Wednesday, September 26, 2012

SSA Stories: Send An Atheist to Church

At the Michigan Secular Student Alliance, we divide our activities into three general categories: social, charity and activism. Our social activities include a variety of things from discussion to bowling to house parties and so we generally have as many of them as we can fit in. Charity and Activism activities, we try to do about once a month. For September, we decided to combine our charity and activism into a creative activity suggested by the National SSA: Send and Atheist to Church.

Send an Atheist to Church is a fundraising activity first tried by Purdue University's Secular Organization. We modified their format slightly in order to accommodate our needs. Originally, we wanted to table for a week on one of the main  drags with two jars, each representing a church. People would put their donations into the jar of their choice and, at the end of the week, the church represented by the most lucrative jar would be attended by willing members of our group. Proceeds would go to our Light the Night Team for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

 Unfortunately, only one Church, Bethlehem United Church of Christ,  wanted to participate in the charity. Deviating from the initial plan, we only had one jar on the table and we decided that donations would determine the number of atheists attending church rather than the choice of church. For every $20 we raised, another godless heathen would attend the Sunday service.

Total, we raised about $272 from the tabling alone.

Overall, I would call this a very successful event for us. I did make some observations as the week went on:

- Send an Atheist to Church is a tricky premise for a charity. Whether or not it works depends on a combination of A. the ideological makeup of the campus and B. the sense of humor of the people who see the table. The University of Michigan tends to be a fairly liberal campus and even the religious students tend to be very "live and let live" about atheists. We actually got people who would throw a dollar in the jar and say "I like the cause, but you don't have to go to church!!"

I found that it was generally more effective to get people's attention using the "Send an Atheist to Church" sign, then focus on the charity itself. People tended to be much more willing to give to the cause of curing cancer than they were to the cause of converting atheists.

I talked to Hassan from the Wayne State SSA later in the day after going to Church and he told me that when his group tried Send an Atheist to Church, it didn't work. I think the trick is just knowing your campus and executing events based on its culture and nuances.

- Atheists are very reluctant to go to church. This seems like an obvious point, but I think that if I could go back in time, I would have made sure I had a solid base of people to were definitely willing to go to church before arranging the event. I was really worried that we wouldn't have enough people when Sunday came. It turned out fine in the end, but I think I should have taken this fact more into account.

- Tabling is not a passive activity. I can't say this enough. People often feel awkward about just coming up to your table and asking what your group/charity is about. Tablers can't be shy; they have to call people out and get the attention of passers by without being too obnoxious. To be honest, I think that next time, I'd like to organize a team of people to run this event in which the same people who tabled would be the ones going to church. I think it would have made more people feel connected to the event and to each other because they would have put a lot of work into it.

Another part of this event that was excellent was the Church we went to. Bethlehem United Church of Christ was very warm and welcomed us enthusiastically. I was given the opportunity to speak in front of the congregation about our fundraiser and they were all thoroughly amused. They even gave us free food and discussion afterwards. I hope that, if the need or opportunity arises, we get to work with them again.

That being said, it was a long week, but I am proud of the work we did. My only hope is that the rest of members, especially the new ones, feel the same.

Friday, September 7, 2012

SSA Stories: Tabling and Our First Meeting

I haven't been blogging in a while. To be honest, I'm trying to avoid all the drama. Yes, I have opinions on Atheism+, but I really don't think that the discussion going on about it has been very useful.

My goal for the time being is to focus on my work with the SSA. No matter what happens on the internet, the real life community and real life activism are the most important parts of the movement. Yesterday was Festifall, an event on campus in which all of the big student groups table and flyer on the main drag to promote their organizations. The SSA got well over 100 new people signed up for the mailing list and 80 people attended our first meeting later that night. That was over double the amount of people we had last year.

Our topic this week was deconversion. I've always found that the "how we lost our religion" stories are a good way for a bunch of godless heathens to bond. When I walked into the meeting room and saw what amounted to an entire lecture hall of people in front of me, I was worried that there would be too many people present to create an inviting atmosphere. I was wrong.

Lots of people volunteered to get up in front and share their experiences and soon enough, a large number of people were laughing and interacting casually with the speakers and with each other. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me how excited they were to be in the group because they were really looking forward to having a secular family. I think this nearly universal desire was what allowed the meeting to be successful, even with a surprisingly large number.

I learned a lot about tabling yesterday. We did a really good job of tabling and I think that also contributed to our successful meeting. The most important thing we did at the table was to talk to people. We actually reached out to people walking past, even just to say "hi". This made it harder to ignore us. Meanwhile, we had some other members walking around handing out flyers to passers by in the larger are around us. Tabling is not a passive activity at all. 

...Free candy also helps attract attention.