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How an Atheist Influenced a Church to Action

December 24, 2012

And in all fairness to my pastor friend, this could also be titled, “How I got Sent to Church by a Theist”, but since I’m the author… well, you know. Now for the story!

As I mentioned in my last post, “Prayer”, one of the things I noticed in the wake of the Newtown shooting was that a lot of my Christian friends talked about offering prayers for the victims and their families, but didn’t seem to have the same dedication to passing along information about concrete, physical actions they could take to provide aid and comfort to the families and children of Sandy Hook.  I had something of a back and forth about this with some Christians, including my friend Pastor Chris Owens of the First United Methodist Church of Laurel, MD.  Eventually, after some exchanges, I came up with an idea that I was willing to do some work for.  If Chris would come up with something for his parishioners to actually, physically DO on Sunday to help the victims of the Newtown shooting, I would undertake a task of his choice.

Chris agreed, and held up his end of things wonderfully.  You can see the details on his blog, but in a nutshell he got 108 sympathy cards sent by parishioners, which pleased me a great deal and seemed to be a moving experience for Chris and his flock as well.  This was the sort of thing I really loved when I was in the church – actually doing stuff.  While I felt that prayer was meaningful to me on an individual level, and even useful as a group activity for reinforcing community bonds and acting as an informal communications network about who in the community was in trouble and needed help, I never (well, maybe for a little while when I was in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship) felt like it was one of those things that counted as helping someone.  My feeling is that it might be good as far as it goes, but that the church as a whole places far too much emphasis on it and too little emphasis on taking action other than prayer.  To help a congregation take real, physical action, well lets just say that was a big thrill for me.

But of course I had my end of the bargain to hold up, and for my task, Chris asked me to attend a church service.  My longsuffering and wonderful wife agreed to accompany me.  And so today we headed off to attend the 9:00 am service at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

***

Q: “When is the last time Christ was mentioned at Glide Memorial?”

A:  “When the janitor fell down the stairs.”

(Joke that was going around the Cal/Nevada Conference when I was a candidate).
***

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church occupies a special place in my heart and in my past.  When I was a candidate for the ministry, and a Youth Counselor, Glide was exactly what I thought a church should be.  Big on liberation theology, not so stuck on candles and prayer books.  Rev. Cecil Williams was considered sort of a joke by the people in authority that I talked to (and I have vivid memories of my mentor discouraging me from interviewing him as part of the candidacy process).  I only got to go there a couple of times, but compared to my home church in Oroville, it seemed to be diverse and energized and exciting.

Consequently, I was very curious about how Glide had fared over the years.  From looking at the website I was pleased to see that their community outreach had not flagged, and that Cecil Williams was still there (I was astounded by this – what Methodist pastor stays ANYWHERE for 45 years???)  When Chris asked me to go to church, I knew almost immediately that Glide was where I wanted to go.

And it was the right choice.  Glide is very close to the sort of dream church I would want to go to if I were a christian.  The community was highly diverse.  A lot of the traditional church trappings were missing – no altar, no candles, no prayer books, no hymnals.  Dress was everything from very formal to very informal, so my lack of fancy duds was not noticed.  There was lots of singing, lots of clapping, lots of “hug your neighbor/hold hands and sing/build the community” sorts of stuff.  There was testifying.  There was a sermon.  There was no communion.

There were, however, calls to action.  Real action.  Most of it centered around Newtown – the children’s choir had sung at the memorial service on Wednesday, and there was an active call for the community to give up their guns, with the pastors offering go to the police with anyone who wanted to turn in a firearm.  The church had collected over 10,000 toys for needy children, and distributed over 3,000 Christmas dinners to needy homes.  There was a prime rib luncheon for Glide members and the homeless coming up, and they would be serving meals on Christmas day.

“This,” I thought to myself, “is a nice place.”

People seemed to enjoy being there, seemed to enjoy participating, seemed to be very enthusiastic. It felt like a safe environment.  Though I didn’t get a chance to test it, I had a feeling that if I had let it be known that I was an atheist, the folks at Glide would have smiled, maybe looked at me a little bit oddly and maybe not,  shrugged, and welcomed me into the community anyway.

