Jesus Camp: An Atheist’s Experience at an Evangelical Retreat

This is a guest post by Jesus Perez.

August 18th, 2017 7:15 pm

My father had just picked me up from my job and we headed over to his church to meet the rest of his fellow church “family”. He had invited me to an all-male religious retreat an hour away north of the city. I was hesitant at first because, well, I’m an atheist. I wouldn’t fit in well with a group of Christians, especially evangelical Christians, but something made me say “yes” to going.

The relationship that I’ve had with my father has been rocky for the past 11 years. Before that, we had a normal father/son relationship, and the subject of “religion” was not enforced nor was it really practiced. We are Latinos from a Mexican background, and we were Catholics. It was normal at the time for us to say our prayers at night and do the sign of the cross whenever we passed a church (Mexican Catholic Habit).

Losing My Faith

During my time in high school, I started to question more about the existence of God. Is there really a god? I rarely went to church during that time and pretty much stopped going, but I still believed, and the fear of hell was always present. Fast forward to September of 2006. My wife and I go through one of the toughest experiences that someone can go through in trying to start a family: multiple miscarriages and a still-born child. My life was devastated. I needed to find answers. Why?

During that time, my father was searching for answers to his mortality, for a way to feel whole as a person. He searched and searched and eventually found Evangelical Christianity. WTF?! At first, I did not know what “evangelical” meant, so I had to look it up. Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning ‘the good news’ or the ‘gospel’. I realized that I had heard of them, but I did not know what they were really about.

In an effort to make myself feel whole again, I could think of only one thing to do; read the bible. So I did; but instead of cherry picking verses, I took the time to read the book cover to cover, which resulted in me coming to a realization. I was an Atheist. It did not stop there, though. I read books, watched science themed programs, and researched, trying my best to understand the causes of still-birthed babies. The Most Common Known Causes of Stillbirths Include: Placental Problems: Women with placental abruption, or a pregnancy-related form

of high blood pressure called preeclampsia or pregnancy induced hypertension, have twice the risk of abruption or stillbirth as unaffected women. And that’s how I got my answers. They weren’t what I expected, but they brought peace to my mind and took away the guilt that I had, all that time thinking it was my fault for being a bad person.

My atheism started to intensify as I started paying more attention to what theists were doing in the world, especially the more outspoken Christians in America. I didn’t like their ideas or the things they were willing to do to further their agenda. I became very outspoken and it resulted in arguments with family. They began to distance themselves from me. The relationship with my father started to go sour. Every time we would visit his home, it was “Jesus this”, “Jesus that”, “You need Jesus in your life”, etc. I wasn’t having it. We butted heads and I started visiting less and less. Years would pass where I would see him merely once a month or just on holidays. It wasn’t the same and I missed my family. I missed my father. So I decided to try to be more open and understanding as to where he was coming from. Unfortunately, he could not do the same with my point of view.

The Invitation

This year my dad invited me to join his church’s softball team. I jumped at the chance to join because a. I love sports, b. it was a chance to be closer to my father, and c. I wanted to show my father’s church “family” the kind of person that I really was, the kind of person I am. By this time, I’m sure my father had told his entire church family that his oldest son was an Atheist, and I could only imagine what they thought of that.

There was always a prayer before the announcement of “play ball”. I would join in their circle, them with their heads bowed while I just looked around. We had a good time, and while I made some friendly acquaintances, they did not know anything about who “the Atheist” really was. The short season had ended and I decided to attend their annual picnic which I declined to go to in previous years. It wasn’t so much to try to impress these evangelicals with my attendance, but rather an attempt to take back some of the time that my father spent with them and remind him that his real family is still here. After the picnic, I was invited to attend an all-male religious retreat. I said “yes”. I needed to know who my father had become and who these people were that were calling my father “brother”.

