A soup kitchen in Spartanburg, South Carolina got a lot of attention a few weeks ago when they refused to allow a local atheist group to volunteer to feed the homeless. Now the Kansas City Atheist Coalition is facing identical treatment. After spending the last few Thanksgivings helping deliver meals to the needy, the mission they did this for have decided they won’t be allowed to do so this year.
For the past two years, the Kansas City Atheist Coalition has volunteered with the Kansas City Rescue Mission to deliver meals to those in need on Thanksgiving, and then later collected gift donations for an adopted family at a December holiday party…
The bad news is that we aren’t likely to have a volunteer event. The reason is unfortunate: Kansas City Rescue Mission has decided to use the meals they deliver as a chance to proselytize to its recipients by inserting religious literature into the meals. They informed us that we “would not be a good fit” (emphasis theirs) for volunteering with them, and declined to respond to any further inquiries.
Many years ago I volunteered to cook on Thanksgiving at a homeless mission run by a deeply committed and wonderful priest. When we were finished cooking and were ready to go out and serve everyone, he asked the kitchen staff to pause for a prayer and he asked me to give it. I just politely said that wouldn’t be appropriate as I don’t believe in God and he prayed instead. Afterward he pulled me aside and asked me why, as an atheist, I had volunteered to help at a Catholic mission. I explained that I think we all have a responsibility to help others when we can and that I don’t really care why others are motivated to do the same. He smiled and told me that he was grateful for my help and I’m welcome any time.
Last year I spent the day before Thanksgiving cooking a big meal for a shelter in Lansing with my dear friend Julie Powers in the kitchen of an Episcopal church. When we discovered that the group that was supplying the food for us to cook had bought pre-packaged TV dinners with turkey and dressing, we decided that just wasn’t good enough. We went and bought fresh turkeys and all the sides and made them from scratch and donated the TV dinners to the shelter so they could use them later. It just didn’t seem right to not make the effort to make them a really good meal for Thanksgiving. Not in a million years would it occur to Julie or to that church’s priest, our friend Sarah, to think it was inappropriate for an atheist to help (these are the same two friends who were responsible for getting me the opportunity to meet and speak with Bishop Tutu at that same church a few years ago). So it’s good to remember that not all Christians think or behave this way.
In a couple weeks I’m going to be speaking at an interfaith Thanksgiving service in Grand Rapids, representing CFI Michigan. I know a lot of atheists don’t like the idea of participating in interfaith events but I am not one of them. No, atheism is not a faith or a religion. But so what? It’s an opportunity to build bridges with people of goodwill and I intend to use that opportunity to suggest that we go beyond merely getting together once a year to talk about interfaith cooperation. I’d like to see our Secular Service Committee join forces with local churches, synagogues and mosques to help make things better for people in need.
I doubt those whose lives are improved will give a damn whether the help came from a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or an atheist. I don’t think we should care either. I only wish Christian organizations like the one that is keeping the KCAC from doing a good deed thought the same way.