DeWitt still preaching, just not believing

Photo provided by JERRY DEWITT -- Though now an atheist, Jerry DeWitt, of DeRidder, still speaks with a Pentecostal preaching style he employed during 25 years as an evangelical pastor.
Photo provided by JERRY DEWITT -- Though now an atheist, Jerry DeWitt, of DeRidder, still speaks with a Pentecostal preaching style he employed during 25 years as an evangelical pastor.

These days, Jerry DeWitt’s schedule resembles that of other well-known preachers.

He’s preparing for a Sunday service, getting ready to launch a new congregation and debuting next week a book exploring his personal journey.

But DeWitt, little-known outside of southwest Louisiana during his 25 years as Pentecostal preacher in DeQuincy and DeRidder, gets national notoriety from his unbelief.

His journey from Charismatic minister to atheist preacher has been reported in The Advocate, Religion News Service and The New York Times. Filmmakers Jason Cohn and Camille Servan-Schreiber are making a documentary about DeWitt losing family, friends and employment along with his faith.

What DeWitt, 43, hasn’t lost is a desire to minister.

“Once a preacher, always a preacher if you get into it for the right reason,” he said. “I just discovered that I’ve always loved people — still do. I still want to do what I can to help them.”

In Baton Rouge on Sunday afternoon, he will lead a secular service and announce details for an atheist congregation in Lake Charles.

People in Lake Charles have asked for such a congregation, but DeWitt and other organizers are holding the announcement service in Baton Rouge because they want to get acknowledged in the state capital, where the influence of religious conservatives is so great, he said.

Even so, the service is not a protest, will not be mocking religion and isn’t about deconverting Christians, DeWitt said. “If a religionist attends our service, the only way (he or she) can leave offended is by what we don’t say or don’t do.”

Brent Underwood, a consultant from New York City who is helping with the book launch, explained that DeWitt is trying to start a movement — a different way of experiencing atheism.

DeWitt wants a more community-oriented alternative to the academic approach he sees on the secular movement circuit where people meet up for a lecture and coffee then toss their cups away and go home.

“You can attend that meetup and leave very much disconnected from everyone else,” DeWitt said.

He favors gatherings that are more churchlike — gatherings that while free of supernatural religion still include the benefits of connection and inspiration — that celebrate this one life people have.

“Not everyone comes out of religion and hates every part of it,” DeWitt said. “Some come out and they miss the fellowship. They miss the caregiving. They miss the life-enhancing message.”

He sent out more than 1,600 invites on his Facebook event page. So far, 78 people indicated they will come and another 60 indicated “maybe.”

But not everyone in the secularist community is supportive.

“Not being superstitious does not require some sort of group affirmation,” posted Thunder Roads Louisiana motorcyle magazine publisher Reyn Mansson, of New Orleans, on the event site. “I see this faux atheist church as wrong on so many levels.”

That’s fine with DeWitt.

“We are not trying to convince people in the atheist community that this is what should be done,” he said. “This is people in Louisiana trying to meet a need for the Louisianians who can appreciate it.”