Daughter of a Preacher Man

For Esther I. Yi ’11, there’s no separation of church and home

In middle school, I privately rejoiced at the miles of highway that stood between me and church. Every Sunday, my family would drive for two hours up the spine of New Jersey to make it in time for the weekly service—a certain inconvenience for all other parties involved but me. I wanted to be as far away as possible from that old stone building; I hated its ancient musk, the creepy pictorial interpretations of the Beatitudes on the wall, and the constant singing that wafted Gregorian-style from the adult choir room.

My feelings for church were validated by the sheer horror I often felt as I stared at the green-shuttered rectory that stood right by the building. How anyone—even the reverend—could choose to sleep, shower, and do laundry 50 feet away from that place and its ubiquitous chanting was beyond my comprehension. Nine years later, this past February, I was informed that my family would be moving into the rectory immediately. Yes, that one.

Since sixth grade, not only had my family returned to that old stone church, but my dad had been educated and ordained as a pastor. I am what you would call a “PK,” short for “Pastor’s Kid.” If you visit Korean grocery stores throughout northern New Jersey, you will find CDs of my dad’s sermons available for your listening pleasure. (My mom likes to blast them in the car, and it always makes me feel as though my dad is yelling at me.)

I find that there’s a lot of commiseration and shared self-loathing when PKs meet each other. To be sure, I’m quite proud of what my dad does, but it’s a profession that has constantly influenced my own complicated relationship with religion. Most of the adults at my church squeal and coo when they see me, squeezing my cheeks and calling me “blessed” for my close spiritual ties. One man gave me a giant box filled with slabs of red pork with the hopes that I grow nice and big, like some sacred cow. Church and filial duty are two sides of the same coin: with my paltry guitar skills, I have belted out Christian songs in front of deadpan-faced children, and I once chaperoned a trip for them to watch a supremely awkward musical about Adam and Eve.

I won’t bother you with the details, but I should clarify that within my pretty religious family, I am on the much lower end of the spectrum. In high school, I was a bit too pugnacious to be a good PK: I may or may not have made life difficult for one youth pastor whom I deemed unfit to lead our young charges. When I came to Harvard, I found how easy it was to skip church on Sundays—and I grew to dread the Monday phone call from my mom asking if I had gone. My dad would mail me imposing messages, scrawled on unlined paper, about how I should really read the Bible, among other pieces of life advice. Every trip I made back home from college heightened my sense of religious fraudulence as the daughter of a pastor: when people asked me about my religious community up in Boston, I simply stammered and curled my toes (an anxious tic).

So when I first learned that my family would actually be moving into the rectory, life seemed to be laughing in my face. Distance had always been the comforting buffer maintaining the separation between home life and church—a distinction already made tenuous by my dad’s profession. But now I saw how my spring break would really go: I would wake up in some dank wooden chamber of a room lit by candles and decorated with crucifixes, to the discomfiting sound of congregation members either praying or singing down below. Are inhabitants allowed to watch “Jersey Shore” or curse in a rectory? Would there even be Internet?

But in the few times that I have been home since February, I have come to love the rectory. Churchgoers do pop by from time to time, but it has ultimately become a home for my family. I like how I know everyone is home when I hear the washing machine running noisily all day long. I love how before my arrival, my mom carefully preens my yellow bathroom and then stacks my bed with at least five different varieties of sheets so that I often cannot move once I’m pinned underneath.

Even though I can see the church through nearly all the windows, the rectory has—weirdly enough—become less about the church or my identity as a PK, and more about my family. We often say at home that my mom’s two greatest loves in life are church and family—so she just about loses it when my siblings and I come home and go to church together. No matter what religious path I ultimately choose for myself, I can rest assured that our new home has confirmed what I have always valued about religion: its place in my family.

When I go back home in a couple weeks, I know that my mom will ask me to attend early morning service with her at 5 a.m., and I will try my best to oblige. After all, it’s only a jaunt away, and there’s nothing like going home after all these months—even if that means walking hand-in-hand with my mom to that old stone building I used to hate so much.

—Esther I. Yi ’11 is a History and Literature concentrator in Dunster House. She still occasionally bursts into song around the holidays.

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