They say you’ll never meet an atheist in a foxhole. But what about in a swimming pool?
A year ago, I heard a story about a man named Thomas Roberts. He was dying of lung cancer and was so sick he couldn’t breathe on his own. He needed constant care and the support of an oxygen tank. According to the news reports, Mr. Roberts had been an atheist all his life. But as he neared death, he made a request to be baptized. The staff at the hospital—the chaplains, the doctors, and the nurses—all worked together with Mr. Roberts’ family to make his request happen. Six days before his death, he was baptized with full immersion, as he requested, in a nearby university swimming pool.
I read several different stories about the baptism of Mr. Roberts, and what surprised me was that not one of them gave any details about his faith. We heard about the beliefs of his family and the beliefs of the pastor who performed the baptism, but I could not find one detail about the inner life of Mr. Roberts.
What made him change his mind about God? And even more than this change of heart, I wondered, What made him wish to go to such extraordinary lengths to make a public expression of his newfound faith?
If there were answers to these challenging questions, I could not find them in the news reports. But I think I am all right with that being the case.
These Are Christians?
I was not raised in the Christian faith. My mother was a strident atheist, and she was clear that she wanted nothing to do with any church. Even though we were living in the Deep South—in the heart of the Bible Belt—all I really knew about Jesus was that he was a guy with a beard and sandals and that his followers were often mean to me.
I recall the first day of fourth grade. I was at a new school and I mentioned to another kid on the swings that my family didn’t believe in God. By the end of recess, it seemed to be all over the playground. By the end of the day, it seemed to be all over the school. For the next two years, I had kids from all different grades coming up to me in various situations and harassing me about my atheism. I was teased, I was insulted, and I was told I was going to hell. If those were the Christians, I thought, give me the atheists.
A Powerful Example
It wasn’t until many years later, when I was in college, that I met a different sort of Christian. These were folks who helped the poor and who bound up the broken. When they would quote from the Bible, it was to bring comfort and good news, rather than to use words as weapons.
The witness of these Christ followers had a profound effect on me and helped put me on the path toward my eventual conversion to the Catholic faith.
I’d like to think that Mr. Roberts might have similarly encountered some welcoming and tender-hearted Christians along his journey as an atheist, and, instead of mocking him, they gave him examples of welcome and care. I cannot think of any other reason he would have asked so ardently to be lowered into that swimming pool.
I don’t know any other detail about the faith of Mr. Roberts than this: He was baptized. And I realize that some days, when the world seems dark and my head is foggy with fear or anger, that’s pretty much the only detail about my own faith that I can know for sure, as well.
But as one baptized former atheist to another, his story gives me hope.