Today’s guest post comes from Jessica Kelley, a member of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC). Kelley offers a reflection on our recent “Building Bridges: Muslim and Secular Communities for Free Speech” event (which was, amazingly, reported on from as far away as the New Delhi Chronicle). For additional thoughts on our event, check out member Joseph R. Varisco’s reflection.

Shi Tao

Shi Tao

I visited China in the summer of 2005, and I have never forgotten the generosity of the people I met during my travels there. When I sat down to write a letter to the Chinese Prime Minister on Wednesday evening, it was this generosity that became the subject of my letter, and it was to this generosity that I appealed on behalf of Shi Tao, a Chinese pro-democracy journalist currently imprisoned by the Chinese government for exercising his freedom of speech.   

I hadn’t planned on writing a letter of understanding and friendship to China’s Prime Minister; I hadn’t planned on putting my own return address on the envelope; and I hadn’t planned on having a face or a name, or on recognizing that my letter’s recipient would have a face and name either.

Prior to sitting down to write, though, I was fortunate enough to dialogue with my fellow SHAC (Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago) members and members of Chicago’s Muslim community. Our discussion revolved around Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), an event organized by secular student groups on three Midwestern college campuses in reaction to death threats made by Muslim extremists against the writers of South Park after they portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in a recent episode of the show. 

SHAC organized the letter-writing event with our Muslim sisters and brothers in order to exercise free speech in a way that we felt would be constructive and, I suppose in some ways, to differentiate our Secular Humanist organization from those that are responsible for EDMD. And those are worthy goals. But as I sat and listened Wednesday evening to the myriad perspectives around me — the hurt feelings, the indignation, the desire for peace, the compassion — what I chalkmuhammadrealized was that something greater than those goals was happening organically, just because we were all there together, talking and listening. Minds were opening, and connections were being made. And it’s interesting, I think, that while we all went there that night in near complete agreement with one another, we all still had so much to teach and to learn.

So two nights ago I showed up as a member of this organization, ready to meet members of a certain community and to write letters to a certain government requesting that this person be released on matters of principal. I showed up all drenched in abstractions, you know? But then I met people with whole lives of experience behind their eyes. And I began to respect the folks around me — not for their roles in their various organizations, or for their esteemed careers or degrees, but for the human experience that each brought to the table.

And when it was time to say my piece to the Prime Minister, I wrote to him about Zhi He, the man who invited me into his home for rice wine and peanuts and sent me away with the fruit from his garden even though he was just barely able to feed his family. And I asked him how the hospitality and generosity that I was shown in China could be withheld from China’s own citizen, Shi Tao. And I asked if he’d ever looked into the eyes of Shi Tao and seen the experience behind them. Because I’m really starting to think that all these organizations that we think are so divisive really only exist to bring us together to argue and fight and maybe — finally — to see each other.

Jessica Kelley is a Master of Arts student at Chicago Theological Seminary, where she began her studies in gender and faith in 2007. She also works in residential development, is the Treasurer for SHAC, and sometimes even moonlights as a daughter, fiancée, and friend.