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Convention speech — Max Nibert: Youth are more educated, involved than ever

Max Nibert (Photo by Chris Line)
Max Nibert speaks to the FFRF convention crowd on Oct. 28, 2022, at the Hyatt Regency in San Antonio. (Photo by Chris Line)

Student Max Nibert gave this speech at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio on Oct. 28. He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Annie Laurie Gaylor: I would like to introduce an indomitable youth activist, Max Nibert, an agnostic who lives in Huntington, W.Va., and graduated from high school last spring. Max is receiving the $5,000 Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award endowed by Richard Hermsen. Beverly recently died but her name lives on in this award.

Max gained notoriety following his initiating and organizing a walkout at Huntington High School last spring to protest a religious revival sermon held on campus with students forced to attend. Since that walkout, Max has become our lead student plaintiff in the FFRF’s lawsuit against his school. Please welcome our 2022 Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist, Max Nibert.

By Max Nibert

First and foremost, I would be completely remiss if I did not say just how grateful I am to every person in this room, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, to Annie Laurie and Dan Barker. You guys are awesome. 

[Video plays of religious speaker at Huntington High School assembly.]

“You will sit there in that place apart from God and you will remember this service. You remember this moment. You remember this opportunity where you had this chance to make it right. And you’ll be tormented with this memory, over and over and over and over. It never ends, like it’s eternity. And then it’s done. 

“So, I present you with a fork in the road this morning. Don’t be too cool for it, don’t be too prideful for it.  This is what you were created for, guys. That’s why revival is coming to Huntington, because you were created for this. I wanna have an opportunity to pray with you, though, for the few minutes we have left. If you’re standing in this room right now, I want you to picture, with your eyes closed, that your moment has come, and you are standing before Jesus, and he’s looking at you. What’s he gonna say to you? Is he gonna say, ‘Well done,’ or is he gonna say, ‘I don’t know you?’ 

“Right now, in this room, is you know there’s some stuff you need to lay down, something you need to get rid of, and you’re ready to follow this man Jesus. You’re ready to give your life over to him. I wanna pray with you in this moment.

“I’m not gonna make you come down here and call your name out and embarrass you. But I can see it on your faces, some of you are ready to give it up and follow this man who brings purpose to your life. And if that’s you, on the count of three, I just wanna see your hand up in the room.

“One, two three . . . let me see your hands up, right now. My God, thank you, thank you, Lord. As we pray, I’m gonna send some people from Christ Temple to with you where you stand. So, if you feel a hand on your shoulder, they’re just gonna come and pray with you and agree with you that that it’s time to follow Jesus right now.

“Father, I thank you for Huntington High School. I thank you that you have not forgotten this place. I thank you, Lord, for your spirit, it’s heavy in this room. I thank you that you’re not gonna let these students leave without knowing you.

“Listen, nothing else matters. All the other stuff [unintelligible], nothing else matters. This is all you’ve got, right here. I want you to imagine and envision that there is a box in your hand. I want you to put everything in that box that’s kept you from following Jesus. Then, I want you to take that hinge and shut that thing and put a lock on it. In Jesus’ name we pray. Everybody say amen in this place!”

[Video switches to TV news report of Nibert leading a student rally outside his school.]

TV anchor: “A backlash is brewing after a religious revival held in West Virginia because it happened at a public high school and some students say they were forced to attend.”

Herman Mays, parent of student at event: “And [my son] asked, ‘Is this legal?’ He was sort of confused as to why he was there. At one point, I said, ‘Well, I’m definitely going to call the principal about this.’ And he said, ‘Well, the principal’s here!’” 

Max on megaphone outside school: “When ordinary citizens find their circumstances to be unfair, they face them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”

Students chanting outside school: “Separate the church and state, separate the church and state. . .”

[Video ends.]

My name is Max Nibert. I’m from a town called Huntington in West Virginia. And earlier this year, as you’ve just seen, I and other students at Huntington High School walked out in protest of an event we saw as brazenly ignorant.

You see, Huntington and Appalachia as a whole are filled with folks who would despise what we’re accomplishing and working toward with our presence here today. Things are improving, minds are opening. But home is still a far cry from utopic. 

One such individual, the one preaching in that video, fronts an organization that has a repugnant habit of setting up shop in towns foreign to them and infiltrating their schools in an attempt to convert students. That individual is Nick Walker, and that organization is Nick Walker Ministries of Cleveland, Tenn. 

To the average observer, Mr. Walker seems to just be a link in the absurdly popular chain of evangelists attempting to dress and act like their target audience — teenagers. However, his forward and aggressive means of conversion became painfully clear to my peers and me in February [2022] when he was welcomed with open arms into our school and collective conscience.

Welcomed by a school board in the county that has been investigated on multiple separate occasions by the very folks graciously hosting us here this afternoon. That’s right. Prior to the Nick Walker incident, the Campbell County Board of Education had been examined and warned by FFRF concerning several separate occurrences. Once in 2017, at Huntington High, for reasons very similar to the situation we protested in February. Once in 2019, expressing worry that the adults in the school system were founding religious clubs, and once, most notably when FFRF formally condemned the board after one of its teachers told her middle school class that she didn’t believe in same-sex relationships and that non-Christians are incapable of holding morals or values.