There is something energizing about being with a large group of people who are really into something – really fired up about it.  You can see it at political rallies.  You can see it at gaming conventions.  You can see it at meetings like Skepticon.  But one of the most common places to find it is at a happy place of worship.  Just being surrounded by a whole bunch of people who are really, really excited to be where they are and doing what they are doing has an effect on even curmudgeonly outsiders like myself – while at the service I felt all the old moves coming back – the clapping, the raised hands, the swaying, the “amen!”  Even the cadence of the sermon, much different from my home church, had me nodding and thinking “Yes!” and “Preach it!”  The group just sort of sweeps you up and carries you along and if they are joyful, you will start feeling joyful too just by being with them.

Now I disagree with Christians (along with other religious groups) on a foundational level.  Some of portions of their doctrine are things that I just don’t believe, and probably won’t believe ever again.  And that is going to lead to a certain amount of friction, because these are things that Christians consider to be very important and hold to very deeply, just as many of my views on the same issue are very important to me and I hold them very dear.  It seems unlikely that I will overturn some of the basic doctrines of Christianity, and it is also unlikely that they will convince me that my thinking is in error.  Since Christians believe that they have a sacred responsibility to spread their word to those who do not believe, and I am a stubborn and curmudgeony git who just can’t just smile and shrug things off, we are going to get into it on occasion.  That’s just the way it is.

But there is also common ground, a lot of common ground.  And it can be seen (at least by me) at places like Glide Memorial.  Going there was a reminder to me that most Christians are good folks that do good stuff and try to lead good lives.  Of course I knew this before, but it’s nice to see it up close once in awhile.

Did this experience convince me that there is only one God, the Father almighty. and that Jesus is his only begotten son who died for our sins and rose again?  No.  No scales fell from my eyes on the road to (or from) Glide – though I can now recommend a restaurant that serves nice lemon chicken. But even though I did not have a reconversion moment, it was a good reminder that there are many good people out there who are Christians, who believe many of the same things that I do about the physical world, how to deal with sorrow and hunger and homelessness and addiction and violence.

This installment of Two She Bears brought to you by Isaiah 58:10.

 

 

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5 Comments
  1. Ed, you have a way of describing Christian community, what it is and what it should be, more keenly than many Christians. I’m so happy that you had a positive experience in a church like Glide Memorial. I didn’t expect a grand scale conversion experience, obviously! I really had no expectations except this blog post and the chance to hear your perspective. I’m also happy that you weren’t hurt or disappointed in your experience. That offers me hope that as a church we can get it right- we can be a welcoming, inclusive community for anyone, believer or not.

    I’ll have more to say later, but one burning question I just have to ask: will you be going back? 🙂

    • Edmund Mettheny permalink

      Chris,

      No. Not in that way, or at least not planning on it.

      I was very moved by the service at Glide. It is always wonderful to see people so happy and motivated and just plain excited, particularly when what they are excited about is doing something to help their community in concrete ways. But despite the beauty I found there, I recognize myself enough to know that I wouldn’t be portraying myself honestly if I attended service there regularly. Despite its unique characteristics, what goes on at Glide on Sunday mornings is religious worship, and is extremely important both emotionally and spiritually to the people participating in it. When I attended I found some great inspiration, but it is the sort of inspiration that art or music or literature inspires. What I found at Glide was, for me, a fantastic and moving performance, but not a religious experience. And while an occasional visit might be OK, I think that if I were to attend regularly and treat the service as entertainment, it would be in some sense disrespectful towards those for whom it means much more.

      On the other hand, opportunities for community volunteer work seen to abound at Glide, though they also have a lot of volunteers. Glide actually showed up on my personal radar about a month earlier than our conversation because I was looking for volunteer opportunities. Glide was doing plenty, but all their volunteer positions for the holiday season were already filled by the end of November. I will have to look further in advance.

  2. I remember Glide, too. I think I was always too white-bread to really enjoy it. Good story, Ed.

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