Posts Tagged ‘politics’

The Beginning of Goodbye: Hold On, Don’t Let Go.

I have 2 Sundays left before we move up north.

I am in total denial about this, it’s clear. I’ve been trying to say what needs saying, observe what needs observing, be present for what I need presence in. But at the end of the day, when I think about this week and next week and the week after, I unfailingly place myself on the risers at Glide for all Sundays to come.

It was a great honor to lift the offering at Celebration last Sunday. For those of us unschooled in church-ese, that is the brief testimony given by a member of the congregation to inspire folks to join and support the community. As far as I understand it this happens at many churches, but of course, as with all things, it is very different at Glide.

At Glide, people bear witness not just to the influence of deity or the divine in their lives. They bear witness to the dirty, bloody, sweaty, tear-stained work done by the folks providing services at Glide; to the unshakably supportive community of the congregation; to the changes brought by the wisdom and radical love of the pastoral team. Some folks are Christian, some are Jewish, some are Buddhist, some are sort of vaguely spiritual in a way they wouldn’t even be able to describe if you pressed them to it. Many of them tell profound stories of recovery that would not have been possible without the strength they drew from the people standing around them. It would be kind of cliche if it weren’t so incredibly powerful to hear.

My little spiel had to do with everything I’ve said on this blog. I won’t beleaguer the points (you can order the entire service at ; just scroll down to Sunday Celebration DVD/CD and enter 8/22/10, 9am service – you can see the smiling face of Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist at last). I talked about inclusiveness, social justice, the fact that as an atheist I have had access to the community, ritual, music, support that church affords and have still been able to be myself and believe what I believe. If you’ve been following the blog you know roughly what I’m talking about.

After the service there was a flood of people who came up to speak to me. Some pressed the addresses of their churches up in Portland into my hand and welcomed me with love and excitement. Some embraced me and said that even though they’d never spoken to me they’d come to think of me as family and were sad to see me go. But the majority told me something like this: “I’m an atheist and I’ve been coming here for years but I’ve never felt comfortable saying that.” Folks came out of the closet a little bit, and realized they were far more welcomed than they’d thought they were. It was pretty awesome.

Right now I’m having a hard time composing this in a cohesive, slick way, because I’m listening to one of my favorite Ensemble songs:

Every time we do this song I feel the bottoms of my feet lifted up through my belly, and I end up weeping to the point of almost not being able to sing. It epitomizes Glide to me. If you have time, you should listen to it. If you don’t believe in a God, translate the biblical “He” or “Him” to “love”, or “community”, or “family”, or “that thing that passes between human beings in rare moments of openness and courage, when even strangers feel like brothers”. Think about a time when someone or something has grounded you, saved you from drowning, kept your head up, picked up your pieces. If it’s a divine someone or something, cool. If it’s not, cool. The point is that we all need to hear a kind and beautiful voice tell us to “hold on, don’t let go”. I think what I’ve been trying to say in all these many, many words over these many, many months is simply this: Whatever it is that convinces you to hold on, don’t let go, is worthy of praise and respect.

To all my brothers and sisters who are hanging by a thread, hold on. Don’t let go.

YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 2

I want to put forward some of the really chewy ideas I heard tonight, and I will do so in subsequent posts. But first I want to think and talk a little about why it’s useful – or important, or relevant, or not totally insane – for an atheist to read the Bible.

First and foremost, it is a collection of narratives on which nearly all of western culture is built. If you want to fully understand anything painted, carved, written or played in Europe or its colonies since about 300AD, you’d better have some basic biblical literacy.

Case in point: My husband and I went to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco a week ago and saw this painting, “Portrait of a Lady of the Saxon Court as Judith with the Head of Holofernes”, by Hans Cranach, 1537. If you’re prone to contemplation about these sorts of things, you might find yourself with some questions, the first being who is Judith and what is she doing with this guy’s head? And why would a lush little society dame want to pose as her? What does it say about her, about her family, about her interests? What does it say about the artist? What does it say about the zeitgeist in which she posed and he painted? It’s remarkably postmodernist for a 16th century painting, full of self-referents and mirroring cultural memes. Without an elemental understanding of the central narrative, you can’t even begin the conversation.