The Retreat

We all throw our camp gear into one truck and climb into a church van that seats twelve. Of course, it’s all male. There’s a lot of casual talk from movies and sports card collecting to Game of Thrones. I was all into it at that time. The Christian music in the background was present, but didn’t bother me; just a nice beat with lyrics of “Jesus is everything, is etc….” Before we get to our destination, we stop for a bite to eat where I get questioned by several of the guys. “What do you do?”, “How many kids do you have”, “ What do you think the season will be for the Bears”, etc. The food and conversation were good. Everything seemed normal. Another group of men met us at the restaurant who were also joining us on the retreat. We finished dinner and headed to our destination.

We arrived at the camp grounds where the retreat was being held around 10:40 pm. Everything was dark and we had to use our flashlights to get our gear. Gear in hand, we head over to a cabin that has enough single and bunk beds for our group. It also had indoor plumbing with showers and toilets. Hey this is not bad. We unpack our gear and the pastor calls for us to meet outside. We head to another cabin several feet away, an empty room with stacked tables and chairs. We all help unstack and set up the tables and chairs. Everyone takes a seat, and then immediately stand up while the pastor begins speaking and saying, “Thank you Lord for us arriving safely to our destination, you are the greatest Lord”! Responses of “Hallelujah!”, “Yes Lord!”, “Thank you Father All-Mighty!” were shouted by the members of the church. None of that seemed weird to me, I had pretty much expected it. Then the pastor had called for us to make a circle as he brought out a beach ball. I imagined something corny like this would happen. We each had to toss the beach ball and whomever had it in their hands had to state their name, their profession, whether they were married or not, had children, and what it was that brought them to the retreat. I caught the ball and answered their questions. “What brought me to the retreat was to spend time with my father and get to know you gentlemen.”

After everyone had a turn, I thought to myself that it was getting late and we were probably going to head back to our sleeping quarters. Then the pastor said, “Look for someone next to you and put one arm around their shoulder”. I partnered up with an older gentleman and we had our arms around each other’s shoulder. The pastor then asked for us to “Ask the Lord to bless your fellow brother and to protect him from the evils of the devil”. Now it starts, I thought to myself. The room started to get louder and louder and louder with prayers and praise to Jesus. The older gentleman that I embraced was asking Jesus to protect me and my family and to not let the devil lead me to a path of pain and sorrow. “Lord you are the one!’, “In Jesus name, Hallelujah!”, “Amen!”, “You are the truth, you are the way, my lord!”. This went on for a good ten to fifteen minutes.

My arm started to cramp up while I just stood there. I couldn’t utter a single word, could not pray out loud for a man I didn’t know and to a “god” that I didn’t believe was there in the first place. With everyone bowing their heads and getting louder with their prayers, all I could think was Holy shit, I’m in a cult. The older gentleman said nothing but good things about me without even knowing who I was, and hearing everyone else saying supportive and positive things about one another, I started to feel guilty. “Why am I here?”, “ I don’t deserve to be here.”, “I’ve taken someone else’s place here and I don’t belong here.” I felt bad because I couldn’t say anything good about this man that I had just met.

When it ended, I just had this sad face on me and my father noticed. The pastor started to pass out some sealed envelopes and said, “Here, take one and do not open it until tomorrow morning. They are scriptures that were chosen by God for you to read and to tell the rest of us what it means to you. God does not make mistakes. The scripture is meant for you. We will read them out individually tomorrow afternoon, so study the scripture carefully and ask me if you have any questions. Get some sleep because we need to get up at 4:00 am”. Huh?! Really?!? We headed back to our cabin. My father was getting his bed ready, so I asked him if we could talk outside for a minute. We walked out into the darkness, the only light that I had was from my cellphone.

