Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 19, 2013

Believe, but don’t bully

— — You cannot bully someone into believing. I spoke with a young lady who says she’s been bullied for her beliefs, or lack of belief, as some people might describe it.

“I am Atheist, but not one of those in-your-face-about-it people,” she said. “I understand that people have different beliefs, and I believe that they should be allowed to practice those beliefs freely. I just choose not to have a religion myself.”

She noticed at an early age a simple difference that made her feel a little set apart — none of the other kindergartners could play on Sunday mornings because they were at church. But her personal awareness became a public issue in a middle school classroom when she was the only student not speaking up “very loudly to say that evolution was completely a lie and that it was stupid we even had to learn about it,” as she described the scene.

She says that incident led to her being bullied about religion the rest of that school year. It became part of her curriculum because it started again the following school year. A group of girls talking about faith asked her about it. She answered that she didn’t go to church.

“They began telling me they’d pray for my soul, invited me to their churches, and one told me I was going to Hell unless I had God in my life,” she said. “When this happened with these girls, I was kind of hurt that they would think I wasn’t a good person because of my lack of faith and (I was) angry that they automatically began trying to convert me.”

She thought the girls might become her friends, but didn’t speak to them unless she had to after that. People started saying things in other classes and at lunch. Most memorably, she says, someone stopped her in the hall and asked her, “Are you really the antichrist? I thought you were Jewish.”

One youth pastor I asked about the situation put it bluntly: “My response to this girl would simply be, ‘I’m sorry ... It saddens me when Christians act like jerks. I avoid people like this, too,’” answered Chad Smith from Journey Church in Huntersville.

Another youth pastor, Andrew Scales with Davidson College Presbyterian Church, said, “I would say to this young woman, ‘I welcome you, not with expectations of who I would want you to be or become, but just as you are. I welcome you, not out of a sense of religious obligation, but with gladness because you are a human being and deserve dignity.” 

And what would they tell the other teens? “These students, in different ways, have failed to love their neighbor even if their intentions were well-meaning,” said Scales. “Words that intimidate and threaten people into joining a Christian faith community do not constitute a brave and bold witness to faith; they are instead divisive and unloving.”

Smith said he’d tell the teens, “Learn to love without an agenda. People want to be respected as humans not projects. It seems cliché but if you can’t say something nice or encouraging, keep your mouth shut! Constructive criticism should be reserved for those whom you know well and have a close relationship with.”

It bothers me to see someone bullied about anything — their appearance, their race or their sexuality. But there’s something even more repugnant about browbeating someone in the name of God.

The young lady says she had Christian friends who supported her and criticized the other students but those students who bullied lost an opportunity, suggests Scales. “I wonder what would have happened if these students had sought to understand this young woman’s viewpoints out of friendly curiosity and respectful sharing,” he said. “They might have learned more about the world around them, and even about themselves.”

Thankfully, this kind, intelligent and reasonable young lady didn’t blame Him. “My experiences haven’t turned me off any particular religion, just off of those people,” she said.

When I asked her about it recently, she said things have been better, no additional problems this school year, “... although, I do meet lots of people who are surprised to hear that I don’t go to church. I try to avoid telling them that it’s more than just not going, it’s also not believing.”

I asked if her position has changed either way or if she’s grown anymore curious. She said not really, “But I recently had a discussion with my friend ... about why people do look to religion, and it made plenty of sense, so I guess I could see what might drive me to be curious in the future.”

I would hope that if she becomes curious about Christianity she learns from believers who follow St. Francis of Assisi’s words of advice: “Teach the Gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.”

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

 

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