COLUMN: I traveled 8,000 miles to find God


Grand Rapids junior Quinn Kirby looks out at the ocean near Phi Phi, Thailand during summer 2018.

Studying abroad in Thailand killed my God and brought it back to life.

I’ve tried my entire life to put a label on my belief system. Raised Lutheran, worshipping God in a formal group setting felt inspiring, but ultimately lackluster. Catholic mass felt similar in the sense I was being told what a divine creator said through an indirect source. I felt if God could speak to regular people and show them signs thousands of years ago, he could do the same for me.

In high school, I explored Taoism and Buddhism out of interest in the idea that human beings are responsible for the good and bad we encounter; that the way we choose to react to our surroundings and situations actively create our “now.” I was also interested in Sikhism, as the belief system places emphasis on respect for all religions and encourages those in its community to educate themselves on other religious practices. 

Though I enjoyed the learning experience, nothing really worked for me. To anyone who asked, I was spiritual, but not religious. According to the Pew Research Center, I shared this sentiment with a quarter of the U.S. population. Even with a community behind me, I still wasn’t satisfied.

Then, I entered college. I took an introduction to religion course to learn basic religious history, took a photo assignment at Central Michigan Life that exposed me to individuals in different practices and studied and practiced different systems on my own. Still, none seemed to click.

I wanted a single religion to summarize the support, love and acceptance of people different than me while advocating for personal growth and development. After awhile, I found myself becoming jealous of individuals who had already claimed this in practices that had “failed” me. 

Since I was interested in how Western Buddhism differed from where it originated, I chose to study abroad in Asia when I had the opportunity this summer. I attended Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai, Thailand for six weeks and enrolled in a course, "Religion in Contemporary Thailand," to gather more information on the country’s religious traditions. 

According to the US Department of State, 94 percent of the Thai population is Buddhist, followed by Muslims at five percent, while the final one percent is comprised of Christian, animist, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Confucian and Taoist practitioners. The course I took at Chiang Mai University explored the first three major religions of the country and added information on animism, Hinduism and Sikkhism because Thailand’s major religious practices tend to blend in symbolism from the minor practices, as well. 

Through the course, I was able to visit Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh temples. We spoke with Buddhist monks, Lutheran missionaries and Mennonite volunteers. The more I learned, the more I felt religion was becoming an antiquated social force. Only some forms of Buddhism allow women into monkhood and is more an atheistic philosophy than religion, Christianity and Islam believe salvation is only possible through belief in their god, while Hinduism’s multi-deity system was simply just too complicated for me to comprehend.

I gave up entirely. I thought that if God was out there, the divine creator would have recognized my hard work and effort and would have helped lead me to the religion that allowed me to learn the practice, traditions and orthodoxy the best by now. 

A couple days later, a thought came to me. 

I had already been shown how to get closer to God. Through my curiosity and talking to passionate people about their specific practice, I was able to learn how the divine creator decided to show itself to everyone. 

My religion is religion. It’s getting to know the creator through its creation - human, plant, animal, and social construct. 

My relationship with my creator grows stronger by appreciation of its creation, and although it took me traveling halfway across the world to realize, I’d do it all again in half a heartbeat.