The first thing to come out of my mouth was, “Pop, what are your expectations of me by being here?” “What do you mean?” he asked. “No one is trying to trick you into believing if that is what you are asking?” “No”, I said. “What I mean is you as my father, what are you expecting for me to do here or experience here?” “You experience whatever you want to experience,” he said. I explained to him how I felt with my arm wrapped around the older gentleman, how I could not say anything and was feeling guilty that that man who did not know me at all had prayed for positive things to happen for me. “That’s ok”, he said. “God knows what is in your heart.” “Pop, you know I don’t believe in any of this stuff. I came here to spend time with you because you and I know that our relationship is not that great.” “Yes, I know this,” he said. “I don’t belong here pop. Did I take someone else’s place, because I don’t deserve to be here?” “No, you are here because I invited you here.”

I pulled out the envelope from my back pocket and handed it to him and said, “ I can’t do this. Your god’s words don’t speak to me and I don’t want to fake it in front of your peers.” “That’s ok, you don’t have to,” he said. During all this, my eyes were tearing up because I felt fake, like a fraud in the eyes of my father’s peers, like a fake in front of my father. I am a man of my word and if I’m not comfortable with certain things, things that might bring more disappointment to my father, then I cannot go through with them. At that point, it pretty much makes everything pointless in being there for him. He understood what I was feeling and hugged me and said, “Thank you for coming, you have made me really happy. I love you.” “Me too pop. Me too”, I whispered in the dark.

“I can’t fucking sleep on this bed!” I thought to myself, tossing and turning all night on a hard wood frame with the thinnest mattress ever created. My back was killing me and I could not fall asleep. By the time I was finally close to falling asleep, I heard a beeping sound go off and the lights went on. Fuck! It’s 4:00 a.m. “Praise the Lord! We are alive, thank you God Almighty for this beautiful day. You are our king and savior! Hallelujah!!” Everyone started to get up, each taking turns to get clean. I put the covers over me and waited until everyone had taken their turn. My father shook my shoulder to get up and hit the showers. “We leave in 10 minutes”. So I’m gathering my things and jump in the smallest showers I’ve ever been in. I kept bumping my elbows on the walls. Get out, dry myself, brush my teeth and comb my hair. By that time, it’s 4:45 and we are heading out the door. It’s still dark outside. I bring my flashlight and yawn like a lion. The pastor leads us to the lake so that we can see the sunrise and pray / meditate. There was one guy with a portable speaker who had Christian music blasting loud. Out of all of the other churches that were at the retreat, we were the only group that was up early in the morning. ‘It’s rude to have music blasting in the early hours’, I thought to myself. ‘Especially Christian music!’

We finally got to the lake when the pastor asked us to praise God for giving us life and the opportunity to serve such an almighty God. Uh, sure, I thought as I put on my headphones to listen to some Metal. I can hear everyone in the group praying and chanting to themselves, all the while staring out into the lake, witnessing the orange and yellow glow of the sun rising. “Is God not great? Look at the beauty of his creation at work.” I rolled my eyes internally and just smiled. Then I overheard someone say “And to think there are people that think this was all an accident. God does not make mistakes nor accidents. It is his creation. It is his doing. It is his will! Hallelujah!”. Everyone responded with “Hallelujah!”, “Yes, my Lord, thank you!”, “Amen!”, “Thank you, Father All-Mighty!” I pretty much drowned out the praise by turning up the volume on my headphones, but I did see the beauty of the sun, moving ever so gently. Yet, it is actually the Earth that is moving in order for us to see such beauty, but I wasn’t going to give a basic science lecture to anyone who was already convinced that it was a God’s will for the sun to rise.

We ended by taking pictures and selfies to commemorate the occasion. There was a bench near the shore of the lake and I sat there to admire the beautiful morning. One of the guys sat down next to me, so I removed one side of my headphones (I didn’t want to be rude) and we started a conversation. The guy was really cool and close to my age, so we had certain things in common. We were getting deep into a conversation about cars when we were interrupted by the pastor. “Breakfast time!” The retreat had a cafeteria that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. During breakfast, I had more conversations with other members of the group. They seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and what I was all about. It felt nice because it was friendly and inviting. After breakfast the pastor announced that we should head back to the meeting room cabin because we had a special guest waiting for us. This should be interesting. We all enter the cabin and a gentleman that I had not seen before entered the room and introduced himself, but most of the group members already knew who he was. “Brother, it’s good to see you! Hallelujah!”. We all grabbed a seat and the guest speaker began his sermon about how we are vessels of God and God lays out a plan for us all. “He never makes mistakes!” He told us about how he was destined to become a preacher, but that he did not want that for himself. But God had a plan for him and it was fulfilled. He carried on, stating that we all should be preachers of the word of God! He segues into the scripture of John the Baptist, about how he was a prophet and did not doubt that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 11, 1–11).

