Walking into the lion’s den: Speaking at a retired clergy luncheon

Walking into the lion’s den: Speaking at a retired clergy luncheon January 14, 2015

A couple of months ago, I was invited to speak at a Retired Clergy of All Faiths luncheon about Kansas City Oasis and the Oasis Network by my friend Ron who happens to be a retired Episcopalian priest.

I’ll admit, I was concerned that I was walking into a lion’s den. I feared that I was being set-up for apologetic warfare. To the contrary, I was treated with warmth, acceptance, and offered generous words of support.

Being Helen (or Hellion as my husband calls me), I arrived early to the luncheon and waited as people trickled in. I suppose I stood out since I don’t appear to be of retired age. A friendly gentleman quickly introduced himself as a retired Episcopalian priest and shared that he was really excited to hear me share about Oasis. This was a relief.

After lunch was served, the formal program began. My friend Ron has been incredibly supportive of Oasis from the very beginning and said as much as he introduced me to the audience. I shared with them a little bit about my background and story of leaving Christianity and religion.

The group seemed a little uneasy until I shared that in no way do we see Oasis as a replacement for church or religion as a whole. I further explained that Oasis is an alternative to faith-based community that creates a place for people who don’t fit in church for whatever reason: ideological issues, political disagreements, and/or simply because they don’t feel comfortable there. I quickly noticed the audience’s shoulders lower, and much of the tension left the room—this was a relief.

I shared with them about our weekly model, and the usual comparison of a mix of TED talk and a house concert with live music from different musicians from around the country. I told them how we love to give back to the community and jump at any chance to volunteer. When I brought up our potlucks I knew they were engaged, food is something we all have in common.

Our values are at the forefront of who we are as a community so I went through each one a talked about why we felt each one was important. At this point, I could sense that they understood what we were hoping to achieve with Oasis.

We ended with a question and answer time, which was where I was overwhelmed by their insightful questions and words of support. I fielded many excellent ones but will only share a few of them with you.

Many wondered how well we have been received by the community at large. This is something I get asked very often. So far, we have been treated really well and welcomed or accepted by most people I talk to. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been met with confused looks, awkward pauses, or unusual questions. At some level, I expect it to be difficult for some to understand what we are doing since it is a relatively new concept and idea in community building.

Another question they asked is why don’t we just attend the local Unitarian Universalist Church (UU)? I explained how Oasis shares a lot in common with the UU, but many of us don’t feel like we fit in there. The UU still ventures into a level of spiritualism that a lot of us are not comfortable with.

I wrapped up my talk by sharing that contrary to popular belief, my life is full of meaning and purpose. In fact, I experience more awe and wonder as a non-theist than I did as a theist. I am no longer bound by narrow ideologies and expectations. Instead of looking in one place for our meaning, we can look everywhere. This seemed to surprise many in the audience.

The most incredible part of this experience was how supportive they were of what we are doing with Oasis. I half expected to be challenged and scoffed at, but I had many people speak to me afterwards and share that they not only agree with our values but that they think we are meeting a real need in the community.

Ron shared these thoughts online, “… attendance was also exceptionally high knowing the topic ahead of time. I cannot and would dare not speak for the whole group, but many of us are sooo “done” with institutional decadence but very much do enthusiastically respond to and respect community building of all sorts. Oasis has a bright future for building communities of mutual care, support and service– all to the good.”

I left feeling like I had made allies and even friends in the religious community. I hope to continue to foster positive and collaborative relationships with other organizations—even faith based ones. We are often overlooked and left-out as nonbelievers, and this has created a barrier between the community and us. I want to disassemble that barrier. I want them to know that while we may believe different things, we are still connected in our humanity. This is why our first value at Oasis is “People are more important than beliefs.”

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