Speaker 0 00:00:01 But I remember just thinking like, I can feel, God, I don't know what it is. I don't know who he is, but like, something's going on here because I should be dead right now. <laugh>. And, but I was in denial, right? So I was thinking more along the lines of like, okay, maybe it's like the universe thing where it's like, yeah, the universe is like an out for me, and maybe CS Lewis is just like talking about the universe, but he's not talking about God himself, right? So it was still a atheist moment, but it was that one little step I needed towards meeting someone who helped us so deeply and, and courageously. Um, and so I remember thinking, Well, maybe God exists, but maybe not.
Speaker 1 00:00:52 Hello and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B stories where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories at our sebe stories website, www.sebestories.com. We also welcome your comments on these stories, on our Sebe stories Facebook page as well.
Speaker 1 00:01:21 People hold a lot of ideas about the Bible from what they've heard or presumed. Many skeptics may or may not have personally read it, but they often have strong impressions about it. Mostly negative. Considering the Bible in any serious form or positive way, was simply out of the question. According to many former atheists in my doctoral research, they expressed many reasons to reject the text. It was viewed as a mixture of myth fabrication, ignorant commentary from bronze aged Jews, a tool that someone had actually crafted to control the population, or a generally non historical false religious book. It's supernatural content alone caused nearly half to soundly dismiss it for them. The Bible wasn't worth taking a first much less a second look unless to disprove it. Interestingly, some who began their quest towards discrediting scripture found themselves in a precarious place of changing their preconceived notions.
Speaker 1 00:02:32 Once they got around to examining the Bible, many found it to be historically, intellectually, and even morally forceful with a ring of truth. Although initially hostile to reading the Bible, some were even compelled towards serious, even voracious reading. Surprised by what they had found. Others found the person and words of Jesus as extraordinary and surprising, and were personally drawn to him wanting to know more. In today's story, former atheist, Claire Dooley opened the Bible for herself, and she was changed, a storyteller and filmmaker. She was drawn not only to its compelling narrative, a grand love story, but became intrigued by Jesus, the author and giver of love himself. Welcome to Side B's Story's podcast. Claire, it's so great to have you. Thank
Speaker 0 00:03:29 You for having me. I really love being here.
Speaker 1 00:03:31 Wow, that's wonderful. And was just so grateful for you being here. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about who you are so they have an idea, uh, before we get into your story.
Speaker 0 00:03:44 So, um, I am from Mississippi. I currently live in Austin, Texas, and I've been making documentary films since I was 19 years old.
Speaker 1 00:03:56 And you're 23 now, so for about four years.
Speaker 0 00:04:00 Mm-hmm. <affirmative> for, I'm 23 now. Um, and yeah, it's been about four years. I, I went to college for a year and then left school and was mentored, uh, by someone in the industry in New Orleans. And so, uh, I kind of skipped bypass the whole school process.
Speaker 1 00:04:18 Tell me about your home and your family growing up. Was there any religion, any kind of faith, anything like that as you were growing up as a child?
Speaker 0 00:04:27 Yeah, so I, I think I kind of have <laugh> a weird story when I tell people my childhood, they're like, What? Uh, like I said, I was raised in Mississippi and I was homeschooled until I was 11, and now I have six siblings. So, but at the time when I was really young, I had three. So, um, my mother was a Jehovah's Witness,
Speaker 1 00:04:52 Okay.
Speaker 0 00:04:53 And my dad was not. So my dad had been, you know, to church on Easter and Christmas, you know, and he was a younger child. And then, but my mom, uh, was converted when she was around 19 years old. And so when we were little, I, I would literally go door to door, you know, preaching the good word to all these different people. I mean, from, from a very young age, five years old, knocking on these doors, preaching the people. Um, and then the older I got, the more I realized that something was off, right? So my, my father wasn't necessarily supportive of my mother's faith, and she had, uh, they ended up having three more children. So there's six kids at this point, and she couldn't continue going to church, uh, by herself. So me and my older sister would go a lot. So when I was 11 years old, just to backtrack a bit, um, we went to public school for the first time.
Speaker 0 00:05:52 And so that was kind of interesting being a homeschooler going from this very more sheltered environment to a public school in Mississippi. And so all me and my three other, my two older siblings, uh, both of us were in school until we graduated after that point. Um, and so it was interesting because I was sitting there and Jehovah's Witnesses are very role oriented. There's not a lot of, uh, grace, you know, there's no acknowledgement of, um, this unconditional love that our father has for us. It's talked about, but then on the outside, but, but on the inside, they don't really live by that. So, you know, if you dress a certain way, uh, if you celebrate holidays, uh, whatever it is that makes you a worldly person. And so, um, I would be in school and watching all these kids around me and they'd be celebrating Christmas or even simple things like saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
Speaker 0 00:06:57 And I constantly felt like an outsider, and I was put in this really, it unfair predicament, I think because, you know, I'm a young child, um, with all these beliefs that have been thrown on to me. And at the same time, I'm put around all these quote unquote worldly people and expected to, as a young person be completely unwavering in anything that, in any of my decisions, right? So, um, especially given that my father was not a Jehovah's Witness, so, uh, you know, he had family Christmas on his side. If I went over to family Christmas, they would, the Jehovah's Witnesses that I was friends with, the, the young people I was friends with, would not invite me to things and would basically shun me for doing those things, uh, when it was something I had no control over. And so, as I, as I got older and older, I just remember trying so hard.
Speaker 0 00:07:57 I remember trying to follow all the rules. I remember trying to be the perfect Christian and, and get the right amount of hours and service, which is what they call whenever you go door to door and preach. Um, and my older sister and I would go to church by ourselves without our mom. And when she went to college, the woman who's actually hosting the Bible study with her from our church, um, cut her off because she was upset with her for going to college and didn't help her transition whatsoever. You see that a lot in, in, um, Jehovah's Witnesses kind of culture. Um, and so at that point, I just stopped.
Speaker 1 00:08:40 You, you were, you were believing up until that point you believed in God, or at least this Jehovah's Witness version of God and Jesus. But it, again, it was very rules oriented, very legalistic. So there were a lot of positives and negatives growing up with this image of God, I guess in your mind, at, at through, through your, um, journey of being a Jehovah's Witness, who did you perceive God to be? What was their picture of God to you?
