2021 BIPOC student essay contest winners

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 13 top winners and 11 honorable mentions of the 2021 David Hudak Memorial Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color Student Essay Competition.

FFRF has paid out a total of $22,900 in award money for this contest this year.

BIPOC students were asked to write a personal persuasive essay about “What I would tell my family or friends about my atheism or nonbelief.” 

“The quality of the essays this year was one of the best in memory and, because of that, deciding the winners was extremely difficult,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It was a pleasure reading these.” 

Winners, their ages, the colleges or universities they are attending and the award amounts are listed below.

FIRST PLACE

Galilea Baca, 18, Collin Community

College, $3,500.

SECOND PLACE

Shreyas Karki, 21, Rice University,

$3,000.

THIRD PLACE (tie)

Everett Viego, 20, University of Texas,

$2,500.

Fadima Tall, 20, Rollins College,

$2,500.

FOURTH PLACE (tie)

Tylinn Wilson, 19, Wichita State 

University, $2,000.

Philip Haynie, 18, Hampton 

University, $2,000.

FIFTH PLACE

Davina Boison, 19, University of 

North Carolina, $1,500.

SIXTH PLACE

Alina Sokolova, 19, Concordia 

College, $1,000.

SEVENTH PLACE (tie)

Jade Garza, 18, University of 

Texas – San Antonio, $750.

Sumaiyah, 19, $750.

EIGHTH PLACE

Scarly Michelle Benitez-Carbajal, 19 New York University, $500.

NINTH PLACE

Luca Ng, 20, Iowa State University, 

$400.

TENTH PLACE

Anqi Qu, 20, University of Chicago,

$300.

HONORABLE MENTIONS ($200 each)

Caitlin Guidry, 19, Houston 

Community College.

Angie Hayes, 18, University of 

Nevada-Las Vegas.

Grecia Hingst, 22, Loyola University

New Orleans.

Jaromir Sashi, 18, University of 

Houston.

Daphne Moon, 18, Art Institute of 

Chicago.

Christopher Nava, 19, University of

California-Irvine.

Suly Ramirez, 20, University of 

Texas.

Aerahan Skanthakumar, 18, 

University of Illinois.

Cole Songster, 19, Knox College.

Joanna Tapia, 21, Bradley University.

Nadiyah Williams, 19, Georgia 

Institute of Technology.

FFRF also thanks “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of this and FFRF’s other student essays competitions. And we also would like to thank our “faithful faithless” volunteer and staff readers and judges, including: Don Ardell, Dan Barker, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Linda Josheff, Dan Kettner, Sammi Lawrence, Katya Maes, Gloria Marquardt, Amit Pal, Dave Petrashek, Sue Schuetz, PJ Slinger, Mandisa Thomas, David Tomayo, Karen Lee Weidig, Jenny Wilson and Casandra Zimmerman.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010, one geared explicitly for students of color since 2016 and a fifth contest for law students since 2019.

First place — BIPOC essay contest: Galilea Baca 

Galilea Baca

To anyone in my family who will listen

FFRF awarded Galilea $3,500.

By Galilea Baca 

How broken the world must seem to you. Unholy sin in every corner, the stench of unbelievers weighing heavy over the city, and the audacity of others to leave your God. Do you see me differently now, knowing that I, too, am only a vessel through which the Devil seeks to corrupt you and only you? Oh, love, I know that the second this letter enters your home, it will be burned and destroyed, like my inevitable future. Humor me this last time. 

Truly, what has changed in me since I have left? I’m sure you’ve forgotten the restless weeks of nightmares in your home, or how I rarely ate, or how you would find me shaking and anxious when I thought I was alone. How strongly you must wish to see me back in that place, because at least I had God. I guess now I am no longer human. Leaving God has left me a shell of my old self. Gone are my religious ambition, my religious friends, and my God-given home. What, if anything, could I have left? You ignore my accomplishments. As I sit in my sinful home, I plan for my future, a novel concept I’m sure you wouldn’t understand. I have a job I can be proud of, and I have friends who love and care for me in a way that I never felt with the church. Somehow, I have forgiven myself for the “sins” I committed, and I now understand what makes me human. I am a freethinker. Oh, how freeing it is to feel love and respect for myself! 

