Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, meant a few things to Nathan Hahn ’19. One, he was immersed in a primarily black and white environment. Two, he almost never had a Chinese American or Asian American classmate. But church was entirely different.
His ethnically Chinese church was not only a spiritual refuge, but a cultural one as well, says Hahn, whose father emigrated from Taiwan and his mother from Beijing. There at church, congregants could speak Chinese and share their common immigrant, first and second-generation experiences.
Student youth leader. Event planner. A one-man band. As he grew up, Hahn took on multiple roles in the congregation, including leading worship by playing drums, bass and guitar, depending on which instrumental gap needed filling that week. Looking back, Hahn says that as he grew more intentional in his church involvement he saw his individual faith grow in turn.
“Faith and religion…it's not necessarily something that I do on Friday or Sunday or necessarily a compartment of my life,” says Hahn, noting that his faith guides his involvement in activities such as the Pomona-Pitzer swim team and the Asian American Mentorship Program (AAMP).
Back home in South Carolina, self-identifying as a Christian was just assumed. Regardless of ethnic background, almost everybody followed the same faith tradition, Hahn says.
Leaving the South and coming to Pomona, identifications and assumptions were vastly different. When he arrived at the College, there was some culture shock, he says.
“Identifying with a religion or identifying even particularly as Christian, it comes with a lot of baggage considering the history of Christianity and the ways that people have used religion in general as a vehicle for harming others or furthering a selfish intent. And so, it's very different in that you get asked a lot of questions about your religious identity,” says Hahn.
But being questioned is not necessarily a bad thing, he says.
“It's definitely challenged me to engage with my own beliefs and question why I subscribe to this set of beliefs as well as challenge many of the ideas that I had taken for granted before and kind of justified them for myself or even revise what I believe, like how I read the Bible.”
At Pomona, Hahn has found there is plenty of space: space for both the religious and nonreligious and space for self-examination. Being here has taught him that, “Religion isn't necessarily something that is set in stone that must come from someone who is certified to tell you what to believe or that is somehow more educated in this.”
A course on Contemporary Christian Theology taught by Emeritus Professor of Religion and Religious Studies Jerry Irish was particularly formative, helping Hahn to see religion as something other than rules. Among the many things he took away from the class, he learned about the theological discourse that comes out of an experience of oppression.
Religion is “something that has to apply to the experience of people,” says Hahn, who believes that if Christianity didn’t apply to his life, there would be no draw. The quest to find its application has led to a lot of dialogue with other students.
Hahn came to Pomona thinking he’d be a chemistry pre-med major and then considered math, but his courses and conversations led him to decide on religious studies.
“I see that religious influences are around us no matter where we go. Even the decision not to align with what we would traditionally call a ‘religion’ influences the way that we see and interpret the world around us.”
This semester Hahn is learning about “contact zones,” for instance, when Spanish conquistadores and Azteca in Mesoamerica encountered one another; and spaces and times where religious and cultural lenses overlap and something new comes out of conflict, collaboration, purity and hybridity — much like Hahn’s experience as a Chinese American Christian in the Deep South. Hahn explored this overlap in the contact zone of his home state with a Pomona Summer Undergraduate Research Research Program grant in hand. For his project, he went back to South Carolina and conducted interviews, looking at the way Southern culture influences resident Chinese Americans’ religious worldviews and practice.
In the future, Hahn plans to go on to graduate school and continue to study theology and then either teach or become a pastor. In the meantime, he believes he is exactly where he is supposed to be.
“I think that there have been many cases in my life that I actually feel that God had to have done something for things to turn out the way they did. And I think that he put me at Pomona for a very distinct reason,” says Hahn.
Hahn says he may not know the purpose at large, but he sees a purpose on a personal level.
“Since coming, I've been able to learn so much about my own faith and just to create a whole new way of thinking about my religious beliefs as well as religious belief as a whole.”