Speaker 0 00:09:15 So, um, Jehovah's witnesses don't really talk about what we call the Trinity at all. They, they believe that that is part of, quote unquote like false religion. And so, um, Jehovah, which is a translation that came about in I think the 18th century, late 18th century, um, would be what we call yawe. And so that he was God, Jesus had, uh, nothing to do with that. Jesus was just the random sacrifice. Um, and Joe's witnesses also teach, and for the last century, since the early, uh, 1914 I think is when they were started around that point, um, they've taught that, uh, Armageddon was coming. It's coming, it's coming. It's coming. It's fear. It's fear, it's fear. You know, uh, Jesus is gonna come back soon, you know, all the world is gonna be done in away with. And if you're not a Jehovah's Witness, you're gonna die <laugh>.
Speaker 0 00:10:17 That's literally what they teach. And, and so I was always so afraid. I was like, I'm gonna die if I don't do all these things right? Like, I'm gonna die and I have to follow each of these rules because that's how God is. And, and he expects all this of us. And if I don't do this, then, then, you know, it's all on me. And I wanted nothing to do with that. God, by the time I turned 16, you know, I had a lot of, um, trauma surrounding, uh, that God, because it's not who I know him to be now whatsoever.
Speaker 1 00:10:53 So your sister went off to college, You saw the way that she was, in a way shunned by the JW community or her Bible study teacher, and that was, I guess for you the last straw to see the way that she was treated. And was there something about that you said, I've had enough.
Speaker 0 00:11:13 It was more, I, it wasn't out of anger as much as it was, or, or it was more feelings of hopelessness. You know, she's gone and the woman was also, uh, studying the Bible with me and ended the Bible study with me. So I just felt like I wasn't important and I felt like I was a lost cause, you know? Um, like I've been put on the back burner and the woman made no arrangements to find someone else to mentor me and, and be there for me in a spiritual way. And so I just kind of thought, I can't do this. I don't feel capable of doing this. You know, I, I could never be good enough for God. And I remember actively like breaking down, uh, about two years later cuz in the back of my mind I, I thought he was there. But then again, I just always thought, nah, like, I could never be good enough for him.
Speaker 0 00:12:18 You know, I, I could never, I could never achieve that. I'm just gonna die, you know, I, I, I'm giving up right now and I remember, like I said, this prayer, and it was the last time I prayed for, you know, three years. And I remember just having a conversation like, God, I'm sorry, but what you ask of me, I just can't do it. I don't know how. And you deserve so much. You are such an amazing creator to do everything you've done for us. And I just could never, ever repay you for that. I could never, uh, be the person you want me to be. And so, cuz I knew nothing of sanctification, I knew nothing of, of this grace. And so at that point, I just told, I said goodbye to God basically, and ventured into being agnostic. And that was around the time that I went off to college.
Speaker 1 00:13:14 Okay. Yeah. So you, when you went off to college, you left whatever remnants of faith you had behind and you, you, you said you became agnostic. So you were, I guess in this period of really not really sure, just, you just didn't wanna have anything to do with Jehovah's Witness and that kind of God. And so, okay, what, what, so walk us forward then, and as you entered into this, I presume, uh, again, a kind of a secular university, um, that was not JW or anything to do with that.
Speaker 0 00:13:49 No, it was a liberal arts college in, uh, Mississippi called Nsap. And so I went there for, I remember my parents dropping me off and just kind of having this, this ultimate freedom. And at the time, um, it ended up being a very beautiful thing, but I was dating this guy. And so it did protect me from a lot. Um, but I remember just like thinking to myself, Well, maybe God's not real. Maybe all of that was in my head, and maybe there's not really a God at all because all these things I like to do, um, are everything that I find joyful and pleasurable about some entering the world is a complete opposite of what I think, you know, these people, what they call God wants, you know, that doesn't make any sense to me. So I just kind of thought I might as well just live the most sinful life I can. I didn't think of it that way, but that was kind of the, uh, concept in my moving forward, which is like, yeah, I'm just gonna do whatever I, whatever I wanna do, because I honestly don't even think God exists and I'm just gonna completely let go of, of any kind of sense of, of moral direction.
Speaker 0 00:15:14 Um, and I live like that. And my whole life, I think because of religion from around 14 years old, I struggled with depression and anxiety, uh, when I was like, when I was 14 years old. Um, and this is kind of, I think a byproduct of the environment I was in, the school I was in and all these different attacks from Satan that were going on. Um, I struggled with self-harming, uh, with withholding food from myself. So eating disorders, um, and then definitely suicidal, suicidal thoughts. And so when I got to college and all that was going on still, but I'm diving, you know, deeper and deeper away from the warmth and love of God and completely ignoring that he existed. Um, I definitely began to have suicidal thoughts. Like I never had, I remember I'd just be driving down the road and I would just think like I could just push the wheel, you know, and, and um, or, you know, whatever it was.
Speaker 0 00:16:26 I remember trying, like thinking of ways that I could kill myself without being in pain because to me, the world which is so dark and so terrible and God doesn't exist and nobody loves me, and you know, it's this isolation that, uh, you feel when you don't have him in your life. And, and all those feelings kind of came to a head. Um, and I made this rash, like completely irrational decision. I met this girl one time, uh, at prom my senior year and I was, it was the end of my freshman year of college. And she was like, I'm gonna go hike this trail in California called the Pacific Crush Trail. Uh, do you wanna go <laugh>? And I was like, Yes, I'll go. Sure. I'd never been to California. I'd never flown commercially. I didn't even have the money to do it. I didn't even know how I was gonna pull it off.
Speaker 0 00:17:26 But I told her I would go with her. And so the last day of school, cuz I was just trying to run away from everything, you know, I was, I was still very, uh, atheist. And last day of school, I remember I was in the, the basement of the library and I was walking out and they were giving, you know, they give away like free books once, you know, people don't check them out for a certain amount time. They're like, ah, we'll just so he is out. And I saw Mi Christianity by CS Lewis and I thought that it was making fun of Christianity <laugh>.
Speaker 1 00:18:00 Interesting.
