On May 21st in 2023, with friends and family joining in-person and online at Alameda State Beach in California, I was baptized. I was asked to share a testimony beforehand, so here’s what I shared. My sincerest gratitude to everyone who took time out of their busy lives to join in, whether it was online or in-person. This is a day I’ll cherish forever.
I left the church on a spring day in the 10th grade when my youth pastor told us that non-Christians can’t love. A little voice told me that didn’t make sense. So I listened to that little voice. I walked out of that church and I didn’t look back.
I have trepidation about baptism, as if this act today washes away the sin of many organizations that continue to explicitly preach, or implicitly condone blatant misogyny, homophobia and transphobia in the name of Christ. It does not. A better church can only come from breaking the wall of silence that we were all brought up to uphold. Our faith is too wide and our God too mighty to be interpreted in such a narrow and harmful way.
Years before I even knew that I could use the word bisexual to describe myself, my faith had a predestined identity chosen for me. When I left the church, I thought I would never return. However, at the same time, it was through this church, OakLife, that I first found queer community and belonging. God speaks and moves in contradictions in ways I’m still wrestling with.
Baptism and by-proxy the Christian faith is centered around death and resurrection. We do seem to like to talk about death as a faith tradition an awful lot, so it seems somewhat morbidly befitting to ponder about death. Today, I want to talk about the life and death of the most Christlike man that I know, my grandpa, or Ah Gong- who was not a follower of Christ.
My earliest memories of my Ah Gong were as a toddler growing up in Australia. He had come down from Taiwan and I didn’t know why. My ah gong and ah ma were like extra parents, helping my mother around the house as she adjusted to life in a strange country. The spirit of our house was lifted as ah gong would sneak us M&Ms and cook us fried rice. We’d sit on his lap and he’d teach us nursery rhymes.
As an adult I learned that Ah Gong and Ah Ma were a mere months away from a generous lifetime pension that they forfeited to come down to care for my mother, who had just given birth to my sister. As they handed in their letters of resignation, their supervisor was astounded. The pension they were forfeiting was the salary of six employees. But a voice that I would call the holy spirit, the voice that compels acts of sacrificial love, commanded them to go, so they left.
When Ah Gong died, a question I’d been confronting since I was a child took on a new and sudden urgency. What happens when someone you love dies without believing? I didn’t have an answer and was filled with the same rage and resentment that I had felt as a kid when my faith seemingly had no answers for those who didn’t believe.
I looked for answers everywhere. Leaving the church gave me freedom to start taking part in Taiwanese traditions that form the basis for how we conceptualize death. I’d like to share a couple of unorganized thoughts about these traditions today, in hopes that with enough corn starch they will congeal together to form something vaguely resembling a statement of faith.
I started burning paper money. During “Ghost Month” in Taiwan, the streets are filled with literal dumpster fires, as people throw fake paper money into burning trash heaps to ensure that those who have passed onto the afterlife have enough money to spend.
Surprisingly, burning paper money for ah gong grew my connection to biblical perspectives on wealth. As a kid, these traditions were silly to me. As an adult, they took on new meaning. We take time out of our busy lives to burn money for ahgong because we love him, as he loved us. Indeed, in Taiwanese tradition, it would seem that what you reap in the afterlife is directly proportional to how you love when you are on earth. Maybe this is what Christ meant when he said in Matthew: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much”.
Grandpa comes over for dinner every now and then. We prepare his favourite dishes and lay them out for him. We then light incense and bow to welcome ahgong into his old damp apartment. My uncle then throws two coins. If they land the same side up, ahgong isn’t happy with our spread. If they land opposite sides up, ahgong is eating. Oftentimes, they’ll land on the same side and we’ll argue over what’s missing from our spread until someone tells me to run across the street and get ahgong a generous pour of beer. Only after we pour out the beer do the coins land on opposite sides, and grandpa starts eating. We give him a gentle head start, then we gather around the table enjoying our meal with him.
As a kid, these traditions were pagan and unworthy of respect and admiration. As an adult, I can’t help but notice how we gather to break bread and remember the love of those who came before us in a way no different from communion. In our remembrance, we pledge to love others the same way we were loved. Ahgong was one of the most Christlike people I know and I believe that every time we gather to eat and in every act of kindness I attempt, his spirit lives in me.
I don’t know if I really believe that there’s something in store for this soul in this body with its ACL torn and cholesterol high after I kick the bucket, but here’s what I do believe: In modeling a life of selfless love, Christ taught us how we attain eternal life. When we live Christ-like lives, our acts of kindness reverberate eternally across those whose lives we touch and beyond.
I believe that many people have received this message of grace both through the Christian faith and otherwise. These people have lived lives filled with warmth, sacrificial love, and a selfless devotion to others. I believe every day, with the little choices we make to channel the warmth they showed us, we keep their sacred spirits alive inside of us. May that love, the love exemplified by the Lord Jesus Christ, live inside all of us forever.