But these were neither here nor there for the board, as evidenced by their complete lack of accountability in the aftermath. The Nick Walker incident was no exception. Upon widespread discovery of this event and the non-Christian students who were not permitted to leave, the board members displayed an attitude all too common in American education — apathy. A sudden rush to cover their tracks and keep the event as quiet as possible, yes, but apathy about the real injustice of the situation. Apathy toward anything that didn’t serve their own bureaucratic interests. 

When I caught wind of what happened, in all honesty, it joined a proverbial laundry list of heartbreaking grievances that come standard with the Appalachian package — scenes of addiction, abuse and poverty. The incident was all anyone could talk about the following days. Inquisitions, both formal and not so formal, ran rampant.

Among those I felt closest to, the conversational focus shifted from what a shame this occurrence was to what can be done about it. 

Native soil being ever important, we mulled over the calculated nature of West Virginians such as Mother Mary Jones, an immigrant from Ireland, who spent her days organizing labor strikes in the all-consuming coal sector. Or Ken Hechler, West Virginia’s former secretary of state, who fought through extremely corrupt state government for environmental protections. And Bill Withers, who overcame a lifelong stutter at 28 years old to become one of the most emotive singers of the 1970s, as well as a personal favorite.

It was these leaders, my fellow students, and the restlessness typically induced by an aimless world that drove me to author this letter in the home of a dear friend — a walkout letter. It detailed what we took issue with and coordinated our response, all wrapped in a tail feather, ruffling bow and “indignantly yours.” We agreed “indignantly yours” was appropriate.

And then we executed. Hundreds of students — from across the spectrums of power and privilege, in the face of a news media horde and the disparaging school leaders tasked with containing us — took action. And it felt good.

In retrospect, I failed to absorb many of these trials of character and the lessons they begat. Lessons about honesty, integrity and how far one might push the envelope of the brutally bureaucratic American education system without it tearing. Amidst these lessons with the faces of Huntington High students, myself included, adorning headlines nationwide, the situation began to feel a little bit fake. 

I, an objectively inconsequential person, at least from a national perspective, was receiving call after call, doing interview after interview about injustices that occurred right there in my inconsequential town. I consider these things inconsequential only to a point, however, because on that day, my inconsequential self, armed with a speech I wrote on my way down the hall, addressed the very young folks who made that protest happen.

[Video begins.]

“I have never been prouder of a group of my peers than I am right now.

“When ordinary citizens find their circumstances to be unfair, they change them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing today. That’s why we’re here. So I say ‘stay strong in your passion, calculated in your actions and pure in your heart, and together there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. Thank you.”

[Video ends.]

What did we learn from this event? What’s the takeaway? After all, disregarding FFRF’s ongoing litigation, this story is a relatively self-contained one. But in a world run by the uberwealthy elite to whom senescence is as integral as their very wealth itself, these questions become all too easy to answer upon reflection. 

Please do not mistake the events at Huntington High School for an outlier in their youth-led, protest-driven nature. The recent heinous overruling of Roe v. Wade and its aftermath prove that young people are more educated and involved than ever.

Student protests raged daily in this country over the persecution of transgender youth and the presence of pride flags on school grounds, among other hot-button issues. And, often, the institution rages right back. Last year, right here in Texas, police tasered and pepper sprayed students in an on-campus protest of the school’s response to a sexual assault. Student activists nationwide were hounded by police, and that same year as they protested the Minneapolis Police Department’s murder of George Floyd.

History is drenched in the blood of our youngest and most vulnerable, who sought to create change to make the world they would grow into just a little bit more like the one in their hearts. This conflict between the steadfast nature of the establishment and those who wish to advance, produced by natural progression and change, is not at all limited to street-level beliefs.

All levels of power are stained with obstinance. At the beginning of the 117th Congress, the average age of a United States senator was 64.3, with members of the House of Representatives at 58.4. We are also currently under the administration of our oldest president ever at 79 years. For reference, the average American today is 38 1/2. How are folks from two different worlds, hyperbolically speaking, supposed to feel adequately represented by one another? That quandary, paired with the proclivity of more fortunate members of our society to shut others out, represent the reason for my endless gratitude toward FFRF for having me here today. Thank you.

In my own home state, the Legislature is widely despised across party lines by sensible folks who just want to see solutions. They are to us as I sense Greg Abbott is to Texans. They spit out one law, as well as 14 proposed bills, infringing on the basic rights of trans folks. Not to mention the complete abortion ban signed into action in my state in September, or the insanely contentious education laws pervasive in that institution, now and always.

This is just one example of how outdated modes of thinking can and do harm the community. Also, it doesn’t help that our secretary of state was seen on the Capitol steps with the “Stop the steal” sign.

My thinking is this: The transition and redistribution of governmental and financial power should be a natural process. But our cultural system glorifies and rewards extreme wealth-seekers in spades. It takes the combination of multiple generations, working harmoniously with common goals in mind, while gauging the world and moment they both inhabit. 

But beyond the age-induced rift we feel, at our core we are people. People that can be productive and politically savvy given an opportunity. So, I encourage all of us to make an attempt to understand those we’re guarded against, using those relationships to make this life we share fit for everyone, so the stories you exchange may continue. I wish my peers globally all the best in our inheritance of this world. 

In the words of West Virginia author Pearl S. Buck, “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible and achieve it, generation after generation.”

Thank you so much.