Today’s guest post is by Lee Paczulla, a Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School and intern for Social Action Ministries. In it, she contemplates whether interfaith social action, which could be defined as a “ministry,” has a place for the nonreligious. What do you think?
Interfaith work for social action often brings our communities of faith and spiritual practice into partnerships with unfamiliar groups. When we unite around common goals for improving our states, cities and towns, we also realize the potential to learn more about one another’s practices and beliefs. Relationships forged through interfaith work can help to counter the forces of ignorance and fear that creep into our culture as anti-Semitism or Islamophobia – or as unfamiliarity with underrepresented religious groups in America like Sikhs, Jains, or members of the Baha’i faith. If you are involved in any kind of faith-based social action partnership, you have probably encountered people who believe, worship and practice in ways that are unfamiliar to you.
How then should people of faith consider partnerships with communities of people who profess no religious faith? All across the country, many Humanists, atheists, and members of Ethical Societies are also moved to engage in social action because of their beliefs. In his recent article for The Huffington Post, Chris Stedman writes: “Humanism ought to be seen first and foremost as a desire to be the best people we can be, to commune with other humans and live ethically and humbly together. It should not be vindictive or oppositional. Instead, it should seek to build bridges whenever possible, with whomever possible.” Stedman serves as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, a group of students, faculty, staff and alumni dedicated to building community for all Humanists, atheists, agnostics and nonreligious individuals at the institution. With a 35-year history, the chaplaincy offers service and action opportunities as well as a gathering space for like-minded people, recently making 120 scarves to be distributed by the New England Center for Homeless Veterans.
In his 1989 book Who Needs God, Harold Kushner discusses the work of anthropologist and sociologist Emile Durkheim, who investigated the purpose of religion in our lives. What Durkheim found was that the earliest forms of human religion were organized “not to put individual people in touch with God, but to put them in touch with each other” – to help people celebrate joy and lament loss as part of a community, and to be enlightened and guided through trouble by the experiences of others. Communities engaged in interfaith work often encounter groups whose beliefs and practices may at first be unrecognizable in terms of their own religion, yet their shared work casts new light on our common human values and the reality of our basic interdependence. In the spirit of social action, of uniting around shared goals to guide and support fellow human beings, is a belief in God necessary for fruitful faith-based partnerships?
Since its inception, Social Action Ministries has encouraged the involvement of people of all faiths in supporting permanent solutions to homelessness, and we continue to seek commitments from new partners who are devoted to this work. Does your community of faith or spiritual practice work with Humanist or atheist groups? Have you ever encountered these questions in an interfaith context before? What might your community gain by casting a wider net for partners in social action?
Lee Paczulla is an MDiv candidate at Harvard Divinity School, preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister. She spent the last five years doing community-based youth development and health action work in Washington, DC, and has a BA in psychology and women’s studies from Swarthmore College. Lee is currently interning with Social Action Ministries, a program of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance which seeks to involve diverse communities of faith and spiritual practice in statewide efforts to end homelessness.