The door swung open and loudly slammed into the wall. The echo skipped down the hallway and into the meeting room where the double doors still stood open, welcoming late comers. As I stepped around Miranda, I could at least a dozen pairs of eyes ogling us as we stood in the doorway.
Sorry, I whispered. Embarrassed, I gazed at the floor. Preston, however, didn’t seem at all disconcerted as he stepped to the front of our group and led us into the room. Hiro followed him, and Miranda stepped in behind him. I, however, kept my eyes glued to the floor, watching Miranda’s black boots click down the aisle in front of me. Suddenly, she turned, and I looked up. Her eyes bulged in panic as she grabbed my arm and pulled my ear to her lips.
“I don’t think this is Bible study,” she hissed into my ear.
I gave her a puzzled look, to which she responded by pointed at the large banner which draped over the top of the door frame. In boldface print, it read: Welcome Atheists of Northwest Arkansas.
I felt a large fist grip my innards and squeeze with such force that caused my breath to escape me in one loud gasp. Where was Preston? I scanned the hallway leading up to the entrance, but I didn’t see him. I wanted to run, to hide, to do anything to avoid speaking to these people, these people that were sure to judge me, to ridicule me, to challenge the very essence of my faith. I was terrified!
“What do we do?” I asked Miranda. “I want to leave.”
“We can’t,” she said. “Preston and Hiro are already in there.”
The people in the meeting room had already settled into their chairs at the round table. There were probably around thirty of the society’s members in attendance, and my husband and Hiro had already chosen seats on the other side of the room, four seats away from the evening’s presenter.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Sit down,” said Miranda. “What else can we do?”
I nodded in agreement, and we next to each other in two seats that were nearer to the door. For the next hour, the group had a discussion on the existence of morality outside of religious cultures. In retrospect, this seems like an interesting topic of discussion; however, that night I couldn’t pay attention. As Miranda and I passed notes of shock and disbelief on the back of our atheist handouts, my mind was racing with questions, and my insides were twisting with anxiety as I struggled with my intimidation of these people among a list of other insecurities.
I wondered how many atheists were really out there, if they were the same terrifying, spitefully cruel people I’ve always heard about, and about how the rest of the evening would fair for me and my friends. I also listened to them answer the posed questions. I was stunned: it was like I’d been wearing a blindfold my entire life, and at that moment I could see. These people were highly intelligent, insightful, and compassionate. They seemed tolerant of one another, as many of them seemed to hold differing opinions and beliefs. They were smarter than me, more eloquent in their words, and more spirited in their delivery. No wonder they are so impossible for the church to reach, I thought, They already have all the answers.
As the meeting drew to close, the leader stood to speak. “We have a lot of new faces tonight,” she said. “We really should’ve done this first, but I would still like to close the meeting by giving everyone here the opportunity to introduce themselves and briefly express their personal beliefs.”
Miranda and I faced each other; the firm fist had returned, tightly gripping my innards, and Miranda’s eyes were bulging once again. Though physically, I felt incapable of movement, my mind was racing, searching for the right words. Do I speak the truth? Tell a lie? Leaning more toward the later, I began scrolling through a list of half-truths, something, anything that would protect me from the multiple biblical warnings concerning the denial of Christ and save me from humiliating myself in front of these people.
Preston’s voice shook me from my anxious passivity.
“Hello,” he said, “My name is Preston, and I am a Christian.”
A hush fell over the crowd. Although no one actually gasped, I sensed that we were all holding our breaths in the stillness that followed his introduction.
The group leader broke the silence. “Thank you for your honesty,” she said. Then, she pointed to the person to Preston’s right, indicating it was his turn for introductions.
The iron fist released its grip. I didn’t know about anyone else, but I could finally breathe again. My husband had just declared his faith to a group of atheists at an atheists’ meeting, and nothing happened. There was no condemnation, no stoning, no crucifixion. There were shock and disbelief, but that wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.
When the person to the left of me had finished speaking, I swallowed hard, but an unearthly calm washed over me, covering me from head to toe. I spoke with confidence: “Hello, my name is Kayla, and I am a Christian.”
Miranda followed me with the same declaration, and the moment passed, trailing away in the echo of the others’ voices. I was done. I had finished. The meeting was over, and it was time to go home.
The leader stood to dismiss us, but a raised hand caught her eye. She nodded permitting the person to speak.
“I have a question,” he said, “for the Christians.”
The leader turned to us and asked if that would be all right if we would be comfortable with that, and the three of us agreed that it would.
The man spoke calmly, quietly, and respectfully, and we answered his question in the same manner. To this day, I can’t remember his question, but I’ll never forget the conversation that followed. People opened up. They shared stories, painful stories, of their previous experiences with the church, with their parents, with other Christians. One woman, in particular, recalled a woman, someone of authority in the church, telling her that she was going to hell because of her various tattoos and piercings, and while she spoke, a wave of love crashed over me. I felt her pain, her rejection, and I knew her value, felt the love that God the Father had for her—has for her. I apologized to her for her experience and explained to the group that no one can judge us, for only God is the judge.
Then, a man in the back of the room stood up, his face flushed red. “But you believe in hell, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I told him. “There is a heaven and a hell.”
“I’m gay,” he said, “Am I going to heaven?”
I took a deep breath. “That’s not for me to say. God is the judge.”
“Yes,” he said, “You said that. But according to your beliefs being gay is a sin, is it not? So, am I going to hell?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you that. I just met you; I don’t know anything about you, and even if I did, I still wouldn’t know your heart. That’s why God is judge, only He knows.”
A fire burned in his eyes. “No. You don’t understand. You believe the Bible, right? You believe all of it?”
“Yes, I do,” I said calmly.
“Well according to the Bible, being gay is a sin, and those who sin go to hell. You believe the Bible, so just tell me. Tell me I’m going to hell.”
“I’m sorry. I…” Before I could finish my thought, the leader rose to her feet. “That’s enough,” she said, “These people are our guests.”
Sneering, the man shook his head. “But you don’t understand, she…”
“Enough,” said the leader, firmly.
The broken man fell into his chair as if he were being crushed by a great weight. Then, he slumped down, staring at the ground.
The leader closed the meeting by thanking everyone for coming and inviting us to return the following week for the next meeting.
The room echoed with the rustling of papers and the packing of bags as we all gathered our things to leave, and I finally released my breath. Miranda and I began to make our way across the room to Preston and Hiro, but our reunion was short-lived. Before any of us had the opportunity to process what had happened together, the red-faced man stomped toward us. He yelled at us, demanding that we tell him he’s going to Hell.
“I have to be going to Hell,” he told us. “So just tell me. Why won’t you tell me?”
I felt my husband’s hand on the small of my back and firm pressure as he led me to the door. Miranda, who was in front of us, turned for the door as well, and Hiro followed. None of us said a word as we took our leave, but as I looked over my shoulder, I saw the group’s leader swoop in and wrap her arms around the man.
When the doors slammed behind us, I sighed in relief. The thumbs in my mental filing cabinet brushed over the tabs of folders, each containing pages of questions, stand-out quotes, and relative memories connected to the experience we had just had. But before I could choose the correct file of concerns, another man slowly approached us.
He’d been in the meeting as well. He’d sat two seats away from my husband, yet closer to the speaker. By the time he was close enough for us to see his face, there were tears in his eyes.
“I want to thank you,” he said, “for being such a good representative of the faith. You see, you did what I couldn’t: you stood up in a room full of atheists, agnostics, and unbelievers and proclaimed your faith. Yet, I couldn’t, and I’m a reverend.”