But DeWitt, 42, is beginning to develop a national profile in the small universe of organized unbelievers, for he’s a rarity: a former preacher, an erstwhile Pentecostal pastor from small-town Louisiana who little by little lost his faith right there in the pulpit, even as he exhorted others to fervent belief.
Now DeWitt is out of the pulpit, and public about his nonbelief. He has begun to do a little speaking, telling his reverse-conversion story around the country before local humanist groups. More than that, he is the unpaid executive director of the group Recovering from Religion and works with The Clergy Project, a website that invites and privately counsels other doubting pastors behind a password-protected firewall.
Atheism is his new ministry. He said he does not personally proselytize for nonbelief, to adopt a term from his former world.
“I don’t consider myself an evangelist at all. But I’m still like a pastor. I pastor people who come to me and pastor them where they are,” said DeWitt, who lives in DeRidder, La.. “I life-coach them. I’m pastoring more people now than I ever ministered to before in either of my congregations.”
Whatever lessons DeWitt offers as a life-coach, they are hard-won — and still developing. By DeWitt’s account, his coming out has been disastrous.
DeRidder, population 10,500, is the picture of rural Louisiana. The local economy runs on timber, cattle and paper mills. It is a deeply religious place, where two-thirds of its population report membership in some church, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.
Several months after leaving his congregation at First Community Church of DeRidder, DeWitt went public with his nonbelief last fall. He spoke to an atheists’ association in Houston, came home and declared his nonbelief on Facebook. “October and November were the worst months of my life,” he said. “I got emails. Calls. People can be extremely vehement over how they feel over my’change,’ as they call it.”
DeWitt said he has been unemployed since December. And he said that in the deeply evangelical culture of Beauregard Parish, he feels unemployable.
He said his house is in foreclosure; his marriage is under stress. “My wife is married to the most disliked person in town,” he said.
For years, locals say, DeWitt was publicly known and well-respected as a gregarious, able local preacher with a double public profile: He was not only a pastor, he was also the head of DeRidder’s Community Services Department, a post that frequently brought him before local groups on civic and municipal affairs.
But since his coming out, two friends said, DeWitt has slipped off their radar. His social profile is much lower. They could not confirm whether he is unemployed or unemployable, or in desperate economic or personal straits. The new pastor of DeWitt’s former congregation was not available for comment.