I know you don’t believe what they’re telling you. How stupid they must think we are for believing that this book written by people long gone is the word of the Creator, even with its beautiful contradictions and horrible depiction of a vengeful and arrogant God. The Governing Body relishes in its perfect scheme, forcing members to shun those who have left so you never really hear what we have to say. They sit in their watchtower and drink to their heart’s content, while our family suffers from their doctrine. Look me in the eyes and tell me that all of their deaths were warranted, the thousands of believers who were tricked into thinking that blood transfusions will somehow condemn them to an eternity of suffering. Do you honestly believe that all women are for, all I am for, that all you are for, is to marry a man and birth him a family? That you must always stay by his side, be the long-suffering wife, and swear to never leave him, even when he hurts you. Is that what you want for me? 

Oh love, I feel like a broken record. Who would want to follow and worship a God that does not care for us? What God would create us with free will, and punish us for exercising that right? What God would sit back and listen to the prayers of his creation, to grant them for the few believing people, and leave the rest of us to suffer? Why believe in a God that separates families, that separated us? 

For your sake, I hope your future children and family members lie when you ask them if they believe, too. Know that when they decide to leave, like so many of us have done, that I will show them real, unconditional love. I will love them like their creators have refused to do. 

Galilea, 18, is from Dallas, and is attending Collin Community College. “I am a Mexican woman who grew up with a love for the humanities and science,” Galilea writes. “I have been working since age 16, and have worked as an optician for a private optometry practice. I am passionate about writing, poetry, gardening, history and biology.” 

Second place — BIPOC essay contest: Shreyas Karki

Shreyas Karki

In spite of God, I am moral

FFRF awarded Shreyas $3,000.

By Shreyas Karki

Dear Ms. Sanchez, 

In 8th grade, you asked me how I could be moral without a Christian God, as if God was Rome and all roads of justice and goodness led to him. I thought that was funny because, as a little brown boy with match-stick arms in a predominantly white school, I associated God with immorality.

The boys with the cross necklaces would call me “curry-eater” or, simply, “shit skin.” The kids quick with a bible verse would ignore the so-called heretical words rolling off my foreign tongue. A boy named Simon — the same name of one of Jesus’ apostles — would bully me relentlessly. He sat in the front row of your class, Ms. Sanchez. Because these kids prayed to your god, they thought good was an identity rather than an action. They believed in your Christian god and, therefore, were moral . . . even if they only applied Jesus’ teachings of acceptance, love and compassion to those with the right ability, race, religion or complexion. 

Historically, God has been used as an excuse to do evil to others under the pretense of good. During the Crusades, God stained the swords of Christians with Muslim blood. Manifest Destiny — America’s “God-given” right to expand — led to the murders of thousands of Native Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, believing in a “religious foundation” in Protestant Christianity, targeted Jews, Catholics, African-Americans. According to them “Jesus was the first Klansman.” Therefore, evil and God aren’t mutually exclusive, which means good and God aren’t mutually inclusive. 

My atheism isn’t an absence of morality. Instead, it’s a relocation of morality: Good doesn’t come from God, good comes from within. Good isn’t something you become by believing in a certain being. Good is something you do. As an atheist, I know I am defined by my actions rather than my beliefs, and therefore choose to practice good. 

Ms. Sanchez, would you describe the kid who punched me for not giving him last week’s homework “good” simply because he followed God? Is a KKK cross burning on my lawn shining the light of a just God? No, because good is something you do. I love my neighbors — even those different than me — because I want to do good, not because God told me to. I feed the homeless because I want to. I don’t cheat, steal, lie or kill because I don’t want to cause harm to others. When you ask the question “How can I be moral without God,” ask yourself this: If God didn’t exist, would you cheat, lie, steal, kill? Would you coat your classroom in gasoline and burn it to ash? Of course not, because God isn’t keeping you from doing those things. It’s you. 

Without God, I am free to think for myself and follow my own moral compass. I hold myself accountable for my actions and cannot be led astray by whispers of evil disguised as good. It’s easier for me to accept and love others. It’s easier for me to look at a boy of a different complexion and greet him with open arms instead of a closed fist. 

