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Posted on Jun 23, 2013 in council prayer, local, respect | 8 comments

Coffee and tea with Pastor Shawn Walker

Pastor Shawn Walker

Pastor Shawn Walker

Last week, I drank coffee and tea with Pastor Shawn Walker of First Baptist Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Prior to the beginning of the June 13, 2013 Wilkes-Barre  City Council meeting which I had attended to object to government-led prayer during council meetings, Walker had invited me to have discussion at a later time saying he had “grown in the last 4 years.” I obliged, had later arranged a meeting with Pastor Walker at a local bookstore, and was glad I did.

Pastor Walker and I, as it turned out, both attended the June 2013 council meeting to address council – although for different reasons. I had thought that Pastor Walker was very professional and effectively conveyed a message which had his audience attentively focused. Watch our respective remarks below:

When meeting outside the council meeting, Walker had said that he wanted to apologize for comments he made about me in 2009 when I had challenged the constitutionality of religious displays on Luzerne County Courthouse grounds and later — with the help of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and Statehad the displays removed and integrated into an inclusive display. Walker, at the time, had publicly claimed — on his church’s website and in a letter to the editor published in a local newspaper — that I wanted to take away the rights of religious believers and that the Christmas season — under attack — needed defending from atheists.

Walker, upon seeing my activism in 2009, said that he became defensive, thought I was an angry person, and jumped to conclusions about my nature and activism. He revisited his ideas in 2013 when he had seen me protesting the “Circle the Square with Prayer” event commemorating the National Day of Prayer in Wilkes-Barre. Walker said that he had seen me at the event for five hours having dialogue with religious believers and was later compelled to investigate why I was protesting.

Protesting "Circle the Square with Prayer"

Protesting “Circle the Square with Prayer”

He eventually — after my protest — stumbled upon my website to read my reporting on the National Day of Prayer event and was impressed – so much so that he wanted to meet me in person and learn more. Walker had said he formerly had a very negative opinion of atheists and has witnessed negative attitudes from atheists who — according to his experiences — belittle people of faith, attacking people rather than discussing ideas. Walker had said — toward the end of our conversation — that his opinion of atheists had changed and that he wants to work together with me on issues facing our community in Luzerne County.

Pastor Walker explained his background, struggles with organized religion, and his eventual ‘left turn of faith’ which had led him to become a pastor of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s First Baptist Church. We talked at length about various topics related and unrelated to religious belief including love, fatherhood, compassion, volunteering, unconditional love, burnout, ethical obligations, blogging, podcasting, local community events, and much more.

While atheists and theists may disagree on issues pertaining to religious belief, we can be friendly, act respectfully, find common ground, work together on issues we are both passionate about, and still fiercely discuss our thoughts on religious belief without compromise. Atheists and theists can, although we may be quite confident about our thoughts on religious belief, learn a good deal from each other and find fellowship.

Rev. Brewster, chief organizer of "Circle the Square with Prayer" poses for a picture with me.

Rev. Brewster, chief organizer of “Circle the Square with Prayer” poses for a picture with me.

I appreciate Walker’s sincerity, openness, and courage. I hope to meet Walker in the future and at the upcoming NEPA BlogCon Kickoff party at the River Grille in Plains, Pennsylvania taking place on June 25, 2013. In addition to my meeting with Walker, I had also — earlier this year — had lunch with Pastor Dan Nichols of Restored Church in Wilkes-Barre and encountered Rev. Michael Brewster of Mount Zion Baptist Church who offered kind words and agreed to have a public and recorded “Does the Christian God Exist” debate with me in his church later this year.

My activism, it seems — despite beliefs to the contrary — is not alienating all theists, but rather is encouraging conversation and leading to positive outcomes. While I cannot please everyone nor will have fruitful conversation with everyone, I remain a public individual and invite correspondence from anyone who wants to engage in face-to-face discussion, Skype calls, or whatever else may work.

Rather than jumping to conclusions and believing those who we see as ‘ideological opponents’ are moral monsters, discussion beyond a keyboard ought to help us better understand and even find common ground.’ Consider that our nasty thoughts about others may be built upon falsehood and misunderstanding.

