Born into an Indian, Hindu family, Sri Vijayan, 20, spent most of her childhood and teenage years in an unquestioning stance on her religious identity. She participated in Indian classical dance, visited temple every day and would visit India every year with her family. However, at 18, Vijayan’s lifestyle underwent a major shift when she decided to delve into Christianity. On September 11, 2016, she was baptized; and ever since, she has made Christianity an integral part of her lifestyle. Going against her family’s traditions, she bravely embraces her new religious identity as a personal choice; one that provides her with fulfillment and comfort. Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Was there a moment that first caused you to question your Hindu identity?
A: I dated a guy for four years in high school, and his dad was a pastor. In the beginning of the relationship, we would argue about religion, and I was still Hindu at that point. I would be like, “You don’t understand. I can’t believe you could be so close-minded to want me to be a certain way.” And I told him, eventually, “The only reason you’re Christian is because your parents are.” But then I realized the only reason I was Hindu was because my parents are Hindu. So I was like, I owe Christianity a chance, you know? If I’m telling him he’s close-minded, I might as well be open-minded myself. When we broke up, I had no idea what to do with myself. My family didn’t know about the relationship, so it’s not like I could go to them. I literally went to the bathroom and was like, “God if you’re up there, I need help.” And He brought me through that phase. Here I am, still smiling, which I never thought I’d do. That was proof of God for me.
Q: How does having a religious and spiritual foundation make your life easier to navigate?
A: Religion and spirituality give a certain structure to my life, as well as a certain freedom. People often think that religion gives them too many boundaries, restrictions and rules. But I feel the opposite. The whole basis of Christianity is that God loves you no matter what. You’re going to make mistakes. And the fact is, you don’t know everything, and that’s okay. That comes as a huge sense of relief to me. I don’t know what will come tomorrow, but God does, and He’s taking care of me. He’s looking over me and pointing me toward the right path, even though I might not be able to see it. I can walk by faith, not sight. God is like a friend I can talk to every day. He’s a constant companion, and that’s so comforting.
Vijayan (third from the left) poses with her Indian cultural dance team, Gatornatyam. She performs with the group while studying at the University of Florida.
Q: What has been the hardest part about converting?
A: The hardest part isn’t becoming knowledgeable about the religion, like reading the Bible and getting to know the facts. The hardest part is dealing with social identity. It’s telling people, “Hey, I’ve changed. This is what I am now.” Because it’s easier to just step back into the shadows and blend in. But when you don’t speak up, the people around you don’t even have the chance to support you, and then what are you relying on? Those words of encouragement have such a great impact on you. When you don’t have them, it’s really hard to remain strong in your own beliefs and values. You have to work extra hard to keep thinking, “This is my truth, even if people around me are telling me different.”
Even after her conversion, Vijayan enjoys spending time reading the Bible. She considers Psalm 91 her favorite passage.
Q: Have you ever doubted your decision to convert?
A: Doubt is a very common theme in my life when it comes to faith. And I’m pretty sure it is for everyone. The semester that I converted and got baptized, even though my life was in shambles, my relationship with God was great. And then my life got fixed and better. The next semester — when my life was great — I didn’t think I needed God anymore. That was when doubt came into play. I thought, “Do I really need God?” And I was so fresh from converting that it was a complete 180°. I thought, “Maybe it’s all fake. Maybe it was just a run, a sudden passion or fire, and now it’s died out.” When I told my church leader, she chuckled and said, “This is just the beginning. This is normal. People have this every day. Every day, people doubt God — whether He exists.” So yes, I doubt God, but I think that’s part of my role as a believer. My belief in God gets stronger when I test it.
Q: What do you think is the fate of faith in America?
A: I think there’s enough people who are strong enough in their faith to be able to create a chain effect. They can spread the idea of having faith, whether it be through Christianity or any other religion. But at the same time, right now, the focus is on other things in America. America’s culture, as of today, isn’t focused on religion and spirituality. It’s not a conversation we have a lot. Today’s America is more focused on the “practical” aspects of life — especially in politics — rather than the “theoretical” aspects of things, like God. Other matters have more urgency.
Rosa Hernandez, 21, never felt comfortable as a Christian. Baptized as a child to appease her fervently religious grandparents, she just couldn’t bring herself to believe in its theology.
Christmas and Easter were observed “in the most secular way possible.” The faith was more of a punchline than a guideline for her atheistic parents, and they wanted to give her the freedom to forge her own religious path.
By the time she graduated high school, Hernandez knew what she wanted to do.
“It very slowly crept up on me that I had this affinity towards Judaism,” she said. “Judaism, I found, was much more rich and reasonable. I loved that it wasn’t merely about obeying rules in a book, but about arguing your beliefs with each other and, at times, with Adonai (God) himself.”
That questioning, it seems, is happening more now than it ever has before.
THE GREAT CHANGE
Doubt is among life's greatest constants; but for one reason or another, millennials are more prone to it than any other generation.
A 2017 study conducted by the Barna Group revealed that 38 percent of millennials experience religious doubt. Per the report, that figure is "about twice as much doubt as any of the other generational groups (23 percent (of) Gen-Xers, 19 percent (of) Boomers, 20 percent (of) Elders)."
Other sources corroborate this fact. Conversion and religion go hand-in-hand, but according to data published by the Pew Research Center, millennials are switching faiths at record rates. When asked if they still adhered to the religion they were raised in, the cohort reported the lowest retention rates of the four generations studied in the survey.
That disparity remained constant across denominations: Only 50 percent of millennials who were raised Catholic continue to identify as such, while 37 percent of those raised as Mainline Protestants and 70 percent of those raised Jewish remain within their initial faith.
Where they elect to take their spirituality remains unknown. Previous research conducted by Pew suggests that generational groups tend to become less religious as they age, and millennials who were raised unaffiliated had the highest retention rate of all studied cohorts.
Some, however, are committing themselves to different organized religions, and are realizing that they don’t have to surrender their culture to follow its given spiritual path.
CULTURE VS. RELIGION
Temple was a constant in Sri Vijayan’s early life. All of Hindu culture was — she’s been participating in Indian classical dance since the age of four.
Over time, though, the religious aspect faded. Spurred on by clashes with a former boyfriend’s pastor father, the now-20-year-old joined a Christian community choir. Soon enough, she was a regular at a microchurch. As of her baptism in 2016, she’s followed the Christian tradition.
Vijayan believes she owes everything to her Indian roots — they give her a sense of identity. But despite her mother’s objections, she realized that those same roots didn’t need to dictate her religion. Dance, she thinks, provides the best example of this change.
“Before, because I used to believe in that culture that I’d grown up in, I would be moved personally on stage by those stories. I would start crying,” she said. “Now … it’s more that I’m appreciating the culture and the religion and respecting those gods, but at the same time, I don’t feel as much of a connection to the story that I’m portraying.
“It’s more that it’s just a story, a fictional tale, rather than ‘oh, this is truth.’”
For millennials, that sense of connection plays a role in the conversion
process. Different organized religions demand different things — some
more taxing than others — from their adherents. Some potential converts
may want to abandon the strictures of their original faith. Others, like
Hernandez, yearn for a more active feeling of spiritual connection.
Additionally, personal networks and community impact religious
development. Who someone associates with can influence their religious
attitudes. Hernandez attributes part of her reformation to it: By her count,
75 percent of her childhood friends are Jewish.
Above all, though, these changes point to the human desire to encounter the divine on one's own terms. The fate of traditional religious institutions might hinge on that realization.
“At the end of the day, something like religion is extremely personal,” Hernandez said. “It’s no one else’s place to judge someone’s relationship with God, regardless of which one they believe in.”