U.S. News

11.17.13

Atheist Ex-Pastor Jerry DeWitt’s Mission to Red America

Louisiana pastor Jerry DeWitt unexpectedly became an atheist celebrity when he lost his faith. But he decided to stay put and create a haven for secularists in his hostile hometown.

Last Sunday, several hundred atheists gathered in a Hollywood auditorium for the inaugural meeting of the Los Angeles Sunday Assembly, the latest blossoming of the atheist “church” movement slowly spreading across the country. Thanks to a fundraising tour by the British comedy duo who launched Sunday Assembly in the U.K., America is suddenly hearing about new “atheist megachurches” that have cropped up in several major cities.

But far away from the hype cycle of social media and the cultural freedom of metropolitan America, a former Louisiana pastor is struggling with a similar project deep in the small towns of the evangelical South. On June 23, Jerry DeWitt led the first service of the Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, Louisiana—a product of his own painful journey from beloved local pastor to abandoned outcast. His decision to stay in a hostile rural environment sets him apart from most other clergy members who embrace atheism—and from the burgeoning atheist church movement.

“Everyone else who did what I did left where they lived,” DeWitt said, referring to other Christian pastors he’s met who took public positions of atheism. “Someone had to stop that. Someone had to be the first not to move, so that the next person doesn’t have to move.”

DeWitt served as a pastor for two churches in DeRidder, Louisiana, but could not overcome the inescapable questions of doubt that haunted him after realizing there was no theological explanation or justification for the suffering of innocent people, the triumph of science over superstition, and the divisiveness of dogmatic doctrine. Reading the popular books of atheistic argumentation by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins was like throwing gas on the fire of his internal transformation.

He quit preaching, took a job as a public buildings inspector, and expected to live a quiet life of community service and introspection. All of his plans crumbled when he traveled to a nearby gathering of skeptics, and an online photo of him with Dawkins outed DeWitt to his community in 2011. Several of his closest friends abandoned him, and many family members disowned him. He was immediately fired from his job at City Hall. His wife packed her bags and left him alone, unemployed, and fearing divorce and bankruptcy.

A few years later, DeWitt has filed for bankruptcy, found a new job as a continuing education instructor for architects and engineers, and he and his wife are attempting to reconcile. He’s published a book, Hope After Faith, and become a minor celebrity in the world of organized atheism. But by his own admission, DeWitt is different from other faces of atheism—he doesn’t have what he calls the “brute force” of the late Hitchens or the elite academic credentials of Dawkins. What he does have—a biographical means of understanding religious tradition and practice—makes him a perfect spokesperson for secularism in DeRidder and countless towns like it across the American South and heartland. 

Citing overwhelming love for his mother, grandmother, stepfather, and developmentally disabled half-sister, and a “lifelong devotion” to his community, he takes pride in his insistence upon staying in a small town that does not look too kindly on heretics.

“We don’t ridicule the religious. If a believer attends, he might be offended by what is not said, but he’ll never be offended by what is said.”

“If I won the lottery and could afford to live in Manhattan, no one would care, but here, I can have an effect,” DeWitt said. “Not to create more atheists, but to simply create a place that the secular can call home. I would never say that I am the answer for DeRidder, but for this community I know I am the question.”

DeWitt’s personal kindness and commitment to “helping DeRidder grow and prosper” doesn’t erase the hostility that much his community feels toward him. “The stressful new normalcy of my life is being in a constant state of preparation for confrontation wherever I go— the grocery store, in the city hall offices,” DeWitt explained, surprisingly, without resentment in his voice. “I’m the question for my community, because during every encounter my neighbors see that I am the same person. They see the same smile and, I hope, feel the same goodwill.”

Now focused on the Community Mission Chapel, DeWitt is finding that many atheists, particularly those who also grew up in churches with dynamic and dramatic speakers at the pulpit, have what he calls a “nostalgic need” to fill the void in their lives left by lack of church. DeWitt doesn’t like the word “church,” but admits he’s trying to replicate the “institutional care network” that the best churches provide.

“Friendships develop organically within secular organizations, and that’s great,” DeWitt said. “But churches make it people’s jobs just to make sure that congregants are healthy and happy. As pastor I would call people if they missed a meeting to make sure they were okay. I would console and counsel someone in trouble, and others in the church would find ways of helping.” Churches make caring for people “part of their everyday operation,” which is why leaving religion can be extremely painful and isolating.

It seems easy enough to emulate the finer qualities of churches, but the challenge might arise when attempting to guard against the institutional tendencies that often turn people away from churches: conformism, groupthink, demonization of dissenters. Given that DeWitt is a small media sensation with a significant quantity of charisma, I asked him how he would stop the Community Mission Chapel from becoming a personality cult.

“I don’t get paid by the chapel to do what I do,” he said, “and that allows me the freedom to be myself and just another member of the board.” Every service ends with a “rigorous” question and answer session in which congregants are encouraged to state disagreements with DeWitt’s message. The chapel will regularly feature guest speakers to prevent it from becoming a vehicle for DeWitt’s philosophical insights and motivational musings. It will also meet only once a month. “We don’t want this to become like many Christian churches in that it is all-consuming,” he said.

DeWitt took me step by step through a recent service at the Community Mission Chapel and demonstrated how without prayer and worship, a public meeting can enrich and edify the mind and, even, the spirit with equal power and depth as any religious ritual. “We don’t ridicule the religious,” he said. “If a believer attends, he might be offended by what is not said, but he’ll never be offended by what is said.”

The most recent service opened with the REM song “Everybody Hurts.” The song’s conclusion served as an introduction to a clip of Joseph Campell discussing the cultural, emotional, and psychological importance of rites of passage. In his message, DeWitt discussed the struggles people believe will kill them, but that they ultimately endure, and often use to emerge stronger than before. In a culture without official rites of passage, the personal tragedies and traumas that people suffer in their own lives serve the same purposes of maturation, development, and empowerment.

Having committed what he calls “identity suicide”, and now, at age 42, fighting through the process of “starting over,” struggle is an area where he can claim expertise.

DeWitt hopes that eventually his chapel will purchase its own facility—it currently operates out of a coffee shop’s venue for poetry readings and live music performances—and that “there won’t be one night people can drive by without seeing the lights on.”

“I hope the Community Mission will run food pantries, offer marital counseling, teach literacy classes for illiterate adults, and serve as a center of support for the elderly and the unemployed,” he said. “We want to give classes to help young parents adjust to their new roles of caring for children. We’re focused on the betterment of life for the entire community—not just the secular among us.”

The man who once had the ambition of becoming mayor of DeRidder, and who still hopes to “reestablish” himself with City Hall, is now engaged in the public service of reminding religious Americans that atheism can fit well into the American ideals of individuality, self-reliance, and the evasion of category in a quest for becoming fully and uncompromisingly human.

“What I represent is the fact that anyone in America can overcome their identity limitations and be truer to themselves.”