The newest issue of American Atheist magazine is now on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and it includes the fourth article in the “All of the Good, None of the God” series about Pathfinders Project. In Part One, each of the Pathfinders shared their reasons for embarking upon the yearlong international service trip. For Part Four, I asked the others to join me in sharing lessons learned. Our reflections are below.
If you’ll permit me to use some religious language here, I’d like to propose that Pathfinders Project is an atheist pilgrimage. After all, a pilgrimage is any physical or figurative journey in search of an object, place, or state of being that has personal significance and meaning to the traveler. The expectation is that the pilgrimage, whether to the Wailing Wall, Mecca, or Graceland, results in a transformation or redefinition of self. You could argue that such a definition is so broad that it’s almost devoid of meaning. After all, isn’t travel always transformative on some level?
The key is the intention. A pilgrim is a traveler who, when setting out on a journey, takes an active role in the transformation through ritual and reflection. As in a religious pilgrimage, an atheist or humanist pilgrimage is punctuated by offerings and rituals. But it’s the connections they create among the participants that gives them their significance.
Through Pathfinders Project, the four of us set out to forge connections that transcend the boundaries of geography, culture, religion, and language—while transforming us as well. Our rituals consisted of greetings, conversations, meals, games, and good-byes. Our offerings, both tangible and intangible, consisted of the classes we taught, the latrines we built, the hugs and high-fives we offered and accepted, the empathy and compassion we exchanged, and the hours spent with others simply coexisting despite our differences.
Pilgrimages are almost never undertaken in isolation; we do not learn or express our values in a vacuum. Indeed, we grow especially well when we work to resolve our differences with those who share our values. This is why I believe in building a humanist community. This is why I started Pathfinders Project. And this is why I will be working to launch the Humanist Service Corps.
Long before I ever identified as a humanist, I identified as a feminist, straight-ally, and social-justice advocate. But it took going on a yearlong international service trip with other humanists for me to truly begin to understand what any of those labels meant in practice. More to the point, it took going on this trip for me to start recognizing my privilege. I used to think of myself as a great friend and a great communicator. I did a whole lot of talking and gave excellent advice that no one ever seemed to take. That’s because I never did much listening. I assumed I didn’t have anything to learn from people who weren’t as content or well-adjusted as I was. This trip changed all of that.
For example, in the Dominican Republic, we met a Ghanaian American woman named Barbara. Just out of Middlebury College, she was traveling the world on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Her research focused on the influence of European standards of beauty on the self-perception of women of color in Africa and the African Diaspora. As we walked and talked in the capital city of Santo Domingo for a few hours, I suggested to her that any further research should look at how communities of color reinforce aesthetics internally. My reasoning was that even though those pressures are rooted in colonization and slavery, they now operate independently and are therefore separate issues. While Barbara readily agreed with me, she pointed out that they’re just not the focus of her current work. As a student of critical race theory, she was familiar with the concept of internalized racism and so had already considered, far more deeply than I ever could, how it relates to the question she was already tackling.
Another example occurred in Guatemala, as we were packaging household items for families who survive primarily by scavenging from the Guatemala City garbage dump. The volunteers were of all ages. Two of the male volunteers not yet in their twenties passed the time by unleashing an unrelenting stream of “That’s what she said!” jokes. Everyone else remained uncomfortably quiet. One of the guys even asked a woman in the group if she wanted him to stop. She said nothing, so I said nothing, and he didn’t stop.
Later on, I asked myself why I offered unsolicited advice when I should have listened in the Dominican Republic and why I stayed silent when I should have spoken up in Guatemala. Those two regrets are not isolated incidents in my life. This pattern of behavior extended at least as far back as high school and it affected my interactions with my fellow travelers. At the start of Pathfinders Project, I saw my role as the group leader who would help the others get as much as possible out of this journey. In essence, I tried to manage their pilgrimages. That wasn’t possible because we all experienced our challenges differently, even though we faced many of them together. No amount of advice on my part could have changed the fact that I feel safe going out alone at night, while legitimate fear keeps Wendy home. Nothing I can say will ever alleviate Ben’s concern that he will be mistaken for the wrong gender or that he feels he has to act “macho” in certain situations in order to avoid being killed.
