I came out of a blistering rainstorm and strode into the First Nazarene Church for the Upward Bound basketball program coaches’ orientation. After scribbling “Bado” on the sign-in sheet, I scooted into a pew far from the pulpit, like any good Christian attending services. With a Bible and hymnal just inches from my fingers, I once again faced a fact that is highlighted whenever I’m in a church: I’m not a good, mediocre, or even bad Christian. I don’t believe in the Christian—or any—god.
Readers will recognize the seeming oddity of a confirmed atheist coaching for an evangelical Christian basketball league. This juxtaposition of dueling concepts may seem stranger than wildebeests cuddling with crocodiles, but, at least for me, it’s not. I’ve witnessed (if I can be so bold to use that word) Upward Bound’s positive impact on children due to the program focusing on the right things: kids having fun, kids meeting new friends, and kids learning basketball skills. Its unadulterated emphasis on kids makes Upward Bound the antithesis of many children’s sports leagues. It’s the best damn youth sports program going, bar none. And that makes this confirmed nonbeliever believe in Upward Bound basketball.
One upside to my nonbelief in this situation: filling out the coaching application was a piece of cake. After declaring support for the program’s core value of all children being winners, I breezed through the application, quickly marking the “Not Applicable” blanks. Application finished, I sat in blissful nonbelief as the other coaches struggled to define their personal relationship with Jesus by answering such questions as:
- Describe when you first came to faith in Jesus Christ.
- Describe how your faith in Christ has shaped your life and spiritual walk.
- What have you done in the past year to grow your relationship with Christ?
I was well qualified to coach in one area, however. The application noted that the program “isn’t looking for spiritual giants”—a criterion that, my large stature notwithstanding, I filled better than most.
As my heathen butt warmed the pew, I listened to Upward Bound’s lead organizer open the meeting with a prayer. Then he clicked through a series of PowerPoint slides, describing the program’s elements and emphasizing the importance of sharing the love of Jesus Christ with the players. Heads nodded as he connected basketball to all things New Testament and the wonderful world of Jesus. The sermonlike pep talk, obviously, was not my thing, but I listened, remaining respectfully quiet.
“Upward [Bound] is an evangelical ministry,” he noted, smiling. “Remember to share the love of Jesus Christ with all your players. If you find interested kids or parents, invite them to accompany you to a service or contact one of us about approaching them so they can learn about Jesus’s love and be saved. Our program has players and coaches from many different backgrounds. Some of them have never heard about Jesus Christ and you might be the only person they hear the good news from. In fact, we even have some coaches who are nonbelievers.”
Jolted from my stupor, I looked to see if the Lord’s piercing light of truth had burned a hole through my sacrilegious chest; it had not. I shuffled my feet and flipped through the coaching booklet, awaiting my looming exposure as resident heathen—the beast in the First Nazarene’s midst. Maybe God himself would provide a convenient lightning bolt or earthquake-created chasm to eradicate the blasphemer within his temple. But neither heaven nor Earth moved, and the organizer continued: “And that’s all right because we pair those coaches with believers. Your assistant, in fact, may be a nonbeliever.”
At this point, I felt like a demon-worshipping interloper who had sneaked past St. Peter into Christ’s sacred kingdom. Relief filled my frame when Upward Bound’s organizer failed to point at me and intone in a deep “You’re guilty as sin!” pastor baritone: “Look, there’s a heretic right there in the gray suit jacket with the red tie. See, I told you, they really do exist. Go ahead everyone, don’t be afraid, go over and touch him. Jesus ministered to the lepers; the least we can do is follow his example with the spiritual lepers among us. Don’t worry; he won’t bite.”
The strange sensation I felt of being part of a group yet so separate must be similar to what a homosexual who is still inside the proverbial closet experiences. Although I had not hidden my lack of belief—I had been upfront with the program about it since day one (it’s a testament to the program that it accepted me)—I still felt like I had done something wrong. Parental- and Methodist Church-ingrained guilt somehow possessed the power to reach across decades of blissful nonbelief to batter my forty-three-year-old unredeemed psyche. If the speaker had grabbed a white and gold acolyte robe and golden candle snuffer (as a preteen I had yanked on the costume and regularly fallen asleep despite sitting in the first row), shook both in my face, and asked “What happened to you? Where did you go wrong?” I would have converted to Christianity quicker than Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus.