Speaker 0 00:18:00 Yeah. So I bought it <laugh> or I took it home and it just sat there in my room all summer. And then it was time for me to go on this hiking trip. So I had gotten this pack, it was like 40 pounds and I had stuck it in my backpack, um, right as I was leaving because I realized that I didn't have anything to entertain myself. So when you're hiking, you don't have service, right? So I'm gonna be in the middle of nowhere for two weeks backpacking. So it's not like, you know, everything you need is on your back. So I had packed so light, as light as I could go, and it was still 40 pounds. And so I realized I'm a writer, I love writing. Um, and I didn't have anything to journal with. I didn't have anything. So I just saw that, that at the time I thought stupid book. I just picked it up and threw it in my bag. And, um, what am I, Merry way <laugh>
Speaker 1 00:18:58 <laugh>. Now at this point, this is so funny. I mean, to me, because it is not as if you were looking for God necessarily. You were just in a way you were running from God. Yeah. You went from one place to the next, which was much darker, but then you grabbed this book, um, and it's not as if you were looking for God or praying to God or anything at this point, like to show you, you just happened to, you just happened to pick up the book Mirror Christianity and put it in your backpack. I find that very ironic.
Speaker 0 00:19:36 I agree. I mean, I was sitting, I, I had no idea what I was doing. And I thought that was so funny now looking back, because I thought it was like some special book, you know, that nobody knew about. But now I'll talk about that in my story and people would be like, You, you're an atheist and you brought your Christianity with you, <laugh> hiking through. And I was like, Yeah, <laugh>. Um, so I, I fly across the country for the first time by myself. And um, at this point too, I'm just trying to run away from everything my family, um, even college, the idea of college, I mean, it had put me in such a dark place and I, um, had fully become full, fully blown atheist. And so
Speaker 1 00:20:26 We're gonna take a quick break from our story to tell you about some big news at the Seas Lewis Institute. They've been working very hard to develop a new website and it's gotten noticed. the.com awards honors excellence in web, creativity and digital communication. And they've given this year's Gold award to the Senior Lewis Institute for their wonderful, newly designed website. I encourage you to go take a look for yourself, go to www.csosinstitute.org and take a look around. You'll find loads of resources and study courses to learn, study and deepen your faith as well as a place to donate if you so desire. Again, congratulations to the CSOs Institute for their outstanding new website. I do hope you'll see it for yourself. Now, back to our story. We, I'm just curious, at that point, when you were, when you had decided to take on the atheist identity, were there other atheists in your world? Were you associating or with other people who believed similarly? Like, ah, there's no God. Yeah. Or were you just, was this kind of an independent road that you were on?
Speaker 0 00:21:41 Um, it, it was a bit of both. I think that whenever I fully kind of started talking about the fact that I didn't believe in God and that God didn't exist, um, I remember there was someone, there was a few people that I had spoken to and had conversations with. They kind of tipped me over the edge of, from being agnostic to atheist and just the way they spoke about, uh, Old Testament God, and different things like that. I think I had already had such a horrible idea of who God was from Jehovah's Witnesses. So whenever I started, went to college and met people who were also atheist, I already had that in the back of my mind because I think it was a lot easier to believe that he wasn't there than to continue living in the grief of knowing that I was gonna, you know, be obliterated because that's what Jehovah's Witnesses had taught me, you know?
Speaker 0 00:22:35 So, um, yeah. So there were some people that I had met, um, who I, I'm not really friends with or was friends with then, but I had conversations and I was like, Oh, that makes, that makes a lot of sense. You know, God, God probably doesn't exist. And I'm pretty sure that the girl I went hiking with at the time didn't believe in God either. Um, and so there were a lot of people kind of in my circle that at a liberal arts college either didn't talk about their faith, or if they did, they probably were, were atheist. Um, so I'm sure that influenced me in some way. Yeah. Um, but I think what really dove me deeper was just the depression that I was experiencing. Um, I was just like, you know, why would God ever, if there is a God, why would he ever let me or a person suffer like this? Yeah. He wouldn't do that, you know? Right. And if he, if he would, I still want nothing to do with him. <laugh>.
Speaker 1 00:23:37 Yeah. Yeah. That, that's a very, very difficult thing. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, trying to understand or make sense of a good God when you're in a dark place.
Speaker 0 00:23:49 Yeah. And so I think that that was why that hiking trip was so, I don't know, I, at the time I didn't realize it, but God was calling me to go. But I kind of saw it as a means of once again, just escaping everything and doing something that was in my control. I, I honestly thought that going hiking would like fix whatever was going on in my head, you know? And, and, um, funny, it kind of did <laugh>
Speaker 1 00:24:19 <laugh>. So, so tell me what happened? How did this work? Its way out. I'm, Yeah. <laugh>.
Speaker 0 00:24:26 Yeah. We were actually planning to do a section hike called the John Muir Trail, which is, um, it goes through Mount Whitney and it's just a beautiful 200 mile trail that is the most frequented up the Pacific Crush Trail. So the Pacific Crush Trail runs from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. And so we were gonna do a section hike on the John Muir Trail. But right before I had done all the preparation, I applied for the permits, I had the maps, and I did research on, you know, the wildlife and different things to watch out for. And the week before, uh, the California fires had reached that section and it was blocked off. Oh. And, and we couldn't hike on it. Oh. So I thought to myself, I was like, Okay, well we'll fly into LA and hike through Angela's National Forest, and what we'll do is we'll just go to the ranger station, talk to them, get the maps, you know, and, and educate ourselves in the area because it was so soon, um, it seemed like the best option.
Speaker 0 00:25:28 So I looked up the ranger stations that were open, called to make sure, and then we Ubered all the way to Angel's National Forest, which I think was like an hour. And we get into there, the park, there's no service, we get dropped off. And the car, I remember watching the car drive away, and I have no service on my phone, and we're in the middle of nowhere. And I walk up to the door and it is so close, <laugh>, like, there's no one there, and there's just a sign on the door that says like, caution drought in this area. And I'm just sitting there like, Okay, all right. Like, I guess I'll just, just start. And so I, I took a picture of my phone with my phone of the board that they have kind of outside hiking trails that are super not accurate.