“ Matthew 11

1 After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,

and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet?

Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’[c]

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist, yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. “

This pleased the group, with everyone yelling out, “Yes, Lord All-Mighty!”, “Amen!”, “Hallelujah!” and so on. In the end, it pretty much led into how not to doubt Jesus because he showed “evidence” by the miracles he had displayed in front of the disciples of John the Baptist. This was enough proof to know that their God is a living God and that he will not fail us, as long as we don’t doubt him. All I could think to myself was Bullshit. Basing your “evidence” on a story told in a book that cannot back it up with any other sort of evidence outside of the Bible alone. I kept my mouth shut and just took in what the rest of the group accepted as the “truth”.

I started to realize what is it that makes a person attracted to such nonsense. It’s inviting, it’s extraordinary; it’s a great story and it makes you forget about the three top things that someone needs to think correctly. It takes away Logic, Reasoning, and Critical Thinking. The more extraordinary and exciting story you come up with, thinking straight just gets thrown out the window. It is the way it is told to you and there is no room to question it. Why? Because it was in the words of Jesus Christ himself! How can you doubt it?

The special guest finished with a gathering of the group holding each other, arm to arm and praying for them to never doubt the word of God. Each person chanting in prayer, getting louder and louder with shouts of “Yes my Lord, I can never doubt you!”, “Father almighty, I am here to preach your word!”. I was at the back of the room observing all of this and it just seemed so cultish, moreso than what I was used to as a former Catholic. It was never like this and I could not wrap my head around the reason for doing it so over the top, as if their God could not hear them without the shouting of praise and as if it was a competition among the very group themselves against one another, to be the loudest and most physical, with hands thrown into the air and others dropping to their knees as if something took over their bodies. Well, yeah. The “Holy Spirit!” duh! “Jesus is here with us, he’s showing us the way!”

After several minutes of that, the pastor gave his own sermon on how Jesus is real and no one will convince him otherwise. “Can you believe there are people that think this was all an accident, millions of years of evolution, and there is no god? Don’t come to me with that ridiculous ideas when we all know Yahweh almighty created all of this for us!”. He continued by saying that those that he met that did not believe in Jesus were destined for Hell and he did not care to save them. That is not what Jesus would want though. It is up to us to become the Preachers and the Prophets and spread the word of God all over the world, no matter the cost.

Not once did we lock eyes, all the while thinking he must be talking to me because I stared right into his eyes while he was telling this to his “flock”. All that ran through my mind was you don’t have an understanding of science and are afraid of those who question your “god”.

He ended his sermon and it was lunch time. We all headed towards the cafeteria and I brought my sketch book. While eating our lunch some of the members noticed my sketch book and asked to view it. They said that I was very talented and God had given me a great gift. I had to say, I owe it all to my grandmother who was a phenomenal artist, and I was very influenced by her. The attention I received was nice, even the preacher himself loved my work. I kind of forgot everything that had just happened at the meeting room and everything became normal again, regular conversation and interaction with one another as regular people.

After lunch, we had a few hours to spend on extra-curricular activities. There was a lake to go paddle boating and fishing. There was a pool to swim in, basketball court, tennis court, and other sports activities to participate in. I was invited to join a game of basketball and had fun with that. Time flew by and we headed back to the cabin to take a shower and get dressed for the next meeting in the cabin.

