I’ve been a believer in Muji products for a few years now, but I won’t say that my devotion to this brand is comparable to the kind one would have for a god. Despite this, however, a recent visit to a newly renovated Muji store in my city made me think about church.
It’s been so long since I attended a religious service, and I haven’t prayed in years. Whenever someone asks me about religion, I simply tell them I’m Roman Catholic on paper but don’t actually practice anything. I’d rather focus on trying to be a good person—or someone who treats everyone fairly at the very least.
If my younger self could hear this, she’d probably cringe. Or, perhaps, she would even call me names. That’s because the younger me was so obsessed with the idea of finding the perfect religion that she was willing to hop from one church to another and try different ways of worshipping a god and following a set of beliefs in hopes of being saved from whatever it was she needed saving.
It all began when two Mormon missionaries knocked on the gate of our apartment in Antipolo sometime in 2003. When Mama came out of our home and talked to them, they asked her if she’d already accepted Jesus in her life. For some reason, she decided to let them in. Before we knew it, we were already attending bible study sessions in their church.
The whole bible study thing fascinated me. It was something we hadn’t done in our Catholic household. I also liked the fact that we were making new friends and learning how to pray together as a family. Somehow, all those changes gave me something to look forward to. And things suddenly felt so reassuring despite the hardships our family had to regularly deal with, particularly finances.
We were close to converting, but there was a problem: They wouldn’t allow Mama and my stepfather to become members of their church because they weren’t legally married. And they couldn’t just tie the knot as Mama was still married to my biological father.
It saddened me since I had already set my mind that we’d continue our journey as a family. But according to Mama, I didn’t really have to wait for them. I could simply get converted and continue going to that church if I wanted to. I said no. I realized that if the church could not accept my parents because of their circumstances, maybe it wasn’t the right fit for me.
It took me four years to regain interest in any sort of organized religion. A classmate of mine was an active member of the Legion of Mary at that time and she invited me to attend one of their sessions. I ended up liking it.
What I really appreciated about the meeting the most was how it gave me a deeper understanding of some things I had only been hearing about. I learned about the relevance of confession and communion, which I knew many Catholics would routinely practice despite not knowing what they were really about. I also learned how to properly prepare for a mass and participate in other church activities I hadn’t even heard of growing up.
I learned about the saints, too, who they were, and what each of them was for. I took inspiration from what they had done during their short stay on Earth and began to hope that someday I would also make a difference in the world in my own ways.
Most importantly, I went to church almost every day and heard the mass every Sunday, even on days when we were short on cash. Sometimes I would have to borrow money from friends just to afford the trike ride to the city proper, where the cathedral was, and that was just fine with me. That was just how devoted I was.
However, as I continued to learn more about Roman Catholicism, more questions formed inside my head. I started questioning rituals and how they sometimes seemed to matter more than people’s intentions. It just got to a point when I simply thought I should maybe take a break and explore.
I once dated someone who was a member of Iglesia ni Cristo. Right from the start, though, I knew it was wrong. INC members should only date people from the same church, so our relationship was essentially built upon sin.
But according to some INC friends, my case wasn’t that unique at all. Some members simply didn’t follow the rules, and, if I’d really end up with the guy, I could just work my way to being a member.
I wasn’t thrilled with the idea. However, since I thought my thing with that guy was somehow serious, I realized I should not completely dismiss it. And, in preparation, I should start familiarizing myself with what he believed in. I was in love, or so I thought.
Yet, the guy wasn’t—at all. A few months into our relationship, my mother caught him cheating on me with someone who turned out to be a churchmate of his. Not long after, I learned that the girl was the “ex” he had told me about, and, surprise, they hadn’t really broken up. So, technically, I was the third party in their relationship. An unwilling third party.
I broke up with the guy immediately. But even then, some of their churchmates who learned about my brief romance with him began to attack me online and harassed me via SMS. They called me names and told me, countless times, about my blunder. As if the guy wasn’t the real problem in the situation.
Naturally, I stopped attending INC’s events. The way some of its members treated me was just unacceptable. Just because I was an outsider, they attacked me without even knowing the real story. I wonder if they’d treat me the same if I were one of them.
I know their behavior wasn’t representative of how everyone in the church was, but at that time, I was just turned off.
