Wayne Matthysse's journey from Christian missionary of twenty-four years to atheist was published on this website in the summer of 2015. Now that you have seen something of his work at the Wat Opot Children's Community in Cambodia, I wanted to share his story once more.
FROM CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY TO ATHEIST
I met Wayne during his first stint as a missionary in Navajo Country where I grew up as the child of missionaries. My then partner and Wayne were running a youth center and serving the court system in a project with young first offenders. When my partner and I left Gallup, NM for Albuquerque, I lost touch with Wayne. More than thirty years later, I heard from him through social media. He was by that time running a community in Cambodia for children who had been orphaned by AIDS. I could tell from his writings that there had been big changes in his life. In 2008, my daughter and I visited Wayne and Wat Opot, the vibrant children’s community situated about an hour by tuk-tuk outside Phnom Penh. The three of us also made a trip to Angkor Wat. We’ve been in touch electronically ever since and also managed a short visit in Michigan this summer. There wasn’t time for a face-to-face interview, but Wayne graciously agreed to do an e-mail interview. His answers are interspersed with some comments from me, as if we are sitting together over tea.
I started by asking Wayne to tell me about how he experienced his spirituality as a child. “I was raised in a Christian family,” he said. “Christian Reformed, to be more exact, although we did attend a Reformed Church (RCA) for several years during my childhood. I enjoyed it but Dad was never quite comfortable being just Reformed and later changed back to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) when he moved the family to the countryside.”
Being raised in the CRC is an experience Wayne and I share. Within that circle the differences between the CRC and the RCA were miniscule in my mind, but the CRC viewed the RCA as liberal, perhaps why Wayne’s dad was uncomfortable.
Wayne went on, “I loved church and participated in all of the activities offered. I was especially interested in missions and loved to listen to stories told by visiting missionaries on furlough from faraway places like New Mexico, Africa, and Asia. By age twelve I knew I wanted to be a missionary in Asia, and that is what I told people whenever they asked me.”
I asked how he experienced spirituality as an adolescent. “High school was difficult for me,” he said. “I started out in a college prep course, but a counselor eventually told me that, because of my low grades, I should drop it and take general courses instead. I was depressed a lot and began seeing flaws in society, especially the Christian society I belonged to. The Vietnam War was intensifying as well, as were the racial tensions. I remember one Sunday being told from the pulpit that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be in town and everyone should stay away from the peaceful march that was planned for that afternoon. I thought that was strange advice coming from the pastor. Defying his recommendation, I attended the march and was deeply moved by the compassion and conviction in the words Dr. King spoke.
“By the time I graduated from high school, Vietnam had become a daily topic and thoughts of future goals were put aside as the draft was initiated and war casualties were increasing.”
Wayne became a psychiatric nurse after high school, which granted him a deferment from the draft. “But I had a recurring dream that convinced me that God wanted me to go to Vietnam to be his witness to the Vietnamese people. So I enlisted in the Navy to be a Marine Corps medic so I could work on the front lines. Little did I know that I would instead be part of a force of combat marines who destroyed villages and killed innocent women and children.”
Wayne was wounded in a nighttime attack during his tour in Viet Nam and was transferred to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. There he became involved in the antiwar movement. “I also got involved in the drugs that went with the movement. It was during this time that I met some of the most dedicated and unselfish people I have ever known. And none of them were Christians. This had a profound effect on me and after a court marshal hearing that recommended a 20-year prison term for me, I realized that I was no longer a Christian either.”
Despite the prison-term recommendation, Wayne received an honorable discharge with disability status. He was severely depressed. Returning home to friends and family whose lives had not changed and whose eyes had not been opened to the things he had witnessed made things even worse.
In the further telling of his story, Wayne glided over an event in his life that had also touched mine in a powerful way. I know from other conversations that it became a turning point in his. One evening Wayne, my partner, and I sat over beers in a Gallup bar. He began telling how he had suddenly felt compelled to leave a friend’s place and drive home by a route he never otherwise took. His vehicle was hit by a VW that ran a stoplight. As he told how the young woman in that car became a fatality, I began to get goose bumps. From the details I knew who she was—a fellow student who had planned to room with me in a few weeks time. This turned out to be one of a few points at which, unbeknownst to us at the time, Wayne’s and my paths had crossed.
Wayne described Nancy’s fatal accident as the final straw that brought him down, following hard on his experiences in Viet Nam. He left his home in Michigan and wandered the roads of the US. “I was in search of God,” he said, “but after a long and difficult journey, I found myself instead.”
His road trip had ended in New Mexico, which was how we came to know each other. I asked, “How did your mission stint in New Mexico affect your spirituality?”
He answered, “Mechanical problems forced me to seek refuge at Rehoboth Mission” This was the CRC mission where I’d gone to school and where I was teaching at the time. “I thought it would be for a day or two before continuing on to California, where I felt I was being led. Twelve years later I would leave Gallup, totally disillusioned by the missionaries I had once sat in awe of as a child.
“One of the first and perhaps most memorable experiences I had was at a Sunday afternoon prayer meeting, just before going to the jail to do witnessing. We were told never to give out contact information to the people we talked to in jail, because the missionaries didn’t want any of these people coming to the Rehoboth compound to ask for handouts after they were released. I was eventually evicted from the Rehoboth compound because I brought some young people I met in the jail to my room on cold winter nights. They had nowhere else to sleep.