Some of us showed up on time for the final sermon and we had coffee as we waited for everyone else to show up. The special guest speaker we had earlier came back and he was dressed down with a superman shirt on. I thought to myself that’s quite odd. Earlier he was dressed in a collared shirt with a tie. I brushed it off while the rest of the group showed up and took their seats. Everyone, except for me, had their bibles, a notebook, and the envelope that was passed out the night before that contained the scripture that we were asked to explain the meaning and why we thought Jesus chose it for us. The pastor had come up to me and knew I gave my envelope to my father. My father must have told him. He said it was ok for me not to go up in front and read the scripture. I thanked him for that. They started out with an individual prayer thanking the Lord for being alive and for gathering a group of men to serve him. Then it started to get louder and louder with chanting and prayer. This time it was the loudest I had ever heard them pray, with everyone shouting until the walls shook. For a minute, I got scared of their actions and over-the-top theatrics. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but then it started to calm down and everyone took their seats. They started taking turns reading their scriptures that were ‘chosen by God specifically for them to read, interpret and explain’ to the rest of us, and describing what it meant to them.

One by one each scripture was pretty much the same, with messages of not doubting and serving the Lord, “for He knows all and has made all”. It came to be my turn, but the pastor moved on quickly to the next person as if to save the shame of me not reading anything in front of the group. The scripture lesson was finally over. It was all one big ego trip for the individual reading and the god that they believe they serve. There was nothing that I could take away and say, Yeah, that makes sense, I can’t argue with that. It was all based on faith and the thing about faith is that it is not knowledge. The special guest preacher stood up, holding a rope in his hand while he started to tell the story of Joseph (Genesis 37, 1–28).

“Genesis 37

1 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.

2 This is the account of Jacob’s family line

Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate[a] robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

12 Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”

“Very well,” he replied.

14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.

When Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?

16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”

17 “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’”

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.

19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.

23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the ornate robe he was wearing — 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

25 As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.

26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.

28 So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels[b] of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.”

That’s when the rope in the pastor’s hands became the subject of the story. “What is it that saved Joseph?” he asked. “His brother Judah”, everyone replied. “No” replied the pastor, “It was the rope, the rope saved Joseph from his demise.” Everyone looked at him oddly as he began to explain that the rope was a tool that God had placed there to save Joseph. The rope had no say or opinion on saving Joseph, but the brothers did have a say on saving their brother or not. “Be the rope, be the tool and save those who need to be saved no matter who they are, whether they are a drug addict, a drunk or a non-believer, because you, as a tool of God, have given them the opportunity to be saved. Do not be the hero of the story in an attempt to save others. Be the tool of God that saves others.” He pointed at his Superman shirt as he explained that you should not be a hero, because a hero has a choice; a choice to save or not save and to pass judgment on others while not knowing whether that person will become a tool themselves and preach the word of God. “Do not question God and what he has you do. We are all tools for him to use for his glory.” The room roared with cheers and praise to Jesus. The pastor ended his sermon with another group embrace and this time I stood up with my arm around my father, while we were instructed to become tools and “ask the Lord to help, bless, and pray for the person you are embracing”. My father started to pray, and I could hear him praying for God to watch over my family, to have good fortune in my life, and pretty much every other good thing that you could think of that you would want to happen for your son. Hearing all of that, this guilt started to build up in me because I did not utter any words for my father, because I could not bring myself to fake a prayer for my father, knowing I’d just be talking to myself. My father noticed that I was becoming uncomfortable and hugged me close to him. “It’s ok”, he said. “I love you and thank you for being here.” I stood there in silence while he continued to pray, amidst the cries and shouts of praise from the other members. Then, the next thing I notice is that the guest pastor starting going around the room and placing his hands on individual heads, shouting out prayers and starting to speak in a different language. It was a language that was not familiar to me. It just sounded like made-up gibberish. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud because it sounded so ridiculous. The pastor looked at me with eyes that screamed “how dare you laugh at me”. Sorry, you sound ridiculous, and this act you put on with the rest of the group, I can see right through you.