As a person of privilege in these situations, it is important for me to remember that the ease of my travel does not necessarily put me in a position to advise my companions. I’m not a better traveler than the others; my travel is made easier by the fact that I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgender male. If anything, I’m the one who has most to benefit from lessons in resilience, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. More often than not, I am the one who should be listening and asking for advice.
Privilege is not a number on a scale. It is not a zero-sum calculation. It is multi-faceted and variable. Because everyone has things to impart, the beauty of service is its potential to bring diverse individuals together who all benefit when they listen to each other. Pathfinders Project has harnessed that potential to effect change not just in each place we visited but also in each of us.
While I am aware of the prejudice atheists face in the US, I’ve never experienced it in any significant way. I have, nonetheless, decided to dedicate my life to securing equal rights for agnostics, atheists, humanists, and nones. Before I began this project, I knew about the religious climate in the nations I would visit. But knowing is one thing and experiencing is another.
In many of the places we visited, prayer in public spaces is quite common, including in schools.
In Guatemala, we had to design our days carefully if we wanted to avoid being waylaid by Lenten observations. We met a non-religious family in Guatemala that simply does not leave home over Easter. On Christmas Day, we arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital and largest city of the Dominican Republic, only to find absolutely everything closed except one restaurant. Even finding an ATM so we could buy food at the one open restaurant was a challenge. In Ecuador, I was approached on the street, twice in one month, by missionaries with pamphlets. And at least twice they came to the door of our host family.
But this is exactly why I wanted to become a Pathfinder. I knew social justice was hard work. I knew there would be logistical and bureaucratic obstacles. But I was excited to tackle them. After two years of graduate work in divinity school, I was eager to put all that theoretical peacemaking into practice. I wanted to demonstrate that atheists and humanists can work together with the religious because the only beliefs that matter are a commitment to caring and equality. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that would be possible. I worried that our avowed non-belief would hinder the work we had set out to do.
Luckily, I was wrong. In the vast majority of cases, our atheism was of absolutely no significance to the work. In both Ecuador and Guatemala, we stayed in the homes of devout Catholics. Neither family attended church, but Catholic iconography adorned their walls, grace was said before every meal, and religious literature was everywhere. At first, I was concerned that once we revealed our lack of religious belief we would be sent packing. But in both cases, the revelation sparked lively discussions that concluded with everyone agreeing that a good heart is more important than sharing religious beliefs. And in neither nation is lack of religious belief taken lightly.
I find it ironic that my most significant experience on this trip was to feel, for the first time in my life, like a religious minority. And my biggest lesson was the irrelevance of our atheism to the work we did. I have a much greater understanding for the struggles that nonreligious people face in the US and around the world. But I also have more hope than ever in humanity’s ability to work together despite our differences to make the world a better place for all.
More than anything else this year, I have learned about community. The importance of community was evident everywhere we went. In the small Haitian town of La Fond-Jeannette, it was the drive of the community that made our latrine-digging project a success. When we went to the first house to start construction, we expected that in addition to the representative of the local organization and the mason, a few residents would show up to help. Instead, we were greeted by a crowd of people, all wanting to help because they recognized how beneficial this project would be for the entire community. Even the people who would not be getting a latrine in their home understood that it was really an issue of public health, which affects everyone. The families that did receive latrines always demonstrated hospitality and gratitude by providing everyone with coffee and bread. At every house, there were too many volunteers to give everyone something to do. But they showed up anyway because of the genuine drive to help.
We faced very different issues in Minca, Colombia. Minca is becoming an ecotourism hotspot, but the community itself was not environmentally minded. The head of the local organization we partnered with was a very passionate and sociable woman dead set on protecting the environment before it slipped away entirely. Whereas the community of La Fonde-Jeannette had the drive to drive to improve but simply lacked the resources, the Minca community needed education and training.
In Minca, we built composters designed by the organizer herself and taught the local children the importance of using them. We also assisted an expert from a nearby community in repairing Minca’s water system because very few locals realized the severity of the problem, and even fewer knew how to deal with it. But in both cases, the people were eager to help. The children’s parents donated materials and their time to help with the composters, and a dozen men came to help repair the water system. Once again, the worth of the community was not in skills or expertise, but in the drive to help.
When I started this trip, I didn’t realize just how important the atheist community was to me at home. Now that I’ve been away for a while, I have grasped just how much of a network and family I have.
Originally published in the Third Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist Magazine: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought