So as most of you probably know, I planned my first conference last weekend, the Humanism at Work conference for the Foundation Beyond Belief. It went far better than I could possibly have hoped and, despite my near-total exhaustion, I am very proud and thrilled about the entire experience.
From the start, Dale McGowan wanted a conference that was not like other secular/atheist/humanist conferences. He wanted to focus on secular charity and give attendees the opportunity to learn both from experts on the subject of charity work and from those who have gotten their hands dirty and done the difficult work of creating effective organizations and charity projects. To that end, we did not invite many of the “big names” to speak. The only two speakers you would ordinarily see on stage at a conference were Greta Christina and Hemant Mehta, who is the chairman of the FBB board of directors.
There were so many inspiring stories, especially from Rebecca Vitsmun (who now runs the Humanist Crisis Response program for FBB), Hemley Gonzales and Leo Igwe. Hemley’s story is an incredible one. Six years ago he decided to take two months and go work at a facility run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Within hours of his arrival, he was astonished and appalled by what he saw there. They did nothing to alleviate pain and suffering, they reused needles after just rinsing them off with water, they seemed to care nothing for actually improving the lives of those they were supposed to be taking care of.
He decided to not just complain about it but to do something about it. He left behind a lucrative real estate practice to create Responsible Charity, a non-profit organization that helps people in Calcutta overcome poverty by giving them micro-loans, educating children, providing medical care and much more. He has built his organization on humanist principles and he was shocked to receive the Heart of Humanism award on Saturday night, along with a grant for Responsible Charity. Tears flowed as he gratefully received the award and spoke of the good it would do in India.
Leo Igwe’s story is equally amazing. He has devoted his life to helping the victims of witch hunts in Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana. Thousands of victims, almost all of them women and children, have been killed, beaten, exiled from their families and left to die. Leo has been imprisoned, beaten and threatened routinely, but he persists. He drove back to Michigan with me to do two more talks and my conversation with him revealed a man who is firmly committed to the cause of humanism and to serving others.
The Pathfinders — Conor Robinson, Ben Blanchard and Wendy Webber — told stories from their year traveling abroad doing humanist service projects. And as Dale McGowan pointed out, the first thing they wanted to talk about was how much they learned from the people of Cambodia, Uganda, Ghana, Haiti, Guatemala, Columbia and Ecuador. They described their approach to humanist service and how important it was to come in with curiosity and respect rather than with an attitude that these privileged white people are going to come in and rescue them. This project was the first step to creating a Humanist Service Corps and they announced that they will be returning to northern Ghana to work at the witch camps. Leo will be helping them prepare for that project.
The other great thing about the conference was getting to meet in person most of the other FBB staff members. Noelle George came from South Korea, Cathleen O’Grady from Scotland, Liz Moody from Russia. And while I got a lot of credit for planning the conference, there are several others who deserve endless recognition for their efforts as well, including Airan and Kelly Wright and AJ Chalom. Everyone pitched in to get things done at the conference and we pulled it off with no more than the most minor of glitches.
It will be a week or so before I’m fully recovered from the lack of sleep, but I feel like my enthusiasm tank has been filled to overflowing. I am so proud of the work FBB does and so grateful to Dale (and Noelle, who I learned this weekend was the one who recommended that they create a new position for me last year) for the opportunity to turn my activism toward putting my humanist principles into action.
Dale also announced that next year’s conference will be in Boston and will be done jointly with the Harvard Humanists, which makes me very happy. I won’t be the one doing the planning next year, but I will be there to be inspired anew.