Secondly, it is imperative that we understand the language in which the most important social justice issues are being discussed in this country. Marriage equality, reproductive rights, racial and economic justice are all being played out on the stage of religiosity. If we want to stand on the side of human rights, we have to be fluent in the language to which those standing on the side of oppression resort to support their claims. I tell you this now: theirs is not the only interpretation of this book. We must not cede to them its resources, for there is more liberation in it than subjugation.

Thirdly, it is comprised of some of the most moving stories ever recorded. Leave aside for the moment the ontological arguments about its authorship, its veracity and its literal or metaphorical interpretation – this is an intense book. It has stories about working, living, loving, losing, longing, grieving, healing, striving, surviving. Human stories. Stories that have been picked over, assembled, reassembled, reworked, but nevertheless they speak to a common thread of lived experience that stretches back millenia. Look down at your own hand, and then imagine the hands that built the pyramids. There is a narrative that stretches back to those hands and beyond, and the echoes of that narrative are enshrined in the Bible.

I have to tell you that I am so grateful for the opportunity to reread – reclaim – the stories in this book without the crushing, foreclosing oppression with which they were imposed on me as a child. I will be very clear that I read them as myth, not fact. I read them as myth in the way that Pastor Guest defines myth: as “a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.” I do not wish to engage in a debate about the reality or unreality of these stories, because that leads to unproductive suffering. But talking about what they mean to us as people, what they tell us about ourselves and those who we should strive to find love for – that is a conversation that I will geek out on for days.

YFNA Geeks Out on the Bible, Part 1

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist is geeking out on the Bible.

I am geeking out on it in the way you’d geek out on Catch 22, or a juicy Jon Krakauer expose, or Harry Potter for that matter; as an astounding collection of histories, cultural tropes and human experiences. Whoever you believe wrote it, it comes from somewhere, and the way we translate, read, quote from and interact with it from generation to generation is simply fascinating to me.

Glide conducts a Bible study group – more accurately called a Sacred Text study group, as I’m told they’ve studied everything from the Bhagavad Gita to the Qur’an – that I’ve been meaning to go to for months now. I’ve even heard rumors that they’ve read some Richard Dawkins, although what he’d say about being included in a list of sacred texts I cannot imagine. Regardless, and true to Glide philosophy, it is radically inclusive, which is why I thought it would be cool to go.

I’ve talked before about the powerful influence of story on the human psyche. Sir Terry Pratchett, the brilliant and uproariously funny British fantasy author, posits an imaginary 118th element he calls “Narrativium”, which he describes thusly: “It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese.” Pastor Don Guest began this evening’s conversation with a similar sentiment: “Myth is a way of explaining to another human being something that is difficult to understand.”

Next: Why Should an Atheist Read the Bible?

Pride and Prejudice: A brief belated note on Pride Sunday in San Francisco

Let’s play a little catch-up, shall we?

We had Pride Weekend here in San Francisco last month, which marked a year of my singing with the Ensemble. As I walked to the Sunday service that kicked off the parade (Glide does a magnificent float every year; this year was a gigantic stack of gift boxes celebrating the 40th birthday of Pride Parade) I passed one of the many conservative Christian hate groups that descend on the city for Pride weekend. (I’ve always felt it was a strange kind of back-handed compliment, the fact that they come from all over the country to hate on San Francisco during Pride. It sort of says “You are THE gayest of gay cities, therefore we will concentrate our considerable energies upon you.” I don’t know, somehow that’s oddly flattering.) That morning I wore a blazingly bright magenta shirt and a straw hat with an embarrassingly large pink flower in the brim. In the early morning streets of the Tenderloin, before the crowds lined the parade route, I was rather hard to miss.

A gangly youth on (literally) a soapbox shouted out to me that I was destined to burn in the fires of hell for my perversions, to which a year ago I would have responded (and did) with a raised middle finger and some not-so-nice words of my own. This year I stopped, beamed a big smile at him and hollered “Happy Pride!!! We love you!!!”

