DURING ONE OF my weekly trips to my family’s home in Portland during the dark and cold winter months, I helped my older brother, Arthur, 31, tuck in his children before their bedtime. Arthur’s small, bright iPhone flashlight illuminated his face and a children’s Bible in the stuffy, cramped bedroom that he shares with his children. 

When I peeked my head in the door, Arthur was reading a story about Elijah the prophet from the book 2 Kings to my nieces. I realized it was the same children’s Bible that my siblings and I had read growing up. 

When I was a child living with my family in Keizer, Oregon, near Salem, my mom tried her best to keep me in the walls of the church: She would share Bible stories, register me in Vacation Bible School and let me sing in the church children’s choir. She believed (and still does) that passing down religion to her children is the biggest inheritance she could give us.

A photojournalist trains his camera on his own family after years of physical and spiritual distance

MY MOTHER IS one of the most devoted people I know. For years of her life, without fail, I could hear her loud alarm every morning at 4:50 sharp. She always told me the Lord was waiting for her because it was her daily scheduled time to pray. With a cacophony of spiritual shouts and words of prayer seeping through the walls of our three-story house, I always struggled to stay asleep.  

She wanted to model my life with the courage of Daniel in the Lions’ Den from the Bible. In the story, Daniel was a pious man who was thrown into the den for praising God under the rule of King Darius; the Bible says Daniel survived through his faith in God alone. Little did my mom know “Daniel Kim” is one of the most common Korean American names in the United States. She gave me what she thought was a special name, but all my life, no one could find me on Facebook. 

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My brother was never as devoted as my mother, so it was strange to see him express the same kind of passion to pass down these traditions to his three children. But during this time of isolation, the COVID-19 pandemic, my brother had decided to self-reflect and take a hard look at how he is living his life.

RELIGION ALWAYS HAS FELT like oil and water with my family and me. I grew up the youngest of three children by a large age gap, so it always seemed as if my brother and sister (who is 34 now, and lives in Korea) didn’t have time for me. Beyond that, my parents and I did not speak the same language: I spoke English to them, and they disapprovingly replied in Korean. I felt estrangement from the church and my family, with a general questioning of what faith meant to me; just as I barely understood my parents’ Korean words, Christianity felt foreign to me. To amplify those feelings, the pandemic stripped away my connection with my community, leaving me as lonely as ever. If there had been times I questioned my faith — and there had been plenty — the pandemic challenged those deep-rooted doubts even further. 

After college at UC Berkeley, I had decided to stay in Sacramento, down the coast from my family. After six years of living far away, feeling lost, beat down and alone, it was time to move back home to the Pacific Northwest. I got a job at The Seattle Times, and I was excited to see my nieces grow up, with my brother’s family and my parents living together in Portland, where the family had moved when I was 5 years old.

Living in Seattle and visiting Portland every weekend, I noticed a change: Two years into the pandemic, my brother and his wife had taken the reins and made the choice to devote their lives to the Lord. This was a huge shift in our family dynamic.  

ONE COLD MORNING a few months after moving back to the Northwest, after a night filled with nightmares, I woke up afraid to fall back asleep. It was 5 a.m. I heard voices from the second floor of my parents’ home — huddled in a circle reminiscent of a colony of penguins, my brother, sister-in-law and mother were sitting around the family dining table sharing their daily Christian journeys. For the first time in my life, the loud morning prayers had tripled in volume. 

Every time we sat down, we would talk about the Scripture, and my nieces — Jin (7), Sun (7) and Mee (5) — spontaneously sang hymns in the house. The dining table was the center of everything. We spent copious amounts of time sharing, confiding and talking about our deepest thoughts. At first I felt pressured into sharing my thoughts (in the past, I never had the chance to), but now I was starting to heal those scars.  

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Slowly, my calloused heart started to open again toward the Scriptures, thanks to the candor of my family members and our conversations. Growing up as a child of immigrants, being vulnerable with my family was something new for me, and something I always wanted from them.

Arthur says now that the peace that God brings when we try to seek Him significantly strengthened our relationship. I never felt at peace at my parents’ home, more like a stranger, but for the first time in my life, my heart was at ease.  

HAVING ALWAYS BEEN the black sheep of the family, this was the first time in my life that I was able to spend quality time with them. It felt like during this time of isolation, I was able to share moments in my life instead of just coexisting.

My mom noticed the change, and embraced it. “Because we were doing this within the Lord, there was a lot of happiness, a lot of joy, a lot of peace; because of that excitement, I wanted to pursue and push forward even more,” she says. 

Not everything was always rosy — there were pitfalls and high tension at times when we were together, whether with our faith or with our family relationships — but who doesn’t have those times? The stress of being together was especially magnified during the pandemic. 

At the end of the day, we became a stronger family through it all. We banded together during a time when it was easy to feel hopeless, alone and afraid. And now, every single weekend, I visit my parents’ home in Oregon, and we continue to share time and stories together around the table. 

I thank the Lord that for the first time in my life, I am close enough to my family to call them on the phone often, visit on weekends — and show them who I am and who I want to be.