Sometime around 2010, I was approached by a good-looking guy while chilling at UP Diliman’s Sunken Garden. I no longer remember how exactly our initial conversation went, but I’m sure he asked me how I was and in turn, I told him I had been feeling so down and defenseless. It was true. I was indeed faced with a lot of problems and since I was so young and had no means to get out of the shit I was in, things were extra harder for me.
He then told me something that hit me: “Maybe you just need to revisit His Word, which will serve as your ammunition.”
We had a lengthy discussion on faith afterward and I was impressed by how smart the guy was. He was also very patient in answering all my questions. And since I wanted to learn more, I accepted his invitation to a bible study session, which eventually happened again, and again, until he asked me to meet his other churchmates and then attend services and other events at their church, dubbed Providence, along Katipunan Avenue.
I was hesitant at first, especially how strange I found things in their church were. Their services ran for hours, and members were encouraged to minimize bodily movements while attending them. It was so intense. They also had a lot of beliefs that were rather shocking to me. For instance, they called themselves “brides of God” and they were so obsessed with how they looked, especially during services.
Despite my doubts, however, I continued going to that church. Besides, everyone was so nice, especially the Korean members. For the first time, I felt that I was with a community that accepted me for who I was. Everyone was so generous, too, which I appreciated at that time because I was a struggling university student. I even got “baptized,” whatever that means. And I started training for the music ministry.
Just when things were becoming better and more exciting for me, I learned a vital piece of information about the church and why its members were discouraged to look it up online: It was one of the most notorious cults in Asia, and its leader, “self-proclaimed Messiah” Jeong Myeong Seok, had been charged with multiple counts of rape. All of a sudden, the whole “bride of God” thing made sense. But not in a good way.
I stopped attending the church immediately.
Not so victorious
I was so desperate to find the right church for me that even a cult couldn’t put an end to my quest. Or maybe that was just me being stubborn.
A few months after I stopped going to the shady church, I began attending services at Victory. I felt so safe there. Plus, everyone seemed so nice. I also appreciated how thorough our discussions were on the bible.
However, I easily lost interest in it after someone from our small group called me out for not being able to attend our sessions regularly. And when I told her I just didn’t have a lot of time because I had to work most days, she told me to stop worrying because God would always provide.
I knew she meant well, but I guess she just didn’t realize how privileged she was in comparison to me. When you’re poor, you cannot just wait for God to provide.
It was at this point that I got tired. I also became busier with my studies because I was closer to graduating. On top of it all, I had to earn more so I could support not only myself but also my family. And so, I stopped thinking about any kind of organized religion. Time to be the captain of my soul.
Around that time, I began to realize what truly mattered: how I’d treat people around me.
Now I don’t even know if there’s really a god, and that’s okay.
I remember, someone once asked me: “What if, when you die, you find out that there’s actually a god and that god wouldn’t allow you to heaven because you did not follow their teachings?”
Here’s how I answered the question: “If there’s a god, then that god would probably know that I did my best to treat everyone in this world fairly and show kindness whenever possible. And if that god thinks believing in his existence would be more important than actually doing good things, then fine, I’d gladly accept his decision to deny me entry to heaven or whatever that would be called. It just means that god is an insecure god.”
Yet, I won’t deny that from time to time, I still miss the feeling of being in a church. I miss that inexplicable sense of clarity I used to have whenever I’d enter a place of worship, especially if there was a service going on. Everything would just seem so light and bright and the singers’ voices, as well as the sound of instruments accompanying them, would sound so good and comforting, as though they were cleansing my soul and getting rid of every sin and burden I had in me until I was light enough to float in the air and dance with the clouds. Yes, I still long for that feeling sometimes.
But since I no longer go to church, I can only make do with what’s available: that feeling I sometimes get when confronted by beauty, like when I travel to a coastal town and I stand on the beach while looking at the horizon and hearing the relaxing sound of the waves crashing gently against the shore. Or when I look over a cliff and see the mountains from afar slowly being blanketed by a sea of clouds.
Perhaps, it can even be as simple as being greeted by the nice interiors of a store while a calming track plays in the background, like when I visited the newly renovated Muji store at Shangri-la Plaza. While marveling at the beauty of how simple everything in it was and appreciating every beat of “Jos Sä Olet Minun Hellunani” playing in the background, I was reminded of the times I had entered a place of worship, feeling safe and calm.
Muji will never be able to save my soul as capitalism is another evil to fight, but, at that moment, there was clarity. I was so at peace that I was almost convinced I could find salvation on the shelves of that shop.
It might be foolish, but it was good enough for me.