It felt like he knew that I knew that he was full of himself. He avoided locking eyes with me again, this time because I had my eyes on him to see what he was doing. Everyone had finished with their over the top prayers and the guest preacher said goodbye. I went up to him, knowing he was trying to avoid me, and reached out my hand to bid him farewell. I don’t know what came over me, but I gave him a firm grip, looked into his eyes, and told him that it was a pleasure to meet him. I could feel that he was uncomfortable. One second he was Super Preacher, and the next, I looked through him and used kryptonite to uncover his fake powers over the group. He knew I was on to him and did not buy anything he was saying. He was good at talking and spewing his bullshit, but when one gets greedy and tries to go overboard, you’re gonna get caught. He left right away.

We left the meeting room to have dinner and afterwards have our final sermon. During dinner, one of the members of the church started a conversation with me about my tattoos and how he always wanted to get one, but “it’s forbidden in the bible”. So I asked him, “Do you look down on those who do have tattoos?” “Heavens no”, he replied. “They were just misguided and did not know that they should never mark their bodies.” I laughed it off and continued to eat my food. He kept on looking at one tattoo that I have on my right arm that is written in Latin. I knew he wanted to ask me about it and I finally extended my arm for him to read it. “Deus in Absentia?”. “Very good”, I said, and he replied with a serious face, “In the absence of God.” He looked very uncomfortable and tried to change the subject as if I had offended him. I just replied to him, “It is what it is and is a part of me”. We all ate quietly afterwards and headed back to the meeting room.

The main pastor had an exercise for us using random pictures that he laid out on a table. We were to view the photographs and pick out the one that jumped out at you; “the picture that you picked, explain why the picture called out to you, and how does it involve our retreat”. We all picked our pictures and took turns on what the specific pictures meant to us. This time, I was going to participate. When it came to my turn, everyone assumed I was going to skip out on it, because everyone else gave praise to God on choosing the picture for them and sharing that it meant something personally for this retreat. It was as if it was a contest of who better communicated with Jesus and who had the best explanation for the photograph.

I went up there and chose a picture of a father holding his son’s hand on the shore of a beach, water splashing at their feet. I just went off with what was on top of my head. I was at the retreat for one reason and one reason only, my father. I explained that the photo represented that my own father is still trying to hold my hand, and in this case, trying to save my “soul”. That made everyone happy and they shouted “Amen!”.

I continued praising my father. Growing up, he was a prime example of what it was to be a man; a man of his word, a hard worker, a helper to those in need, and how to be a father figure. I kept on getting praises from everyone, and then I told them that my father and I are the same man yet different. “We are a coin but on different sides. He has a faith that I can never have, nor do I want to.” Their eyes became large and the room grew quiet. I had their attention. “My father is a great man, but I feel like something has come between us that I had to come here and figure out.” I did not go into details, but I cut it short by letting them all know that I love my father and would do anything for him.

I left the podium and they clapped, not knowing whether what I said was a good thing or not, especially when I told them that I didn’t have faith and nor wanted to. I went up to my father all teary-eyed and told him that I love him. He said the same to me. It started to get dark outside and our last sermon was to be held around a campfire outside. I noticed that everyone started to become distant with me, as if the very devil himself had appeared. I tried to strike up a conversation, but it was awkward with some. They had placed the logs together and lit them.

We all sat around the campfire and the pastor asked a question that he wanted all of us to answer. “Is it difficult or easy to worship God?” I found the question to be odd, but everyone took on the challenge to answer it. Everyone started out that it was hard because, in order to have time for God, you have to sacrifice certain things. I thought to myself yeah, you’re reasoning and thinking logically. Then everyone’s answers grew similar: that they had to give in to God and let him show them the path to adore and praise him. When everyone was giving their answers, I kept looking up at the sky and seeing the beautiful stars, and all I could think of was Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” — Carl Sagan

“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements — the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life — weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.” ― Lawrence M. Krauss

“We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

This brought me peace internally, but I had no one to share it with. So I decided that I was going to share these quotes in my head with the group. I did not notice that when everyone was taking a turn answering the pastor’s question, while I was admiring the cosmos, my turn to say something was skipped over. I kind of took it personally because now they really didn’t want to know what I had to say or how I felt. Their loss I guess, but I was determined to fit it into the conversation. And while the answers were being wrapped up, the pastor said, “What I am about to say is for those who are walking the fine line of sin!”