Shreyas, 21, is from Pearland, Texas, and attends Rice University, majoring in English. Shreyas wants to be a physician and writer.

Third place (tie) — BIPOC essay contest: Fadima Tall

Fadima Tall

The worshipper’s daughter of sin

FFRF awarded Fadima $2,500.

By Fadima Tall

Dear Auntie Amina, 

I first met you when I was 7 years old. It was three years after my parents, sister and I moved to Ethiopia for Mom’s new job as a diplomat at the African Union. The day you arrived in Addis Ababa, I was terrified. I knew we needed someone to care for us at home because Mom and Dad worked full-time and traveled often, but why someone who lived almost 3,000 miles away? Why separate them from their family? As the years passed, my questions were slowly answered. Your family was financially compensated for your sacrifice to live with us in a foreign country, not only to take care of four young girls, but to teach us our culture and religion. Because of you, I speak fluent Fulani and I am extremely well versed in Islam. I can read Quranic Arabic, a skill I will always be grateful for. I have memorized over half of the Quran, fasted every single Ramadan since age 9, and I instinctively say a prayer when I am in shock. Still, over the last few years, my connection to God has slowly withered away. 

I am sorry that you feel a sharp pain in your chest after reading that. I’m sorry you feel like you have failed our family and I’m sorry you lost years of your life to this. I do not regret learning about Islam, reading the Quran, or fasting, and I would be lying if I said Islam wasn’t a quintessential contributor to my character development. However, I have moved on because I cannot believe in a god that would allow the suffering of devout followers to continue. You deserve better after all the worshipping and giving you have done. There are billions of others like you who spend their entire lives refusing to live freely, expecting that they will be rewarded in death, but the only evidence you have is “faith.” That’s not enough for me.

I know you are worried that denouncing Islam means that I am immoral. What you need to realize is that you, not the Quran, taught me to be a good person. I choose to be honest because it always pained me to lie to you, not because I am afraid of hell. I give to the needy because every year we did it together, not because I am trying to get into heaven. I choose not to kill because I have seen you grieve, not because God forbids it. I know that in your God’s eyes I am a degenerate, I am queer, I don’t dress modestly, I do not pray five times a day, and I have committed countless sins without regret. Nevertheless, I refuse to hinder myself from experiencing the full extent of my humanity simply for a chance at eternity in a place I do not believe exists. I don’t know what comes after death, but I do know that you love me infinitely and that my happiness is yours, so, believe me when I say I have never felt more free or sure of myself than I do now. I finally feel like I have full access to my existence, and I am committed to doing good because I value life: yours, mine and all others’. I am thankful for everything I learned from this religion — that I truly believe is beautiful in its own way — but I no longer live to appease God, only for experiences as fulfilling as our relationship. 

Fadima, 20, attends Rollins College. “I was born in New York and my parents are Cameroonian and Malian, but I grew up in Ethiopia,” Fadima writes. “I am a political science major and president of an on-campus organization that I started called Students for Revolutionary Change. My goal in the future is to pursue a career in political activism and community organizing.”

Third place (tie) — BIPOC essay contest: Everett Viego 

Takes my breath away

FFRF awarded Everett $2,500.

By Everett Viego

Everett Viego

“BOOM!” 

A streak of lightning cut through the sky. The storm was closing in on us. “Quick, Dad!” I remember shouting. “We better take cover!” We scampered off the hiking trail and took refuge under a giant oak tree, its gnarled arms shaking violently as hail and icy rain pelted down. Then, something caught your eye. “Breathtaking.” You gasped, pointing at the sky. “A symbol of God’s promise.” I looked up, mesmerized. But I saw something entirely different. I saw an optical illusion, the refraction and dispersion of light through a million water droplets. 

I saw a rainbow. 

That was a memory from when we hiked Lady Bird trail, and I’ll never forget it. The experience instilled within me the haunting realization that, despite inheriting your bright, hazel eyes, I perceive the world through a completely different lens. You heard the wrath of God; I heard the discharge of electrons. You felt the tears of angels; I felt the surface tension of water droplets as they became unbalanced and burst. You saw a spiritual covenant; I saw a rainbow. 