After regaining control of his rather impressive adam’s apple, he said “We love you too! That’s why we want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with you.” And with a sense of fullness and gratitude – gratitude for the strength to face this poor misguided fool with the love that has been taught to me by my family at Glide – I replied, “No thanks, I’m good. I’m on my way to church.” To which he said….nothing.

What could he say? That my church wasn’t as good as his? That the gospel I was on my way to hear wasn’t the right gospel, even though it was coming out of the same book?

Well, yes. He could have said all of that and more, because these people aren’t really at home to Mr. Reason, but he didn’t have the chance to. I blew him a big smacking kiss and trotted on up the hill, to sing with folks who know the meaning of the gospel that awkward young man claimed to be selling.

If I’d tried to explain to him that I’m a sacred-text-reading, gospel-singing, comparative-religion-studying atheist, that I’m essentially an Atheist for Jesus, I think he might have had some kind of meltdown. That adam’s apple might have made a desperate upward bid for freedom. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I don’t think it mattered, though. Like water dripping on a stone, the small things we do have a cumulative effect that we might never even see. He may think of me someday, years from now, and a small crack might open up in his concrete worldview. A little light might hit something that’s been kept in the dark, and a green shoot might begin to unfold. Who knows. Maybe in a few years we’ll see him on Pride Sunday, happy and full of love, in 7 inch silver platforms and a Carmen Miranda bra. For that, I might just make an exception and pray.

Regulators, Let’s Saddle Up.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist here, back after long absence. I had almost given up on writing this thing – stuff happens, you lose momentum, life swallows you whole and gives you other things to think about – and then one of the pastors at Glide told me she loved the blog. I realized in that moment that part of why I’d stopped writing was that I’d come face to face with the kind of opposition that can take your voice right out of your throat, and without even realizing it I’d hunched over and slouched off, away from the conversation I’d been trying to start.

Of course, many, many other things have been going down. We lost my husband’s father on June 16th, after two months of a violent, rapacious cancer that felled him like a great oak. Thank you to all of our friends, family and communities for the outpouring of love and support, and, yes, prayers. When it was all over we made the decision to move north to Portland, where my family lives and where the job prospects are better for me and the cost of living isn’t so criminally out of control. In the aftermath of death we are turning our sights to new life, to creating a space where we can start a family. Death and birth, birth and death. The same unending song, and we are searching for our small part in it.

So we’ve been in kind of a scarcity economy around here, alternating between roiling industry and deer-in-the-headlights blankness, staring at the wall and wondering what it’s all about. I haven’t been as present at Glide or in the Ensemble as I’d like to be, so these musings on the conversation between belief and non-belief haven’t been right in the foreground quite as much. But I’m ready to be back in the saddle again.

(Speaking of saddles, I spent a utopian 5 days with my own cowboy daddy earlier this month, and we stayed up late and drank too much homemade wine and dug our fingernails under the surface of all kinds of issues, lofty and mundane. It helped to get the creative mojo flowing again, so thanks for that, Big Daddy.)

So, to reiterate and get back to the meat of this project: I am still an atheist, and I still go to church. It’s still a strange thing to do, but not as strange as it sounds to anyone who’s never been to Glide. And I want to have a conversation that is not about debating the basic nature and fabric of reality, that does not devolve into one-upmanship and a deeply lame contest for Guy With The Truest Truth. I want to have a conversation that begins with what we have in common and builds toward what we can do if we work together.

It’s good to be back.

(PS – I will hold in high regard anyone who can identify the late 80’s teen heart-throb movie the title is taken from. And I will also know roughly how old you are.)

You Too Can Look Cute in a Hairnet: Serving Breakfast at Glide

I finally bit the early morning bullet to volunteer serving breakfast at Glide. I am a little delirious writing this – Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist does not really DO 6am – but maybe delirious is the appropriate state to fully appreciate the churning controlled chaos that takes place below the sanctuary three times a day, every day. It is truly amazing what they accomplish down there, with limited resources and lines that grow by the hundreds of thousands every year.

