How Did We Get Here?

Welcome to the blog of the Sunday Assembly-Los Angeles. This is a place for telling the stories of the people who make up the SA-LA community. At first, it will just be the voices of the volunteer team who have come together to launch the Sunday Assembly here; in time, we expect it to represent the kaleidoscope of kindred spirits who will BE the Sunday Assembly community.

I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined myself planting a church, certainly not an “atheist church.” If somebody had suggested even a few months ago that we would be trying to figure out seating and coffee for 500, I’d have said it was time to check their meds.

But here we are, two weeks away from our Nov. 10 launch, and we’re juggling the deluge of details that need to be handled before we open the doors of what we anticipate to be the largest inaugural Sunday Assembly in North America.

So how did we get to this point?

I first became aware of the story of the Sunday Assembly not long after their London debut in January of 2013. My Google alerts began popping up with stories about this “atheist church” that had started up and was drawing hundreds of attendees. How was it, I wondered, that these two stand up comedians were attracting people numbered in three digits? My answer would come at a fateful rendezvous at the Cat & Fiddle pub. When I saw that Sunday Assembly co-founder Sanderson Jones was going to be making a tour of the US in June to meet with people interested in starting their own local Sunday Assembly, I sent him an email via their website. A few weeks later I got a reply from Sanderson saying he was going to be in Los Angeles that weekend and would I like to meet for a beer? I quickly put out an email to a few friends inviting them to join us and a small band of humanists and freethinkers from Atheists United, the Harvard Humanist Community Project, Coalition of Reason and a Unitarian congregation met Sanderson to listen to him tell the story of Sunday Assembly, hoping to glean from him some pearl of wisdom about what they were doing to attract those kinds of numbers.

With his infectious enthusiasm, Sanderson told us the story of how he and Pippa Evans had come up with the idea of doing all the good parts of church without the dogma and superstition and how they had expected 35 or 40 people to show up and were surprised when 250 did. We shared with him some of our frustrations at the secular movement in Southern California, with its history of competing groups, stagnant growth and failure to capture the momentum from the “rise of the nones”. After a second beer, Sanderson looked around the table and quipped, “So when are guys going to start Sunday Assembly Los Angeles?” The seed that would come to bloom in November had just been planted.

He went on to lay out the plans for their “40 Dates & 40 Nights” roadshow in the fall in which he and Pippa would tour the UK, US and Australia visiting the cities that had shown the greatest level interest by garnering the largest number of pre-registrations by Sept. 15. By that night, a Google group had formed, an Eventbrite page had been posted, and the plans for Sunday Assembly began to germinate and sprout. Two weeks later, most of the people who had been at the Cat & Fiddle that auspicious afternoon and a few more key players in the LA freethought community came together to brainstorm how we would promote this idea of a “godless congregation” and get non-believers to commit to showing up on a Sunday morning for singing together, some kind of inspirational talk, an appeal to get involved in community service and the reward of tea and cake at the end. Old jokes about herding cats began to come up and we quickly realized that to attract secular Angelenos we’d have to break away from the British model a bit, first by scuttling the tea and cake and substituting coffee and bagels.

By the beginning of August we had established a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, made plans to produce a promotional video on YouTube (hey, we’re in Hollywood after all; what else would we do?) and begun canvassing all the various secular groups around the region with this idea of a “part foot-stomping party, part atheist church, 100% celebration on life.” At that point, our sites were set on the Sept. 15 deadline for getting enough sign-ups to warrant a visit as part of the “40 Dates. . .” roadshow. To be honest, several of us on the new organizing team were signing up our kids, our spouses and there’s an unsubstantiated rumor that at least one family pet was among the early registrants. Pretty soon, though, the campaign began to gain a little traction and the numbers began to climb through 50, 60, 75 and beyond. I began to fantasize about getting a London-style turn out of a couple hundred.

On an early Sunday morning in mid-August, a small band of us huddled around a box of Winchell’s assorted donuts and cups of coffee. Bringing our Monday through Friday professional skills together, we had a guerrilla crew of a producer/director, a sound mixer/post supervisor, a cinematographer and various friends and early supporters of Sunday Assembly we’d co-opted into appearing on camera for our YouTube video.

When the newly established Sunday Assembly Los Angeles YouTube channel went live at the end of August, we already had about 120 sign ups at our Eventbrite page and were feeling pretty confident that we could break 150, maybe even 200 by the deadline two weeks away.

By midnight on Sept. 14, we had 195 people who had clicked to register their interest in attending the inaugural Sunday Assembly Los Angeles and we had secured our place as a stop on the “40 Dates . . .” tour. Our intrepid team of organizers was now meeting weekly via Google Hangout so we gave ourselves a virtual high five for a mission accomplished. Now that the easy part was done, we actually had to put on an event to fulfill the promise made to our nearly 200 registrants. The myriad tasks seemed a bit daunting: finding an appropriate venue (we considered everything from a refurbished movie theater to a downtown brewery to an abandoned fire station), inspiring speakers, talented musicians to lead us in song, and the logistics of all those bagels and coffee at the end. All the while, still getting more people to come satisfy their curiosity about this crazy atheist church idea.

