Cincinnati council member comes out as nonbeliever
This is an edited version of an article published May 21 on Medium.com and is reprinted with permission. You can read the full article at: bit.ly/2YIUJ4b.
By Jeffrey Pastor
I am an atheist.
Writing these words is my liberation from a life that had become too unbearable and inauthentic. My old seminary professor reminded me to be “true, authentic and courageous.”
Growing up in America and by biological accident, I came to society as a Black kid in urban Cincinnati. All of my family was raised in a predominantly Catholic and Pentecostal household. As a child, I have fond memories of my mother worshiping at Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. My mother would go on to “give her life to Christ” around the time I was 11.
I would go on to give my life to Christ at the tender age of 12. Fully convinced that it was necessary to avoid hell and fight the demons that lurked around every corner, I not only “got saved” but was “on fire for the Lord.” Most of our elders encouraged this promising behavior, often remarking, “God has a calling on you, young man.” Those words of affirmation only strengthened my resolve.
While attending high school, I would carry my bible and briefcase. I was a virgin who did not use curse words or experiment with drugs and alcohol and who feverishly battled against sexually lustful and hateful thoughts. I was on my way to “get my reward!”
At 17, I graduated from high school and began to chart my own path. I thought I had the whole world figured out.
Then, between 2001–2005, I became human. I lost my virginity. I attended my first campus party in 2003, but still did not drink or smoke “the devil’s grass.” Yet, I would be haunted with guilt and shame for attending college parties and lusting. Anything bad that came my way — sickness, financial calamity, ruin — was all a result of my behavior. I had to fight by “rededicating my life to the Lord.” I missed out on so much in college living up to expectations I could never meet.
In 2001, I was a “chaste” 17-year-old Pentecostal from Cincinnati. Four years later, I was a still a Pentecostal kid, but with a precious 4-month-old girl. I graduated Central State University in 2005.
But life has a funny way of hitting working-class graduates hard, especially racial minorities. I got a job in the Wal-Mart Assistant Manager Trainee program in Moraine, Ohio, over one hour away from Cincinnati. How did I get there? My working-class mother, a Metro employee at that time, drove me or allowed me to take the car. (If I ever believed in a god, it would have to be my mom.) But I could not maintain the commute.
What did I do? I prayed. Then I got a “sign from God” that told me to attend the seminary. I asked my ex-girlfriend to move to Ohio so we could raise our 6-month-old daughter together. Besides, “you need to marry that young lady” was a common refrain among the religious faithful. She obliged. We got married Dec. 3, 2005, one day before my 22nd birthday, and had our next beautiful girl in May 2006. But in less than a year, we’d divorced. My life was shattered. How could the kid who was “on fire” and in seminary fall from grace? I thought I did everything right.
The next six years were marked by depression as I navigated life as a divorcee with two precious daughters and the guilt of my “infidelities” and “failed marriage.”
My first questions about my “faith” began in 2005, what believers would call my “Job season.” Thankfully, unlike that biblical archetype of suffering, I had my younger siblings, grandmother and mother as support during this dark period when I did what any faithful Pentecostal does: Pray harder. Fast. Repent. Repeat. I felt that my situation was a result of disobeying God. But the questions became more pronounced: Why do I believe in the Pentecostal version? Why do we use three letters — G-O-D — to describe a being that is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent? Are billions of people really doomed to hell because they do not follow our version of Christianity? Is this imminent demise for all nonbelievers even real?
I begin to unravel. First it started with thinking that Jesus is not God, which is a huge leap from the Jesus-only Pentecostal faith. That led to my lack of belief in eternal punishment, which led to visiting and joining a Baptist church. I remarried in 2009, and after sharing with my wife my doubts, we begin visiting as many denominations as possible.
At that point, I received an honorable discharge from the Navy. I tried Catholicism — yes, only 45-minute church services during football season! This must be it! Except it wasn’t. Then we tried the Episcopal, Methodist, Southern Baptist and A.M.E. churches. But nothing seemed to fit.
How about Islam? We visited a mosque, began to take Shahadah. But issues with the seemingly second-class treatment of women proved implacable and unreconcilable. We were raising little girls whom we wanted to be strong Black women and a son whom we wanted to respect women.
Most importantly, it felt like I never left orthodox Christianity. Finally, we tried every kind of Judaism. Orthodox Judaism. Conservative Judaism. A brief stint with Reformed Judaism. Alas, it was too orthodox, too xenophobic. Finally, we converted to Conservative Judaism, where we remain. My conversion name is Yaakov (Jacob).
Words that liberate me
I am an atheist. These words liberate me. These words that had been echoing inside my head finally left my lips in December 2013 when I informed one of my best friends, Nic. My heart palpitated fast, my anxiety seemed uncontrollable.
“I am an atheist, Nic.”
“I already knew that,” he said. “What took you so long to admit that to yourself?”
Tears. Joy. Next, I told my wife.
“Well, you’ve always joked I was an atheist, and now your ass is an atheist,” she said. “Live in your truth. I am here either way. Can we still attend shul?”
Tears. Joy. “Are you going to tell your mother?” she asked.
When my wife and I converted to Judaism, my mother was skeptical. She has always supported anything that I had done in life, but this may be one step too far. Yet, by 2019, I couldn’t stay silent any longer.
“Mommy, I am an atheist.” Finally, saying those words in the face of God liberated me. For real. For good.
Obviously, my Pentecostal mother does not agree, and from my perspective, our relationship has changed ever so slightly. She is concerned about my being punished for my lack of belief. Her fear is that God will demonstrate that he is real through some personal destructive act that will force “my knee to bow and tongue to confess that Jesus is Lord.” My mother holds dear to that which nearly all zealous theists believe. In some countries, there is a huge price to pay for not having faith in an anthropomorphic divine figure.
An atheist. These words liberate me.
The truth is that none of us really achieves the mythical freedom we seek. The god you choose is highly dependent on family and country.
If you live in America and you are Black, you are most likely a Christian. Take that same human and put it in brown color in Saudi Arabia, they’re probably Muslim.
I have always been a questioning person. Why was I so lucky? Why am I right and they are wrong? Quite frankly, I was tired of avoiding the answers. I was tired of living in the shadows.
I am an atheist. Words that liberate me.
My freedom is worth my death. I will not use this space to bash or shame theists because, quite frankly, there are millions of great theists out there in the world.
Yes, I still participate in the Jewish liturgy. Yes, I am still a classical liberal (original Republican). Yes, I still sing every Christmas. And, yes, I will continue to fight for private businesses’ right to discriminate based on their religious teachings. Limited government is, as we say, maximum freedom.
Personally, I need to live up to what I “preach” to my family and friends. How can I keep hiding who I am? “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” — Dr. Martin Luther King. I am willing to die for my freedom and liberty and the freedom and liberty of others. I am now, finally, alive at 36.
Liberty is worth death. I will surely lose donors, voters, family, friends’ social capital. I’ll be disinvited to key events. Shunned, ostracized, pilloried. If so, it was/is still all worth it.
This is my “coming out,” my liberation, my freedom. A Black guy who is obsessed with both Malcom X’s and Ayn Rand’s economic teachings. A Black guy who has suppressed his desire for polyamory and who believes that children represent eternal life. An atheist Jew who finds truth in agnosticism, humanism, African/Chinese/Native American spirituality. In Democrats and Republicans. In humans.
I am all these things and more, but I begin with . . . I am an atheist. I am free. These words liberate me.
Jeffrey Pastor is a member of the Cincinnati City Council. He served in both the Ohio Army National Guard and the United States Navy Reserve. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife and four kids.