious personality. She brought joy and laughter everywhere she went. In my eyes, she was wonderful in every way. But the main pastor’s wife constantly pressured her to diet. Later, she told the girl to buy diet pills. No girl should be told to take diet pills in high school. I hope being mental doesn’t run in the family.
The confidence and self-love of countless girls that had taken years to build were destroyed in an instant. In that moment, none of us knew that it would take even more years to rebuild them again.
But here’s the thing: they brought that vile monster to church. Girls were now being attacked at church. The bustling, lively church of my childhood was no more. As the years went by, my broken friends started to leave the church, one by one. But I was determined to stay.
So, did I defeat the evil monster and find my happily ever after? Not quite. My story gradually transformed from a children’s picture book to a teen angst book series. The cheerful main character was now an outcasted wallflower.
Because I was chubby, they didn’t like me. But I refused to diet. I refused to reshape myself into their mold. In return, I had to protect myself. I wore crazy fashion getups, anything to distract the predators from the real pain: my body. They no longer made fun of my body. They made fun of my clothes, my personality, and everything else I had to offer this world.
My greatest refuge became my greatest battlefield. I no longer came to church in flimsy dresses. I came in full armor.
All of this, before the age of thirteen. To this day, I have never loved my body. Not once, for even a second. I don’t know if I ever will be able to. To this day, after many years of love and healing, I still struggle. With eating comes guilt. With starvation comes hope. My youth was shattered before it even began. Every time I try to pick up the pieces, they only cut my skin, leaving scars that still remain today.
But I was strong; I could endure the arrows aimed at me. However, the monster was not satisfied; it wanted more.
The main pastor of this church, also my great aunt’s husband, is pretty lousy. Sorry, scratch that. He’s really lousy. From using the church’s money for his wife’s dance studio to not paying the church workers for years, I learned the definition of corruption thanks to him. Only after many years did I finally became aware of all the deep, dark secrets the adults had hidden from us. I now know that the monster did not limit itself to fragile teenage girls.
My church was not a church. It wasn’t as extreme as a cult, but just as destructive. There were no creepy chants, but there were definitely questionable aspects.
Well, why didn’t we leave? My sister wanted to leave for years, but our parents told us that it wasn’t the right time yet. Ever since they first came to America, they gave their blood, sweat, and tears to this church. And to be honest, despite all this crap, we still loved this church. We had hope.
My train of thought slams on its brakes as it senses something wrong. The main pastor has paused too long. Suffocating silence fills the room. Everyone looks up from their phones in confusion. After a few seconds of eternity, he finally speaks.
“It doesn’t seem like you are paying attention to the sermon.”
What the f—
I would have laughed if I wasn’t so shocked. A deafening silence drowned out my ears. The maroon chair underneath me became a seat of thorns. The white walls in the sanctuary melted into an shrieking black hole. After the shock passed, I felt something I had never felt before. Uncontrollable rage. It was a ferocious inferno that was consuming everything within me. And I wasn’t going to burn by myself. I stood up, walked up to the main pastor, and punched him in the face. I wish I did that. But I didn’t want to stoop to his filthy level. You don’t avoid poop because you’re scared of it. You avoid it because it’s nasty. And ultimately, it was my last sign of respect towards him.
For the rest of the sermon, I kept my eyes on my shoes. I knew if I looked at the main pastor, I would punch him. I knew if I looked at my mom, I would do something much worse to him. I studied every detail of my shoes until I heard the piano signaling the end of the sermon.
Later that day, the main pastor apologized to my mom in his office.
“Mom, what did he say?”
“He just said sorry.”
“Why did he do that?”
“You’ll understand when you become older.”
“Mom… Is it the right time yet?”
“Yes. Now is the right time.”
His apology was almost as lousy as him. But it was too late. Later that month, my sister and I left the church that we had been attending since birth. Later that year, my parents left, too.
Looking back, I’m actually glad this happened because it was an opportunity to finally escape that toxic environment. After I left that church, although it was difficult to adjust to the healthy environment at my new church, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: happiness. However, after a few years and another switch of churches, I realized that I truly loved and still love my first church. Despite all the pain and suffering it brought to countless families and individuals, I was once happy there, too. That church holds my childhood, and the good memories are too precious to be tainted by a few dark ones.
In the end, I was able to escape the rotting tree. I’m still in the process of flushing out the poisonous toxins, but I don’t think I will ever be able to completely remove all the toxins. But that’s okay. It’s what makes me stronger.