Last week, I drank coffee and tea with Pastor Shawn Walker of First Baptist Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Prior to the beginning of the June 13, 2013 Wilkes-Barre City Council meeting which I had attended to object to government-led prayer during council meetings, Walker had invited me to have discussion at a later time saying he had “grown in the last 4 years.” I obliged, had later arranged a meeting with Pastor Walker at a local bookstore, and was glad I did.
Pastor Walker and I, as it turned out, both attended the June 2013 council meeting to address council – although for different reasons. I had thought that Pastor Walker was very professional and effectively conveyed a message which had his audience attentively focused. Watch our respective remarks below:
When meeting outside the council meeting, Walker had said that he wanted to apologize for comments he made about me in 2009 when I had challenged the constitutionality of religious displays on Luzerne County Courthouse grounds and later — with the help of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State — had the displays removed and integrated into an inclusive display. Walker, at the time, had publicly claimed — on his church’s website and in a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper — that I wanted to take away the rights of religious believers and that the Christmas season — under attack — needed defending from atheists.
Walker, upon seeing my activism in 2009, said that he became defensive, thought I was an angry person, and jumped to conclusions about my nature and activism. He revisited his ideas in 2013 when he had seen me protesting the “Circle the Square with Prayer” event commemorating the National Day of Prayer in Wilkes-Barre. Walker said that he had seen me at the event for five hours having dialogue with religious believers and was later compelled to investigate why I was protesting.
He eventually — after my protest — stumbled upon my website to read my reporting on the National Day of Prayer event and was impressed – so much so that he wanted to meet me in person and learn more. Walker had said he formerly had a very negative opinion of atheists and has witnessed negative attitudes from atheists who — according to his experiences — belittle people of faith, attacking people rather than discussing ideas. Walker had said — toward the end of our conversation — that his opinion of atheists had changed and that he wants to work together with me on issues facing our community in Luzerne County.
Pastor Walker explained his background, struggles with organized religion, and his eventual ‘left turn of faith’ which had led him to become a pastor of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s First Baptist Church. We talked at length about various topics related and unrelated to religious belief including love, fatherhood, compassion, volunteering, unconditional love, burnout, ethical obligations, blogging, podcasting, local community events, and much more.
While atheists and theists may disagree on issues pertaining to religious belief, we can be friendly, act respectfully, find common ground, work together on issues we are both passionate about, and still fiercely discuss our thoughts on religious belief without compromise. Atheists and theists can, although we may be quite confident about our thoughts on religious belief, learn a good deal from each other and find fellowship.
I appreciate Walker’s sincerity, openness, and courage. I hope to meet Walker in the future and at the upcoming NEPA BlogCon Kickoff party at the River Grille in Plains, Pennsylvania taking place on June 25, 2013. In addition to my meeting with Walker, I had also — earlier this year — had lunch with Pastor Dan Nichols of Restored Church in Wilkes-Barre and encountered Rev. Michael Brewster of Mount Zion Baptist Church who offered kind words and agreed to have a public and recorded “Does the Christian God Exist” debate with me in his church later this year.
My activism, it seems — despite beliefs to the contrary — is not alienating all theists, but rather is encouraging conversation and leading to positive outcomes. While I cannot please everyone nor will have fruitful conversation with everyone, I remain a public individual and invite correspondence from anyone who wants to engage in face-to-face discussion, Skype calls, or whatever else may work.
Rather than jumping to conclusions and believing those who we see as ‘ideological opponents’ are moral monsters, discussion beyond a keyboard ought to help us better understand and even find common ground.’ Consider that our nasty thoughts about others may be built upon falsehood and misunderstanding.
As always, feel free to leave comments below.