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Atheist Puts Own Soul On eBay

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SUZANNE SATALINE, The Wall Street Journal

(March 9) A few weeks ago, Hemant Mehta posted an unusual item for sale on eBay: a chance to save his soul.

The DePaul University graduate student promised the winner that for each $10 of the final bid, he would attend an hour of church services. The 23-year-old Mr. Mehta is an atheist, but he says he suspected he had been missing out on something.

“Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me ‘the way’ could do what no one else has done before,” Mr. Mehta wrote in his eBay sales pitch. “This is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me.”

Evangelists bid, eager to save a sinner. Atheists bid, hoping to keep Mr. Mehta in their fold. When the auction stopped on Feb. 3 after 41 bids, the buyer was Jim Henderson, a former evangelical minister from Seattle, whose $504 bid prevailed.

Mr. Henderson wasn’t looking for a convert. He wanted Mr. Mehta to embark with him on an eccentric experiment in spiritual bridge-building.

The 58-year-old Mr. Henderson has written a book for a Random House imprint and is currently a house painter. He runs off-the-map.org, a Web site whose professed mission is “Helping Christians be normal.” Mr. Henderson is part of a small but growing branch of the evangelical world that disagrees with the majority’s conservative political agenda, and wants the religion to be more inclusive and help the disadvantaged.

Days after the auction, Mr. Henderson flew to Chicago to see Mr. Mehta, who is studying to be a math teacher. The two met in a bar, where they sealed a deal a little different from the one the student had proffered. Instead of the 50 hours of church attendance that he was entitled to for his $504, Mr. Henderson asked that Mr. Mehta attend 10 to 15 services of Mr. Henderson’s choosing and then write about it.

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Mr. Mehta also agreed to provide running commentary on the church services on the off-the-map site and take questions — bluntly sharing a nonbeliever’s outlook on services that many consider sacred. The deal called for Mr. Henderson to donate the $504 to the Secular Student Alliance, a group headed by Mr. Mehta that has 55 chapters in the U.S. and abroad.

“I’m not trying to convert you,” Mr. Henderson said at the bar. “You’re going there almost like a critic….If you happen to get converted, that’s off the clock.” For Mr. Mehta’s first service, the two attended noon Mass at Old St. Patrick’s, a Catholic church near Mr. Mehta’s apartment. In the third pew from the rear, Mr. Mehta silently gazed at the statues and the worshipers’ folded hands. He tried to follow along, but was a beat behind the congregation as it stood and knelt on cue.

Mr. Henderson asked Mr. Mehta to score the priest, on a scale of one for boring to 10 for “off the charts.” Mr. Mehta gave him a three. “More stories” in the sermon, Mr. Mehta suggested — and less liturgy.

Asked about that advice, the Rev. John Cusick, who said the Mass that day, was unfazed: “There’s nothing he could say that I haven’t heard 100 times over.”

Mr. Mehta’s commentaries award sermons kudos for clarity, demerits for redundancy. After a service at Chicago’s nondenominational Park Community Church, he criticized the preacher for repeatedly referring to a Bible verse in which the Galatians are called “fools” for doubting the divinity of Jesus — without explaining why the passage was relevant to his congregation. The room, Mr. Mehta noted, was already full of people who didn’t share the Galatians’ doubts.

Associate Pastor Ron May wrote in to thank Mr. Mehta: “As the guy who spoke yesterday, I really appreciate the honest _eval. (Unfortunately, a lot of the time you only get polite smoke…good job…thanks for the message.)”

Mr. Mehta was born in Chicago and raised in Jainism, an ancient Indian faith whose followers vow to harm no living thing, not even microbes in the air.

He praises famous atheists, but has also read parts of the Bible, loves watching televangelists like Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen, and admires their appeal to congregations. “If I could be an atheist pastor?” he says, “Oh God, that would be great!”

Mr. Henderson, who was a member of the Association of Vineyard Churches, a nondenominational ministry, says he preached for 25 years, but says he grew disenchanted because many of his peers were obsessed with gathering more believers and increasing their budgets. Off-the-map started as a hobby, an outgrowth of a long talk with a friend and co-founder Dave Richards, who had been a member of one of Mr. Henderson’s congregations, about why they disliked evangelizing.

Mr. Henderson began interviewing nonbelievers — in front of audiences and video cameras — about the ways Christians had offended them. That material became part of his book, “a.k.a. ‘Lost,’ ” espousing his softer approach, published last year by WaterBrook Press.

Hiring Mr. Mehta has been his wisest investment, Mr. Henderson says. The Web site received 5,000 hits in the first 10 days after the auction — typically the number of visits in an average month.

Some visitors to the site castigate Mr. Henderson for giving an atheist a forum. One said he was “rather misguidedly (throwing) money at someone to simply get him ‘churched’ for a time so he might possibly get ‘saved?’ ”

Mr. Mehta has also been reading and critiquing church bulletins. In one, Park Community asked the congregation to pray, in advance of a coming meeting on the construction of a church building “that God would…open the doors to the right parking solution, allowing us to build a worship space for 1,200 people, rather than the 850 currently permitted.”

“Really?” Mr. Mehta observed on the Web site. “That’s what you’re praying for? Do they think a god will change parking restrictions? Will a god change the price of nearby property? Will a god add another level to a parking structure?”

Mr. May, the pastor, admitted such talk sounds weird to an outsider. “It’s good to be reminded it’s unusual,” he said

Mr. Henderson says he is thrilled that Mr. Mehta is prompting such reactions. “We’re getting to a place where we’re talking and not converting,” he says.

With about half his obligation to Mr. Henderson fulfilled, Mr. Mehta says he’s no closer to believing in God, although he does admire churches for the communities they create. Church, he has decided, is “not such a bad place to be.”

-Thanks to Maryellen Brisson for the story

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