Growing up atheist in a Christian town
I've been thinking a lot lately about how it is that I've spent my whole life surrounded by Christians but yet did not once consider opening my mind to what the Bible has to say until a few weeks ago. There are a lot of reasons but one of the biggest external factor was my childhood experiences. I learned early on from my parents that going to church and believing in God was something for other people, not for us. And my early experiences with Christians confirmed this idea.
When I moved to the suburbs of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area when I was eight years old the first questions all the children at my new elementary school asked me was what church I went to. I was initially caught off guard by the question and stammered something about us not having found one we liked yet. But after a few months of living there it became clear to everyone that we were just not churchgoing people, and it made it harder for me to make friends.
Even after I'd made friends and was no longer the new kid I still suffered frequent jabs such as being told I was going to burn in hell or that my parents were bad people -- and that was what my friends said.
When I was ten a group of my friends started going away to a cool Christian summer camp each year and I tagged along with them. I'd read on the list of things to pack that you were supposed to have a Bible. My family didn't own a Bible but I managed to dig up a copy of the New Testament that some religious group had given out at my school a couple months before. Little did I know what sort of reaction this would bring when I got to summer camp.
"Stupid," "Satan-worshipper," and "disgusting" were some of the words that my camp counselor and the other girls in my cabin used to describe the fact that I didn't have my own Bible to bring (sometimes to my face, sometimes just talking loudly so that I'd overhear). My camp counselor told me the only way to make up for being such a bad person was to get saved. My deer-in-the-headlights look belied the fact that I had no idea what she was talking about. When she clarified and asked if I was willing to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior I just said, "I'm not sure." I had no idea who Jesus was or what was involved in this lord and savior business.
That turned out the be the "I'm not sure" heard 'round the world, or around that camp, anyway. None of the girls associated with me for the rest of the week and the friends who I'd come with tried to distance themselves from me. Meanwhile, I was just bewildered by the whole thing.
What's interesting is that the girls in my cabin would excitedly talk about the mission trips they'd taken to various places in the world and how good it felt to spread the word of Christ to the native peoples of various countries. These kids understood the concept of being kind to those who weren't Christians and knew to act as ambassadors of Christianity when traveling in third world countries. But it never occurred to them to apply that concept to people in their own country, let alone their own cabin at camp.
Not once in my childhood did another kid take interest in the fact that I wasn't a Christian and calmly offer to tell me about their beliefs. I think they assumed that I'd heard the message and just chose to reject it. Little did they know that I didn't know who Jesus was supposed to be until I was 12.
I think this scenario is probably much more common today than it was when I was a kid. Atheism is more widespread now and I personally know of a lot of families that don't own one Bible. The kids in these families don't hear anything positive about Christianity at home or in the media, so their only chance to hear the other side of the story is from friends who are Christians. And if they're treated with scorn by the churchgoing crowd it only serves to cement the "us vs. them" mentality and makes it much harder to overcome later in life.
I hope that churches are starting to understand this, and I hope they're starting to teach children that they need to act as ambassadors to Christianity in their home town as much, if not more, than when they're on mission trips.