Speaker 0 00:26:19 And we just started hiking with no idea what we were doing. And so to kind of summarize, cause I don't wanna go too deep into this trip, but a lot of crazy stuff happened. You know, we almost ran outta water several times. Uh, we ended up accidentally taking the wrong trail and it was called High Desert Trail and it was not maintained and we're on the edge of these cliffs like trying to get across. And then there's this rattlesnake and, you know, all these things happen where we had so many near death experiences. Um, and especially that the day that we got stuck on that cliff, we finally make it to the other side. And then there's a bunch of inmates everywhere cleaning up stuff. And where these two young women by ourselves in the middle of nowhere and, uh, and we'd taken the wrong trail and had no water.
Speaker 0 00:27:07 And so, you know, all these things were happening and the kindness of strangers just never failed to amaze me. So I, I remembered like two or three days in, but I had this book. So I remember I walked up to this woman and I was like, Hey, can I trade you? I have like a dollar or something. I was like, Can I buy a pin from you? She was just some random lady at the park. She's like, I'll just give you a pin. So she gave me a pin. And so I started writing in the pages of the, of the Mere Christianity book. I wasn't reading it, I was just writing cuz I'm, once again, I didn't have anything right with, so I was journaling all these things that were happening. And in the process as I'm journaling, I start catching these lines from CS Lewis and I'm like, What is this guy talking about?
Speaker 0 00:27:48 You know, <laugh>, I was like very confused because I was like, whoa, this is not the Christianity I know at all. Is he making fun of it or is he agreeing with it? Like, what's going on here? So I started reading more and more and I'm in the elements, right? So I'm going to bed every night not knowing if a bear is gonna come tear me apart to steal my food. Um, and not knowing if I'm gonna find water the next day or not knowing if I hitchhike with someone, if they're gonna kidnap me. Oh, wow. And I'm having like all of these to be dramatic, I would say near death experiences, but I felt like it was that at the time.
Speaker 1 00:28:25 Exactly. I mean, that was your experience.
Speaker 0 00:28:27 Yes. Right. So, um, so many things could have gone wrong. And um, so I remember this one day, uh, we had like a, what I called trail angel, come and find us. And we had once again, hide the wrong way. <laugh>, nothing's going right. And we hitchhiked with this man. And he told us about, um, how we reminded him of when he was younger and he went on a hiking trip with one of his friends and they, they had hitch hiked and he said that friend had actually just passed away the week before. And so we had this long conversation with him and I remember he prayed for us, his name was Norm. And I once again remember just thinking like, what is your, what are your prayers gonna do for me, dude, Just like <laugh>, you know, help me find where I'm going. But the thing about a real Jesus person is he did, So Norm took us to this, uh, fire station, charged our phones cuz our phones were almost dead.
Speaker 0 00:29:24 They gave us, they resupplied everything. They gave us food and water. And then he went and brought us back into the trail. He gave us a map and sent us on our way. And everything went smoothly after that for the most part. And, and later I found out that this man had not only done that, but he went to every stop along the way that we would've passed through and told the people we were coming through and to watch out for us and to let 'em know if we came through. And if we didn't come through, he was gonna go right through where we were hiking and find us to make sure we were okay. Like, this guy was amazing.
Speaker 1 00:29:56 He really was a trail angel <laugh> what said that's, that is amazing.
Speaker 0 00:30:02 And I still am in contact with him to this day. Um, and so anyway, so we're, we're hiking and we go up this mountain and I think it was like a total of like 12 miles in a day. And it's, it's one of the tallest mountains on the southern side. Uh, it's called Mountain Baden Powell. And so I remember getting to the top of the mountain, the blisters on my feet are just horrendous. My back is aching. My trail partner is literally just face down on the rocks and I'm sitting there and it's just silent. And on top of this mountain I can see all the way down to LA I can see miles and miles in every direction. And so I pull out the book and start reading again. And I actually don't even remember exactly what it was that I read, but I remember just thinking like, I can feel, God, I don't know what it is, I don't know who he is, but like, something's going on here because I should be dead right now.
Speaker 0 00:30:58 <laugh>. And, but I was in denial, right? So I was thinking more along the lines of like, okay, maybe it's like the universe thing where it's like, yeah, the universe is looking out for me and maybe CS Lewis is just like talking about the universe, but he's not talking about God himself. Right? So it was still a atheist moment, but it was that one little step I needed towards meeting someone who helped us so deeply and, and courageously. Um, and so I remember thinking, Well, maybe God exists, but maybe not. Maybe it's like this universe thing. Like maybe there's some kind of carma thing going on here. Right?
Speaker 0 00:31:42 So I leave, and once again I decided, I did an internship with this show called The High Wire with Del Big Tree. So when I was younger, I, I always said I wanted to do something with film. I didn't know what that would be. And I had done, I had a small business, I did wedding videos and in high school and stuff like that. Um, and so I knew that I wanted to run away from everything and I was seeking fulfillment in the world still. Um, but because of my experience when I was hiking, I realized that a lot of the things we think are problems aren't actually problems. Right. If I know I'm gonna have food and water and a roof over my head, I'm good. <laugh> Yes. You know, I really am fine.
Speaker 1 00:32:27 It's amazing how things can come into perspective somehow. <laugh>. Yeah.
Speaker 0 00:32:33 Yeah. So I decided to, I was either gonna, uh, transfer to a school that had a film program cause when I was at didn't or drop out and just give it a try. So I settled for somewhere in the middle and I found this program called Film Connections that connects you with a mentor and has a curriculum and um, kind of walks you through what it's like to be a filmmaker. And so I reached out to this mentor, uh, that's a producer in New Orleans, named Ralph Madison. And he was like, Yeah, we'd love to have you. He was nothing like I expected him to be. He, he does amazing work. So I expected him to be this like, you know, stern film guy. And I show up and he's kind of this hybrid, right? So he's, he's into crystals and reiki, but like, he calls on the name of Jesus.
Speaker 0 00:33:27 And I was like, Whoa, <laugh>, what is going on here? Um, and it really kind of threw me off cuz I'd never known anyone like that, right? So he was into kind of the new age spiritual stuff, but still, um, was his own version of, of a Christian. So he wasn't in a church, but he would read the Bible. And, and so that kind of, I think began to open my mind to things where I was like, Well, maybe I can just have my own version of, you know, whatever that is and, you know, blah, blah, blah. But by me leaving college, um, it began this path where I think it helped me slowly open my mind back up to the fact that there may be a God and that he may exist and that he may love us. And so I was mentored for six months in New Orleans, and he taught me a lot.