My perceptions are rooted in research. And it is for this reason that I choose to be atheist: God — unlike mathematics — follows no proof. 

Years before that fateful day at Lady Bird, you attempted to unify our very different perspectives on nature. “What comes next, kiddo?” I remember you asking me as I peered at a burnt orange leaf in your hand. “More cells, Dad?” I mumbled. “Scientists have no idea what comes after atoms, Everett. That’s how complex a leaf is — something only God could have created,” you responded. I stared at the blackened, ravaged trees along the trail. “What causes the leaves to fall?” I inquired. “A force, Everett, a force caused by the Big Bang. And do scientists know what caused the Big Bang?” 

During that autumn stroll, you tried to use gaps in our current understanding of natural phenomena to prove intelligent design and the “first cause” argument. However, this goes against the scientific method, which requires all hypotheses to be validated through observable experimentation. The result is an argument which forms the logical crux of my atheism: God as a spiritual construct cannot be measured within the physical bounds of science; thus, God cannot be treated as a scientific hypothesis in explaining the complexities and origin of the universe. 

While we may perceive nature through two very different lenses, I believe it is our inherent, human awe toward the beauty and mysterious inner workings of the universe that unites us. I hope to one day join the theoretical physicists daring to squeeze our entire mathematical description of the universe into a single equation — a “theory of everything,” as it has been called. 

As I spend my final summer nights before heading off to college stargazing while discussing the future of quantum computing with my newfound friends at the Secular Student Alliance, I cannot help but smile. You were right, Dad. Our universe is complex. But, together, scientists are finding ways to make sense of it all, one terabyte at a time. And that takes my breath away. 

Everett, 20, is from New Braunfels, Texas, and attends the University of Texas.

“While I have undertaken years of extensive, outside-the-classroom research with dual credit professors, I am most fascinated with the light and ultrasonic wave interaction research I conducted while utilizing my university’s Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) program,” Everett writes.

Fourth place (tie) — BIPOC essay contest: Philip Haynie

Philip Haynie

Lessons from a deconversion

FFRF awarded Philip $2,000.

By Philip Haynie  

Dear Uncle, 

It may console you that not once during my deconversion from Christianity did I ever think that my time spent in the church was a complete waste. Despite years of theological indoctrination, some emotional manipulation from members and stifled intellectual freethought whenever it veered close to church doctrine, I can separate the good times from the bad. More importantly, I would have never grasped the dangers of religion as well as I do without witnessing them at church firsthand.

I will undoubtedly continue criticizing the church as an institution (so maybe think twice before bringing religion up at Thanksgiving), but if my nonbelief has upset you more than you’ve let on, I hope this letter will alleviate some of your worries. 

Firstly, you may be thinking: But Philip, there are reasonable Christians that point out the errors of the church and condemn ‘bad’ Christians while still retaining their faith! So why are you an atheist? Simple. Because there’s no good reason to believe that the supernatural claims — past, present and future — of Christianity, Scientology or any other religions humans have adhered to are remotely true, and many of the “natural” elements of the bible you hold up as “God’s word” are self-contradictory or blatantly inaccurate. While, yes, I’d concede that a chaotic deistic God could exist, it would be indistinguishable from the forces of nature (and a pretty uninteresting character). Since all the evidence indicates that the biblical God is fictitious and I don’t believe in any other gods, I’m an atheist. 

I “chose to be an atheist” the same way people “choose to get into car accidents.” As a driver who unexpectedly crashes en route, I was struck by a harsh realization after I investigated the veracity of my religious beliefs: They had next to nothing to stand on. I concluded that if the things our family’s religion teaches are founded on mistruths, then the mysterious divine wisdom justifying its more inexplicably horrible commands has no moral sovereignty. Rather, it has centuries’ worth of needless suffering to be held accountable for. 

