SOUTHAMPTON, Iowa — “I’m an atheist, I’m a Christian, I don’t like church.
And I’ve been here about two years.”
— Mike “Mikey” O’Malley, a 32-year-old software engineer, told ABC News.
But he’s been trying to change his life for more than two years now.
Mikey, who said he is a devout Christian, has a small church near his home in southern Iowa that serves as his unofficial “home base.”
Mikeys church is run by an elderly couple, and it serves as a community hub for a handful of friends.
It’s a small place that has grown to include a few dozen people, and they make a point to make time to meet other atheists.
“They’ve been able to make me realize that this is the best thing that’s happened to me,” said Mikey.
“It has been a great blessing, but it has also been a challenge.
It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because I can’t believe that I’m not going to be happy.”
For about two decades, Mikey and his girlfriend, Annika, have been “the only atheists in the world,” he said.
But after years of being the only atheist, Mikeys friend and former pastor, Mike Johnson, stepped in to help him make friends.
“The reason why I’m going to do this, is because of Mikey,” said Johnson, who now teaches at a Christian college.
And that’s where Mikey’s story comes to an end.
The couple recently became atheists in a church revival in Southampton, Iowa, that became a catalyst for Mikeys church.
The story is not an uncommon one, and the numbers are growing rapidly, according to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
There are nearly 200 active churches that claim to have more than 100,000 members, with the number of active atheists increasing every year, according the SPLC.
The number of Americans who identify as atheist rose to 15 percent in 2012, from 12 percent in 2010, according data from the Pew Research Center.
About 20 percent of the U.S. population identifies as atheist, according Pew.
Johnson, who is now retired, was not at church to celebrate his new friend.
Instead, he and his wife invited his friends and family to join them for dinner at their local diner, where they served homemade meals, according an account on the local newspaper, The Daily Times, that the couple shared with ABC News on Wednesday.
“There was a little bit of a tension between the two of them,” Johnson said.
“I knew that Mikey was going to have a bit of an issue.
But I couldn’t say anything to Mikey, because he knew I wouldn’t be upset.”
It was only after he and Annika’s friends joined the celebration that they realized the tension was more than a little hurtful.
After the meal, the couple invited everyone over to join the meal and talk about their new friend, who has made a big impact in their lives, Mike and Annikas told ABC.
A church revival has a tendency to get a lot of attention, but the reality is it’s not something that is all that popular, Johnson said, noting that a lot people are hesitant to be the only one.
While there are a lot more atheists in America than there were a few years ago, the SPLC notes that in 2016, only about 4 percent of Americans reported being atheists.
But even though the number has remained stable, there are some atheists who are trying to make a difference, Johnson added.
This year, Mike’s church has doubled its membership to about 50 people, including a couple who have been trying for more years to build their own church.