But my conversion never occurred, and I exited First Nazarene without the Scarlet Letter A (for atheist) branded across my blasphemous forehead. Given that God didn’t smite me dead, he obviously had other plans for my woeful existence. During the upcoming two months of practices and games, I visited church four times each week (more often than many true believers cross the threshold). With so many junkets to the holy land, eternal damnation could be carried out at any time, during any event. Seeing “Coach Atheist” reduced to a smoldering pile of brimstone would, no doubt, make for an unforgettable practice. To be safe, I renewed my life and homeowner’s insurance policies, even though they don’t cover “acts of God.”
When the season started, I was head coach for my son Matthew’s squad and assistant coach for my daughter Emily’s. The other coaches agreed to handle the weekly biblical devotionals. The boys’ team followed three simple rules: (1) Have fun, (2) Support and respect your teammates, and (3) Fun have (players loved rule three, a.k.a. the Star Wars “Yoda rule”). During our first round of games, the girls played well and lost; the boys played well and won. Everyone seemed to have fun. The secret scorecard indicated that my heathen soul had survived six church visits without a smoting (smotation?); so far, so good.
Six weeks into the season, a spectacled, older gentleman wearing an Upward Bound shirt pushed open the wooden classroom door, asking to join Matthew’s team in its mid-practice devotional. We assented, and he got a chair and positioned himself outside the circle of kindergarten-sized blue plastic chairs that the team was sitting in. In three years of coaching and listening to more than forty devotionals, that was the first time anyone had ever joined us.
Coach Bob led the team through the night’s lesson, which was learning the meaning of Upward Bound’s colored stars and how each color connected to Jesus’s words and deeds. After every game, each player received an iron-on star and some feedback from the coaches; it was a positive experience that the kids enjoyed. Four of the stars focused on basketball skills (e.g., best offense, best defense) and one on Jesus—most Christlike (the white star, surprise!). When he finished the ten-minute discussion, Bob asked if I wanted to add anything, and as usual I declined. We wer
e preparing to head back to the court when our visitor interrupted.
“Nice devotional. Let me ask something: how many of you kids have prayed to Jesus to save your souls? How many of you have given your life to Christ?” he asked.
A couple of the boys raised their hands, while several stared at the walls plastered with Bible cartoons. A fidgety few looked at him, befuddled.
“Well, you ought to, because Jesus will be your salvation,” he continued, standing to emphasize his Old-Testament-style earnestness. “What about you coaches: have you given your lives to Jesus?”
Coach Bob raised his hand. Coach Atheist didn’t.
“Don’t you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” our visitor inquired of me, stepping toward the unrepentant sinner.
“No,” I replied.
“You don’t believe in Jesus?” he asked. “Well, why don’t you?”
“It’s not my gig,” I replied, wanting to end this conversation pronto. From my perspective, nothing positive would be gained by discussing my beliefs—of lack thereof—in front of the team. Attempting to convert me to the joys of Christianity one-on-one, far from impressionable ears, would be fine. More important, for it to take place in this venue would produce nothing positive for these young children or the Upward Bound program. But once started, alas, proselytizing plows its own righteous path.
“Then what are you going to do if you get in an accident while driving home and die?” he asked, staring at me. I was puzzled about what he wanted to accomplish with this line of questioning, but his next “question” cleared everything up for the guy stumbling down the road to eternal damnation: “If that happens tonight, do you know where the Bible says you’ll go?”
“Yes,” I grumbled, suppressing a groan and wishing I had found a way to end the digression two questions ago.
“You had better think about that; I’d hate for that to happen to you,” he added, somewhat ominously. Music from the movie The Omen would have been appropriate to accompany this “Christian” moment.