Speaker 0 00:34:22 And he was an amazing, incredible mentor and amazing person. And I, long story short, ended up getting a job in Austin, Texas on a documentary. So I'm moving here to work on this documentary, and I just, I met a producer at my friend's wedding in Austin, is how I got the job. So my friend was leaving Texas and her family was like, Well, why don't you just like, move in with us since you're moving? And you know, I was only 19 at the time. And so I moved in with them. And, um, they had have the biggest hearts out of anybody I've ever met <laugh> in my life to this day, probably, um, the most giving kind people. And so their story is very interesting because they were also atheists before they moved to the United States, but their son Billy, really loves live music and is a church next door.
Speaker 0 00:35:16 So they start going to church every week because Billy wanted to go. And, uh, Billy is an adult with autism, and they were slowly came to terms with who God was and his love. And so they, they were, they were another example of someone I had met who was atheist and had converted to Christianity. And so they, they used to make fun of Christians. I mean, they, they did, did not like them at all. And then went from that to being big time Bible readers. And what I loved about their names are Polly and John. Uh, what I loved about Polly was that every single morning I walk into the kitchen, she's reading the Bible. And every single Sunday she would say, Oh, we're going to church, You know, do you wanna come with us? And I would always say no. And she would always try to talk.
Speaker 0 00:36:09 She wouldn't force it on me, but that's just how she is. She'll talk to anybody about Jesus anytime and just includes him in the conversation. Like he's a friend. And I love that about her. And so I saw her talking about Jesus, but in a way that wasn't like anything I had heard first off, she always said Jesus, she never said God was always Jesus. Um, but she would always say, uh, just talk about his unending love. And she would treat everyone with this intense love and, you know, was so giving. And you know, everyone in the neighborhood that she met who she knew would be in need, they would come every single week and get chi uh, eggs from our chickens. And if somebody was sick, she would make this beautiful British meal and bring it to their house. Or, you know, when I would be going out to my, to the bars with my friends, she would give me cash, you know, to make sure that I had money for dinner.
Speaker 0 00:37:07 You know, like they were so giving. And when they would make my, you know, make my room up nice whenever I went to travel, um, you know, they would prepare foods for me. I went through a really terrible breakup at the time and they would have game nights with me and just support me and surround me and love. And I had never really experienced something like that. I had never been loved like that. And to experience something like that from people who called themselves followers of Christ, I thought, maybe not all Christians are bad people, but I still just don't think this is true. You know, like, like maybe she just sees another side of God, but she's not talking about the full picture. Because that is what Jehovah's Witnesses kind of, that indoctrination had in the back of my mind still they would say is, you know, Oh, the world just condones all sin.
Speaker 0 00:38:07 And, you know, they're all what they call Christ Indo, that they're part of, uh, fake followers of Christ and misleading people by telling them that God loves us unconditionally. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so I think in the back of my mind I thought, well, yeah, she just doesn't have it quite right. You know, there's still this part of God that is legalistic and hates us and you know, that kind of thing. And so I think because of that, and subconsciously I still was just completely denying that he was there because it was easier to do that,
Speaker 1 00:38:42 That it was hard to deny the love that you were being constantly shown.
Speaker 0 00:38:46 Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I knew there was something to that. Yeah. Um, and so I got this job in Miami, and so I'm, I then at this point stayed with them for over a year and just been surrounded by their love. And so then I moved to Miami to work on this documentary, and I am all alone. And this is at the end of 2019. So I, I didn't know anyone and working 12 hour days, seven days a week. So I think on Sundays I would work like half day and that would be all my time off. So I had no time to make friends and then everything locked down. And at this point, once again, I just completely started ignoring any kind of idea that God may exist or the question in my head because I wasn't around Christian people anymore. And, um, I was very isolated and it's kind of hard to bring this up. So
Speaker 1 00:40:01 Whatever you feel comfortable with or not
Speaker 0 00:40:07 No, it's,
Speaker 1 00:40:08 It's fine.
Speaker 0 00:40:10 Um, no. So I was very isolated and I didn't really know a lot of people. And so I'd made some friends from work and I went out to a bar, and this is about probably two or three weeks before everything locked down in the United States from Covid 19. And I was roofied and sexually assaulted.
Speaker 1 00:40:33 Oh, I'm so sorry.
Speaker 0 00:40:37 It was, um, definitely the darkest moment in my life, you know? And my entire life I had been, I had struggled with anxiety and depression. And so I remember just thinking like, I don't wanna be here anymore. You know, this, this is horrible. Like if this is what the world is, like, I want nothing to do with this. And like, just the amount of deep, it was the most intense pain I'd ever felt in my life. I mean, I remember just like feeling like I couldn't breathe and crying on the bathroom floor and for days, you know? And I just thought like, I don't know how I'm gonna get through this. I really don't. Like, I, it was such a dark moment. And I remember just sitting there and I prayed for the first time. I think it had been since that last prayer I mentioned. And I just said, Look, if you're there, like, I can't do this alone, <laugh> mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, like, I, I cannot keep doing this alone. No. You know, Right. Um, I am not ca I'm literally going to kill myself if you don't rescue me right now. Like, if you are there, like, like come and let me know who you are because I can't do this. And, and
Speaker 0 00:42:19 I have no way to describe it other than I felt all of heaven surrounding me. <laugh>, oh my legitimately, I, I felt his presence so strong in the room. And all of those years of depression and suicidal thoughts and anxiety
Speaker 0 00:42:48 Came crashing down on me at the same time. And it's the most bizarre thing. I can never describe exactly what it felt like, but I remember just thinking, there are so many things in my life I've ignored. There are so many actions that I have taken that have caused me such great pain. And all of them are rooted in what I always thought was sin. And I'm gonna acknowledge those things right now and I'm gonna feel it. And I remember like flooding in my mind, I had memories from when I was really little all the way up until, you know, that moment. Every single thing I'd been through, um, memories from my childhood, memories from my parents' relationship, um, from other experiences I had had, um, in particular with men, um, abusing
Speaker 0 00:43:47 Me sexually. And so I remember just thinking like, uh, I'm gonna feel all of this. I'm gonna stop ignoring all of this and I'm gonna feel it right now. And I'm mourned. I mean, I'm mourned for a week straight. I remember I've never cried so much in my life. I cried every single day, every single moment I stepped through the door after I finished my work. Or even sometimes when I just shut the door to the office when I was leaving, I would just start pouring tears. I was just trying to hold it together to get the work done and then going home and just mourning every single horrible thing that had ever happened to me and including being sexually assaulted. And God
Speaker 0 00:44:35 Said to me, You know, I'm here and I exist and I love you. And, and he, I didn't hear his voice, but I felt that very clearly. And so I started this journey where I once again, wasn't really sure, wasn't really sure if, if it was the Christian God, but I knew God like there was a God, because I felt its its presence in that moment like so clearly. And it, and it pulled me out of these depths at this moment where I was just like, I can't do this unless if I have you. And so I started praying for the next few months, but I wouldn't say a name. I'd always say, God, show me who you are. You know, uh, reveal yourself to me. Show me the truth. I wanna know who you are. I wanna worship you. I want to love you, but I don't know who you are.
