“I still can’t believe this is what I do for living,” I thought to myself as I walked out of the airport in State College, Pennsylvania.
I was met by the Rev. David Witkovsky, Campus Chaplain for Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, and Juniata Campus Ministry intern Lauren Seganos. “Welcome to rural Pennsylvania,” said Lauren as the crisp April wind threatened to knock us over.
I was in the middle of my second speaking tour of 2011—this time to schools in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.Like my first, I was speaking at colleges and universities about my work as an atheist and humanist community organizer and interfaith activist.
I kicked off the day by speaking in a World Religions class. After my remarks a student approached me, speaking in a small whisper. “I’m an atheist,” she said. “I feel isolated, and most of what I find online is largely about bashing religious people. I want a community, and I want to be open about my atheism. Thanks for starting this conversation here.” I was humbled by her words and promised to help her find resources.
Exchanges like that continued throughout the day—after a public discussion on secular humanism that I facilitated, during meetings with students and staff—and when it was finally time for my evening speech, the lecture hall was full to capacity. Students of all different backgrounds—atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others—came together and offered questions, challenges, and their hope for positive dialogue, community and collaboration.
After my speech, a student who had attended nearly every event I was at that day came up to me and asked if we could talk sometime. I offered to meet him for coffee early the next morning before returning to State College to catch a bus to Pittsburgh.
As the sun rose we discussed growing up queer in a fundamentalist religious environment, and our shared hope for a world in which people seek out the good in the other. I was hugely inspired by his optimism in the face of difficult life experiences, and we finished with a hug and agreed to stay in touch.
On the bus that day, I felt more convinced than ever that interfaith cooperation can improve people’s lives. I thought back to my meeting with the Juniata Interfaith Council the day before; to the atheists at the meeting who spoke about their commitment to inclusion and justice and their desire to contribute to interfaith social action. By the meeting’s end we had identified concrete steps to create a Secular Student Alliance group for nonreligious students at Juniata, and the Campus Ministry office offered to support the students’ efforts.
There were a lot of atheist, agnostic, humanist, and nonreligious students at Juniata who felt isolated—and now, thanks to the generous welcome of Juniata’s Campus Ministry, they’ll have a community of their own, and they’ve been affirmed as essential participants at the interfaith table. Now, there will be no empty chairs.
This is why I do this work—because something as simple as a story can crack open a space for people to be themselves, and to engage one another openly and generously. I’ve done over fifteen speaking engagements since February and I have been fortunate to meet amazing people from all walks of life who are dedicated to learning about others and to collaboratively living into their values without fear. They inspire me every day.
“I really can’t believe this is what I do for living,” I thought to myself as I looked out the bus window at rolling Pennsylvania farmland, grateful for the gift of their stories and their commitment to inclusivity and action.
I doubt I ever will.