The thing that was the most striking in my sleep-deprived state was all the smiling. I wouldn’t have expected so much smiling. There were small ruckuses and malcontents – I saw one guy in line kick back with his heel and catch the guy behind him right in the nads – and lots of folks who were too impaired to really interact with their surroundings, but for the most part it was kind of a party. The older gentlemen took great delight in twinkle-eyed flirting with the cute new girl (let me just say that I don’t look half bad in a lunch lady hairnet) and there were kids running pellmell through the cement corridors. Some looked like they’d slept on the street and some like they’d hit on hard times and just needed a meal or two here and there to pull them through the month. But nearly everyone was smiling, joking, calling out to friends, lending each other a hand. It was like all the mistrust and hypervigilance that characterizes the world above got permission for a quick coffee break, and all that was left were folks.

Friends were teasing me last night when I cut out early to go to bed at 9:30 so I could have a hope of making it there this morning. “Gotta go do the Lawd’s work!” they said, because everyone still thinks its pretty funny that my (formerly) grouchy militant staunch atheist behind gets dragged to church every Sunday morning. It is pretty funny. But I wish it didn’t have to be seen as the Lord’s work, wasn’t generally the purview of religious institutions to do this kind of dirty work for the folks who really need it. I wish it could be seen as human work, the work of humanity, the work humans do for other humans. I wish that we as a society could take responsibility for each other without a commandment from on high to do so. Churches shouldn’t be the only organizations sending people to roll bandages in Haiti, to rebuild homes in New Orleans, to staff AIDS clinics in Africa. And really, it doesn’t even have to be that hard. It shouldn’t be that hard to sweat a little in the service of  humanity. One morning a month at your local soup kitchen, your local food bank. We all know we should do it. I’m just not sure why we don’t.

If you – atheist, theist, believer, non-believer, religious, spiritual or undecided – would like to join the party in the world below the sanctuary at Glide, click here and sign up. You don’t have to be a member, but you’ll probably want to be after you hang out for a little while.

I’m going to crawl into the miracle of luck and privilege that is my bed and take a long Sunday afternoon nap. I am so very blessed, though that word has a slightly different meaning to me than it would to someone who believes in God. You don’t have to believe in God to be deeply grateful for things like roofs and beds and food and health care. You just have to spend some time with folks who don’t have them.

Explications, Amends, Remembrances

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist feels she needs to clarify a couple of things.

I’ve been reeling for the last week after receiving some pretty intense criticism on this here blog. I was really hurt. I mean, I know I’m doing something fairly weird. I know I’m getting my chocolate all up in your peanut butter, whatever epistemological flavor your personal peanut butter happens to be. I fully expected to take flak on this. I just didn’t expect it to come from the inside.

Some folks from my own beloved community misunderstood my intentions and seemed to feel that I was threatening or deriding their beliefs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My life’s project for the last year has been to build a bridge between belief systems in an attempt to address the terrible wounds this country has sustained in the false and unnecessary war between belief and non-belief.

So for my own peace of mind, just so that I know that I’ve presented all the information to the best of my ability, here are some user-friendly bullet points about what I’ve been trying to do.

  • I have no desire to “convert people to atheism”. If anything, I am trying to convert people – atheists and believers alike – to Glide-ism. The principles taught at Glide (unconditional love and acceptance, radical inclusion, liberation through community) are ones I think are seriously lacking in the public discourse on all sides.
  • To this end, I hope to put together a working alliance of folks of different belief systems within Glide to bring the message of radical inclusion in the service of social justice to the world outside the church. It is not an “atheist vs. non-atheist” group. It is an “atheist WITH non-atheist” group.
  • Many atheists do in fact have very strong biases against and scorn for people of faith. Not being of this stripe, I do not want to be judged by their actions.
  • Many people of faith do in fact have very strong biases against and scorn for social justice. Not being of this stripe, most folks at Glide do not want to be judged by their actions.
  • So let’s not.

When I sing the songs we sing at Glide I do some translations in my head so that they make sense to me. When we sing about God, I hear “love”. I hear unconditional support, a paean to someone who will pick you up and embrace you after your worst, most shameful collapses, someone who gently urges you to be as kind, as strong, as weak, as humble, as steadfast as you can be. I have found such remarkable love in my human community and strive to provide the same quality of love to others, no matter how mind-bogglingly hard that can be. Singing about it every Sunday strengthens my resolve to do better in the days that follow, just as it does for folks who translate the words differently. The miracle of Glide is that I have been welcomed to make these translations in whatever way fits me best, and that I will never have to worry about being judged for my beliefs or the way I choose to live my life.

