An interfaith meal packing and dialogue event at the Humanist Community at Harvard.
An interfaith meal packing and dialogue event at the Humanist Community at Harvard. Photo courtesy of HCH.

What an atheist learned from working with Zoroastrians

Today's guest column is written by Zach Cole, Values in Action Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

A meal packing event at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

A meal packing event at the Humanist Community at Harvard. Photo courtesy of HCH.

In the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there’s a new center—the Humanist Hub, dedicated to building nonreligious community in the greater Boston area. Depending on the Sunday, you can meet like-minded people, hear a philosopher give a talk, celebrate the arrival of spring, or serve the community by packing meals for kids in need.

On display at this nonreligious community center is a colorful collection of reflections created at a recent meal packing service event. This display contains quotes like these:

“I’m Erin and I’m an atheist and I serve because my personal experiences and privileges are not the norm” “I’m Jade and I am an atheist and I serve because I believe that following the maxim ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his need’ leads to a more just society.”

In addition to quotes from atheists, the display also contains reflections from theists:

“I’m Sonia and I am a Christian and I serve because we have only one life to get it right. I can’t think of a better use of mine.” “I’m Firoza and I am a Zoroastrian and I serve because I believe everyone in this world deserves to have a nutritious meal… We are lucky to be born in families where we are well looked after. I believe it’s our responsibility to help the less fortunate.”

Why are there reflections from Zoroastrians, Christians, and other theists on the wall of a center dedicated to building nonreligious community?

In short, they represent the increased impact, mutual understanding, and shattering of stereotypes that can happen when religious and nonreligious communities come together over the shared value of service.

One of the most successful events we’ve hosted at the Humanist Community at Harvard is an annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Meal Packing Project. At our first meal packing program several years ago, we put together 10,000 meals at 25 cents per meal, raising $2,500. This program has expanded from year to year, with the number of meals packed, money raised, and volunteer participants increasing each time.

At Thanksgiving 2013, we packed 50,000 meals, raised $12,500, and hosted more than 400 volunteers over the course of six hours. This would not have been possible without the involvement and input of local religious communities.

In addition to increasing our ability to help more people, this program has facilitated mutual understanding across lines of religious difference.

Before getting involved in planning these events, I had never even heard of Zoroastrianism. Over the course of planning and executing this event, I not only learned more about Zoroastrians and taught them about atheists—I also realized that many Zoroastrians value serving their community just like I do, and that they face some of the same stereotypes that I do as an atheist. These stereotypes stem from people not knowing anyone from a particular community, which is why events like this can be so helpful.

Because we’ve had such a great experience with these Thanksgiving events, we launched a permanent meal packing station at the Humanist Hub last month. None of our previous meal packing events had been held in our atheist community center, so I wondered who would come. Would the religious communities we’ve partnered with feel uncomfortable coming to our center, considering it isn’t a “neutral” space like the venues we’ve hosted these events in before?

To my delight, many of the same members of the Zoroastrian community who have helped make all of our meal packing events so successful arrived right away, eager to serve. We now showcase their reflections, among others, in our community space as a reminder that we are all in this together—and that, despite our fundamental differences, we also have important shared values.

As many nontheist organizations ramp up their service initiatives, I encourage them to consider the added value of partnering with local religious communities. Our meal packing events have fed so many who would have otherwise gone hungry in the greater Boston area. We’ve been able to do this because we are committed to reaching out across lines of religious difference and working together for the greater good.

Are you interested in planning similar events? We’ve just launched a new ebook with resources to help atheist communities plan interfaith service programs like this one—we hope you will consider reading it and letting us know how you’re working toward a better world.

Zachary Cole, photo courtesy Cole.

Zachary Cole, photo courtesy Cole.

Zachary Cole is currently finishing his time as the Values in Action Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard. He starts as the Program and Outreach Specialist in the Chaplain's Office at Tufts University in June 2014. Cole earned his bachelor's in religious studies and political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he also holds a MA in Higher Education Administration from Boston College.