Non-believer congregation praises life

There was singing, clapping, preaching, even an “Amen!” at Sunday afternoon’s church-like service — but no offering baskets, no prayers and, most importantly, no supernatural presence, according to Jerry DeWitt, the former Pentecostal pastor-turned-non-believer who led the event.

A group of about 50 people gathered high above the Mississippi River on the 10th floor of the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center to attend the service, titled “Joie De Vivre,” which DeWitt dubbed the “first secular service in Louisiana.”

“We’re going to learn how to delight in being alive,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt, who served as an “old-line Pentecostal” preacher in DeRidder and DeQuincy for about 25 years, beginning when he was 17, said he slowly lost his faith over a period of about five years in the late 2000s and eventually left the church. He said he fully realized that he no longer believed in God and has been working in secular service ever since.

DeWitt, who dressed in all-black Sunday, sporting dark-rimmed glasses, a dark beard and dark, slicked and parted hair, encouraged audience members to spread his message of recognizing the joys in everyday life, even if it meant tweeting during his sermon.

DeWitt also announced Sunday that he’s forming a “secular community” in Lake Charles called the Community Mission Chapel.

“This is an experiment,” DeWitt said, asking, hypothetically, “Can we duplicate the benefits that people are used to seeing in a church service, but without the supernatural?”

Almost every golden-colored chair was occupied at Sunday’s event.

Jason Sykes, a non-believer, who was raised in a strictly religious Seventh Day Adventist household, said DeWitt’s words are applicable to just about anyone.

“A lot of people just want to hear a good message,” Sykes said.

DeWitt’s message Sunday focused on community, service and enjoying life in a moment-to-moment basis.

At times, he drifted and used a more traditional Pentecostal preacher’s delivery — speaking loudly, passionately and making sweeping arm gestures.

But DeWitt, who serves on the board for the Foundation Beyond Belief, insists that his message is not Us versus Them in nature, rather, he only wants people to relish life in a purely secular organization.

Paul Schmidt, a Texas businessman who funded the event, said that he also sees value in most of what churches do.

“The only problem that I have with churches are the untruths,” Schmidt said.