Nate Simmons was a good guy, but we were bound to bump heads eventually. He was a Christian, I was an atheist. It was only a matter of time.
We both were hired last spring at Kansas City International Airport to work the ramp for United Airlines. As Nate had prior experience in management and in the airline industry, he was hired on as a duty manager. Before I applied for the job, I had no relevant experience whatsoever. This set me on par with most of the other applicants, and like them I was hired on as a ramp agent. I did the grunt work, and I was fine with this. A month prior I was unemployed and had been for two years. Any work would have suited me, and work on the ramp suited me fine.
Nate, meanwhile, would have failed on the ramp. He was sixty years old and his body was in poor shape: he was unable to do many of the tasks he assigned to his employees each day. Still, Nate had some virtue on the ramp: he was a charismatic leader, a good scheduler, and he was able to relate well with his employees. In addition, he was a fair judge of talent and was good at developing it. This was vital, especially early on. We worked for a service provider, and very few people had any clue what they were doing, which was definitely not a good thing.
Work on the ramp can be fun, but it is also demanding and challenging, not to mention dangerous. We are exposed to the elements, and we work around moving aircraft and ground servicing equipment. Risk was routine. If you stood too close to an active engine, you could be sucked in and ground down to a fine pink dust by the blades: your story would end. On the other hand, if you walked behind an engine that has yet to spool down, the jet blast could knock you down or throw you high in air, and like the aircraft the engine propels, you would land on the hard surface of the ramp. You would likely survive, but you would be worse for the wear.
Of course, there are more commonplace dangers that have nothing to do with the aircraft themselves. Quite a few of my employees have suffered knee, leg, and ankle injuries by slipping on the stairs on the jet bridges when they were slick from ice or else by missing a step as they dismounted a belt loader. Some people drive recklessly on the ramp, as well, and so it is an ever-present possibility that someone may be run over. (Happily, this has yet to occur at my station.) I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: the work is serious, it is fraught with danger; thus strong leadership is vital, and Nate was great at shaping leaders.
In this way Nate and I developed a strong rapport. I learned the ways of ramp work more quickly than most of the others, which impressed Nate, but what impressed him more was my attitude, my demeanor. I was a hard worker, and I showed no trepidation. Most of my peers, at first, were afraid to position belt loaders up to the cargo pits of the aircraft–the fear of damaging aircraft or ground equipment wrings the spine of any new employee, and for good reason: damages are expensive to repair and can delay or even cancel flights, thereby alienating customers; still, a person must tame that fear, they must render it useful rather than debilitating–but I had no problems with this. I was nervous, but I acted, and through action I tamed my fear. This became a day-to-day ritual for me, and Nate took notice. I was promoted twice in three months on the strength of his recommendations. Nate and I got along well, but still we were bound to bump heads. It was inevitable.
The first time I learned about Nate’s faith was when I heard that he threatened to resign if he had to work on Sundays. For Nate Sunday was for God and family, and were he ever forced to compromise here, he would walk away from the job. Our G.M. assured Nate that this would never happen and Nate was satisfied. Things were different for me.
I liked Nate, and I had a feeling that he was prepared to vouch for me and help me advance in rank. Not that I ever worried that Nate would hold my lack of faith against me, at least not on a professional basis, but I did worry about how this knowledge would affect our friendship. I also have this conceited fear that I can somehow destroy a person’s faith if he asked me why I was an atheist and implored me to be honest with him, to hold nothing back, and I never wanted this scenario, this unlikely possibility, to play out with Nate. Faith for me means nothing, but I can appreciate how vital it is to the happiness of others: overall I have no wish to gainsay the happiness of others simply because I disagree. That’s not my place; in the matter of faith, I have no place.
All the same, people of faith are wont to place nonbelievers in a position where they must make some declaration. They tend to do this with positive intentions. This is something that, for them, is of the utmost importance, and they’d like to know if discussing faith and sharing in faith can be an avenue to further develop a relationship. Then again, they also see religion as something healing, something that, in the case of Christianity, shields the soul from eternal damnation and shepherds it to the bliss of bliss, to see a light so bright and good that mortal eyes cannot behold it. Again, I feel uncomfortable participating in such dialogues, but there is nothing I can do to avoid them. Nonbelievers look like believers, and so this conflict of values is perennial. I was never surprised, then, when Nate would bring up Christianity to me in offhand, yet not-so-offhand, ways.