That is kind of the point of Glide.

Because I have received this acceptance and love I have devoted my life to paying it forward, to respecting and honoring the beliefs of others and trying to find common ground instead of trying to argue them down or convince them otherwise. Everything I have written thus far in this blog has been an attempt to describe and elucidate that mission. It is a work in progress. I’ve come a long way, I’ve come a long way…I’ve still got a long way to go.

I would humbly, respectfully, lovingly, earnestly remind those who took offense at my proposal of the doctrine of unconditional love and acceptance that is at the heart of what we do at Glide. Your love – your Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Animist, undefined, agnostic, atheist, “otherwise categorized” love – has shown me how to stand in the ambiguities. The uncomfortable both/ands, the places where I am tempted to gird my loins with my ego-bound certainties and go at it bloody-knuckle style but am learning how to tolerate in all their wondrous awkwardness – this is what the Glide community has taught me. We must all sometimes remind each other how to do it, I guess.

Much love goes out to the friends and family of our beloved brother in song, Brigardo Groves. A shining light of joy and gospel groove left us this week, and we are all mourning and celebrating him. His love has given us yet another opportunity to share our common feelings in diverse languages. We miss you already, Brigardo.

Inter-Belief Coalition at Glide

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist has been collaborating with one of the pastors of Glide Memorial Methodist Church to create an inter-belief working group within the congregation. This is the initial proposal; I’m posting it so that folks can give some suggestions about where to take it. Thanks in advance for your help.

“It is my observation that many issues of social justice are placed in a polarizing religious context by the popular media, and as such we often forfeit the opportunity to collaborate with other activists who are working toward the same goals merely because their belief system differs from our own. Glide’s commitment to radical inclusion presents a unique opportunity to bridge this gap to increase our understanding of one another, our strength as activists and our beloved community of compassionate advocates for change.

As an atheist member of the Glide community I have been moved and inspired by the radical activism of people of faith(s) there, and equally dismayed by the occasional negativity with which my involvement has been received by my fellow non-believers. The widespread representation of right-wing conservative religiosity in opposition to human rights, progressive politics and economic justice has produced a climate in which many feel that in order to oppose oppression one must oppose religious and spiritual belief. This division contributes to the obstacles facing those working tirelessly for justice and liberation and must be bridged.

To this end I propose a coalition between believers and non-believers, theists and non-theists, people of any religious or spiritual faith together with people who identify as non-religious or spiritual. We will seek ways of making visible the alliance between faith and non-faith, in order to encourage others to reach across the faith divide. This may take the form of printed literature, art, acts of protest or support, web presence, media representation, and anything else the group creates. It will be a forum for questions and conversations, collaboration and cooperation. We will develop methods of communication and conflict management that can be used to overcome situations in which differences of belief might lead to rupture of partnership. We will visibly and accountably stand together for change rather than allow our differences to divide us.”

Please feel free to leave suggestions and feedback. This is a work in progress.

Sarah, Honey. Let’s Hug it Out.

Palin. Palin, Palin, Palin.

I wish that I didn’t have to talk about Miss Alaska here on my blog, but it seems I do. And all because she has made a big old kablooey fuss about how the laws of this country should be based on the Bible. Oh Sarah. Why you gotta make it so hard?

Or so easy?

The reasons this makes me so angry are manifold. Let us for the moment leave aside the terrifying implications of theocracy and the cringe-worthy hypocrisy of proposing one theocracy (a Christian one) as perfectly acceptable while at the same time excoriating another theocracy (an Islamic one) as threateningly fundamentalist. Let us leave aside the very clear injunction for the separation of church and state in the founding documents of this nation, regardless of the denominations, affiliations or spiritual philosophies of their authors, and the fact that many of those authors questioned the existence of a Christian god entirely. Let us even leave aside the spectacular wrong-headedness of claiming that any religious affiliation should be enforced upon the people of this country, considering the fact that the entire bloody point was to escape theocracy. Let us not even go there, for logic does not disturb the placid waters of Lake Palin. We would merely wear out our boat.