I was working late on a Friday night -> Saturday morning in late September when my phone alerted me that actor/comedian Paul Provenza, host of “The Green Room” on Showtime, was now following us on Twitter and had retweeted a post of ours from earlier in the day. “Hmm, interesting,” I thought to myself. Within a couple of hours, the traffic at our Eventbrite page exploded with dozens of new sign-ups and it continued throughout the morning so that we saw a 15% growth by the end of the day and were pushing on toward 300 sign-ups. All of a sudden, the 180 seat magic club we’d been planning on for our first Assembly began to look a little cramped.

In the meantime, the publicity machine for the “40 Dates. . .” tour had begun to crank up from London with the announcement of the roadshow stops. Stories and interviews began to appear on Yahoo News, Alter Net and Salon with good provocative headlines about “global domination” and “atheist mega-church”.

One morning at the end of September my email alerts began to go off like popping corn. New sign ups were coming in at the rate of 1 or 2 a minute. We began messaging each other, acknowledging our fear that perhaps we were being “trolled” by a band of hostile religionists who had discovered us and were scooping up all the free tickets they could with the evil plan of boycotting and leaving us with an empty auditorium. Then the email come in from another team member: “Hey, did you guys catch the live interview with Sanderson on KPCC’s ‘Air Talk’ program just now?” What?! We’d been caught completely unawares but relieved to know that the over 50 sign-ups in the hour following the program weren’t from the Westboro Baptist Church. We were now six weeks away from our launch date and our registrations had just blown through 400 and kept climbing at the rate of 15 to 25 a day. Clearly, that 180 seat magic club was too small for the job.

So the search for a new venue, one large enough to accommodate us, began. Through one of the people already signed up we discovered the auditorium at the Professional Musicians Local 47, right in the heart of Hollywood, and not far from the Cat & Fiddle, the location of that first fateful get together three months previously. By this time, we’d also secured musicians, begun talking with physicists and poets and performers about helping us to “wonder more”, and started learning about the ins and outs of non-profit organizations.

Now a fortnight away from our inaugural Assembly, we have 847 people who have clicked on the sign up button. Seeing as how most atheists are averse to getting up and out on a Sunday morning (as well as most Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics and Congregationalists, for that matter), we don’t really expect all of them to show up on Nov. 10. Still, we are planning on coffee and bagels sufficient for 500 (with maybe some tea and cake for Sanderson and any other Brits there that day). As I look back over the past four months I am absolutely astounded at the response to the idea of the Sunday Assembly that has been generated. Clearly, we have struck a nerve.

The “rise of the nones” (the religiously unaffiliated) has been well documented and publicized in recent years. The accepted wisdom is that the non-religious are currently the fastest growing slice of the American religious pie, with 1 in 5 adults now rejecting mainstream organized religion (1 in 3 for those in the Millennial generation of 18-30 year olds). But the atheist/humanist/skeptical/freethought movement (and I’m open to suggestions for a less cumbersome description), which became visible in the post-9/11 era with the best-selling books by the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, has evolved beyond the pedantic anti-theism railings of those authors. Not to take away from what they accomplished; their public pronouncements about the dangers of traditional beliefs paved the way for millions of Americans to own up to their own skepticism about the supernatural. But one can only argue about the non-existence of God for so long. At a certain point, when one acknowledges that all we have is the here and now, rather than a hoped-for hereafter, the focus shifts back to how we live in community with each other, what we can do to assist those in need, and what makes our brief existence here worth living. In short, we seek ways to “live better, help often, wonder more.” As I look down the list of names of those of you coming in a couple weeks, I’m struck by two salient features: 1) the high proportion of surnames from cultures traditionally dominated by religion and 2) the even higher proportion (perhaps a slim majority?) of women’s first names. As a typical Caucasian man sporting salt and pepper hair, I find this really interesting and encouraging. This suggests, to me, that Sunday Assembly offers something different to significant swaths of the secular community, something that has been unavailable from other groups, something other than another heady lecture or debate about the improbability of a deity (nothing wrong with those, by the way; I love my Sunday afternoon lectures at the Skeptic Society).

I’ll confess to the hope that November 10 proves to be a watershed moment in the history of secular of Southern California. I have fantasies of an overflow crowd at the Musicians Local with major news outlets clamoring to get interviews with Sanderson and audience members to try to make sense of what’s going on. I foresee Sunday Assembly not as a threat or competition to the other secular organizations in LA, or even many churches for that matter, but as just another step in the evolution of the larger secular community here in SoCal. That first Assembly may be a curiosity; the real impact won’t be known until the second (mark your calendars for Dec. 8, by the way), third and future Assemblies. But with the momentum that we’ve already built, with the hundreds of you that we expect to meet in a couple of weeks, my gut tells me the effects of this first big splash will ripple out far and wide. I look forward to meeting many of you and having you be a part of this historic event.


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  • Sarah Barker
    commented 2013-10-28 15:53:52 -0700
    Well written, Ian and what a wonderful journey this has been. I can’t wait to watch SALA grow with and for it’s fellows!
  • Linda Coburn
    commented 2013-10-28 11:31:31 -0700
    I wish you the best of luck in this endeavor — the more thoughtful, caring people we have in town, the better! Feel free to send your overflow to any of the Unitarian churches in the area where the regularly scheduled programming sounds very similar to that of a “Sunday Assembly.”