Helen Stringer is an up-and-comer who you will hear more of in the next few years, mark my words. She is the founder and leader of Kansas City Oasis, a group for which I have spoken and attended again this last weekend. Because she is so quickly becoming a go-to voice for atheist community building, she’s been swiped up as a speaker for this year’s Apostacon (remember, you can help me get to Apostacon just by entering a special code when you buy your tickets).
Anyway, I asked her to write a guest post on community building and she agreed. Enjoy!
It’s 9:30am on Sunday morning. Not only am I not sleeping-in, I’m 20 minutes from home setting up an event space in mid-town Kansas City: lining up chairs, setting up tables, coordinating a PA system, tuning up PowerPoint, etc. Am I crazy? One of my favorite benefits in being secular is that on Sunday I don’t have to be anywhere. Yet here I am essentially working…on a Sunday…without pay, and I love it.
Kansas City Oasis is an alternative to faith-based communities. We meet weekly, feature live music performances and guest speakers, and basically build relationships. The secular community at large is like a box of crayons scattered about, lots of great people but mostly separated from each other. We want to bring them together so we can do something beautiful: build relationships, impact our community, and empower one-another.
The community response has been overwhelmingly positive; although, we are not without our critics. The most common objection to what we are doing is, “if it looks like church and smells like church, then it must be church.” So many of us either have a history in church, or a disdain for anything that remotely looks like church, that we want to avoid it at all costs. I totally understand this sentiment, but this objection is like someone saying they don’t read books because “they are shaped like a Bible and use the same alphabet.”
Religion shouldn’t have a monopoly over organized community on Sundays. Furthermore, churches have dogma and are inherently exclusive—we are the exact opposite. Why throw out a format that works? The church has efficiently built communities spanning the globe, we can learn from that, and I think we can do it better. While a church has music for worship, we have music to celebrate the arts. While a church has a pastor that tells you what to believe, we have topical guest speakers. Our goal isn’t to tell people what they should think or to fill their heads with spiritual fluff; it’s to connect, elevate, and empower secular people—those who no longer fit in faith-based communities—through relationships.
We believe the future of secularism is in this kind of community. Every day more of us are popping our heads out of the sand and looking around for likeminded people. Secular activist organizations are usually where people land first, being the most visible, but most activist organizations are not centered on building community. We “nones” are a rapidly growing demographic, and secular people are becoming more visible and less reticent. It’s time for us to band together, get to know one another, and stop being sidelined because we don’t do church.
One of the most important reasons for organizing KC Oasis is children and families. Whether we like it or not, churches are pursuing our children. When my son’s classmates talk about going to a church youth function and how much fun it was, he automatically wants to go and doesn’t understand why we don’t. Lets face it, churches do a lot of fun things with kids: lock-ins, parties, group games, ski trips, etc. When I was growing up, these things were the highlight of my youth. The church wants you to believe it’s all the supernatural stuff that helps people, but the social benefits of belonging to a community is the real magic—a magic we shouldn’t let churches monopolize any longer.
Kansas City Oasis is heading into its fourth month, and while we are excited about our community, we are not naïve about what is ahead of us. We have a lot of work to do on our children’s programs, we constantly need funding, and we need more volunteers. Our entire plight has been on the backs of fabulous volunteers, and none of us are paid or on staff. We decided to partner with Houston Oasis and model our format accordingly. They have an extremely successful secular community in Texas nearing its second anniversary. This fall, together with Houston Oasis, we will launch an Oasis Affiliation to support other cities in forming similar communities.
Together we can end the “I’m the only atheist in my community.” We can create a place for free-thought that includes families, a place for secular people to build relationships, and we can positively impact the community we live in. If you want to get involved, learn more, or help support us, visit our website www.KCOasis.org.