No. The reason this enrages me so is that it makes Christians look even worse to atheists than they already do.

Sarah, honey. You have no idea what a challenge it’s been to convince most of the liberal atheists in my life to even have a conversation with people of faith. To imagine that they are members of the same sentient species at all, let alone abandon the safe encampments of philosophical divide to join forces with them for the betterment of the human condition. I will offer up a painful transparency here, a truth difficult to admit: Many atheists do, in fact, think that people of your faith are dangerously ignorant. It’s a fact. And here I am, striving to challenge the stereotypes of both belief and non-belief, to form a coalition of people who are willing to jettison their biases and make substantive alliances that might begin to heal the wounds of religiosity in this country. And there you are, grinning like a mad moosehunter in a power suit and f*cking it up for all of us.

While I was up north I had lunch with an old friend who was hard-pressed to understand why I, a through-and-through atheist, would get up early Sunday mornings to go to church. His experience of Christians was one of bigotry, intolerance, oppressive rigidity and a total refusal to parlay on the neutral ground of humanism. In a word, Sarah, you. The response that I hadn’t fully formulated in my head at that time but which your most recent squawking has cemented for me is this: Spending time among theists, deists and spiritualists who constantly push themselves to practice unconditional love and acceptance – the gay man who asked me to act with compassion toward the virulent hatemongers of the Phelps klan when they planned to protest a local high school that was putting on a play about murder victim Matthew Shepard; the African American pastor who helped me turn my anger about the racism directed at our President into a deeper empathy for the psychological brokenness of racism itself; the people of the congregation who have showered me with love, real and unconditional love, in full knowledge of and deep respect for my atheism – challenges me to push myself just as hard in the effort to expand my ability to work with people, rather than contract it. Being there begins to soften this terribly hurt place from which I have defended my own beliefs and failed to hear the potential for connection with those of others. It allows me to deal with fundies like you with humanity and compassion, because I am exposed to people whose faith is grounded in humanity and compassion. It reminds me that that which has angered me past the point of reason about religiosity in this country is also that which I myself am in constant peril of doing in the fight against their oppression: not listening.

So I am practising on you, Sarah. I am so very, very angry at you and those you represent, and I am fighting like hell to master it and stay in a position of unconditional love. The problem is that you are so big, so powerful, so entrenched, so impenetrable, that sometimes the fight to stay on the side of love seems utterly futile. What, after all, does it matter to you? Will you ever meet me? Will you ever know I exist? Will you ever be even microscopically aware of my struggle to afford you your humanity in my head? No. No you will not.

But here is the crux of it, Sarah. We in the secular community like to throw around this little idea – if you only do the right thing when you are afraid of being punished for doing wrong, then how right can you really be? If your charity only extends to those who can acknowledge it, what is its value? We like to claim a little superiority on this count, adhering as we do to a moral code based on compassion and enlightened self-interest rather than a punitive paternity poised above our heads to deliver retribution should we fail. So if I treasure and tend this anger in my breast for you and yours, if I allow it to root and grow simply because you will never hear of it, aren’t I just as dangerous as I’m painting you?

So I’ll keep trying to love you, because that is what has been taught to me by folks who read the same book you do. Although I have to say that it sure don’t sound like the same book when you talk about it. But that’s between you and your god, right? And in the meantime, can you please please please stop making Christians look like such flagrant idiots?

Thanks a mill,

-Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist In Church

How to Make Over an Atheist, Part 1

The first time I went to Glide Memorial Methodist Church it was Mother’s Day. A challenging day for many of us. My personal life was going through heretofore unimagined upheaval, so all challenges were amplified beyond reason. One of my closest friends had been going for a while and had been urging me to come for the music if nothing else, and I’d been resisting. Cause I’m an atheist. Kind of a no-brainer. Sheesh.

