Open Letter: On Volunteerism and Coexisting

Dear Oklahoma,

Alright, you got me. I am one of the gypsy witches in your midst. Yes, I travel around on occasion and meet up with the other atheists to engage in a collective shadow dance amid the flames of secularism and science. OK, if you’ve managed to stick with me this far, I’m willing to bet you probably don’t think secular peeps are just straight-up heathens out to roast your babies or whatever. You might not even be bothered by the thought of secular types among you.

Even so, I’ve noticed a trend towards singling out secular folks in the wake of the May 20th tornado and it’s bothered me enough that I feel compelled to speak up.  The most recent example of public bias appeared in an article written by Joel Klein. Klein was on assignment to cover a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets who were working to overcome PTSD through volunteerism. During this time Klein made the following observation about Secular Humanists:

“But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals — and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon.” [1]

Klein wasn’t the first to cast a shadow over secular groups in connection to the tornado, but the huge irritation for me is that Time Magazine isn’t Glenn Beck[2] or some pastor with the Church of Christ passing out “atheists are a miserable lot” fliers in Newalla either.[3] As a long established news outlet, Time is supposed to be a little more reputable and balanced than that. So I want to point out a few things, first: secular humanists most definitely contributed to relief efforts.[4] Second, Klein nor his editor fact checked that statement, but if they had, they would have found numerous examples of secular organizations from not only across the country, but also those located right here in Oklahoma, doing what they could to help. Third, Klein’s response after he was called on his error fails to acknowledge that he basically stereotyped an otherwise very diverse group of people, and he stated those of us who don’t volunteer through an “established” social structure have lost our way and our sense of community spirit.

In his statement Klein writes: “… it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized. The effects of this post-modern atomization is something I’ve been trying to puzzle through for most of my career. That’s why I find the military, and the community values that are at the heart of military culture, so intriguing. That’s why I find the groups featured in my cover story about public service this week so inspiring. I believe that they sustain an essential part of citizenship that the rest of us have lost track of, the importance of being an active part of something larger than yourself.”[5]

If you’re of the same mind as Freethought Blogs writer Ed Brayton, you may not even see Time Magazine or Klein as the real issue here. Maybe you think wearing a shirt or being “visible” in a way that typically draws the ire of the intolerant to be counterproductive for the end game.

“It isn’t even really about Time magazine, though their response has been pretty appalling. It’s about how ignorant statements like the one Klein made are perfectly in sync with the larger culture, which tends to treat the entire secular community with indifference, at best, or outright hostility. And as long as the mainstream media continues to view us with either dismissal or derision, the situation is not going to change…”

Look, I don’t know where I got my sense of volunteerism from, but what I do know from my gypsy childhood is that I like to be self-directed. It’s just who I am. My dad, for what is worth, is a retired Army officer. He did enlist my siblings and I in a variety of groups I personally did not want to join, like Civil Air Patrol or church youth groups. If you’re wondering how that works, it’s simple. You drop your kids off and pick them up an hour or two later all while ignoring their complaints and protests. This is also an awful way to teach kids about community and volunteering. If you do this to your children, I want to tell you now that often my siblings and I would wait for the tail lights to pull out of the parking lot before skipping these group meetings only to later quietly slip back into the crowd once the meetings let out, which was right before pick up time.

Honestly, I really disliked these activities and much preferred the organizations I chose for myself, like a high school program I took part in called Peer Meditation. Basically you’re trained in conflict resolution, and then you volunteer your free time to diffuse arguments between other students as conflicts crop up. Ideally at the end of the session, the participants sign a form saying the conflict is resolved. If the students are caught fighting after the contract is signed, then they get detention or suspension. So despite the forced recruitment in childhood, I’ve never hated volunteering, I just prefer to do it my way. It also bears mentioning that the choice to volunteer is about exercising one’s free will too.

“Definitions of volunteerism also focused on aspects of helping another without material rewards, but emphasized the helper’s free will. Volunteering is based on the Latin voluns (choose) or velle (want): the choice and the (free) will to help are essential to determine volunteerism. Van Til (1988: 6) emphasized the lack of coerciveness in volunteering, which he identified as “a helping action of an individual that is valued by him or her, and yet is not aimed directly at material gain or mandated or coerced by others. Ellis and Noyes (1990: 4) pointed to the importance of free will and saw it as a positive social action, performing an act without coercion and going beyond one’s basic obligations.”[6]

I find it arrogant for anyone to suggest that here in America you have to participate in one institutional led effort to really get back to the roots of being part of something greater than yourself. There isn’t one right way to volunteer your time, because in a crisis every effort should be welcomed no matter how great or how small. So while I didn’t participate with AOK, a group I do enjoy visiting with from time-to-time, I did volunteer.

I should mention we live in Moore and while we weren’t hit directly, we were displaced for the better part of a week after May 20th. The next weekend saw us without utilities once again as the storm system that brought us the EF5 El Reno tornado rolled through the OKC metro area, and this time we didn’t escape storm damage on our property. But when all that finally cleared up and we were done with insurance adjustors, I looked up options for volunteering that best suited my family’s situation. I wanted to pick an organization that my children (ages 11 & 8) could be involved in and more importantly I wanted to find an activity that best suited their personalities. This is how we came to choose the Animal Resource Center (ARC).