I’m writing to you specifically because I appreciate your sincere reaction to my “coming out” as an atheist last year. You came from a place of concern, and you weren’t utterly disappointed, angry, in denial or making condescending remarks about how I’m “too young to know my own beliefs.” No. You simply asked me what I would turn to without my faith when life gets difficult or overwhelming. I hope my answer suffices: 

In all the times I remember falling down in my life, I’ve either gotten back up by myself (in which case I should be proud) or thanks to the helping hands of others (in which case I should be grateful). No god was required to pull me up, and neither was a church. I’ve found the community, friendships and sense of fellowship you value in your congregation in secular groups without any part of religion you imply is necessary. When you think about it, isn’t that wonderful news for humans regardless of their religions or their lack thereof? Psalms 133:1 was right about something; it is good and pleasant for people to dwell together in unity. 

Philip, 18, is from Burgess, Va., and attends Hampton University. “As a climate change legislation advocate, I’ve volunteered for several state and federal political campaigns since 2020 and phone banked with Sunrise Movement,” Philip writes. “I recently pushed my local board of supervisors to introduce solar farm zoning to the county, and I promote energy-efficient irrigation tech for farmers to minimize overwatering.”

Fourth place (tie) — BIPOC essay contest: Tylinn Wilson 

Tylinn Wilson

The shackles of religion

FFRF awarded Tylinn $2,000. 

By Tylinn Wilson 

Dear Black Community, 

There are few things I am more proud of than being African-American, a descendant of the very people that built this country, and a member of a community that continues to thrive despite widespread discrimination and anti-blackness. 

From the way we walk, to the way our skin glows in the sun, the way our hair defies gravity, the way we are able to find humor in any situation, the way we maintain our beautiful culture despite our ancestors having theirs ripped away, are all reasons we are such a remarkable group. I am writing this letter today to talk about a construct that I believe is holding us back from all of the progress we could be making as a community. 

Christianity is so deeply ingrained in Black culture despite it being something forced upon our ancestors during slavery. Some of our greatest leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., had a religious background. On Sundays, you’ll find Black families filling the pews of a Baptist church that their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all attended. We all recognize moms and big-mamas touting “God don’t like ugly” or “Won’t he do it!” It’s no surprise that the infiltration of religion in our daily lives has led to “atheism” being a dirty word in Black households. However, I think a lot of the misconceptions and hesitancy toward atheism and freethought is something that can be fixed through explanations and conversations from nonbelievers like myself. 

Above all, I am an atheist because I believe in peace, justice and equity for all. Many people believe that atheists are devoid of morals, but some of the most immoral acts in history have been committed in the name of religion. Christianity was used to justify the killing and cultural destruction of Indigenous Americans. Jihadists have used Islam as a basis for terrorist attacks around the world. Harmful ideas about women’s autonomy has roots in archaic religious ideas. 

Nothing of this scale has been committed by atheists  and it is certainly    not in line with letting people live in harmony. I would consider the morality of atheists to be more solid than that of religious people because we do good without having to be threatened with eternal damnation. 

Another reason I feel so strongly about abandoning religion is because I think, as a society, we are far too educated to keep buying into it. We know that in the past people made up stories to explain the things they did not understand. There was not enough scientific discovery to understand the ways in which all of the species on Earth evolved, so people made up intelligent design to explain it. There was not yet technology to explore space, so people used scriptural commentaries as a means to say that the Earth was the center of the universe. With all of the scientific progress we have made in the last 500 years, we know more than enough to understand that some magical being did not just pull everything out of thin air in six days. 

Allowing myself to trust in science and live life the way I see fit has been one of the best decisions of my life. I think that as a community, letting go of religion would be extremely beneficial. The plight of people with mental illness wouldn’t be met with “pray it away” and LGBTQ+ youth wouldn’t have to fear being outcasts in the community. We could move away from waiting for God to save us, and instead focus on mobilizing and providing mutual aid to those in need. 

Tylinn, 19, is from Wichita, Kan., and attends Wichita State University as a pre-med student majoring in biology. “I hope to become a physician specializing in maternal-fetal medicine in order to address the rising maternal and infant mortality rates in Black and Indigenous communities,” Tylinn writes. “Outside of school, I enjoy photography, oil/watercolor painting, spending time with family, and watching any documentary I can find!”

Fifth place — BIPOC essay contest: Davina Boison 

Davina Boison

In the name of humankind

FFRF awarded Davina $1,500.

