I remember walking through the mall with my son about six months ago. I tensed up as I saw a former congregant of my church walking down the other way in the food court. I held my breath as we got closer. Then came the moment of truth as we passed each other. She had no idea who I was. None. I could tell there was no recognition whatsoever.
My posture is different, I lost about 30 pounds, the hair is different, the beard is gone, the suits are now worn jeans and black t shirts. More importantly, I am different. But it was not always that way.
When I was a pastor I had an article in the local paper. My picture was on the headline once a month for almost 4 years. As an active member of the town’s clergy association, I was not only known in my church, but the congregations of six other churches. My friends on social media and across the nation were people I met in pastor conventions and christian festivals like Wild Goose.
Pastor Pat was Pat. The Christian. I thought the people who were my friends and the people who said they loved me did so because of who I was as a person, not what I did for a living or what I professed belief in. I would learn in short time how many of these people felt that my religious beliefs and vocation were intertwined with their affection for me.
It would be a realization that would cripple me with self doubt as I became an exile. I have seen this happen not only with clergy, but with lay people who leave the church. This one is so common. People who you thought were interwoven into the fabric of your life and your heart would walk away and leave you alone in a time that you needed understanding and compassion the most.
I will never forget the first time I was recognized when I was driving a taxi after I left the ministry. I was taking another figure well known in the community home from a DUI he had just gotten. As soon as he recognized me there were threats made if I told anyone he had been in my taxi. The second time was later that very same month. I was taking a young man from the train station to work. When he was a teenager and a pastor I had paid his family’s utilities and storage bill and ensured he had groceries more than once. I was proud to see that he had gone to school and gotten himself a good job. I was proud to have been a part of that journey and helped him believe in himself and find his way to financial aid opportunities that got him in college, until we had our conversation in the taxi. I was a disappointment to him. I had failed as a minister and as a man. He brought up how he heard through the rumor mill that my kid was “a gay” (his words). How I made it through the ride without laying into him I will never know.
This was the beginning of the face to face conversations.
Online I was getting unfriended by person after person. To be associated with me as I took deconstruction and doubt “too far” was not something they could associate with. We had once sat around tables over drinks and bore our souls to each other. We cried with one another at conventions and cherished life together. Now, I was a liability to their vocational street cred. Others would send me messages as they said good bye. They told me that they were praying for me to see the light. They told me I was going through a phase. They told me they could not associate with me in good conscience anymore.
Then came my associates in ministry in the town I lived in and served in not one, but two churches. As ministers together we worked to help people get groceries and aid in our town. We stood in the trenches to help a local orphanage keep afloat. We started a resource center together. We helped people in a small village in Haiti. Some of us met once a month over lunch and talk about the things going on in work and in life and held each other’s confidence. It soon became apparent that I was not to be trusted or associated with by some.
My marriage was gone. My former associates saw me as a liability. My column in the local paper was no longer welcomed by the editor. I had relatives that did not want to speak with me. My evenings consisted of a lonely one room apartment with books, my iPod, basic tv, and a dsl internet connection to keep me company. It was the most isolated I had felt since I was in middle school.
This is an experience of social isolation that is very common among people who leave Christendom. I tell this here not to do a tell all of how evil religious people are. I am doing this to offer lifelong atheists and humanists a glimpse of what someone transitioning from faith to secular mindset is experiencing. This is far more than historical and scientific facts. This is a walking away from all that one knows and their entire social circle is as risk. That carries with it a trauma and loneliness that makes the road hard.
During my time of transition in what Ryan Bell from Life Without God calls Liminal Space, I was grateful for the friends that had been down the road I was on. Many atheists feel their “work” is done when someone begins to think skeptically.
The reality is, the work for the person just beginning to think skeptically is just beginning. It is a work of finding a new life and a new way of looking at everything. They will be thrust out of love and into a wilderness they are not ready for.
It is a lonely world when you are walking into this new life. Every act of kindness, respect, dignity, and friendship makes more difference than you can possibly imagine. It is a lifeline in a seemingly empty ocean.
In closing, I had some friends that stuck it out with me. I have friends that are ministers. I have friends that are Christians. I have family members that spend time with me. Not everyone left. I am grateful to those precious few that see friendship, family, and love as something deeper than beliefs and jobs. They do not care what I do or do not believe. What matters to them is that I am well and that I am happy. The road to well and happy has been a bumpy one. It is for many who take this journey.