Kansas City Atheists: Ethics in Action that Make a Difference

by Susan
Education Officer and National Coordinator—United Coalition of Reason

In the past few months, UnitedCoR has found secular-friendly communities—some of whom profess a belief in a god or gods—who are still happy to work with non-believers in their local communities to achieve a greater good, rather than fight against each other over issues of belief or disbelief. It’s become our experience, over an again, that when people focus on making a positive difference in their local communities, communication is opened, cooperation begins, and the icy walls of division begin to melt. This means that everyone wins.

In January of last year, UnitedCoR was invited to speak at Kansas City Oasis, and while we were there, we learned of how the Kansas City Atheist Coalition—another cooperating member of Kansas City Coalition of Reason—was working with other interfaith/worldview leaders in their local community to improve the lives of those who had been relegated to the fringe of society. By doing this, not only did they make a difference, they also created opportunities for religious believers to realize that atheists aren’t bereft of morals.

Check out what Joshua Hyde, local Kansas City atheist activist, had to say about his work in America’s beautiful heartland!

UnitedCoR: Tell us more about your work with The Micah Ministry. What does it entail, what are your intended outcomes?

Joshua Hyde: As volunteers, we kind of have the easy part of the job – all we need to do is show up and help serve food, clothing, and supplies to those who come through the door. There are multiple goals we achieve by doing this:

  • We’re supporting an organization that indiscriminately serves those in need – no matter your religion (or lack thereof), sexual orientation, gender identity, race, nationality, legal status, or background, the Micah Ministry (Micah) warmly greets and accepts individuals and families and supports them through medical assistance, warm dinners, and supplies like clothing, blankets, and hygiene products. It’s a fantastic opportunity to work with great people to give back to the community and help serve people in need: something in which all who attend find great personal satisfaction.
  • Our attendance at Micah is an extension of work with a prior organization to show that theistic belief isn’t a dividing line that can stop people from working together. Building a community for atheists is one of our vital goals, but we also want that to be a community that coexists and interacts with the broader community here in Kansas City. Working with a religious organization to help our greater community helps send that statement that we are not only a part of an atheist community, but part of the broader community in Kansas City as a whole.
  • As with many of our other volunteer opportunities, this is an opportunity for cross-pollination of communities—not with the intent to convert someone to or from theism, but with the intent of building bridges and helping everyone understand that we’re all people, no matter what certain pundits, religious figureheads, or clergy might have to say about us. Building these interpersonal relationships creates opportunities for everyone to deconstruct the caricatures that may have been propped up in their minds by others.

UnitedCoR: What experiences in the past do you draw on that leads you to regularly work with Micah? 

Joshua Hyde: Our work with Micah started in the wake of a fallout with an organization with which we had volunteered in the past: the Kansas City Rescue Mission. We’d helped them deliver Thanksgiving meals for Thanksgiving day, but, when we came back to offer our help for another year, they turned us down and explained that they would be including Christian-centred evangelistic messages in their delivered meals and didn’t feel we would be a good fit. This eventually became a noteworthy news item in the local KC area, and we were invited by a number of secular-friendly organizations to participate in their volunteer activities.

Joshua Hyde participates in a local protest.

The Micah Ministry was one such organization, and we had a swell of support when we attended our first volunteer dinner with them on the week of Thanksgiving. This is a tradition that we’ve proudly continued: we volunteer with them—at a minimum—one Monday each month, but we also, on Thanksgiving week, schedule another volunteer event to continue that tradition.

Past that inception moment though, we’ve continued to have overwhelmingly pleasant interactions with the leadership and other volunteers at Micah. Their leadership has continually communicated how much they appreciate our support and, when the occasional volunteer has expressed vexation at atheists participating as volunteers, the leadership has stuck to their message of inclusiveness and made it clear we were welcome as volunteers just as much as any of the churches who regularly volunteer. That continual guarantee of not only being allowed to volunteer, but also being welcomed as volunteers, has helped keep us committed in our support and even encouraged some of our members to volunteer their time beyond what we, as an organization, schedule (such as volunteering every Monday, as their time allows).