Speaker 0 00:45:21 So I was reading books on Buddhism, Hinduism. I mean, I was doing everything. I was looking everywhere I could for the truth, right? And I remember I woke up one day and nothing had really worked, nothing. I, I would feel connected to something, I would try it out and then nothing would happen and I wouldn't feel that presence. I felt in that dark moment. I was like, Where is that presence? I'm looking for it everywhere. And I couldn't find it, you know, point me to you. Yes. And I picked up the Bible, this old Jehovah's Witness bible that I had. So the translation's a bit different. Um, and I just started in Genesis <laugh>. I just started reading it and I was like, Oh my gosh, <laugh> like, this is not what I thought it was at all. And even like got it opened my eyes, even like the veil had been lifted.
Speaker 0 00:46:15 And so I'm reading of his love and I'm reading of creation and I'm reading of how we were designed to live. And that was exactly what I wanted. And nobody else was talking about that. You know, other religions deny suffering, whereas God tells us, you're gonna suffer and it's gonna suck. Excuse me, language, it's gonna suck, but I'm gonna be with you. Right. And that's the difference, right? I was like, Oh, so I don't have to like transcend existence and pretend like I'm not suffering and you know, in a Buddhist way or whatever, you know? Right. I can suffer fully and feel it fully and go through really hard things. And pain is okay because I know where I'm going. I have the hope of, of salvation. And so when I picked up that Bible, I started reflecting back on John and Paul and their love, and I was like, That's what they do, <laugh>.
Speaker 0 00:47:13 I was like, I want some of that. Like, that's what I want. They've got that part figured out. I'm just gonna read the Bible and keep on praying. And so, um, through this really horrible experience of being sexually assaulted, it brought me to this rock bottom moment where I fully turned to God because I, there was no way I could do it without him. And he had built this intricate storyline of dropping me bite size, uh, pieces of love. And so John and Polly, um, I started calling them and, and I told Polly what happened. And you know, I remember she really supported me in that time. And then after reading the Bible for about six months, I decided I was gonna move back to Austin. And I asked her if she would baptize me <laugh>.
Speaker 0 00:48:10 And so I went back to Austin. Um, and once again, at this point I have a lot of religious trauma, so I'm like, I'm never stepping foot in a church. Okay, not doing it <laugh>. No way. Um, but I'll read the Bible and I'll pray and that's good enough for me. And, and so, uh, I go home or to go to Austin, I meet with Polly and she throws this beautiful party for me. And in that moment I made clear to everyone that that was a life I wanted to choose for myself. And I kind of always say it was the best day ever <laugh>.
Speaker 1 00:48:54 It was the best day ever.
Speaker 0 00:48:56 <laugh>. Yeah, it was. I mean, so, so it, this is just kind of a funny side story. So I, uh, I love the sun. My mood is very dictated by the weather. And I woke up that morning and it was cloudy and I just prayed and I was like, God, I'm not trying to be petty right now, but can you please make the sun come out <laugh>? Cause I'm not trying to get baptized on a cloudy day <laugh>. And so I was just kind of joking with him. And, and that's, I loved about the new relationship I had with God. It was never like, Dear father, blah, blah, blah, You know, forgive me for this. It was very personal. I always had conversations with him and like he was a, you know, real living, breathing God because he is. And so I remember saying that, and then as I'm coming out of the water, I have a video of this, the clouds parted and the sun came out.
Speaker 1 00:49:52 Wow. What a gift.
Speaker 0 00:49:54 Oh. And I was like, this is so cool. You didn't have to do that, you know? Um, so
Speaker 1 00:50:03 I'd like to pause for a moment and tell you about our new side B Stories website. Perhaps you or someone you know is questioning whether or not belief in God is even possible or credible, whether or not Christianity is worthy of belief. The trouble is in our culture today, Christianity is viewed largely as a belief system for the week, delusional and uneducated. It can be extremely difficult to break through the negativity and stereotypes to explore authentic historic Christianity. If you're a skeptic or atheist, what would it take for you to consider the reality of God or the truth of Christianity? Or if you're a Christian, how can you better understand or engage with skeptics in a meaningful way? Our new side B Stories website was created with you in mind. In addition to housing our podcast stories, it also features short video testimonies from former atheists and resources.
Speaker 1 00:51:02 They have recommended or written about their own journeys to believe. And you'll hear their advice to skeptics on how to pursue a search for God and advice to Christians on how to engage with those who don't believe. We offer these stories from former skeptics on the Sibe stories website, because there is no bigger question that affects your life than whether or not God is real or true, good or relevant. In a culture where Christianity is sometimes viewed unworthy of belief, Sibe stories shows what it did and does take for skeptics to become believers. You can find all of this by going to our new website, sibe stories.com. We hope you'll take a look and share this wonderful resource with skeptics and Christians alike. Now, back to our story, Uh, celebrating, celebrating over You. I think there in that moment, I, if I could ask a question, you know, you speak of being baptized.
