By Karli Robinson-Myers, Georgia State University
For those of us that support community activism, helping those less fortunate, and especially interfaith dialog, news reports of an atheist group turned away while trying to volunteer at a Christian run soup kitchen in South Carolina last month was gut wrenching. According to the Christian Post, the Upstate Atheists group approached the Spartanburg Soup Kitchen in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to assist with giving out food to the needy. They were upfront about being an atheist group, but they assured the church they would not wear shirts with labels to promote their organization. The church’s kitchen director, Lou Landrum, told them they were not allowed to participate because they had “ulterior motives,” says Eve Brannon, president of the Upstate Atheists. In direct response the events of that day, the Upstate Atheists raised $2,000, put together 300 care packages, and showed up across the street from the Spartanburg Soup Kitchen to give out needed supplies to the homeless. The church released a statement that said although they didn’t want the atheist group to participate with them, they had no problem with them doing the event across the street, even commenting that it was done in a “respectful and peaceful manner.”
So great! Those poor souls got what they needed and there is a take away for both sides- don’t exclude those with beliefs unlike yours, and conversely if you feel there is a good work to be done, let no one stop you from accomplishing it. Moral lesson wrapped neatly in a bow, right? Or is this just another example used to more clearly define the boundaries of American religious difference? The question I pose here is not one of morals, but one of solutions. The answer to bringing people together to do work in the community used to be Interfaith Dialog. People gathered in their faith groups, they worked there, and they were somewhat willing to work with others- they just didn’t know what the “others” stood for. This isn’t the case in American public life. Perhaps you don’t have a degree in Religious Studies, but it’s unlikely that you don’t know some of the tenants (beliefs) of the Muslim, Christian or the Atheist, so the time for dialog is diminishing. There is something new that must be born. Something that can withstand the rigors of the work required in the dynamic and (un)religiously diverse American society.
I am calling for the religious, the non-religious, and the scholar of religion to consider the birth of “safe space,” or a suspension of belief systems (whatever they may be) to do common social work. By doing so, I believe we can build relationships for even stronger community action and initiatives. We have come to an impasse in society where it is unreasonable to ask anyone to give up their individual belief systems in an effort to help others. It is more reasonable to suggest that they suspend those beliefs and place ahead of them the good works that can be done in the community by joining together with others for a greater cause. More hands, more minds, more resources…the more the better. I believe that this can be done, but more importantly, I know that this is my work. And every day as I see situations like this spread across the American landscape I become even more committed to that work. I hope others will join me to work in the safe space.
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