"This has been the loneliest experience in the world."
Jerry DeWitt sighs. After a whirlwind year of renouncing his faith along with his 25 years in the Pentecostal ministry and discussing it in a New York Times profile, the former minister nurses the flu at his home in DeRidder, La. In a few weeks his memoir, Hope After Faith, will be released.
"It's so ironic that it borders on being tragic," he says, "that this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon can happen and there's literally nobody to celebrate it with."
DeWitt still looks and sounds like a Louisiana preacher. His black hair is often pulled back high and tight and neatly parted, framing a round face and a trim beard. He speaks with a warm Southern lilt. During the last year, however, he has emerged as something of an atheist leader. It's cost him a lot, he says — respect from the town he loves, as well as his friends, his job and his family.
"Normally, if a story about you ended up in the New York Times, or if you ended up with a book deal, it would be cause for Louisiana-style celebration," he says. "I think that's the reason why I'm so bent, so determined, to make Louisiana proud. I'm determined to create a secular community in a Louisiana way."
Born into a family of ministers in neighboring Rosepine, DeWitt spent most of his life in DeRidder in Beauregard Parish. DeWitt's grandfather helped build churches throughout Louisiana. A couple of miles down the road is the church of his grandmother, the "Pentecostal religious matriarch" of the DeWitt family. Less than a mile in the other direction is Grace Church, where DeWitt spent the latter half of his ministry. From a young age, DeWitt was expected to follow the family mold.
"The Pentecostals who raised me were not community activists. They weren't involved in trying to shape policy, or in larger charitable acts or anything like that," he says. "We were pretty exclusionary. ... It was the only avenue, only profession, only method that existed in my world of trying to make peoples' lives better."
In 1986, at age 16, DeWitt visited Jimmy Swaggart's megachurch in Baton Rouge, where he was "saved." At 17, he joined the ministry, delivering passionate sermons to congregations along the Gulf South.
After a few months of dating, he married Kelly Lee Swain. He was 20; she was 18. Two years later, the couple had a son. The family preached together throughout the South. In those few short years, DeWitt became a rising star in the Pentecostal community.
"But I really wasn't that great of a Christian evangelist, because my heart was always just checking in trying to deal with where I was at — spiritually, intellectually, doctrinally," he says. "I guess because there was always a certain amount of uncertainty in my own life. I never felt like I was in this position to say to people, 'Y'all come and meet me where I'm at.' Instead I always felt like I was trying to help them on their own path. Even now, I don't go out and try to de-convert people from Christianity. I don't post things (on the Internet) with intentions of trying to shake people's faith. I'm still a pastor. I try to help people where they're at, and very much allow them to figure out where they're going."
DeWitt preached about heaven and hell, but couldn't shake the feeling there was a more human, less biblical and less "superstitious" method to reach his flock.
"These become priorities that outweigh starvation, the climate, any other form of life enrichment that a humanist would naturally be concerned with," he says. "What difference does it make to end hunger if all those people go to hell with full bellies? All of a sudden my humanism had been hijacked with this idea of eternal punishment and salvation. ... Those people, I've lived in their homes, I've ridden in the car with them for hours, I feel like I know so many of their hearts. I think they're humanists who have been hijacked by antiquated theology."
DeWitt served as DeRidder's code enforcement officer from 1998 to 2004, when he began preaching full time. He resumed working for the city of DeRidder in 2006 as director of community services. He never truly left the ministry — city officials knew it was good business to keep a religious figure close to City Hall.
"The preachers are still the king-makers and they're able to make or break you," he says. "Why be the tribal leader when you can be the shaman?"
In a 2009 story from the Beauregard Daily News, DeWitt is described as "an avid reader. His preferences are history, nonfictions — especially about sociology and religion. He's also a self-proclaimed Internet junkie. When a city is as intent on improvement as DeRidder is, it takes a certain type of person to do the job. DeRidder is lucky to have ... such men working for its citizens."
He had a natural rapport with the ministers, but DeWitt's secular job forced him to work alongside different denominations and philosophies. Then the doubts crept in. DeWitt felt trapped, but his flock was satisfied with his public message despite his private concerns.
"I grew up thinking that one day I'll get old enough and all the fun will be over, and I'll submit myself to the Lord," he says. "Then suddenly hell became my responsibility. It became my obligation to warn these people I loved in the congregation that their actions could condemn them to hell for all eternity. Somewhere in the midst of that, somewhere the formulas didn't seem to add up. I thought, 'Is it really true that the creator of the universe would send a young lady to hell for all eternity because she felt peer pressure at school and trimmed her bangs?'"