By Davina Boison 

To my Southern praying grandmother, 

You know better than anyone the crippling and self-demoting effects of things like inequality and racism. You’ve seen firsthand the lives taken away from your brothers and sisters under the all-knowing premise of an invisible God. It was you who immigrated to America from a country over 6,000 miles away. You, who, with a tenacious heart, laughed in the face of adversity and made your dreams come true. You then raised grandchildren, who, with that same fervent spirit, now plan to change the world. But, even with all this, you still credit your accomplishments to a man in the sky. 

I want you to know that I am still that same granddaughter. And the darkness that people around you, and sometimes even you, associate with atheists and other freethinkers of the world, is a facade and a lie. 

I am a humanist. 

Now, Grandma, breathe. You’re probably praying profusely right about now, and maybe even in tongues. But you and me, Granny, we’re not all that different. The light that exists in you hasn’t dimmed in me because of this, and if you just let me explain, I’m sure you will be able to see how my true calling in life can still exist without a dependence on a holy trinity. 

Humanism is a philosophical belief that stresses the importance and ability of all humans to succeed. To me, it means that we humans are responsible for our successes and failures in life, but we should all strive to be better. Some of the greatest things we have in life are thanks to human strength and tenacity and all too many times that praise goes to a God. The rationale that drives the humanistic view and its optimistic realism fell in line with my own views despite growing up in a strict Southern Ghanaian Christian household. In you, and the surrounding elders of the church, I saw an overdependence on a God and his son. I witnessed praise being shouted upon to a figure in the high heavens and not the people down on Earth who worked tirelessly to make that feat possible. Quite simply, it was the lack of appreciation for the changemakers right here that had me questioning God-based religion at such a young age. 

Ironically, the event that ultimately sealed and confirmed my stance was that final time leading our church’s Vacation Bible School. Things like compassion, change and the common goal of wanting better for others worldwide was not a God-based mission but a human-fueled one. 

You remember when you said you could “start seeing the light in me?” It was a few weeks after my revelation and when I started working with the PHS for their environmental campaign and doing STEP mentoring. After that day, I realized it was religion that was holding me back. You used to always say, “God will take care of it in the end.” But there were many times when God did not. There were times when action would have outworked even your strong faith. 

Grandma, humanism is the fuel and gas for change. It’s not a crooked unreliable cross to lean on or some half-hearted second attempt at salvation. It’s not even a system that asks anything of its believers, but, yet, most people can’t fully commit. It was humanism, after you, that taught me to believe in myself and others, and I hope one day that more of our people can say the same.

Davina 19, is from Glen Allen, Va., and attends the University of North Carolina. “In high school, I started my own nonprofit hair braiding organization to help young wide-eyed girls throughout my community, volunteered with inner city kids, graduated with a 4.2 GPA, all while working two jobs,” Davina writes. “My goal is to become a physician or business powerhouse first, then become a health administrator who bridges the lines between cultural decency and public policy to provide world-class health care to patients from all over the world.” 

Sixth place — BIPOC essay contest: Alina Sokolova

Alina Sokolova

A letter to my Christian friend

FFRF awarded Alina $1,000.

By Alina Sokolova

Hello, my religious friend from Kyrgyzstan! I haven’t seen you since I left the village, but it’s no surprise that we still keep in touch. After all, we have a lot in common, despite our different races: We are both Russian, both from single-parent families, both were baptized in the Orthodox Church and both went to a Christian school. It’s been two years since I started to live in the United States, but I still reflect on my memories and the influence of religion on our lives. 

My friend, I realized that Christianity did not do me any good. It made me tolerate discrimination, stopped me from reporting abuse and deceived me for years by promising God’s help for my faith. If I was given a choice to be baptized or not, I wouldn’t become a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, knowing how much harm it would cause me. 

This reminds me of your words about us being “lucky” to be born Russian, unlike those Kyrgyz girls with Muslim parents who forbid them to attend school. The truth is, both of us are victims of patriarchal religion that has been used to control our bodies and lives. 