UnitedCoR: Can you tell us about a time when you feel your work with Micah that really made a difference, either to you or to the people of the communities that you serve?

Joshua Hyde: There is, of course, the benefit that serving in the organization has on bringing smiles, happiness, and relief to those who seek out help from the Micah Ministry. Beyond that though, there’s never been a big “boom” moment, as it were, where the landscape of any community was rocked by our participation, but many of us have had individual conversations—both with volunteers and those we serve—about being an atheist (the latter, especially, we leave to be started by the other individual, as we do not use this space as an opportunity to evangelize or proselytize about why people should be an atheist). These small, individual interactions tend to have a spider-web effect. By adjusting the perception of one individual of what it means to be an atheist, especially an atheist working in a church, can propagate out to that individual’s friends and adjust how atheists are widely perceived: genuine people who are working to help everyone get through life as best we can.

UnitedCoR: If someone was considering doing this kind of interfaith/worldview outreach what advice would you give them regarding the qualities needed and the pitfalls and pleasures of this kind of work? What are the values that people like KC Atheists and Oasis draw on that helps you continue this kind of collaborative work?

Joshua Hyde: First and foremost, do your research: ask if they require statements of faith; ask if they discriminate based on gender, race, religion, legal immigration status, criminal background, sexual orientation. Understand that, when you partner with an organization, you are  effectively endorsing their policies, so make sure that their policies align with the goals and values of your own organization. Don’t be afraid to respectfully say, “Thank you for your time, but we’re looking for an organization that aligns more closely with our values”. Your public perception will be the better for it, and your members will appreciate that you are ensuring that they aren’t dedicating their time to an organization that runs contrary to their own personal values.

Secondly, don’t be afraid to coach your own membership. As I’ve alluded, these events can be opportunities for knowledge sharing, but don’t treat it as an opportunity to start conversations about what you think of religious ideas. Emphasize that you’re there to volunteer and help and, if someone wants to have that conversation, then feel free to provide guidance to your membership on how to navigate those conversations. Providing these kinds of frameworks for your attendees gives them a path that they can fall back on in those circumstances, and also helps ensure that the messaging being propagated by those who are volunteering on behalf of your organization aligns with the actual intended messaging of your organization.

Underlying all of this is our goal to make sure that we are helping people and supporting organizations that make that help their highest priority. That manifests itself in lots of little details and little ways, but that’s the ultimate theme backing how we approach these opportunities.

UnitedCoR: What have your experiences been when people find out that you’re an atheist who’s doing a lot of wholesome work that benefits the greater community?

Joshua Hyde: There are usually three reactions: acceptance, shock, or delight. Those who accept it at face value just calmly accept and understand that we’re not different at all from them (theistic disagreements notwithstanding).

We get people who are shocked: either at the idea that they’re “having to volunteer” with an atheist, or that atheists like to do nice things for other people without any promise of reward or threat of punishment driving the behavior. The former can sometimes overcome their prejudice, but not always. For the latter, it’s often an opportunity that both sides capitalize upon to start a conversation about why an atheist would want to volunteer. It’s been my experience that this creates opportunities to introduce concepts such as secular humanism and other philosophies that that we feel drive us to help others.

The final reaction is honestly my favorite: occasionally, we get someone who’s excited just to meet someone new (“Oh! I’ve never met an atheist before!”), but, more commonly, this reaction is from someone who says, “I thought I was the only one.” Helping someone understand that they aren’t the only atheist in Kansas City is one of the reasons why I work to help build community here in Kansas City, because it can get lonely in the Midwest, especially amidst the rising anti-atheist, pro-conservative-religious rhetoric in our cultural and political spheres. Helping someone find a bit of peace of mind in knowing that there are people from whom they don’t have to hide that they don’t go to church on Sundays and don’t take their kids to Sunday School is a fantastic reward for our work.

UnitedCoR is grateful to Joshua for taking the time out of his packed schedule to give us this interview and to highlight the wonderful and wholesome work that is being done in Kansas City. In this current climate, where people can be tempted to search for top-down methods and solutions, the work that Joshua and his friends are doing in Kansas City emphasizes that positive social change requires communities from the bottom-up to work together in order to achieve greater goals.