I Found Freedom After Leaving the Christian Church. But I’m Still Scared to Tell My Parents

·9 min read

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My family still thinks that I go to church every Sunday. In truth, they would be disappointed if you told them that I now spend my weekends reading texts about world faiths or stories from women who are redefining their spirituality, women a lot like me.

Growing up, I was the cookie-cutter, goody-good Christian daughter of Mexican immigrants. I basically lived in the evangelical church. I went to youth group every week, was enrolled in private Christian schools from second grade through undergrad, was a high school youth leader, went to church camp every summer, and then volunteered as an adult. If it was Sunday, you knew where to find me. Church was my safe space — until the foundation of that place came crumbling down into a pile of doubts and frustration.

These cracks in my foundation began while I was a journalism student at Biola University, which stands for the Biblical Institute of Los Angeles. At this institution, everyone is required to minor in biblical studies. While taking classes on Christianity and its religious texts, I began to realize that a lot of the teachings I had learned in church were taught out of context. For example, churches often use the Bible verse “wives, submit to your husbands” to establish patriarchal leadership in a marriage; in reality, the verse in its entirety calls for mutual submission in a marital relationship. Soon, I spent most Sundays picking apart sermons for not teaching scriptures based on the author’s original meaning of the text.

“Church was my safe space — until the foundation of that place came crumbling down into a pile of doubts and frustration.”

leslie ambriz

My frustration led to my first departure from the evangelical church in 2016, when the presidential election erupted and church leaders who had branded themselves as friends of the marginalized began indirectly (and directly) telling their congregations to vote for Donald Trump, a foe of the oppressed. At the time, I was attending church in Orange County, California, and had recently quit a job at a Christian media company. After growing tired of hearing the conservative Republican rhetoric from various pulpits, I decided to take a break from the Christian spaces in Southern California’s version of the Bible Belt.

I opted out of Sunday services for about a year before bouncing around different houses of worship in Los Angeles. Eventually, I made my way to a nightclub in Downtown LA where a young, trendy megachurch pastor was preaching. His theology aligned with what I had learned at college, and his delivery was a perfect blend of enticement and intellectual stimulation. I thought I had finally found a space that felt like home. I signed up to become a member and began serving in their children’s ministry. But a year later, some things started to rub me the wrong way. I heard rumors about volunteers being pushed out of roles because they were openly queer and saw how church attendees idolized the façade of the “celebrity pastor.” They fooled me. This church was just like the others. It only pretended to be progressive and welcoming to all. In reality, “belonging” and “feeling at home” came with their terms and conditions.

I finally left in March of 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, churches began transitioning into virtual sermons. I tried to tune in, but I found myself zoning out or logging off halfway through services. The desire to sit and listen to words that felt hollow no longer captivated me or made me feel refreshed.

“I could no longer, in good conscience, support Christianity as an institutionalized religion.”

Leslie Ambriz

The truth is that I was tired. I was tired of constantly telling others that I was a Christian with the disclaimer that I was not like those who followed Trump or believed in oppressive values and systems. I was tired of desperately reminding people that Christianity, at its origin, was an early religious movement meant to liberate the oppressed. I was tired of defending a faith that has, for centuries, been used to justify the genocide of queer, Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities. I could no longer, in good conscience, support Christianity as an institutionalized religion.

But I also couldn’t disappoint my parents. During this time, I lived at home and was nervous to leave the church under my mother’s roof. As a child and grandchild of immigrants, I unintentionally designed most of my life in a way that pleased my family, shaping myself to be someone who would make them proud. I never want them to worry about me or feel like their sacrifices were in vain. So, instead of causing a potential argument regarding my spiritual journey, I would lie and say that I had tuned into an online church that Sunday. I didn’t dare to tell them I had been thinking about leaving Christianity for the last few years.

A year later, when I was 27 years old, I stopped lying, mainly to myself. I moved out and decided that being a part of the U.S.-centered evangelical church no longer served my spiritual journey. While freeing, it hasn’t been an easy decision or transition. This resolution means that I’m saying goodbye to a consistent community, departing from some spiritual disciplines, and meeting a new version of myself for the first time. I’m unlearning toxic theology that I’ve internalized, like the church’s obsession with teaching white-centered theology and its fixation with tying a woman’s worth to marriage and purity culture. Moreover, I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of culturally appropriating other religious practices, all in the name of “being more spiritual.”

“As a child and grandchild of immigrants, I unintentionally designed most of my life in a way that pleased my family, shaping myself to be someone who would make them proud. I never want them to worry about me or feel like their sacrifices were in vain.”

Leslie Ambriz

Sometimes I worry that I’m making the wrong decision. I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying, “What if I’m wrong and Christianity is the only way to an abundant life?” “Am I going to hell?” “Have I lost ‘God’s protection’ over my life?” In fact, when something goes wrong, anything, I immediately blame it on no longer identifying as a Christian.

I guess these feelings can be expected. For so long, church was my second home. I’d walk in completely overwhelmed by the week and walk out feeling rejuvenated — until it became a place full of annoyance and anxiety.

I don’t hate religion. I still find faith and spirituality fascinating, and I love learning about other spiritual practices. In many ways, it’s because I think so highly of God that I believe that multiple religions and spiritual practices can lead to a final destination. I’m now redefining my spirituality by reading more about liberation theology from Black and Brown free-thinking theologians, buying books on other faiths and Indigenous Mexican spirituality, and finding comfort in the words of other Latinas who left the church, women like Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez.

“This is how I now spend my Sundays — learning, growing, and loving — and that feels like church to me, one that actually resembles home.”

LESLIE AMBRIZ

I have found liberation in my departure. There’s freedom in not knowing what will happen at the end of my time on earth, and knowing that I’m still figuring things out. Accepting that I don’t have all the answers has also been liberating for me as the daughter of immigrants, a so-called “good girl” who was propelled into being a role model for those around me for most of my life. I believed that everything I did represented God and my family. If I went against that, then I felt like a hypocrite. But the new me isn’t afraid of disappointing my family members. I’m dating outside of the religion I grew up in. I’m unlearning purity culture. And I’m realizing it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Even when I feel lost and question my decision, I know that the more I lean into learning about myself and what spirituality means to me, the more that I continue to grow and trust that a creator is guiding me in the right direction.

My parents still don’t know that I’ve abandoned the religion they raised me in. They only know of a former version of me who, in some ways, no longer exists. While I’m scared thinking about how they’d react to my truth, I’m also proud knowing that children of immigrants continue to make decisions that are best for our personal growth — not simply for our elders. This is how I now spend my Sundays — learning, growing, and loving — and that feels like church to me, one that actually resembles home.

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