As always, feel free to leave comments below.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    Quick Question: After talking with some pastors, have you brought up the constitutional issue and how did they respond?

    I’m really curious if they feel the same about 1st Amendment concerns as atheists.

    I know there are pastors that do appreciate 1st Amendment concerns and I wonder if they can think of a way to approach them that is appropriate for all.

    • Thanks for the comment. Theists have, throughout the years, offered their support on church/state issues saying, basically, “I’m not an atheist, but I agree with you on church/state separation.”

  • I look forward to seeing you both at the NEPA BlogCon Kick-Off Party and doing some collaborative work with the Building Bridges initiative. I’m sure there are others in NEPA Freethought Society who would also want to participate. Maybe we can discuss it at the upcoming meeting? I have an idea on the shelf.

    • Milo Green

      Can you point to anywhere on the entire internet where you have stated your opposition to the establishment of one or more Muslim prayer rooms at Wyoming Valley West School District? Or are you just really another anti-Christian who goes through life calling any critic of double-standards a “racist”, etc.? (Yes, I anticipated your reply after having taken a quick look at your own blog.)

      It seems that Justin hasn’t had time over the past week to call and verify the existence of the taxpayer-funded prayer rooms. You can take two minutes to do that, right?
      288-6551 (at the bottom)

      • You know, I also haven’t stated objections to genocide in Darfur, but this doesn’t mean I suppose it.

        Anyway, I am interested in this issue. I was waiting for an article from you or something pointing to those prayer rooms, but I haven’t received anything yet. I also have not yet investigated.

        • Milo Green

          Justin, as I explained last week, I did search for local articles for you but none are extant. Maybe Karla will put in the two minutes to confirm and will post back here tomorrow.

          Since that nationwide story seems largely unknown here, I’ll refer to another story in PA (not in your locality, I think it was central PA), involving a magistrate in a criminal proceeding. The defendant was a Muslim bystander who physically attacked a gay protester in some parade, because the protester carried an anti-Muslim sign about Muslims executing gays. The magistrate actually ruled that the Muslim was required by his religion to defend the prophet or Allah or something similar. The magistrate was a Muslim convert who had served in the military over in Iraq or thereabouts.

          You see my point? Blatant examples go largely unreported by the press because it is Muslims and not Christians doing these things. I will look up a news report on the magistrate incident, if the story is largely unknown here.

      • Seems you have involved me in something I am not even remotely aware of. However, like in the workplace, I do not have any issue with allowing employees/students to use an existing room for meditation, prayer, or other personal legal activity on their breaks, lunch, etc. Their religion or lack of it is of no significance to me. On the other hand, if the school has built an addition onto the building at taxpayer expense expressly for the purpose of religious devotion or has designated an area expressly for it (not allowing it for multi-purpose use) I would have great issue with that.

        I hope that clarifies my position.

        • Milo Green

          Well, Karla, I am pleased (and surprised) to see your response. I’m sorry for having misjudged you.

          I don’t have an article to show you, because this developed years ago and all articles seem to have expired. It is an issue that the press treated with kid gloves back then (not long after 9/11) and presumably does not want to revisit. However, if you and/or Justin and others went to the next school board meeting, the press would have a hard time ignoring that. That’s why I keep bringing it up on this blog: it’s a matter of the lack of even handedness by the establishment.

          If you haven’t heard of the practice in general (that would also surprise me, but then that would be evidence of how the media has *mostly* ignored the story nationwide), then here is USA Today:

          As far as Wyoming Valley West, it’s my understanding that they physically established one or more special rooms to be used only by Muslims and exclusively for their prayer. Have they also installed Muslim foot baths there? I don’t know. Do students get special excusal from class to go to that prayer room? My recollection is that they do, but that was several years ago when I’d heard the story.

          We are not talking about a non-denominational prayer for 1 minute at a city council meeting, We are talking about taxpayer subsidized prayer rooms for one religion alone.

          To my knowledge, the same ACLU which has waged a decades long battle for “separation of church and state” never opposed Muslim prayer rooms anywhere in the U.S.

          So, it would take 2 minutes tomorrow to call the school district. I don’t expect anyone here to take my word on their response, but they would believe you. What you do say? Can you spare 2 minutes tomorrow to get the ball rolling?