On Sunday, June 15th, Jerry Dewitt and I had a reunion in Washington, DC that we never foresaw back when we first met. That auspicious and surreptitious event took place in the summer of 2011, down in Lake Charles, Louisiana when Jerry took part in the Dennett-LaScola study of non-believing clergy. Back then, Jerry was still a part-time Pentecostal preacher who had yet to go public with his non-belief and I was about halfway through interviews with 35 people (including clergy, religion students and seminary professors) that eventually became part of the 2013 book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind .
When CFI (Center for Inquiry) DC asked if I could bring one of the pastors from the study along for my book discussion, I immediately thought of Jerry. First of all, he’s one of the few pastors in the study who is “out.” Many are still in the pulpit or, if not, they left quietly (like Adam). Secondly, Jerry has become a well-known personality in atheist/humanist circles, using his big personality and even bigger pastor’s voice to inform and entertain people all over the country.
The crowd at CFI seemed to enjoy our re-enactment of scenes from our interviews almost as much as Jerry and I did. We realized that when we walked into the room, set up with a table and two chairs, we instinctively went in to the same position we sat in while in Lake Charles. I told the audience how I couldn’t find anything but truck stops between the Lake Charles airport and Jerry’s hometown of DeRidder, 50 miles away, and Jerry told them how relieved he was to meet me outside of DeRidder where everyone knows him and people might wonder why he was going to the only hotel in town three days in a row to see some Yankee lady.
We laughed remembering the second interview, when Jerry arrived a few minutes late, apologizing that people “praying at the pumps” had delayed him. He had to explain to me that people down in those parts will stop whatever they are doing to spontaneously pray, and in this case, a prayer broke out at the gas station – blocking Jerry’s way out until the prayer was over. It would have been to rude to honk in the middle of the prayer and ask them to move. It helps to know the local customs. If I had been in that situation, I surely would have honked, not realizing what it meant when people jumped out of their truck and huddled together in front of a gas pump.
Most of our time at the CFI meeting was spent reading excerpts from of our interviews and taking questions from the audience after each excerpt. It was especially interesting for me to see how much of what Jerry talked about in the interviews has since come to pass. He said he “wanted everyone to know” about his change in beliefs so he could get “out from under this charade.” His book and his many public appearances have certainly accomplished that. The charade is over and people are full of questions about Jerry’s experience.
Jerry was sure he’d be fired if his boss in his building-inspector job found out that he no longer believed. During the interviews, he told me, “If all of a sudden I become the atheist, as far as they know, I’m going to forge reports and lie about inspections, and cheat people out of money.” Sadly, he was right about that too — being fired, I mean, not lying and cheating. Jerry’s honesty actually improved after coming out. Like so many of the pastors I’ve spoken with, he hated being disingenuous about his religious beliefs and is incredibly relieved to be out of that situation.
Unfortunately, the CFI session wasn’t videotaped, so I can’t provide a YouTube link. You can find out more about Jerry in his book, Hope after Faith and more about my interviews with non-believing clergy here and here.
Editor’s Question: For those of you who have come out, either quietly or with a bang, how does it feel to be on the other side?