FIRST PERSON | Helping Hands

Like many nonbelievers, I’m an apostate Christian. I grew up in an evangelical church, little hands clasped in prayer. In my early twenties I put religious faith behind me; I was reading too many books to keep eating up the lies of a certain sixty-six. (That is, the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven of the New.)

In my early thirties, I broke my neck and became paralyzed from the neck down.

You know what the Christians say: “Oh you will believe in God real quick if you’re about to die!” And “Everyone calls out to God on their death bed.”

I would have done something like that in my youth, but I didn’t call out while I lay in that crushed car. I didn’t waste my waning breath to repent one last time or to beg for my life. It didn’t cross my mind. I feel no doubt in my disbelief, quite contrary to my prior belief, which had drowned in it.

Had that car wreck taken my life that night, my family would’ve mourned my lost soul. I’m a black sheep in my family, strayed from the shepherd’s flock, and not really a sheep at all anymore. I long ago stopped attending church services, and I’m given to oversharing my disdain for religion on social media, including memes like: “One pair of helping hands is better than a hundred clasped in prayer.”

When someone we care about is facing a tragedy, the typical American response is to console with spiritual platitudes. A beloved relative has passed away? She’s in a better place. Facing illness or injury? God has a plan. Lean on Jesus.

As I lay in that hospital bed, eating through a feeding tube and breathing via ventilator, fighting for my life, most of my friends and family seemed at a loss for the right words. I did get a lot of prayers extended to me, offers complete with the preamble “even though you don’t believe…”

I know my relatives were hoping the near-death experience had inspired me to call out to God, and this was why I’d managed to survive after being pulled out of a mangled car that night. If they thought I hadn’t, I imagine they concluded that was why God let me be paralyzed.

I can think like them because I used to be like them, and now I’m filled with relief. Relief that I devoured all those books and listened to those lectures and opened my blind eyes.

I endured those long days and nights in recovery through many tears, but the skilled nursing staff could only offer me a chat with the chaplain. Once I agreed, just to have someone in the room with me. I’d hoped he would just politely visit with me despite my atheist status, but he’d instead jumped to the conclusion that I was “mad at God,” never mind that I renounced the idea of a god ten long years before my injury.

My dad desperately reached out to some of the churches we’d attended, but no one was interested in helping. It was the hometown bars, not the hometown churches, that had fundraised for me after my accident. The Christians knew they couldn’t make a believer of me, and that was usually the primary goal of a Christian. I could’ve sold my soul for the support I craved, but then I didn’t have to.

A dear friend of mine reached out to the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, 
the city where I now laid in a skilled nursing facility. Suddenly I was being brought home-cooked meals, my brother was given a place to stay near me, and for all the expensive medical equipment my insurance wouldn’t cover, the humanists were cutting checks. Best of all, they didn’t leave me alone, visiting in the early morning hours when I felt the most alone and anxious. These humanists were my angels, though they sought no spiritual reward beyond their own satisfaction that they had done a good deed.

One humanist lady coordinated visitors for me, and another started a successful fundraiser, which made it possible for me and my brother to get into a new place when I finished rehab, where I would learn to drive the power wheelchair. An activist who wanted to write an article about me dropped by often with words of encouragement and attempted to help me cope and adjust, helping me learn to use dictation software because I couldn’t use my hands. She sent my way a humanist woman who was paralyzed from the waist down in a shooting and is now a political activist, and a young blind man who had recently run for office. Meeting with people who had lost so much, yet were strong enough to persevere proved to me: I could do this!

After another month in rehab, though I still couldn’t twitch a finger, I got to go home. With enough family support I can still exist out in the world. It’s a different world from my new perspective, and I’m treated so differently too.

Religious family and friends know better, but now and then a stranger on a mission approaches me out in public and proceeds to pray over me, to witness to me. How awkward to have some stranger lay their hands on me and pray! It feels like an insult, too. Why assume your prayers will work and mine haven’t?

I think sometimes how glad I truly am that I’m not trapped in this body wondering why my God won’t heal me.

Apparently believing in a divine plan that sets people up against obstacles like tragedy and disability for reasons only the deity is privy to gives comfort to some people in the wake of tragedy. I don’t think it would’ve helped me though.

If I were still sitting in a church pew with my nose in a Bible, how long would I have begged God before realizing that a deity hurling obstacles like cancer and paralysis isn’t one that should engender my respect?

Four years have passed since I’ve been on my feet. Many more have passed since I set foot in church. I wheeled through those doors last month and never did I regret a thing faster. As the pastor paced that familiar stage, talking about false religions, he said, “Humanists! That’s the worshipping of each other! Of humans who sin!”

I wasn’t brave enough, but how I wanted to wheel up there and set him straight, to tell that room full of sheep with folded hands who was truly good like their Christ would approve: the helping hands that brought a paralyzed stranger home-cooked food and sat with her in the wee morning hours, just so she wouldn’t be alone. The humanists who gave my brother a bed and a roof and bought me my shower chair. It was humanist strangers who helped me pull through those dark days while the Christians sat here and prayed, likely for my salvation rather than my healing.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen out there. The way I see it, we can believe stories and theories, but all that really matters is how we treat each other.

I’m happy to be a humanist.