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Material Girl, Spiritual Girl
J.F.
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Each day on the subway I see fabulous, chic women who I call “life goals.” They might be draped in buttery silk blouses, tailored slacks, and stilettos or in a fitted dress with an origami neckline. The look is never complete without the latest designer bag balanced on a forearm. I like to imagine the adult me as looking like them: classy, graceful, and professional.

But I’m also a Christian, and so I worry: Does that vision have room for God? Has my fashion fantasy pushed faith to the back of my closet?

During elementary school I rarely attended church, mostly because my mother didn’t. She stayed home each Sunday morning and would watch the gospel channel until noon. She didn’t need to leave the house to worship. She enjoyed picking and choosing which songs she would sing. My mother was a non-denominational Christian and taught my siblings and me to fear God and do good. She also taught me to accessorize and how to coordinate, as opposed to matching.

“Where are your earrings? Put on some earrings, you’re a girl,” she’d say as she sent me off to Sunday school.

My Big Brother Jesus

As a little kid and in my early teens I didn’t really care about religion. I prayed every night, but I wasn’t positive that God really existed, and I didn’t appreciate His work in my life. Some stories in the Bible made Him seem scary; destroying the earth, burning cities, creating deadly plagues. I considered Jesus my older brother because He’s the son of God. He seemed gentler, not as intimidating. He’s the one who listened to people, so, starting at age 10, I prayed to Him to get my family out of poverty.

But we remained poor. I began to wonder if I was doing it for nothing, praying every night and holding on to hope. What if God wasn’t real? Christianity perceives other religions to be false—what if Christianity was false too?

My family spent two years in South Africa, and then, after my sophomore year of high school, my parents sent me back to New York to live with my 18-year-old brother. They stayed in South Africa because they weren’t able to obtain visas. I chose to return to the U.S. because most New York City colleges don’t accept South African diplomas, and I knew I wanted to go to college.

My parents made a mistake. My brother turned out to be too young to take responsibility for another person. We ended up losing our apartment and living with our mother’s brother, his wife and two children. I never felt comfortable under their roof. Although they never voiced it, I sensed that my brother and I were a burden to them. (I later went into foster care.)

Now and then I would bury myself in The Bible Pathways, a book of daily devotionals; it explained certain verses in the Bible. It served as a distraction from the reality of being without my real family.

I wanted to go to heaven, which kept me trying to live by God’s law, but I found myself detaching from my values. My parents were across the ocean and couldn’t keep an eye on me, so I took advantage. All my friends were atheist hipsters and I adopted their morals and behaviors. I lied to my parents, tried smoking weed, and dressed provocatively (never tacky though!). The Bible speaks strongly against these things but I ignored it.

I justified breaking His commandments: But I’m not a bad kid. I’m not having sex and doing hard drugs or bashing God. I don’t go out at night, and I’ve never gotten drunk or skipped school. All true, but I knew the things I was doing were wrong. I felt remorse, but every time I tried to turn back to the more innocent me, I couldn’t. I was too caught up in fitting in with my friends.

Hiding

My senior year in high school, I felt terribly alone. I missed having my family to go home to and I had no social life. I was friends with the popular kids, which made me popular, but I couldn’t keep up with their partying, eating out, and shopping in SoHo. I was broke and had a 5 p.m. curfew. I hid my situation from even my closest friends. I never invited anyone over.

Toward the end of the school year, my friend Sky asked me to go shopping with her.

“How much should I bring?” I asked nonchalantly.

“We should at least bring $100. That’s a minimum,” she replied.

“I have some other things I want to buy. I might not have that much by then.” I wasn’t going to tell her the truth: I can barely afford to buy a snack after school.

“You could save up your allowance from now until then, and you should have enough. You do get an allowance, right?”

image by YC-Art Dept

“Every week,” I lied straight through my teeth.

“Great, how much do you get?” she asked curiously. I had no idea what teenagers got for allowance, so I said nothing. Sky’s face changed.

