If you were fortunate enough to attend the American Atheist Convention in Atlanta, you were obviously moved by the incredible speech of Nate Phelps. If you are not familiar with Nate, he is the estranged son of the Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps (Godhatesfags.com).
My wife and I had the honor of taking Nate and his fiancée out to dinner, and we immediately hit it off. It was as if we had been friends for years. Not only did we share similar backgrounds, Nate and I shared a desire to help others find life after Christian fundamentalism. We have started a support group and welcome all to join.
I asked Nate if he would be willing to write about his experiences before and after his talk. He graciously accepted and his article is below.
To read an excerpt from Nate’s upcoming book, click here.
I was not prepared for the outpouring of support and emotion that occurred after I spoke at the American Atheist Convention last weekend (April 11th). There is just so much that happened, so much I need to say, and so many we want to thank.
Richard & Angela Haynes…what can I say…a great couple with real heart. There was the young man and his mother who came from Overland Park, Kansas. He was so excited to get to talk with me because one of the local high schools where he lives had recently staged a very successful counter protest when my family visited a theater production they disapprove of. Then there was…well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning:
Back in late October, actually I think it was published on Halloween of 2008 (coincidentally the birthday of my sister Shirley – what are the odds of that?!?), a young college student published an article that he wrote after meeting me in my cab in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Following our meeting he spent several hours interviewing me by phone. From that came his article “Running From Hell” that was published on the University of British Columbia web site. Here’s a link if you are interested in reading it:
David Silverman of American Atheists happened upon the article and contacted me with an invitation to speak at the convention.
I spent the next 4 months in a constant state of agitation as I cobbled together my thoughts and experiences into a speech. At the same time, I was doing an independent study program to get my Provincial financial adviser license and working 50+ hours a week driving a cab.
Another gentleman who read the “Hell” article and contacted me was John Lombard from Vancouver. He ended up being invited to speak at the convention as well. His expertise in public speaking as well as his editing assistance on the speech was also very helpful.
So, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon (April 7th) my fiancée Angela, John Lombard, and myself piled into our van and headed out of Cranbrook toward the stunningly beautiful city of Atlanta, Georgia. Oh, one other issue that was creating terrible stress in me was the very real question of whether the Canadian Border Patrol would let me back in. While I have “status” with my work permit, there was some suggestion that they may not consider that sufficient to allowing me back across as an American citizen. On top of that, the Canadian government had recently ordered the border patrol agency to not allow any of the Phelps clan into the country after they had threatened to protest at the funeral of a young man who had been murdered and beheaded on a Greyhound bus here in Canada.
Putting my anxieties behind me, we turned south and across the border. We switched off driving and made the journey of over 2,400 miles in just over 41 hours. We arrived at the Emory on Thursday around noon. The next few days were a blur as I fine tuned my speech to get it down to the right time length and wandered around the convention, dazed and confused. We made a few forays out into the community and found a remarkable little restaurant called The Flying Biscuit. It will always be the symbol of our affection for Atlanta. Angela has pretty much convinced me to name our daughter (if we can manage to make one) Georgia because of our experience there.
I did get the opportunity to sit at Dr. Dawkin’s table at the Friday night dinner, but there was no chance to chat with him. I had the impression that he wanted to be left alone so I struck up conversations with several others at the table.
On Saturday morning, I was up early obsessing over the speech. We headed for the convention hall in time to catch the end of Dr. Thompson’s speech. Dr. Dawkin’s speech was next and I was not disappointed. I have fed off of Dawkin’s books and web site over the past few years and find his capacity to present lucid arguments both brilliant and sustaining. The crowd broke for lunch and the sweat broke out on my brow…my turn next *gulp*.
All I can say at this point is Thank (God/Zeus/Thor/The Flying Spaghetti Monster) for Angela. She was my rock throughout it all. So much second guessing and anxiety and she just kept saying it would be okay…the story was compelling…
…David is up on the stage with me struggling with the speaker’s mike. Now he’s searching for his introduction which he can’t find. I might just throw up. Snatching up a convention program from the podium, he turns to the page about me and reads the information there verbatim…he was great!
As much as I didn’t want to come across as an amateur, oh well…at least I didn’t stutter too much. In truth, the only emotion stronger then the abject terror of standing in front of a room full of people was the very real concern that I would break down during certain parts of the speech. I deliberately avoided looking at Angela because she was so emotional throughout.
Then something odd happened…the audience began clapping. I got to say, I did not see that coming. Every time I focused on a face I just saw all this seriousness…then it happened again. Applause. Anxiety dropped a few levels as the audience interrupted my speech 4 times. At the end they all stood up and I almost broke down. Oh, no time for that as I notice Dr. Dawkins striding purposefully to the Q&A microphone. O!! M!! G!!
The next 3 or 4 hours was a blur as I shook hands with dozens of people, hugged many who were in tears, then rushed off to do two taped interviews. I finally found Angela who recounted her own stories of being approached by many more people. She even had the opportunity of a lively discussion with Dr. Dawkins in the foyer.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was a blur of introductions and invitations. I finally got back to the room with Angela where we tried to relax for a little bit before I went to a 3rd interview. Finally, we headed back down to the bar in the main lobby and I was at last able to sit down with Richard Haynes (Brother Richard) and his wife Angela. Richard had contacted me prior to the convention and we agreed to get together. It was some of the best time we had in Atlanta. We asked if they could take us somewhere that was uniquely Atlanta and ended up at the Varsity Jr. restaurant (I use the term restaurant very loosely here). The food was…erhm…deliciously dangerous. The conversation ranged from hilarious to poignant. Richard’s background as a reformed pastor of a fundamentalist mega-church provided him with many experiences similar to mine growing up with Fred. Our Angela’s got on famously (does it violate official atheist dogma to point out the fact that both of our ladies have “Angel” in their name?)
We talked about some of the people who approached me after the speech in tears. It occurred to us that there are a lot of people out there who carry serious baggage from a background of religion based fear. I feel like I have a duty to do something positive with the unique circumstances I find myself in. Maybe we can work together to make a difference in peoples lives.
We said goodbye in the early morning hours Sunday and headed back to the room for a few hours rest before we headed north at 6 am. We crossed back into Canada just before midnight on Monday, some 42 hours later. The agent at the border was funny and kind…and let me back in without hesitating. *whew* I got home and slept 2 hours before getting up to work another 10 hours…driving!!
While we are not clear on the exact direction we might take with this, Richard and I are serious about giving it a go. If you are someone who needs support, please consider joining our group: Life After Christian Fundamentalism. In support of the group I have posted the entire content of my convention speech on Atheist Nexus. Read it here.