A church youth director has been banned from being a lunch-time volunteer at an Oregon middle school after an atheist student claimed that he tried to promote Christianity while sitting in with a group of students during lunch.
Laura Perez, the principal of Straub Middle School in Salem, Oregon, informed Tim Saffeels, a youth director at the nearby Salem Heights Church, last week that he would not be allowed back as a lunch-time volunteer for the remainder of the school year. Saffeel's banning comes after a student sent an email to Perez stating that Saffeels had preached to her and friends during lunch on Oct. 23 about Christianity, and encouraged her to come to a church function.
The email that was sent to Perez was from an eighth grader named Shelby Conway. Her email said that Saffeels came up to her table during lunch and sat down and began preaching, although she and a number of the other students at the table were non-christians. Her email added that Saffeels insulted her when she told him that she was an atheist.
Saffeels, who has visited a number of the Salem-Keizer School District schools at the request of kids from his ministry for the last three years, told The Christian Post that the email's claims are not true. He explained that he did not insult Conway and only went to Conway's particular table to sit with another student who was also a member of his ministry. Saffeels noted that there were about five to six students at that table and said they were the ones that brought up the question of Christianity.
Saffeels continued by saying that he was thinking a lot about his son, who died two years ago, and asked the students what would happen 'If we are all hanging out going to our favorite place, and we get hit by a driver, what happens next?'
"In light of that, students started sharing opinions and things. And in that, a student asked me 'Who is Jesus?'" Saffeels said. "I actually did not answer that question. I directed that question to the student in our ministry."
Conway's email makes the claim that when Saffeels was done talking, he asked the students at the table what their religious beliefs were. She shared that when she told Saffeels that she was an atheist, he told her that she was "too young" to have that belief and needed to come to a church function. Conway further explains that Saffeels "insulted" her by telling her that "any logical person would see that atheism is wrong," and told her that she was just trying to be a "rebel" and that her beliefs were "evil" and "stupid."
Conway's email specifically asked that Saffeels not be allowed to return to the school.
"I was already 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 of evil,'" Conway's email stated. "I was very uncomfortable and personally offended with the way he was speaking to both me and other non-Christians around the lunch room."
Saffeels denies that he said any of those alleged remarks to Conway and that he didn't realize there was an issue until he was notified the next day in a phone call from Perez.
"I didn't say at all any of the comments concerning atheists are evil, that their opinions are illogical," Saffeels said. "In no way, at that moment, did there seem to be any issue concerning a confrontation or anything like that. The first time that I saw that there was an issue was when I received a call from the principal."
Although Saffeels alleges that the students started the conversation by asking about Jesus and directed the question to the student from his ministry, the school district's Chief of Staff Mary Paulson told The Statesman Journal that Saffeels should have avoided the conversation entirely by telling them to ask their parents or their own church leaders about religion outside of school.
"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 them to somebody who could talk to them about the topic, like their parent or their own church officials," Paulson said.
Saffeels maintains that his purpose at the schools is not to preach but to just build relationships with the kids from his ministry and their friends, while providing an extra friendly face for students to turn to when they face hardships.
"I don't go in with wires trying to search out students that disagree with my worldview," Saffeels said. "My purpose is visiting schools that students have invited me to. The purpose in being there was to develop relationships and mentoring the students from our church. In a time of hardship, then there would be a familiar face that can cruise them through it."
Although Saffeels ban only applies to Straub Middle School, he does not plan to continue to visit the other area schools until he can set things straight with school officials.
"I don't think that would wise right now given that there is confusion," Saffeels said. "I would like to talk to the administrators that are present and I really want to make sure that there is peace. I'm looking forward to that conversation."