Jesus Christ of Nazareth said “Suffer the little children, come unto me.” Laura Perez, Principal of Straub Middle School says “Uh-huh. Eat your fish sticks.” Straub lay in Salem Heights, Oregon, a town known primarily for three things: 1) It’s one of four towns in the United States named for a place that once had an addiction to smoking witches, and 2) it’s the only one of them without a Wikipedia page, and 3) It may get a page yet, owing to one deliciously ironic encounter in aforementioned middle school.
Tim Saffeels, is a “youth mentor” and director of student ministries from Salem Heights Baptist Church. You might remember “Baptist” as the denomination of Christianity that prides itself in not aggressively proselytizing at every possible opportunity. Or, that was likely the assumption when Saffeels was okay’d to volunteer at the school during lunch, where he joined other volunteers in helping to clean up and keep order.
It was during that lunch that Saffeels sat down at a table with one of the teenaged recruits from his church, and started chatting over Jesus. But apparently, the little children, who had apparently not heard the Good New of our Lord during any one of the yearly vacations they get to celebrate his birthday, asked of Saffeels a question:
Saffeels: “They actually did literally ask me ‘Who is Jesus?'”
Well, either that or someone sneezed. Pet subjects do have hare triggers. And this rabbit apparently ran for some time.
The exact nature of the conversation is still a matter of contention. One student, Sarina Knightly (on the right in the picture) said:
“He said imagine this scenario. All of us are in a van and we’re driving somewhere and we get hit by two drunk drivers and we all die. What happens next?”
The other girl in the photograph, 14-year-old atheist Shelby Conway, had a bit more to say on the matter. She wrote a lengthy letter to the principle afterward; You can find the full text of the letter at the bottom of this article. But the take-aways are this:
According to Shelby, he told her that atheism was “evil,” “bad,” “wrong” and “stupid.”
I was very uncomfortable and personally offended with the way he was speaking to both me and other non-Christians around the lunch room. I request that we keep things like this, such as pastors and religious speeches, in places where they are welcomed, such as churches or religious schools.
Saffeels, for his part, denies ever saying any of the things Shelby accuses him of. Though he doesn’t deny inviting the students to church, or giving a sermon on the after-life benefits package that is Jesus Insurance.
When word of the sermon reached Principal Perez, she immediately booted Saffeels from the school.
“I decided that I’m not going to allow him in because to me there was a breach of trust there.”
Of course, you do have to wonder whether that trust was somewhat misguided. After all, trusting a Baptist youth minister to not spread his religion among a bunch of children is probably about as wise as trusting a pedophile to…not spread his religion among a bunch of children.
Still Saffeels denies he said anything about atheism being “stupid’ or “evil.” And indeed, certain parts of Shelby’s letter do read a bit…let’s just call it “detail enhanced.” She wouldn’t be the first teenager ever to add a few stronger bits to a lesser story, exaggerating the core events for effect. Still, there’s no doubt Saffeels crossed about fifty lines, perhaps without even realizing he was doing so. His denials certainly seem sincere enough…which proves, if nothing else, that he is in fact Baptist. And he’s offered counter-witnesses (that nobody can get hold of) to rebut Shelby’s claims.
Even so, school policy expressly forbids “promotion or prohibition of religion in any form,” and visitors are not permitted to invite students to meetings or events sponsored by religious institutions. Saffeel’s defense for that: He didn’t violate policy because he didn’t bring it up. Speaking of the little children who somehow have never heard of Jesus:
“Since they instigated that, they’re asking my personal opinion.”
So, how should he have responded to the plight of the innocents, thirsting for the light of Our Lord? Mary Paulson, the school district chief of staff:
“If the student had questions about a topic that isn’t appropriate for a volunteer to talk to kids about, the expectation would be that they would refer to them to somebody who could talk to them about the topic like their parent or their own church officials.”
Well, that’s no fun at all. What’s the point in being a recruiter for the Jesus Youth, in a school, if you can’t recruit for Jesus? That’s just silly.
So, believe who you want to in terms of the actual conversation; it is a literal he-said-she-said scenario. But either way, Saffeels is out for the year; if he can get his Christophile impulses under control, he’s welcome to come back next year. And some say that isn’t entirely fair for him. But hey, look at the bright side…
This isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to someone accused of something by a teenage girl in a town named Salem.
Dear Mrs. Perez,
My name is Shelby Conway, I am 14 years old, and an eighth grader at Straub. Today at lunch, our table was approached by a youth pastor who said he was from a Christian church out in South Salem. He then proceeded to preach to our entire table, several of whom are not Christians. When he finished, he asked us for our religious beliefs. I replied that I am an atheist, which I am, and I am very firm in my beliefs, and that he should not try to convince me otherwise. He began insulting me, my beliefs, and my intelligence, saying that, “Any logical person would see that atheism is wrong” and telling me that I am “too young” to choose this belief and saying that he believes I am simply trying to ‘rebel’. I explained that it was quite the opposite, that I find religion itself illogical. He got upset here and started telling me that my belief was “bad,” “stupid,” and “evil,” and that I was as well. I was already quite upset, so I told him to “leave me alone” and he simply continued, telling me that I needed to come to a church function to “cleanse my mind and soul o! evil”’ and gave me a card for his youth group because, as he said, which I promptly got rid of. I know there were other things he said, but some were not direct, and I don’t remember exact quotes.
I have no problem with religion, and I respect all peoples beliefs, even if they aren’t like mine. Some of my best friends are very strong Christians, and I have no problem with it. However, I am very willing to defend myself and others when they’re insulted, which they were. I was very uncomfortable and personally offended with the way he was speaking to both me and other non-Christians around the lunch room. I request that we keep things like this, such as pastors and religious speeches, in places where they are welcomed, such as churches, or religious schools. It offends me, and several other non-Christians, that it was assumed that we were both a small minority, and unintelligent and easily convinced. There is a wide array of religious [beliefs] here at Straub, and we should not assume that all people believe the same.
The man refused to offer his name, but I assume that there is a way to contact him. I’m fairly certain that he was here because he was welcomed by the school. I ask that he does not return.
Thank you very much [for] your time and consideration,