It took everyone off guard, their attentions all on the pastor. “The woman that is pursuing you, leave her be, because she is nothing but the devil in disguise, and she will ruin everything you worked hard for.” I thought that was a weird thing to say, especially being the last sermon that the pastor wanted to say. All I could think of was, Can you admit then that in all this praising and devoting yourself to Jesus, that you are still human, a man, and that you aren’t as innocent as you proclaim, and yet you want to put in a scapegoat and say the devil is involved? And I started realizing that no one throughout the day talked about being a better husband or a better father. It was all about never doubting God, and “whatever he lays in front of your life, accept it for what it is and never ever question it”. The only time they mentioned anything about a woman was when it was mentioned that “God intended the woman to come from a rib because she is there to be by his side, to protect him from harm, and to keep a man encouraged to follow God”. It was so minimal that it was just said in passing, with no details on how a man should treat his wife, and help her as much as she helped him. It’s called a relationship, but no mention of that had ever come up.

The fire started to die down and we ended up leaving back to the cabin. Some of us went back to the meeting room and had coffee and some snacks before we went off to bed. Someone had pulled out a box of dominoes and asked if anyone wanted to play, I jumped and the chance and they thought I did not want to participate in anything with them. What they did not know that I’m a pretty good domino player. We had several games and the awkwardness started to go away, they were impressed with how I played so well. It is typically a game played by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans. I as a Mexican American, or Chicano as I refer to myself, really had no business knowing about that type of game. “Capicú!” I shouted as I laid down the winning bone. They laughed and everything was cool. It was midnight and we all headed back to our cabins because we had to wake up early, pack up, and head home. I took an empty bed’s mattress and doubled mine, and slept a little better.

The alarm went off at 7 a.m. We gathered our things, put the cabin back in order, and loaded up the vehicles. As we ate breakfast, I noticed that everyone was seemingly back to seeing me for who I was at the beginning, who I was before I announced my non-faith, as if everything was back to normal. We finished up breakfast and took group pictures before we left. Some of the group that had come from another church said their good byes and wanted to take the time to comment on the retreat being a success. I was also used as an example of God working his will into me because I had joined them and participated with them. They called it a miracle. I just stood there quiet and let them say and think what they wanted, but they did urge me to seek out the Lord Jesus Christ in order to free myself from doubt. I just smiled and thought to myself, yeah, right. What they failed to realize though was that there is so much more to being a non-believer than just not accepting a god into my life, but that’s a different conversation. I was respectful and made sure to shake their hands and hug them as brothers would.

Did I look at them any different? Maybe. They were regular folks, just like any other people, but when they get in their trance and close their eyes while raising their hands to the sky and shouting to something that I cannot see or feel, I don’t know how to see them any other way than as someone who needs help. You are giving your everything to something that I never could, something that I could never accept as normal. My purpose was not to be there for them and their God. My purpose there was to put a smile on my father’s face and to try to understand where he was coming from. I got a glimpse into what his world is like now, and while I can’t understand it, I can accept it. It makes him happy. This was just another step towards re-connecting with my father, even though I don’t know if he understood what I was experiencing and seeing through my own eyes.

What I can say that I took away from this experience is that a person’s mind can be easily manipulated with smoke and mirrors, all caused by a book that was written by unknown authors, and has been re-written, reinterpreted, and from my understanding not complete. So how can a person put so much faith and belief in such a book? I read this book on my own, cover to cover, and could not take it as fact. I don’t know. But I know my next step; to try to get my father to know me and understand me, not only as his son, but as his Atheist son.