Late one night, while searching on the Internet, DeWitt found online communities of ministers who also questioned their doctrines and faiths. He joined The Clergy Project, an anonymous online refuge for clergy members who no longer believe in God. He also reached out to Recovering From Religion, a post-clergy support group.
"Once the Bible itself begins to lose its divinity, before long everything is on the table," he says. "Once you begin to question our traditions, you eventually question your superstitions."
DeWitt delivered his last sermon in April 2011.
DeWitt changed his Facebook religious views to "secular humanist." His family discovered his online history, and The Clergy Project announced DeWitt as its first pastor-turned-atheist. The town of DeRidder was stunned.
"Disappointed, shocked betrayed, lied to," DeWitt says. "I've had people contact me and try to nail down what I believed and when, for them to know whether their baptism was valid."
In June 2011, two months after his last sermon, his wife left him. The city fired him in December of that year.
He took over as executive director of Recovering From Religion. In April 2012, DeWitt "came out" at the American Atheists' Convention "Reason Rally," where he unveiled his atheist preacher persona.
"I'm not just trying to be an atheist with a smile," DeWitt says. "I'm still very nostalgic for a lot of Christian culture. I can still very easily attend a service and unlike so many of my counterparts, I wouldn't run out throwing up. This is family, this is culture, this is tradition, and that's why I don't say I lost my faith — I feel like I graduated from it."
With a preacher's sing-song affectation, DeWitt's "sermons" involve pumped fists and pointed fingers while he rocks back and forth on his heels. ("I found myself down in such a low place. I was all alone, trapped. I'm going to tell you, brother," he preached at an Arkansas Society of Free Thinkers meeting in 2012. "But little did I know my mind was completely filled with all the wrong things. Religion had completely baptized me in falsehoods. ... Can I get a Darwin?")
"I felt like to not be myself would be to condemn myself to living a lie, to walking around a facade, the same way I felt I had been doing religiously the next few years," DeWitt says. "So I just got up and did my preacher thing, and I've been pushing that now for the last year. ... I know there's a large portion of Louisiana that will resent me or hold me suspect because of my religious views. At the same time I want to make Louisiana proud, and show our way of communicating, our way of building community is so special and is so successful that it even will work in the secular realm. My intention is to continue being a minister."
Last August, The New York Times published a profile of DeWitt, "From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader," unmasking DeWitt and putting DeRidder on the map.
The Beauregard Daily News, DeWitt's local paper that had praised his civil servitude, didn't report DeWitt's conversion until he appeared at a DeRidder City Council meeting. A local law group had requested a zoning change to house its office inside Fellowship Hall of Assembly of God Church. "Here was the only known atheist in the community defending my grandfather's vision for his church," DeWitt says, laughing.
The story concluded with the reveal: "DeWitt is well-known for his life change that turned his faith from Christianity to Atheism."
The law firm's request was denied.
"Quite honestly," DeWitt says, sighing, "I'm afraid how things are going to be when the book comes out."
The morning after The New York Times published DeWitt's profile, agents and publishers flooded his Facebook and email inboxes.
"I'm not a writer. I'm a preacher," he says. "How is it possible that this Southern-fried Pentecostal preacher is sitting in a hot tub of water reading an email from Simon and Schuster?"
DeWitt connected with New Orleans journalist Ethan Brown, best known for Shake the Devil Off, which chronicles Iraq War veteran Zackery Bowen's return to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and the gruesome murder he commits after the levee failures. The two spent four months revisiting DeWitt's life and career, pulling out memories and fleshing out the details.
"It was truly therapeutic," DeWitt says. "It was four months of intense counseling. It caused all these pieces to click together in a way that I think it would've taken a lifetime to get as well as I was by the time the book was over."
The book, Hope After Faith (Da Capo Press), will be published June 25. DeWitt is bracing himself for the attention.
"I'm horrified," he says, laughing. "I'm worried about the next wave of rejection."
Aside from the occasional glances from conservative Pentecostals at his local Walmart, DeRidder hasn't faced any serious criticism, he says. He has no plans to leave DeRidder, though he preaches on the road during public speaking tours. He's booked throughout Florida in December.
He also serves on the board of The Clergy Project and Foundation Beyond Belief, assisting former clergy members and fellow humanists find a community.
"(In Louisiana), it's easy for days to turn into weeks and weeks to turn into years in the process of just getting by and doing good," he says. "We don't necessarily have institutionalized breaks where we stop and debate theology. What we're trying to do is build community and enrich the lives of those people around us. ...
"How do we create secular communities? ... How do we meet the needs of secular people in a way that religious communities are able to meet those needs? How do we meet those needs in a Louisiana way?"