I grew up in a Christian household in Gulf Shores, Alabama, nestled in the heart of the Bible Belt.  If you’re thinking in stereotypes, I had all the right things a good, Christian boy should have: a deeply religious family, an ongoing education at a religious college, and a childhood rooted in churches, faith, daily prayer, and conservative values. The outcome of that cultural indoctrination is supposed to be a god-fearing man, steeped in humility, worship, and self-sacrifice.

There is a saying, thought, that you may have heard:  Hope dies last.

And eventually, a fracture developed in the beliefs I had grown up with. I searched — everywhere — for a foothold, for any gleaned insight into why it might have happened. I poured over scripture. I prayed hollow prayers, seeking enlightenment. I journaled, waited, and reexamined my own text in search of an answer — any answer.

As a child, I was sickly and bookish. I spent most of my time indoors, except by parental mandate when I’d been playing video games for far, far too long. Even through my early teenage years, a walk outside in midsummer could irritate my sinuses and leave me with breathing problems for weeks on end. The never-ending Alabama summer is unkind in this way.

Because of this, the world outside my home was something of a mystery. I’d kicked around in the woods on summer vacation and been to the beach a few times, of course. But daily exposure to the pollen and sweltering heat hadn’t done me any favors, and most daily outdoor activities I experienced were chores revolving around yard work.

This crisis of faith drove me away from everything I knew. I began seeking fresh experiences to change my own perspective. The transcendentalist ideals of God and nature resonated with me; Emerson, Thoreau, and the belief that you found God not only in a book but in his creation. Those philosophies also reflect a fuller understanding of the universe and a fresh relationship with God that is deeply personal and unique.

The first time I climbed into my truck with the intent to explore, I was 20.  I had no idea what I was doing  I just had to get out of the suburbs and away from the monotony. My excursion took me to a park in a small town, where I walked around for a while before returning home. It was as anticlimactic as you might imagine, but it was something to latch onto. Soon, I found myself driving to obscure hiking trails in the middle of nowhere, trekking through Talladega, Bankhead, and Tuskegee National Forests.  I wandered along the Gulf Coast, caught sunsets at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and hiked the trails at Cheaha State Park, all in search of answers to questions I still haven’t found the words to ask.

Beneath the rhetoric you’ll hear about religion and racism, you’ll find a bunch of people who are fundamentally good and altruistic.

A decade later, I’ve sat on the Alabama and Florida coasts at sunrise when the pink and purple tones turn the Gulf of Mexico into a watercolor painting. I’ve sprinted like a madman along the beach minutes before an afternoon thunderstorm crashed into the coast. I’ve climbed mountains, hiked forests, and waded through swamps and caverns all over the Southeast section of the United States. I’ve seen Memphis in an ice storm and Atlanta in a heat wave. I’ve called many southern states home, sometimes twice before moving on. Every experience has been different, and each one — down to the last mosquito bite earned in the sweltering autumn heat — has made me who I am.

I’ve also lived in cities big and small throughout the region, and I’ve met more people than I can remember, most of them hospitable. That’s the beauty of the Southeast. Beneath the rhetoric you’ll hear about religion and racism, you’ll find a bunch of people who are fundamentally good and altruistic. While they might credit God for that grace and understanding, I don’t believe that a strict adherence to scripture can determine the weight or breadth of human compassion.

That was what saved me, in the end. It wasn’t a miraculous return to God. I met people, religious and otherwise, who were genuinely good. You’ll find that hospitality all over the Southeast. It’s part of the culture, and something I thought I wouldn’t experience after I lost my faith. And yes, that lack of belief has mattered to some more than others, because people who build the foundation of their life on faith and good works — like I did — can’t imagine what life is like without it.

In my years exploring the Southeast, I’ve never found the answers to those questions I couldn’t ask, but as the years have gone by, I managed to find my peace. Without my crisis of faith, I’m not sure that I would have taken my first step out that door, or that I would’ve delved so deeply into the southern culture and landscape that has come to define much of my worldview.

You could say that my experience with nature is deeply personal, but God is not a part of it.  I often feel more at home in the forest than I do in my own residence, wherever that may be. Watching the sun crest over a lake at dawn doesn’t feel like wasted time, even though I’ve seen hundreds of sunrises and sunsets. Each one is spectacular in its brevity.

The Southeast that I know taught me a world outside the structure of a sheltered life. It’s shown me that kindness is something human and that religious confines don’t have to play a role in the compassion that we give and take from one another. In the middle of the Bible Belt, a region where faith underpins everything from a kind word to a scriptural rebuke, I found a kind of goodness that feels purer than anything I ever heard preached from a pulpit.

I’m not naive. I know bad things happen, and that people suffer, often at the hands of those not so different from themselves. But I still have hope, even if I don’t have the faith I left behind.

After all, we’re not dead yet.

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