I evaluated my memories of our school with a morality course, where we were told how to appropriately behave, and noticed that girls received a lot more rules and judgment. Do you remember how a female student was crying after being lectured by a teacher? She got a verbal punishment for simply putting her head on another boy’s shoulder during a prayer. We both saw that the girl was the only one blamed for “inappropriate” behavior. You and I chose to ignore it, believing that she deserved it for her disobedience. Our childlike faith was used as a tool to make us submissive. My friend, I no longer approve of such a religion, where girls like us are raised to be obedient or threatened with shaming for doing otherwise. 

In that school, I was taught Christian pacifism and the rule of nonresistance: “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” I consider it one of the most harmful lessons because it prevented me from resisting the obstacles and taking action. My friend, for almost four years of living with an alcoholic grandfather, I never mentioned it to anyone, including you. I did not share my family’s problems because I was afraid of embarrassment and judgment from other villagers. My grandma quietly tolerated my grandfather’s disrespect and never discussed it with me. 

As a child, I did not know how to cope with this situation, so I relied on God’s help. Traditional ways and religion silenced me from reporting abuse. It took me years to figure out that turning the other cheek to get hit and praying so my grandfather would stop drinking wouldn’t work at all. 

My life improved when I rejected the Russian Orthodox Church. I separated from the abusive environment and moved to the capital to live with my mother. Leaving the village, going to a nonreligious school and not attending church made me too busy doing what I had been praying for. Freedom from religion gave me strength to become an exchange student in the United States, share my story with a human rights organization and apply for asylum. I’ve lived “without God by my side” for three years already, and I am proud to have my life in my own hands. 

Alina, 19, is from Eden Prairie, Minn., and attends Concordia College. “I am a half-Russian, half-Korean asylum-seeker from Kyrgyzstan and an undocumented student,” Alina writes. “My major is political science because I plan to work in the United Nations to help Central Asian countries. I used to volunteer in a South Korean organization and helped with creating an annual charity fair.”

Seventh place (tie) — BIPOC essay contest: Jade Garza 

Jade Garza

Save me a seat at our last supper

FFRF awarded Jade $750.

By Jade Garza 

Dear Meme and Grandaddy, 

I would like to thank you for coming to watch me graduate, your first granddaughter to be done with high school. I remember it so vividly; you were both praising the lord that I finished, so proud of what he had let me accomplish. Except it was all me, every bit. I want you to know that I’ve never received the divine intervention you think I had, God never stopped by to hand deliver me the answers to my algebra test like you think he may have. All the work I’ve done these past four years are free of the touch of religion — and so am I. 

The hard work I put in shouldn’t be invalidated by what you believe. All the countless nights up late and hours staying after school are something I’m proud of. And being an atheist means I get to accept the full credit I’ve earned. There was no spirit lifting me up in the dead of night while I slaved away to get all A’s, only my dedication and drive. And your dedication to saying everything I’ve accomplished was God’s plan drives me mad. I’ve planned my own life and what I want to do, no touching of my spirit needed. I’ve long since traded my hours believing for hours of being present in my own life as my own driving force. And boy did I waste so many hours believing. 

 I used to think I was one of God’s kids destined for heaven, not damned to hell for being a nonbeliever. But I was damned to hell anyway because you always said God’s kids can’t be gay. It took me a while to understand that you would never get how I could think freely and love just the same. 

The same grandparents who picketed and sat in for civil rights would refuse a seat at the table if my girlfriend were there. I used to feel so judged, even when you didn’t know my not-so-dirty homosexual secret. I was never feminine enough, never knowledgeable enough, never devout enough. When every step you take is a mistake and every mistake you make is a sin you’re never enough. 

Freeing myself from the shadow of my supposed sins was never easy. You always seemed to have something to say, something that made me want to curl into a ball so tight I would implode. There’s no hate quite like Christian love, and you sure showed it. I hope you’re able to have your cake and eat it, too, in your perfect afterlife. I know I’ll be just fine. 

Jade, 18, is from Kingsville, Texas, and attends the University of Texas at San Antonio. “I am nonbinary and I like playing soccer,” Jade writes. “When I’m not playing soccer, I’m usually playing an instrument. I was in band for six years and competed at the state level several times.”