She had seen through my cover story. I’d been pretending I came from a well-to-do family around my friends who did. I mixed and matched the nicer clothes I’d brought from South Africa with some cheap items I bought around the city, but people noticed. I overheard people talking about whether or not the labels I had on were fake because I always wore the same four pairs of shoes. Sky and I remained friends, but after that we rarely hung out outside of school.

An Epiphany

One day my godmother told me about a youth ministry at her church. It sounded lame, but it was better than being home alone on a Friday night. Dubstep music and high fives greeted me at the door. I’d never experienced church like this before. The pastor came on stage in jeans and Jordan’s, cracking jokes and fist-bumping kids. This is church? I thought. I could get used to this.

After a while he began to preach. Right before he dismissed us, we sang some praise and worship songs. “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord,” the regulars began to sing along. “Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you, I want to see you.” I sang along not to look like an outcast.

The pastor yelled out, “Don’t just sing for the person next to you, sing for Jesus! If you don’t mean it, don’t sing it!”

I closed my eyes and listened to the lyrics. I felt something come over me, something too authentic to explain. My blood felt cold as frost, my hands went into the air, and I couldn’t move or hear the music. Memories and emotions took over. I remembered going to the airport and separating from my two younger siblings. Watching them cry and my mother fighting back tears because she was trying to stay strong for them. Tears rolled down my face, but I couldn’t tell whether they were tears of joy or sadness. I was missing my family, but I felt more grateful that I still had them than upset that they were not with me.

When I opened my eyes the music had stopped. Happiness, no, bliss had completely taken over me. Normally I would have felt embarrassed for bawling in public, but I didn’t care. I felt like I do when I’m trying a bold new fashion, slightly uncomfortable but self-assured. My head was held high, I wasn’t worried about people judging me. It just felt right.

That weekend I spent my whole day reading the Bible. I wanted to know more about my role as child of God. I told my cousins and friends about my change, but they all downplayed it. Perhaps the way I explained it came off as unserious—being spiritual was something new for me and I wasn’t confident telling people. It was embarrassing to describe something so intense, especially when my friends were all atheists.

The following weeks I went to church Sunday, Friday, and even Tuesday. But I noticed a trend among the sermons. The pastor kept referring to money and wealth in a negative light—and these are things I love. When I move through Manhattan, I drink in all the Versace, D-Squared, and Moschino, the gold embellishments, metallic clutches, and satin dresses. I find them irresistible. They bring me back to when my family was living on the Upper West Side. We lived in the projects, but were surrounded by the rich, glossy lifestyle. I made it my goal to have that life. I mean to achieve that goal by going to law school and becoming an attorney.


But the Bible says:

“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke: 12:15

and

“Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction… For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” Timothy 6:9-10

I began to worry about whether I was really going after my destiny. Is the pursuit of wealth and possessions right for me, or was the devil trying to trick me out of my loyalty to Jesus by making a high-paying career seem appealing? The more I let these thoughts eat at me, the more I forgot the other reasons I want to be a lawyer. Then I reminded myself that money wasn’t my only motive. I admire the self-control, self-assurance, and strength that I see when I look at successful female lawyers.

God is my anchor, but at times I feel New York’s culture of wealth and fashion pulling me adrift. Each time I stroll through Midtown or Soho I’m looking out for trends and designer clothes. I have to remind myself that how you look and who you’re wearing are not the only things that matter. The Bible (and high school) showed me that not every ring box has a diamond in it. Not everyone who looks good is good.

I Can Contain Both

Still, I’m not ready to give up my interest in fashion. There’s a certain comfort I get from both Christianity and fashion, each of which kept my dreams and my goals alive during a rough time. Both have been a part of my character that hasn’t left me and gave me the confidence I needed to survive in New York City. In both worlds there’s convention, and I appreciate having guidelines and rules.

The Bible is the guide to the right and wrong way to live, and fashion has its bibles too. The Old Testament is stricter, less applicable to daily living, and harder to emulate, like Vogue. The New Testament has an answer to all life’s problems and is clear in how you should go about solving them, like Glamour.

Who says you have to follow only one path? Maybe by embracing my contradictions, I can stay centered.

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(FCYU-2014-10-19)

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