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Why This Atheist Still Needs His Former Pastor

Why This Atheist Still Needs His Former Pastor

It felt good to pick my own pastor.

He was young—so much so that nearly everyone called him “Pastor Doogie”—gracious, eloquent and kind, with a biting sense of humor that showed he didn’t take anything too seriously (besides the love of God). After meeting and working with him on a Teens Encounter Christ retreat, I loved Pastor Matthew so much that my friend and I decided to become members at his church.

For our first act as official church members, we participated in a "30 Hour Famine,” raising money to give food to those in need and fasting for 30 hours so that we might intimately know the experience of hunger. The event also served as a church retreat where they screened The Passion of the Christ; to the shock of my tear-streaked friends, I fell asleep in the middle of it. That my response to a visual depiction of the crucifixion was to take a nap may have been a sign of things to come: just a couple of years later, I stopped believing in God.

Raised in a secular Minnesota household, I converted to a fundamentalist, nondenominational form of Christianity at 11 years old following a traumatic change in my family dynamic and after reading books like Hiroshima, The Diary of Anne Frank and Roots, which exposed me to some of the world’s most devastating injustices. The born-again Christian congregation I joined provided both a supportive community and an ethical framework that promised justice. But after years of a desperate, dehumanizing struggle to reconcile my sexual orientation and my conservative religious beliefs, I eventually made my way into more progressive Christian communities, where I met Matthew.

Matthew became a pastor, a mentor and a friend; he prayed with me, helped me with my college applications, and consoled me when my first boyfriend and I broke up after his conservative religious parents discovered our relationship. Most importantly, Matthew came to symbolize a dedication to serving God by serving others that I hoped to embody someday; when I was accepted to a Lutheran college, I told him I wanted to major in religion and eventually become a pastor like him.

I thought that my negative experiences—all those years of believing that God was ignoring my pleas to be rid of the burden of being gay, the years I spent hating myself for who I was—were God’s way of helping me understand the experience of suffering. Just as the 30 Hour Famine was intended to help participants empathize with the hungry, I understood these struggles as preparation for pastoral work in solidarity with the marginalized and disenfranchised. I wanted to help others, and the people I knew who helped others the most (like Matthew) were pastors.

What I didn’t fully understand then was that my desire to help others and be in community existed apart from the theological claims of Christianity, which never sat as easily with me. After I was encouraged by my college professors to critically examine the underpinning desires that initially propelled me into Christianity, I left the church. At first being an atheist meant rejecting religion and all interpersonal discussions of it; but, years later, I realized I was missing opportunities to learn from and with those who saw the world differently than I did. Deciding to give religion another look, I moved to Chicago to get a master’s degree and began to work for the Interfaith Youth Core as an atheist and interfaith activist, hoping to build bridges of understanding and cooperation between the religious and nonreligious. I then moved to Massachusetts to expand on this work at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard as their inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow, where I now coordinate the first ever atheist-led interfaith community service program, Values in Action. It was through this work that I had a surprising opportunity to build—no, rebuild—one such bridge.

“It’s been a long time, Tiffer,” he said through one of his characteristically gigantic grins. It had been nearly as long since anyone outside my family called me that name.

“It sure has, Doogie,” I said, returning his grin, imagining he hadn’t heard that nickname in a while, either. As an espresso machine rattled and steamed from across the room, Matthew informed me that he had recently left a call in parish ministry and was now in Massachusetts working for an organization called Outreach Inc. – Kids Care, which organizes meal-packaging events for churches and conferences that wanted to give back. In addition to coordinating these events, he donated his Sunday mornings to traveling around New England and preaching at churches, hoping to inspire them to get involved in the fight against hunger. I asked if he’d be interested in expanding his partnerships beyond churches and Christian conferences and working with an atheist organization on an interfaith program. He didn’t even hesitate.

It’s funny because, when he first asked me to get coffee, I hesitated. “What will he think of the work I do now?” I asked myself. “Will he feel like he failed me as a pastor? Will he want to debate theology? Will he try to bring me back into the church?”

Such hesitance was unmerited; he sat and listened as I updated him on my life, smiling and nodding as I described how I’ve come into my own as an atheist, an interfaith activist and a young man. Now, Matthew and I have a better and more honest relationship than we ever did in my youth.

It’s been a more productive one, too: in less than six months, we’ve mobilized hundreds of people to come together in interfaith coalition and donate their time and money to package more than 30,000 meals for food-insecure children in Boston. Most recently we held an event (planned with Boston University’s Interfaith Council) called HUNGERally, where more than a hundred student representatives from eight Boston-area colleges and universities spent a Saturday night learning about the problem of hunger and pledging to work together across lines of religious difference to address it.

All of this is the direct result of a partnership between an atheist and his former pastor. In light of this, I cannot help but wonder what the world would look like if we were more willing to forge unconventional alliances. What would happen if we were more radical about whom we saw as our collaborators? What would happen if we took the risk of reaching out to the unfamiliar? If atheists and Christians started seeing one another as necessary partners in making the world a better place, what might we come to understand about each other? What might we come to better understand about ourselves? What might we accomplish together?

Many of the most significant issues that afflict our world—disease, economic disparity, access to clean water, systemic hunger—don’t discern our religious differences. They don’t parse people into camps before they ravage; they don’t care about our designations of “us” and “them,” “religious” and “secular,” “the right ones” and “the wrong ones.” In fighting these issues, neither should we. Our work opposing these common enemies can also transform us into allies in the fights against bigotry and fundamentalism; they can show us that the divisions between “those who are like me” and “those who aren’t” are less significant than our shared humanity.

More than a billion people on the planet don’t have enough food, including one in six Americans. It will take more than just Christians or just atheists to solve this problem. My work with Matthew and other interfaith and hunger activists in Boston is putting a very small dent in hunger, but it is a start. I am so glad I took Matthew up on his invitation to catch up.

“Remember how you told me you had a call to ministry?” he asked as I took a sip of black coffee.

I laughed, nearly spitting it out. “I work for an atheist organization now, so I think it’s safe to say that I was wrong about that one.”

“Oh, see,” he said with a smirk, his eyes darting mischievously between the Bible he had placed on the table and his former parishioner, “I was going to say that it’s really nice to see you’ve realized your call.”

I never did become a pastor, but by working with one, I’ve been able to do the work of helping others all the same. I call it service, he calls it ministry; though our words are different, our values and our work are the same. Because we don’t let different words get in the way, we’ve been able to make that little dent just a little bit bigger.

It felt good to pick my own pastor; it feels even better to pick the fight against hunger over the religious-secular culture war.

Chris Stedman (@ChrisDStedman) is a prolific writer and public speaker on atheism and interfaith engagement and the author of the forthcoming book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, November 2012). Last year the Huffington Post named his work one of the “Top 11 Religion Stories of the Year” and Religion Dispatches listed him at #5 in the “Top 10 Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars” (as his mom loves to note, three notches above Jon Stewart).

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