Speaker 1 00:52:10 Now, the, the God that you knew as a Jehovah's Witness, you never thought you could be good enough. You know, no matter what you did or how many houses, doors you knocked on or whatever it is that you had to accomplish, that, that it was just so overwhelming. You just wanted to give it up. Now, when you move to a place where you meet Jesus, you know, and you are ready to get baptized, baptism really symbolizes something very particular. You know, of course is putting, you know, off the old and putting on the new. But there, there's a washing away, a sense of sin, and at least in the Christian way of thinking about things. And I'm wondering, as someone who understood the weight of trying to work your way to God, what it meant for you when you understood what the gospel is and what grace is, and those things you said that were missing before that I guess you had found. Can you kind of talk about that a little bit so people listening can understand that, that contrast and that transformation?
Speaker 0 00:53:22 Yeah, so I remember I started reading the Bible and the God that had been skewed in my mind as a, as a child was not in there. And I remember something that always has stuck with me, um, is Romans eight, Like, that's my chapter. Anytime I feel lost, go straight to Romans eight and start reading. And for anyone who doesn't read the Bible, I would say go there. Um, because it paints this beautiful picture that we, we don't choose God, that he chooses us, and that his love is unending, and that we were bought and paid for whether we wanted to or not. And he gave that freely as a gift to us. And there is not a single thing in the world we could do that could separate us from that love. And in particular, the very end, I think it's 39 to 41, you know, Paul writes about how the future nor the present can separate us from the love of God.
Speaker 0 00:54:39 And I always thought that was really interesting. Um, or angels nor demons can separate us from the love of God nor governments or any powers it be. Um, and the thought of, I could, I couldn't do anything tomorrow that would separate me from that love. Is that what you're saying to me right now? <laugh>, you know that, you know, you love me so much that you knew everything I would do in my life and you didn't care. You loved me, and you wanted to transform me, and you wanted to give me hope and save me. That was a narrative I'd never heard before. And that was the truth of the Bible. And so I think reading that really transformed my entire view of, you know, what God was like and just the story of Jesus, his, his love, and how he came and he fulfilled the entire Old Testament in two phrases.
Speaker 0 00:55:38 Love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbors. You love yourself. And if you're not doing that, then you're not following Christ. Right? You're not a Christian. It's as simple as that. And so kind of having it all simplified done in that way, it's like I had been taught by the Pharisees and the sades. You know, you have to follow all these rules. And then Jesus came along in my life and said, No, you don't love, love me. Um, love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbors. You love yourself and you've got it covered. That's all you gotta do. <laugh>. I was like, What? <laugh>? So I thought it was really beautiful. Uh, there's so many beautiful truths that were revealed to me.
Speaker 1 00:56:24 And so it was obviously convincing enough for you to, to become a Christ follower, because that's what baptism symbolizes, that you are a follower of Christ. Yeah. Wow. So how has your life changed since that time? How, I mean, obviously you, you've come a long way in your very young life, uh, but you've experienced a lot. And, um, I wonder how has it been to walk as someone who who follows Christ, uh, to have this completely different understanding of being completely and utterly loved in the way that you spoke of
Speaker 0 00:57:08 It's been just better. You know, And it's like, just by following Christ does not mean that when I struggle with depression or anxiety, that it just goes away. Right? But these kind of things become less frequent and less intense and following, God has given me such freedom and beauty in my life. I no longer feel like I'm a slave to these sinful behaviors. And when I say sin, I always, like, I think that term became so stigmatized by people who are outside the church, but, you know, but sin is essentially things that, that God knows, harms us or harms others, right? Um, or disrespects him. And so putting it in that way, when I felt like I was freed from doing things that harmed me, that I, that I was chained to, um, like what a beautiful life that is. You know, And when I'm depressed, uh, and I have, you know, the week where I don't wanna get out of bed or shower or whatever it is, I still have his love waiting for me right there, holding me all along.
Speaker 0 00:58:33 And once again, it's not that it's always easier, it's never gonna be easier following Christ, but it's definitely better because I know at the end of the day that all of this is temporary. And I know that he's gonna use my story. He's gonna use the fact that I was sexually assaulted. He's going to use, um, my past to help other people, and he has redeemed all of that pain in my life, right? So everything I've been through, and even more recently since I've become a Christian, um, he's used those things to help other people. And that is so healing for me to watch that right? And to be close to people and connect to people, and to be open and raw and real about what we actually experience. Um, he's given me a support system. He's given me his unconditional love. He's given me joy.
Speaker 0 00:59:36 And, um, I think most importantly, he's encouraged me to not feel like I'm bound by anything of this world, right? So, you know, um, when it comes to my career, I'm never gonna make films the same way again. Uh, making films is completely different for me because I know that God has given me my story. Uh, and he gave everyone else their own testimonies. And so as a filmmaker, what I wanna do is, is elevate their, their voices and to be in a position. I feel so blessed to be able to do that. So he is given me a beautiful career fulfillment in my career. I mean, I could talk all day about how much better, uh, God has me in my life.
Speaker 1 01:00:25 That's amazing. That's amazing. Um, Claire, And it is a beautiful life. You're living a beautiful life and, and, uh, beauty and pain. That doesn't mean that there's no pain, but, but with God, with you, as you said at the very beginning, you know, things, things can become beautiful even when they're hard. Um, as we're turning the page here and, and you know what it's like, um, to be an atheist, You, you know, what it's like to be on the receiving end of Christian, like Paula, Pauly and John, who offered not only their home to you, but were incredibly generous to you, um, throughout a year or more, uh, and beyond, I guess, and have always been there to support you. Sounds like their hos they have the gift of hospitality and generosity, no doubt or norm, I think of Norm. Um, the, the man he was almost like the good Samaritan who was just making sure that you were attended to and coming back and making, you know, just making sure you were attended to along the way. Those things were very strong touchstones in your life that affected you, that created openness towards the guy that of love that you in eventually, um, came to know. Um, if you were giving advice to
Speaker 1 01:01:54 Christians on how to engage with, with people who don't believe, um, what would you say to Christians in terms of however you would want us to be or, or, or behave or in in the, in the world to, to, to show Jesus, I guess.
