Who cares? We do! “The happiest people I have known have been those who gave themselves no concern about their own souls, but did their uttermost to mitigate the miseries of others.” These words, spoken by social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton around the turn of the twentieth century, still ring true today. It is exactly this sentiment that inspired the Michigan branch of Center for Inquiry to form a Secular Service Program. After years of discussion about how we would like to “give back,” “get involved,” “socialize,” and “strengthen our presence as a group,” we put our good intentions into action in 2010.
To get our endeavors underway, a committee of interested individuals was formed and drafted the following vision statement: “The CFI–Michigan Secular Service Program provides opportunities to support the mission of the Center for Inquiry by translating humanist values into action for the common good of humanity. The Secular Service Program is working to provide opportunities for members to engage in community service and outreach throughout the year.”
To better manage the workload, we divided into subcommittees. Each subcommittee had a theme: Health, Children and Education, and Environment. These topics were chosen because group members felt we could find plenty of suitable volunteer activities in these categories that fit CFI’s mission. We also felt we could involve a larger number of members by exploring a wide range of activities.
Our first service adventure was in the Health category, for which we organized a CFI–Michigan team to participate in a community walk for multiple sclerosis. We also hosted a successful Red Cross blood drive, which we continue to hold annually.
One of our most successful projects fell into the category of Children and Education. In 2010 we packed sandwiches for an organization called Kids’ Food Basket, which works to provide sack dinners daily to over 4,800 children who live in poverty. We spent two hours making hundreds of sandwiches to help achieve their mission: “that lunch is not the last meal of the day” for these children. It was a CFI family affair, with parents bringing their children for a day of service, and a good time was had by all. We had such a good turnout that this has become an annual CFI service event.
The Environment category has offered plenty of opportunities for volunteering. Our group has twice participated in the Grand River Cleanup with good member participation. A smaller group spent a day at Saul Lake Bog, a local nature preserve, helping pull invasive plants for a prairie restoration project. We also spread mulch at a county park for a children’s playground, and we’ve hosted a work day at the Long Lake Outdoor Center for several years to help restore and maintain the historic campground for the benefit of numerous community organizations.
All in all, in two and a half short years, we have participated in at least twenty-five projects involving over three hundred volunteers who have put in more than one thousand volunteer hours of service. These projects have reaped many benefits, both planned and unintended. Aside from “doing good for goodness’s sake” and having fun in the process, we have become stronger as an organization. We wear our CFI T-shirts when we work and often have the opportunity to explain to others what we’re about, which has led to new memberships and increased awareness of CFI–Michigan. The Service Program has also allowed us to engage entire families in more events, not just the adults who attend the regular meetings. We often gather for breakfast or lunch before or after an event, which helps us develop a sense of community among our members.
It is this feeling of becoming a family that spurred our most recent and ongoing project, Food for Comfort. This is a central database created by one of our members designed to support our CFI community with meals during times of life change, such as the birth of a child, an illness, or the death of a loved one. Any member may sign up to receive one or more meals during a time of need. One of our members recently lost his wife to a lengthy illness. Phone calls were made, lists were organized, and fresh food was prepared and personally delivered by some of our Service Program volunteers to the memorial service. Afterward, Cathy Seaver, one of our member-volunteers, summed it up best: “I believe we made today a little less painful for the family by showing them the love and support that our group is so good at providing. This is the type of outreach I am proud to be a part of.”
Organizing atheists is often likened to “herding cats” because we aren’t inherently united by a belief system. Consequently, a strong, social network of caring, like-minded people often seems missing in atheist organizations. For me, this was one of the most compelling reasons to become part of the Secular Service Program. It affords me a sense of belonging and an opportunity to grow as an individual by helping others. The focus surrounding an atheist organization is often about what we don’t believe. I feel strongly that if we spend more time focusing on what we do believe, we can present a more positive face to the general public and unify ourselves as a group.
I believe in the power of human kindness and compassion to change the world. The CFI–Michigan Service Program gives me a place to begin. It’s a small beginning in a small corner of the world, but just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s efforts blossomed into a woman’s right to vote, I hope our efforts will perhaps prompt other atheist groups to show the world that there is a real heart to secular humanism.