By Eric Jayne
When I joined the Minnesota Atheists board three years ago, I wanted to increase our community outreach and volunteer efforts because I know how much cash-strapped nonprofits rely on donations and volunteer labor to address the growing needs within their service areas. I also wanted there to be a safe and welcoming outlet for atheists who were interested in collectively helping under the atheist banner while enhancing their freethinking identity with kindness and compassion. Having collaborated with several secular and faith-based organizations in my professional life as a licensed community social worker, and participated in many Minnesota Atheists volunteer events, I feel fully confident in branding our atheist volunteers as some of the most genuine, accepting, and helpful in the Twin Cities..
It might be more of a radical dream than a practical goal, but I would love to build on our volunteer success by establishing some sort of support center—either online or bricks and mortar or both—for freethinkers to tap into when they’re looking for a welcoming, competent advocate to coordinate direct services or help navigate through the tricky web of community resources. I envision this endeavor to be an open, privately administered program that we and our nonbelieving neighbors can visit without fear of being preached to or vetted by local church parishioners before services can be received. I don’t know if this would really be an appropriate undertaking for the Minnesota Atheists, but I think this could be a productive enterprise for the local Sunday Assembly that is currently trying to form in the Twin Cities.
According to their website, the aim of the British-based Sunday Assembly is to “live better, help often, and wonder more.” There’s a desire to “create communities of action and build lives of purpose” and they even recognize “Community Action Heroes” within their chapters. It seems, then, that these are the essential elements needed to create a freethinking support center like the one I envision.
In addition to building communities of action, the Sunday Assembly leadership has instructed local chapters to hold monthly meetings that feature guest speakers followed by “singing as one”. They also encourage readings and playing games. Except for the group singing, this sounds very similar to the product already offered by Minnesota Atheists (MNA) and the Humanists of Minnesota (HMN)—both of whom are locally operated by a rotating variety of volunteers.
Counting both MNA and HMN, there are two monthly meetings (i.e. services) and numerous book discussions, brunches, game nights, and other social outings every month. So it seems like our local freethinking community would be most effectively served by a Sunday Assembly that narrows their focus on the community action part and less on the parts that seem to duplicate what’s already abundantly available.
I’d like to see a local Sunday Assembly become a resource for those who want to participate in formal activities like volunteer training, benevolent giving, direct services, strategic planning, joining with others in need for supportive advocacy, and coordinating with other service providers to represent the godless community. For those seeking help, it could be a means to receive encouragement, social support, emergency assistance, goal setting, and an assortment of resources—all either directly or via referral.
With significant funding decreases for community programs and the incredibly low housing vacancy rate in the Twin Cities, the ability for many people to meet their basic needs has become an extremely difficult task. Many families and professionals who are desparate for help reach out to local churches. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and there are some really helpful and remarkable churches out there, but it's hard to deny that many people feel uncomfortable getting direct help from churches and sometimes the help isn't all that good -- and sometimes it comes with an unwanted and unnecessary proselytizing cavaet.
It would be so delightful if there was a centralized, relatively formal program in our community that provided assistance that was not just secular but emphasized understanding and acceptance of our godless neighbors, friends, and families. From my perspective as an atheist social worker, I think this is where a local Twin Cities Sunday Assembly could shine best and be most useful in our community.