Our station hosted a trainer from El Paso who, before entering the airline industry, had tried to become a priest. (For this reason, riends called him Brother Dave.) Brother Dave worked with us for a month and a half, and as his last days with us neared, Nate and I discussed how we might cover the void Brother Dave’s departure would create. At the close of this conversation Nate said, “Brother Dave’s a tremendous guy, you know; he’s a strong worker and has great values.” I told Nate that I agreed; I’d learned a great deal from Brother Dave. Then Nate said, “You know why that is?” and before I could respond, Nate said, “It’s because he’s a Christian.”
I nodded absently when he said this, but I was taken aback by these words. The implication was heavy–only Christians can be good people–and the confrontation, I thought, was soon to begin. Happily, I was wrong. Nate seemed satisfied with my nod, and so we left it at that.
From that point on, though, I was never surprised by the things Nate would say. He was an old school Protestant who viewed gay people as unnatural misguided deviants and who felt that single women had the duty of finding men to take care of them–because women, to Nate, were unable of taking care of themselves on satisfactory basis. I’d hold my silence whenever Nate said such things–but I did recoil quite a bit when Nate said of a Muslim employee that he was happy to disrespect us because he viewed us (Christians) as infidels–but I never called him out when I thought he was wrong. Despite his casual ingrained bigotry, I still counted Nate as a friend, and friendship, to me, means more than an opinion. (That being said, there is a point where opinions can shatter friendships, but Nate and I had yet to reach it.) Overall, I did everything in my power to avoid the confrontation, but my efforts were in vain. During the months of these close calls–spring through winter–all I ever accomplished was forestallment. Eventually a Christian will inquire about the condition of an atheist’s soul, and the atheist will have no choice but to say that the only man who ever had soul was James Brown and he’s dead now and has ceased to exist in any way, shape, or form–though his music lives on, which is a triumph.
The way this happened for Nate and myself was casual enough. The last departure had just taken off, and we were sitting in the office with our ramp coordinator–her job was to set teams and to track absences and call-ins–and Nate, who understood that part of my family had emigrated from Germany, asked if I was Catholic or Lutheran. I felt uneasy, so I sighed. Then I smiled grimly; the time had come, so I had to tame my fear. Leaning back in my chair, I said in stiff tone that my family was Catholic.
“But you’re not?” asked Nate.
“What are you, then?”
“I’m not much of anything, I guess.”
“So you don’t believe?”
“No. I guess I’m an atheist.”
“You know,” said Nate, “that mindset doesn’t last.”
I arched my eyebrows. I wanted to explain to him that, for me, Christian faith was something that didn’t last. I wanted to tell him how miserable I had been when I tried to give my heart to that particular higher power, how miserable I had been because whatever faith I’d had had only been a lie, a lie I told to appease others, to keep them off my back. Instead, though, I doubled down with a certain clarification: “I’m an agnostic atheist.”
“That position doesn’t last either.”
This made me laugh. Nate wasn’t all the way wrong. Since I’ve stepped down from Christianity, I’ve toyed with Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism; then again, I can’t say that I’ve ever become an adherent to any of these faiths. Initially, I read their scriptures with an intent to disqualify them; back then I was in an antitheist phase, and such was how I carved out my identity. But by the time Nate and I had our chat, I was well beyond that mindset. My contention, however, remained the same: all religions are manmade, but that was no longer an attack. Most religions aspire to a universal virtue, they draw water from the same well, and perhaps that well is God, but for me this is a moot point. In the end, you either believe in humanity or you don’t. Everything else is nonsense.
I wanted to explain all of this to Nate, but at that point one of my lead agents called me out to the ramp, so I went outside to see what he needed. When I returned to the office, I sat beside Nate, ready to continue our discussion, to clear the air, but Nate showed no signs of wishing to go on. The conversation was over, was over for good; we never neared the subject again. We never even discussed the fact that we’d had that conversation. It was as though that stale minute of exchange never took place, but of course, the exchange still had its effects. Nate no longer looked at me as he had before, as a friend; instead, he treated me with an air of cynicism and distrust, and I began to wonder if perhaps I had lied to him by refusing to state my case early on. But I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Nate no longer works for the company–he got fired for an unrelated reason–but if we were to meet up and speak again on this subject, I doubt things would go differently. Neither “side” of this debate can breach the point of deism. You say there is a God, I say prove it, because I know you can’t, so you tell me to prove that there isn’t a God, because you know I can’t, and so it goes. It’s a lose-lose position, and all the while friendship is more important than an opinion. Either you believe in humanity or you don’t. Everything else is nonsense, but I believe in you, regardless of what you think. That is all.
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