RELIGION

Walking in his shoes: Ex-pastor struggles with faith along journey to atheism

6/29/2013
BY TK BARGER
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Jerry DeWitt
Jerry DeWitt

Jerry DeWitt’s human testimony has two good intertwined threads. In Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism, he tells about how he became a non-believer while also serving as a Pentecostal pastor for 25 years.

Mr. DeWitt’s memoir is strongest not in his private thoughts during his journey from Pentecostal Christian to religious humanism, though they reveal much about personal faith, but in the story of becoming a Pentecostal pastor in a movement that depends little on theology schools or even Bible colleges. It relies instead on ministers’ words (English and “in tongues”) and actions (such as healing) to attract congregants.

He was trying to be a young evangelist, “consumed with saving that next person and bringing new blood into the church community.”

Mr. Dewitt, who said he “got saved” in a Jimmy Swaggart church service, wrote that early in his ministry “I was painfully transitioning into an awareness that evangelism was actually an industry. It was essential that I hustle like a salesman to survive” and that “ministering isn’t much different than retailing.”

Along with that hard slog of procuring a pulpit in rural Louisiana, Mr. DeWitt was struggling with his beliefs, especially about salvation. He writes that his grandfather died because Mr. DeWitt didn’t give effective cardiopulmonary resuscitation and, according to church doctrine, his grandfather had not been saved and as a result would be eternally punished. Mr. DeWitt had a growing belief in universal salvation that a loving God wouldn’t condemn.

Over many years he tried to follow prominent Pentecostal ministers’ guidance on religion, but he became disenchanted. He finally concluded that “the problem wasn’t my failed attempts at finding the right people — it was the Bible itself. “...I realized that there was a side to Jesus — indeed there was a side to Christianity — that I was simply out of sync with.... I had been studying at the Bible but I had not been studying the Bible itself.”

Immersing himself in Bible study, he came to the realization that it was written by humans. He wrote that “my blind, unquestioning faith was never coming back.” He had a sense of awe at life that was “a natural and explainable experience, not a divine experience.”

Book cover for Hope After Faith: An ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism, by Jerry DeWitt with Ethan Brown, Da Capo Press.
Book cover for Hope After Faith: An ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism, by Jerry DeWitt with Ethan Brown, Da Capo Press.

Recognizing his non-belief, “I’d gone from a spiritual mission in Christianity to a quest to find out everything that I could possibly know about atheism in a matter of days, and the downtime between these journeys was negligible.”

That downtime makes his book feel incomplete. It ends as his atheist ministry is still in formation. Mr. DeWitt’s book would be better in terms of having a beginning, a middle, and a good place to finish if he waited to publish the story of his journey until he included the news he made Sunday.

In Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday, Mr. DeWitt led the first service for his new congregation of atheists, the Community Mission Chapel, that will meet regularly in Lake Charles, La. That seems like a moment of triumph for an ex-pastor who can continue as an evangelist to a new congregation that is in step with him. Mr. DeWitt is now living according to his own humanism rather than preaching the supernatural that isn’t in his beliefs.

But Hope After Faith was published before he formed the ne chapel. Even so, the story is good in telling about Pentecostalism, a world many of us don’t know.

Contact TK Barger @ tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.