I’d been the youth minister at St. Aloysius Church for nearly fifteen years. St. A’s was a small church. The youth minister was an unpaid position, strictly voluntary. Before me it had been a rotating position, changing hands every year. When my first year ended the kids and rector asked me to keep doing it. I didn’t have any special skills. The biggest difference between me and my predecessors was I enjoyed the work. I loved my kids and took an interest in their lives.
I’ve lost track of how many school plays, band concerts, and high school football games I’ve attended over the years. I’ve spoken at Eagle Scout courts of honors and Honor Society Induction ceremonies. I’ve been ushers at so many weddings I’ve considered buying my own tuxedo. Two children are named after me. I’ve had one kid credit me with saving his life (I think he gave me too much credit). I’ve lost one kid to suicide.
At an icebreaker function at work once I was asked how many children I had. I had to stop and count before answering thirty-seven. I love them all as if they were my own.
I try to evenly divide the youth activities into three categories: fun stuff—lock-ins, white water rafting, bowling, go carts, laser tag, etc.; service activities—making and serving meals at the homeless shelter, Habitat House, etc.; and spiritual stuff. I’ve studied the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, what the kids call the Old and New Testaments, and try, like a lot of people who work with young people, to make them relevant to their lives. Occasionally we’ll have a traditional Bible study but I try to avoid being too preachy.
I make it a point to answer their questions honestly.
I’ve been lucky so far.
Not one teen in fifteen years has ever asked me if I believe any of this stuff.
I’ve never had to admit I’m an atheist.
No one at St. A’s knows it. I’ve served two terms on the Vestry. I’ve been the newsletter editor for three years. I’ve taught adult Sunday School.
And I don’t believe a word of it.
I used to. But over time my faith gave way to doubt, and then to rationalism. By the time I was a nonbeliever, the majority of my friends and social life was centered around church. I support the social life of the church. I support their outreach activities, which are more socialist than evangelist. If I have to mumble some prayers and cross my fingers while I eat some bread and drink some wine every week, I can live with that.
Except the time came when I couldn’t. One of my kids was experiencing doubts in God. Unlike me, he voiced them. Some of the other kids were supportive, but some went on the attack. St. A’s is a liberal Episcopalian church but there are also some more conservative folks there and their kids reflect that. “Dude! You’re going to hell!”
Usually I let theological debate continue, as long as it’s civil and true debate and not attacks. This was an attack, though. “No he’s not,” I said.
“But he’s a heathen!” Heathen. Where do they get this stuff?
“He’s in as much danger of going to hell as he is of being gored by a unicorn.” I didn’t tell them God wasn’t real—that’s not my place, certainly not at youth group. But I did give them a history lesson on hell.
The next day I resigned from the vestry, Resigned from youth ministry, turned in my keys to the church and stopped attending St. A, though I maintain my friendships with the people there, and with my kids, whom I still adore. I’m pleased to say they still adore me, too.
For a brief period I stopped faking it and was honest about my non-belief but when a group of coworkers surrounded my desk at work, singing, “It’s Bob, it’s Bob, it’s Bob, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer!” I decided discretion was the better part of valor. If asked, I tell. Otherwise, I let people assume whatever they choose. I’ve come out of one closet, that’s enough for one lifetime.