My kids were exhausted and passed out on the way home that first day of volunteering, but they loved helping so much they wanted to come back again and again, even if it meant doing unglamorous work like washing crusty food and water dishes, cleaning out dirty kongs (pet toys designed to be filled with hard to reach treats so that dogs confined for long periods have a way to be occupied), helping to organize pallets of donated pet food, sweeping up pet food and garbage, hauling bags of ice in for the freezer or anything else not related to petting tiny kitties or walking dogs. Which of course the latter was the reward they were working towards; later we shared with our friends what it was like to volunteer at the ARC. We didn’t shame anyone for not picking our avenue of volunteering. And while friends did sign-up, a lot of them are secular too, we didn’t always coordinate to be there at the same time as them. We also cheered on friends who picked other ways to donate or volunteer too.

At any rate, here’s my observation about volunteering that the talking heads seem to be overlooking lately: you will meet people from all walks of life who are concerned about the same cause as you. As a person just repping my family unit, I was but another individual among others who came to the ARC because that’s where help was needed. Some people I noticed during the times we volunteered at the ARC were from out-of-state. Some of them were with churches and there were some who hadn’t come with any church groups at all. There were also Oklahomans who’d moved out-of-state but came back to help after the tornado for as long as they could possibly stay.

You know who else I met? A woman from Maryland who wasn’t affiliated with any of the organized church groups nor was she there because she was a former Oklahoma resident. She came because she’d always worked with animal shelters and animal rescue centers. It’s just what she does. I remember her telling me that her family had been concerned for her well-being when the El Reno tornado passed through, and that despite the bad weather she was determined to keep helping. And even though she wasn’t able to stay the full month, which is how long the animals would be there until they were claimed or adopted, I wouldn’t dare suggest that she didn’t put enough energy into making a difference each day she was at the ARC.

So you have your out-of-towners, but there were a lot of Oklahomans helping too. One volunteer from Edmond, Jeanine Edwards, told me she could only come every other day because she had a medical condition. I’m thinking of her right now because I could tell she’s a Christian, not because of a shirt, but because of her phrasing. The term I heard most in our conversations was “Blessed.” Jeanine was very passionate about helping on the days she could be there. Even Jeanine’s adult daughter had her birthday party at the shelter, asking friends through social media to donate their time or money in lieu of birthday gifts. I also noticed some people were life-long animal activists, specifically Bob Ingersoll. I have to admit Bob stood out because a) he had a leadership role on the days he was at the ARC, much like Janine, and b) he also wore a Nim Chimpsky shirt. Some might know of Bob because of his work with Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who had a hard time in research labs throughout the country, including the one at the University of Oklahoma, until he was eventually placed in an animal sanctuary. Bob gave us an impromptu history lesson after lunch one day. He described the ways in which animal rescue efforts had evolved since the May ’99 tornado, when relief efforts had been much more disorganized.

I also met school teachers from Edmond to Norman, college students, kids, moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, restaurant owners, like the lady from Cafe do Brasil who not only donated food for volunteers but signed up to help take shifts caring for animals, there were volunteer vets, and so on. If there were people with organization-specific shirts, I honestly didn’t pay that close attention. What I noticed most was that the people who were there to help were kind of too busy problem-shooting minor setbacks as they worked together to figure out how to care for animals, process any newly captured animals brought to the ARC, take special care of the quarantined injured or sick animals, help reunite owners with their pets, and coordinate donations and volunteers. They also had to deal with news crews dropping in frequently to update about the progress or needs of the ARC.

I think the reason I am so bothered by this trend to call out the “invisible” secularists, and those who make claims about spirit of volunteerism in general, is that it’s divisive as it is factually inaccurate. There are many ways for people to communicate and organize that don’t necessarily take the “military” or “church” approach. Not that I’m suggesting those models are ineffective or even that they’re not doing real good, but not everyone needs a specific source from which to take direction. You can be self-directed and still be a part of a greater effort.

So Oklahoma, with your vast array of people and communities, don’t let smaller minds belittle your efforts because you aren’t visible enough or belong to more “established” groups. And if you’re a secular humanist, try not to let disparaging remarks color the way you see all religious types. This is probably easier said than done; I know I wasted a good chunk of time seething about how talking heads and their networks flat out don’t get how they’re being harmful to others. But if you’re inclined to keep finding the good in others who are different than you and willing to volunteer in whatever way you can, then all the more power to you.

Best regards,

Helen Grant,

Managing Editor



P.S. Footnotes time!

[1] Klein’s original article.

[2] That time Glenn Beck suggested Wolf Blitzer was set up by an Atheist producer who wanted to further some secret agenda, that I’ve yet to receive the memo about by the way, to discredit God or something. Before someone points out that Glenn Beck is an ass hat that no one takes seriously, I want to tell you right now I’ve seen people post Glenn Beck videos with the kind of reverence that I find to be not only a bit WTF-ish, but also in no way questions anything he spouts off. If you’re a rational person who questions claims and are willing to go look up facts, it’s easy to regard everything he says as B.S., because for the most part it is, but that he reinforces stereotypes in a really negative way deserves correction every single time it happens.

[3] Red Dirt Report’s article about the disparaging public remarks on atheist volunteerism made by Pastor David Brassfield.

[4] Red Dirt Reporter Kai Tancredi’s list of atheist/secular groups who have gone public with their efforts.

[5] Klein’s statement in response to pissed off readers.

[6] Research I found on Volunteerism vs Altruism vs Cooperation; i.e. where I got that definition from.






One comment to “Open Letter: On Volunteerism and Coexisting”
  1. Pingback: Dear Oklahoma Please Try Harder | OKC.NETOKC.NET

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