LIANE HANSEN, host:
For our series This I Believe, today we hear from Paul Thorn who lives in the town where he grew up, Tupelo, Mississippi. Thorn is a former professional boxer turned musician. Now he writes songs and performs southern roots rock with his band around the country. Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.
JAY ALLISON: For many who write for our series, their essays represent the first time they've publicly expressed their innermost convictions. Paul Thorn said that speaking about his belief will be like coming out of the closet. He said he's proud of doing it but he's afraid he may lose some friends. Here's Paul Thorn with his essay for This I Believe.
Mr. PAUL THORN: I don't want to be a God-fearing man. I believe in religion without fear.
I grew up in a Pentecostal-type faith in northeast Mississippi called the Church of God of Prophecy where my father was the pastor. At the age of 12, I was sent to a summer Bible camp where fear was the motivation for belief. One night the counselors staged a Russian takeover of the camp, simulating the assassination of our camp director. Real shotgun blasts scared us all to our knees, where we begged God for salvation.
At the age of 17, I was disfellowshipped from my church for having premarital sex with my girlfriend. Since my father was the pastor, a meeting was arranged between me, my dad and my Sunday schoolteacher. I was given two options: stand and confess my sins in front of the congregation and be forgiven, or continue my evil ways and no longer be in the club. I chose to be disfellowshipped and became officially unaffiliated with the church.
I moved out of the parsonage, got a job in a furniture factory and bought a used mobile home for 6,000 dollars. People from the church would come by my trailer from time to time to tell me they were still praying for me and that they hoped I would come back to Jesus before I wound up in hell. I'd just stare at the ground the way you would with a schoolyard bully and hoped they'd go away. As the years passed by, opportunity took me all over the United States and to other countries, as well. I saw churches everywhere I went, and I noticed something I'd never seen before. I met people who didn't pray to Jesus.
You have to understand, where I come from, the people who tried to teach me about God by using fear also kept me from learning about other paths to God. Any variation was described as a trick of the devil. But I saw good, sincere Muslims, Buddhists and Jews all walking in the light, as they knew it.
I started to believe that no one is capable of knowing God's specific identity, so I decided to seek him down my own path because I believe that's what he wanted me to do. I talk to him daily. He never says anything back but I know he's listening. I thank him for my family and friends, and I thank him for the good life I have.
I still have problems like anyone else, but overall, there's peace in my heart. The people who were trying to get me to God used fear and intimidation like a hammer, beating into submission anyone who dared to question their brand of absolute truth. The higher power I now pray to gives me love, joy and comfort. And I'm not afraid of him. I had to break away from the God I was supposed to believe in to find the God I could believe in.
ALLISON: Paul Thorn with his essay for This I Believe. Thorn thought that this song of his, sung with his twin sisters, would fit well with his essay.
Mr. THORN: (Singing) When the long road ends, we will rest for awhile. I'll hold your hand and we'll share.
ALLISON: We hope you'll consider writing about your personal philosophy for our series. At npr.org, you can found out more and browse the 50,000 essays submitted so far. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.
Mr. THORN: (Singing) When the long road ends.
HANSEN: Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of the book, "This I Believe: The personal philosophies of remarkable men and women."
Mr. THORN: (Singing) When you found somebody to walk with you through life. You will laugh together but sometimes you will cry.