Speaker 0 01:02:16 I think all along what I really needed was somebody who was honest with me. Um, and that was the thing about being around John and Polly. Um, and in high school, I forgot to mention, but I had a teacher named Coach Campbell who, um, all of them have this in common where they were blatantly open about their sin, right? And not in a way that glorified sin, but in a way that made me think like, you have a faith like that, but then you, you do X, Y, and Z, right? Like, and you're open about that. You know, is, is that the kind of God you have that God loves you anyways. And um, you know, I think that was the most important thing to me, was getting to know people who had a real faith that they were open about but didn't pretend like, you know, they were perfect.
Speaker 0 01:03:21 Um, and that showed unconditional love, you know, And Coach Campbell, uh, the teacher I had in high school, he was the same way. You know, he never, at once, once a month he would sit down and talk to us about whatever God had put on his mind that day, and it'd always be something relevant to what was going on in our lives, right? And we didn't know how that was even possible. It was like, okay, this guy must be like, how does he know what's going on in my life, you know, talking about it. This is creepy. Um, but it was amazing, you know, to, to be around someone like that too, who openly shared who, who was bold, but he didn't say, You need to believe this and you need to be like this, and blah, blah, blah. He, I remember him having discussions of, of joy and happiness and the difference between the two and, and free will and, you know, um, sin and Satan and spiritual warfare.
Speaker 0 01:04:20 And he never was saying, You have to believe in God. He was just saying how the gospel had changed his life and he was telling his story. And that's what John and Paul did. So, you know, after all the hard things I went through, I was, I realized once all that pain was redeemed, that all of that was a gift. That my testimony was a gift. Yes. And, and that I didn't have to force my friends to read the Bible or force my family who have left the church, but still don't really know where they're standing to believe in the Trinity or whatever it is. You know, All I have to do is love them. That's it. And, and tell my story because I think your story is the most important part. Um, if, if you, if you can tell that cuz your story is a gift from God. And so if you can give them that message, and so we are, you know, crisis in us, We, we become living with his word in us and, and give our testimony to other people. That's how we make change. I, if someone had done that, the people that did do that are who, you know, God used to get me to where I am today. Yeah.
Speaker 1 01:05:34 Yeah. Amazing. And for those who might be listening who are still skeptical and they're, they're, they're perhaps a little bit open, you know, curious about you, about your story, about how you found seemingly a God who was real. Um, how would you encourage someone who might be open to taking another step or thinking about it more? Or what direction or how would you encourage someone like that?
Speaker 0 01:06:11 I think there's so many lies that circulate from Satan, from the world, um, from people who claim to be Christian about who God really is. And I was brutally taught that lesson from a young age. You know, I, the idea of who God was that I had as a child versus how I know him now is completely different. And the one thing that showed me that difference was actually reading the Bible. Not because someone forced you to, and not John three 16 on Google, you know, or someone posted on Instagram in their bio, but like actually picking up a Bible and reading it and just asking whoever God is in your eyes to show you the truth. Truth. Because if you haven't read it with a genuine curiosity for truth, that veil is still over your eyes and you won't get that. You are not able to see it.
Speaker 0 01:07:16 And as soon as I was able to see it, my entire life was changed. Everything changed. And once again, as someone who has struggled, uh, throughout life with, uh, depression, it was so life changing. The joy that I have now and the happiness that I have from him is incredible. Like, what do you have to lose just by picking up a Bible and asking for the truth and reading it? Hmm. <affirmative>, if anything, you will prove yourself, right? And if you prove yourself wrong, you'll live the rest of your life. Enjoy. And I don't think we could ask for much more than that.
Speaker 1 01:07:56 Right? No, that's what we all long for. Really it, the, the Bible can be a little bit intimidating for someone who's never really looked at it. Uh, where would you encourage someone to begin reading? Um, cuz I, I know, you know, there's the Old Testament and the New Testament, The New Testament, the stories about Jesus are more there and sometimes it's easy to get lost in the weeds, you know, if you don't know where you're going. Yeah. Uh, where would you encourage like a particular book or place? I know you started in Genesis.
Speaker 0 01:08:34 Yeah.
Speaker 1 01:08:35 Uh, where, where would you encourage someone who was just opening the Bible for the first time?
Speaker 0 01:08:41 So I, when I recommend just picking up the Bible and reading it, it's interesting because I would always pray and ask on where I should stop or where I should look. Right? Um, but if you open it up and then you're reading it and you're like, Yeah, that I don't know, like, this doesn't make any sense to me. Uh, <laugh> New Testament, uh, if you're curious about Jesus, um, you know, Luke Matthew, those are great places to start. Just hearing stories of his love and, you know, the kind of person he was on this earth. Um, his generosity, how he te he taught, treated the poor, you know, the sick, um, how he raised the dead and how he fed, you know, thousands. I mean, just the stories about him are so beautiful. And you can get those in that area of the Bible, Luke, Matthew, that kinda stuff. Um, if you're, you have a background in Christianity, but we're atheists like I was, and now you're considering it again, maybe I always go to Romans or Ephesians because there is a lot of sanctification, a lot of grace, a lot of love. And what we think of how God views us as sinners, um, how Satan pushes these ideas in our heads that we can't be forgiven or that we can't change or that we don't deserve love. Um, all of that has really cleared up and in what means? And Eeds, I would say,
Speaker 1 01:10:17 I think it's been a beautiful, beautiful testimony. I I really genuinely appreciate your transparency, Claire. I know it's not easy to talk about certain things in your life, but you have done so with Grace and again, with, with transparency and authenticity. And I think as you mentioned before, I think that there will be people who are, are blessed and benefit from knowing that about you and, and seeing the transformed life, and that you can actually have joy beyond the darkness. That you can have hope and life that's truly life beyond, you know, um, I just, I, I see in my mind that place where you were in Miami and, and that you've come such a long way since then and that you are just a, you, you are an example of light and hope, um, that we need so desperately in this world. So thank you so much for telling your story today, Claire. I really, really appreciate it.
Speaker 0 01:11:23 Thank you for having me. I really appreciate
Speaker 1 01:11:26 It. Thanks for tuning in to side Me Stories, to hear Claire's story. You can find out more about her and her films through her [email protected]
, which I'll post in the episode notes for questions and feedback about this episode. You can contact me through our website. Again, that's, that's at side b stories.com. If you enjoyed it, I hope you'll follow rate, review and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time when we'll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.