I used to think that Atheism was a dirty word. I could barely say it. It would leave a nasty taste in my mouth.
But last night, I changed my mind. I met Samantha.
It was at an Interfaith gathering, hosted by our church in Grand Rapids. Over four hundred and fifty people gathered there, to celebrate unity in diversity.
It was a beautiful thing: rich in culture, and color, and creativity. There was wisdom, and warmth, and wonder. It’s what happens when we humans manage to throw aside our differences, and focus on our similarities. It’s what happens when Christians and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists actually talk to each other. But I didn’t think an Atheist would be there.
She limped up to the microphone as her dad held her hand. Samantha is ten years old. She is fighting a rare form of cancer. I couldn’t begin to pronounce its name. But she could. She said it loud and clear, right into the microphone, where her brave words rebounded off the walls and hung in the air as clear as a bell.
Hello. I’m Samantha. I have grade 3 Anaplastic Astrocytoma. …..and I’m an Atheist.
I must admit to being stopped in my tracks. Right there. How could this sweet young thing, battling this rare and deadly illness, stand there and say that?
How could her dad, who used to be a pastor, stand at her side and not believe in heaven?
This evening has been wonderful, he said. We’ve so enjoyed all the contributions from varying faith traditions, seeing Hindu dancers, listening to Buddhist songs, hearing verses from the Quran and the Bible…..but we’re different. We’re Atheists.
And that, right there, must have been my problem. Samantha is different to me; Samantha’s dad is different to me. And wasn’t that what this Interfaith gathering was all about…to come together, to listen to each other, and respect each other’s differences?
And although I’ve never thought of Atheism as a ‘faith tradition’, what is faith, unless it is something you believe in? And who am I, to judge the atheist, for their beliefs?
Cancer doesn’t care what religion you are. said ten-year old Samantha.
Her words rang in my ears, and will be forever etched in my mind.
I am a Christian. I believe passionately in God. I know Jesus is real, and that one day, I will be in heaven.
But I’m not here to judge.
I’m not here to convert.
I’m not here to convince.
I’m here to listen.
I’m here to love.
And even though Jesus commands me to preach the gospel to all the world, I’m going to try to do that through love. Because without love, my words, whether written or spoken, are nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging bell.
And who would ever want to listen to that?
This big old beautiful world is big enough for Muslim, and Hindu; for Buddhist, and Baha’i; for Christians like me, and Atheists like Samantha.
We love. We laugh. We live…together….