“Let’s all drive safe tonight; it’s foggy out there,” I said. “And let’s get back to practice.” Jumping out of their seats, the kids smiled, pleased to escape. Escape from the closing circle of evangelical hell, however, remained elusive for “Coach Sinner.”
“You really need to think about what I said,” the visitor persisted.
“Look, it’s not my thing,” I replied, wanting to avoid further discussion with the team still milling about. There’s a time and place for this type of conversation—beer normally makes it much more interesting—but not there, not then. After all, while there may have been wine on the premises, the church was kegless.
“You know, it’s never too late for salvation. I didn’t accept Jesus into my life until I was fifty-seven. His love saved me.” He stopped to allow me to absorb that insight; as you can imagine, it sunk in about as far as a feather on a granite countertop. “If I give you something, will you read it?”
“Sure, I’ll look at anything,” I said.
“Read the questions on the front and answer them before opening this. And think about what those questions mean to you. This is important for your future,” he said.
“OK, thanks,” I said, ramming the glossy brochure into my pocket.
We ran shooting drills and scrimmaged; I forgot about the Bible guy. Post-practice, I found the brochure and discovered the questions to be answered (the oddball capitalization mirrors the brochure):
- Is there a Heaven or Hell?
- Do You have a Spiritual Belief?
- Where will You go when You Die?
- Will God let You into His Heaven? Why?
- Would You like to know if what You believe is true or not?
The tri-fold brochure’s interior offered seven biblical quotes designed to save my blasphemous soul. Direct answers to the questions were nowhere to be found, but printed below the assembled verbiage was a short prayer. Repeating the prayer aloud would enable one to confess his or her sins, accept Jesus, reach salvation, and enter “his” heaven (salvation in just four easy steps, perfect for busy modern nonbelievers!). Under that—I kid you not—were spaces to fill in your name and the date (which henceforward would be your spiritual birthday).
Putting the brochure aside, I considered just one of its implications: if every non-Christian received a one-way ticket to the underworld, it would be one mightily crowded place. About five in six people wandering across this ancient rock’s surface don’t believe in Jesus Christ.
Rather than sink further into this depressing topic, let me note three things about my encounter with the Bible guy that seemed to run counter to Christian teaching and to harm, rather than reinforce, Upward Bound’s goal of every child being a winner.
- Implying the coach is going to hell in front of his team
- Threatening an “accidental” death and afterlife of eternal damnation/torment
- This approach (i.e., lecturing about losing one’s soul) seems about as far from Jesus’s teaching methods as intelligent design is from actual science.
On the way home, Matthew and I discussed the “save Coach Atheist’s soul” episode. The man’s suggestion that we might wreck and die on the way home scared Matthew. Did it have a similar impact on the other players? Maybe—probably—but who knows? Like most eleven-year-olds, Matthew wanted to go to heaven and didn’t want his father burning “down there” for eternity. Of course, and this saddens me to no end, fear remains one of the most popular tactics employed to manipulate the young, the naive, and the morally, spiritually, or intellectually lost.
Later that night, I called several buddies to ask for their opinions about the “Jesus incident” (apologies to Frank Herbert) and help me to discern whether my being disgruntled with the visitor’s tactics was legitimate. The consensus: the man should have avoided mentioning hellfire and brimstone in front of the players. Several suggested I talk to him one-on-one; Dennis, who serves as an assistant pastor, gave several recommendations as to what I should say.
“When you run into him again, ask him to describe how he accepted Christ into his life,” Dennis suggested.
“OK, then what?” I asked.
“Ask him to show you a passage from the Bible where Jesus used the methods he used to try to convert you. Jesus would never have followed the path that man did. He would have never tried to bring someone to the church through fear. That’s not the Christian way.”
“So,” I replied after thinking that through, “what you’re telling me is that it’s my job as an atheist to teach this guy how to be a better Christian? Is that right?”
Laughing, Dennis agreed. God, indeed, works in mysterious ways. Despite my new calling, I, of course, remain a pedal-to-the-metal atheist happily on the highway to hell.