There is a well-worn joke about the futility of trying to organize atheists:
Atheists, freethinkers, nonbelievers, whatever label you choose, tend to be an independent lot, rejecting rigid social organizations (especially hierarchical ones like churches), and encouraging others to question authority and think for themselves.
When Sunday Assembly first started to gain attention, it was in no small part due to the nickname “atheist church” that the press picked up on and ran with. The paradoxical value of that phrase made a lot of people either smile, snicker or say to themselves, “WTF?”
During the planning stages of Sunday Assembly LA, we wondered how successful we'd be at bringing together a bunch of non-joiners who share “nothing” in common to celebrate ... what, exactly?
The idea of community in the secular movement gets a lot of attention these days. Online courses like "Why Create Humanist Community, and How to Do it," popular blogs like "The Friendly Atheist," and the forthcoming book "The Godless Congregation" all address this conundrum of how to go about herding cats.
For many, the Internet itself has provided some de facto community, especially for those isolated in deeply religious locations. But it can’t entirely replace many people’s desire for IRL relationships (“in real life” in non-geek speak). It’s well-nigh impossible to create genuine relationships in a comment thread or through sharing pithy 140 character quips.
When Sunday Assembly LA launched a little more than a year ago, we weren’t really too much different from a Facebook group. We were mostly a bunch of strangers with a common viewpoint. At first, we came for the show and stayed for the coffee. The icebreaker, that sort of ‘forced’ familiarity, felt awkward (and, let’s admit it, still does sometimes). And singing in public? I love it but always hope my shower-worthy voice will be drowned out in the crowd.
Over time, though, I’ve watched as genuine friendships have sprouted and developed. On those Sunday mornings, in the mad rush to make sure everything is ready by 11, I enjoy the encouragement of a smile, a handshake or a hug from people I've come to expect to see each month. As I roam the coffee time on the patio, I eavesdrop on people who didn’t know each other a few months ago engaging in substantive conversations.
At first, our off-campus social events were pretty sparsely attended, with maybe 3 or 4 people showing up at a downtown tavern or a picnic in the park. But recently, when the new Stephen Hawking biopic movie opened, we had some 20 people RSVP and a dozen of us walked together to a nearby pub afterwards. On the Sunday following our last Assembly a gaggle of green-shirted friends enjoyed lunch and an afternoon together at the Santa Monica Pier.
“Explore Deeper,” our mid-month discussion group, has been meeting regularly since January. Over eleven months, a core group that comfortably fills a living room come more or less regularly, though we always seem to have a couple of newcomers. In that time, we’ve shared stories about dying parents, the joys and challenges of raising teenagers, thoughts on literature and philosophy. After the formal part of the evening comes to a close by 9 p.m., we all gather around the array of fruit, cheese, wine and desserts people have brought to share and usually the last person leaves closer to 11. This last Thursday one regular participant brought champagne to celebrate her birthday that day with close friends who were strangers last spring.
Community takes time. It takes time and effort. At a recent Assembly, a newcomer who had come by himself tentatively approached one of the organizing team members and said he was relieved to discover that he wasn’t alone. Imagine for a moment the effort it took just to say that to a stranger. But in that moment, a human connection was made, a new intersection in our burgeoning network was created. At the next Assembly, look around. See if you can spot that person sitting by him- or herself or that couple standing quietly to the side at coffee hour. Take the bold step to approach them, introduce yourself, and ask them something about themselves. Invite them to join your group. Make that connection, create that network. It’s not likely you’ll end up BFFs, but at the very least you’ll let that person know they aren’t alone.
Community, though, is more than a scatter-shot approach to making connections. Genuine community is built on those things we have in common, the things that bind us together. We are tribal creatures. Our tribes, be they family, clans, sports teams, political parties or (for some people) churches, are where we share identity, relationships and a sense of purpose.
Bart Campolo, the new humanist chaplain at USC, comes out of a 25 year career as a Christian evangelist. He knows a few things about building strong communities. Today he’s working on building community based on reason, compassion and making a difference in the here and now. Last summer, Bart gave a talk to the Secular Student Alliance conference. He opens his talk by saying he’s going to disappoint the audience by telling them not how he got OUT of Christianity, but rather, by how he got INTO (spoiler: it wasn't because of the narrative promising salvation). From the perspective of what it takes to build community, that’s the more telling story. As we move forward in building Sunday Assembly into a genuine community, he has some excellent advice, well worth the 19 minutes it takes to watch this YouTube video.
At first, the idea of Sunday Assembly seemed like what those hapless cat-herders must feel. Since then, a lot of cats have come and gone. But a bunch of them have stuck around and now Sunday Assembly is beginning to take on the feel of a community. There’s a lot more to do, and a lot more we can do (think of services to mark life milestones, resources for members in need, parenting support groups, etc.). But we keep moving ahead, deepening and strengthening connections, as we support one another and our community to “live better, help often, wonder more.”