“Later I was given a second chance to be the assistant to the pastor at Ft. Wingate CRC, but I was fired by the Home Missions director for speaking out about prejudice on the Indian field. That is when I stopped attending church services; however, I continued to call myself a Follower of Jesus.”
After his twelve years in New Mexico, which included being a foster parent and running a youth center, Wayne found his way to Honduras, where he ran a medical clinic in the remote village of Yocon along with a Baptist minister and his wife. “I saw little need to evangelize there, since everyone in the village was already a devout Catholic and far more spiritual than the Baptist missionary I worked with. He was by far the most unscrupulous person I have ever known. My only reason for staying twelve years with the mission was because I felt my services in the clinic were needed in the village. I suppose if I were to be honest, I rather enjoyed being the confidante of a man who saw all people as hypocrites, including himself, and could find dirty laundry hidden in the closets of even the saintliest of people. He was a liar, a thief, an adulterer and an alcoholic, who admitted that the only reason he became a Baptist preacher was because it was handed to him on a silver platter and it was such an easy role to play. He was one of the most interesting people I have ever known, and he taught me much about the games humanity plays each and every day. He also forced me to ask myself a difficult question: ‘Who would I be without makeup and a script?’”
Wayne kept feeling that he needed to return to Southeast Asia to give back to people where he felt he had been part of so much damage caused by the war. After his time in Honduras he succeeded in being sent to Cambodia. “When my plane landed in Cambodia I immediately felt I had come home. One of the first contacts I made was with an American Buddhist nun. She saw through my “Follower of Jesus” act within minutes of our meeting and called me out on it. I could do nothing to defend myself. My bullshit act didn’t work on a nonbeliever, and although it frightened me when I realized that my whole life until then had been nothing more than an act, I was, at the same time, relieved to find that I no longer had to perform."
I asked Wayne, “In retrospect, how did those experiences influence how you describe your spirituality today? In other words, how do you describe your spirituality now, and looking back, do you see a pattern, a trajectory?
“My earliest recollection in life is of an incident that happened when I was about four years old. Gordy was my best friend and although he was three times my age and size we were inseparable. One day I picked up a rock and threw it at Gordy and he responded by throwing one back at me. It hit me in the forehead, and a gusher of blood squirted out. It didn’t hurt and we both laughed about it as I held my hand to the cut. The bleeding stopped and the incident would have ended there except for a neighbor lady who had witnessed the whole thing and decided to make a case out of it. She came out shouting and within minutes the whole community stood around me, including my mother. I heard the words retard and Pollock several times and then someone mentioned the police. I heard a siren, and before the police car came to a stop I was instructed to say nothing about throwing the first rock. The adults told their version of the story, and then the policeman turned to me and asked if what they said was true. I looked up at my mother for approval and then tearfully nodded my head in agreement. The next day a high fence went up around Gordy’s house and I was never allowed to play with him again. A few years later Gordy was institutionalized and I never saw him after that, but I still carry the guilt for having told the lie.
“As my journey progressed I continued to see hypocrisy in the lives of every leader or pastor I got to know… all of the time understanding that I was no better than they were. We were all just actors on a stage, competing for applause from the multitude of the credulous.
“I never wanted to be a disappointment to my father, so I didn’t verbalize all of my doubts and uncertainties to him about the CRC and Christianity. Yet I was sure he knew I had them. I knew that one of his proudest moments was when Home Missions accepted me as the youth pastor; so one of his biggest disappointments must have been when I was fired from that job by a man he held in high esteem. We never really talked about it. So it shocked me when, at the age of 75, he visited me in Honduras and confessed to me that he had always admired me for standing up to people regardless of the consequences and then thanked me for giving him the courage to do something he thought he would never be able to do. He had stood up to his pastor and voiced his concerns about the way the pastor was running the church. When the pastor, who on previous occasions had referred to my father as a spiritual ignoramus, dismissed those concerns as inconsequential, my father stood up and calmly walked out of the office and out of the CRC.
“My father’s confession liberated me from the obligation to respect his beliefs and allowed me to ask myself the question, ‘What do I truly believe?’ The answer scared me, for I realized that I didn’t believe in anything. I was an atheist and always had been, but was too afraid to admit it.”
At that point I asked Wayne if there was anything more he’d like to share.
He said, “The word atheist is scary to a lot of people. It was to me at first. How can one look at the Universe and not believe in a Creator God? That question made sense to early members of our species, I suppose. Of course their knowledge of the Universe was much smaller than what we know today. So it was more feasible to think that a supreme entity could be living just above the ceiling we call the sky. Of course today we know that isn’t true, and so we made our God invisible, living in another dimension than time and space. But there’s no evidence to suggest that another dimension exists and so we are left with a God of faith only, not of reason.
"Reason says that if there were a Creator God, he would have to have within him Life in order to create a living world; therefore, either Life existed before there was a God, or God is that Life that has always existed. I have come to believe that the Life that is within us all is the Eternal Life that always was and always will be and that the best way to relate to that Life, is not to worship it but to Live It!”
© Anna Redsand All Rights Reserved