Third place — Andreanna Papatheodoro: Freedom from the orthodox

By Andreanna Papatheodorou

Andreanna Papatheodoro

The incense stung my eyes. It was pitch black. A man with a long beard droned on in a language I don’t speak. I fought to stay awake. Next to me, my brother poked me and tried to start some kind of game. My father hushed us.

I really hated Easter at Greek Church.

I don’t know if it was in this tenebrous drudgery that I discovered I was an atheist, or when my mother’s meditations to the full moon failed to rouse an interest in me. All I know is that at 10 years old, I decided I would tell the kids at school what I’d learned about myself. Some furrowed their brows at me. A boy I had a crush on, the son of a local pastor, gave me links to Christian rock songs on YouTube. He told me he would pray for me.

My mom, a veteran of some unhappy years at Catholic school, explained that I should understand that for people who really believe, hearing that someone doesn’t believe is like seeing them in front of an oncoming truck. It was their job to get them off the road, or at least to warn them. I asked my crush if he thought I was going to hell. He said yes. I cried the whole way home.

But it didn’t change my convictions.

I understand the historical and evolutionary benefits of organized religion. We needed explanations, and so we invented thunder gods and virgin births. All well and good. But we have science now, and tools of discovery. No, everything isn’t perfect, but we’re in a new phase now, and as declining church attendance proves, the era of faith is moving slowly behind us.

I don’t mess around with the hereafter. I am brightly, keenly, sometimes painfully aware that, like water pouring from a jar, life ebbs away, slowly for some, faster for others. We don’t know how much we have in our jar. It’s up to us to enjoy it fully, to live deliberately, and to savor it all. It’s fleeting, and it’s all we have.

I am devoted to social justice. I’ve helped organize parades and I’ve spoken at rallies. I’ve handed out lunches and helped undocumented men organize flu shot clinics. Not because I’m afraid I’ll get licked by flames for eternity if I don’t, but because I want to be a force for good. Our world is flawed, imperfect, but exquisitely filled with hope and possibility. Each of us craft it anew each day, but only if we accept the responsibility that we are all there is. There is no magic chant, no bearded guy in the sky, no afterlife where we’ll be rewarded or punished. This is it, here, now, with its dragonflies and its injustices, its sunflowers and its travel bans.

This is all we have. Today is the day to start making it better. I intend to be a joyous, pushy, hopeful part of that, for as long as I’ve got.

Andreanna, 18, attended Leonia High School in Leonia, N.J. She is trilingual, having a mother born in Spain and a father from Cyprus. She has played soccer for the past 14 years and otherwise volunteers and advocates for the rights of others, with a majority of that work focused on bettering the lives of undocumented immigrants. She will be attending Bryn Mawr College.