But one night I became aware of the gritty granite of rock bottom, so I called her up and said I’d go. Why the hell not. Sundays can be nasty when you hit rock bottom. Some good music sounded like a better idea than any I’d had.

(Let me just throw down the gauntlet to my fellow atheists real quick, here. We utterly fail when it comes to rejoicing. We have no song book. We do not gather in large numbers once a week to recommit ourselves to the values that bind us together as a community. There is very little hugging. The religious guys have a serious edge over us on this stuff. In the battle for hearts and minds, unless we come up with some catchy tunes and free motivational speakers every Sunday, we will rank perpetually last, right after home dentistry and time share sales parties. Seriously. We gotta get on top of this.)

The sanctuary at Glide is a big open space that feels much like any other church, until you look a little closer. When you lift your eyes to the space above the risers where the choir stands, there is something missing.

There is no cross.

When Reverend Cecil Williams was sent to take over the flock at Lizzie Glide’s gold rush church at the corner of Ellis and Taylor 45 years ago, the congregation was miniscule. In the heart of the Tenderloin, Glide stands sentinel over some of the most destitute blocks in San Francisco. The story goes that even before he got the order to move to San Francisco Cecil heard a call from God to challenge oppression in ways that would lead his life in very radical directions. Did it ever.

Upon arrival the first thing he did was to order the cross taken down. It was a symbol of death, he said, and he wanted his church to be dedicated to the celebration of life. Over the decades he, and eventually his wife Janice Mirikitani, opened their doors to the wounded people who had been rejected by other churches, disenfranchised by the city and the country, beaten down by racism, homophobia, misogyny. Drug addicts, sex workers, runaways, survivors of domestic violence, bedraggled but dignified drag queens, radical leftist dropouts, Black Panthers, bra burners – refugees all, from doors slammed in faces and cold eyes looking the other way. Cecil read the Gospel of Christ quite literally and shaped his congregation to its strict adherence: unconditional love and acceptance. No more, no less. No other interpretation would do.

Somewhere along the way he figured out that when nothing else reliably resulted in butts-in-pews, music would. Some of the best musicians in a city full of virtuosos flocked to be part of what was happening. The Ensemble’s ranks swelled and folks came just to hear the music, stayed for Cecil’s fiery exhortations to radical inclusiveness and service to all humankind and ended up lifelong members regardless of their original faith or non-faith. He got arrested for civil disobedience more times than anyone remembers (except Jan, undoubtedly). He led armies of health workers and caring congregants to the foot of the crackhouses in the Tenderloin and shouted up to the inhabitants through a bullhorn to come down and get a hot meal and some medical attention. No judgement. No judgement, ever. Just acceptance, safety, help and love.

Now Glide membership numbers in its tens of thousands, stretches all over the world and funds nearly 100 programs that provide food, medical and mental health services, emergency shelter, permanent housing, vocational training, college scholarships, drug and alcohol recovery, mentoring, comprehensive case management and more. It is as big as Cecil and Jan could paint it, and it continues to serve and reach out, loving unconditionally, accepting radically. It is as near a miracle as any atheist can point to.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I climbed the stairs, exhausted and undone by my own despair, and sat in the back with my girlfriend. I only knew that I didn’t know what else to do but be there.

And then the music started. Oh my. The music started. Gospel, huge and ebullient, big fat four part harmonies that roared up into the rafters, shook me down to the bleached bones of my pain and rattled them into life like a child’s toy. I started crying almost immediately. Ushers distributed fans and kleenex, and I saw that I was not alone in my weeping. The strangers all around me were shining in their own pain and joy and humanity, radiant, having granted themselves permission to expose this rawness in themselves for these 90 minutes of a Sunday morning.

I reigned myself in to the best of my ability because I felt myself an outsider, a non-believer, and I did not want to get too hooked on the stuff. I braced myself to hear “the god talk” and just white-knuckle it till the music started again. But then Pastor Donald Guest got up and started the impassioned litany that has now become so dear to my heart. “We don’t care if you’re Christian. We don’t care if you’re Jewish. We don’t care if you’re Muslim. We don’t care if you’re Hindu. We don’t care if you’re an atheist. We don’t care if you’re straight, gay, transgendered, bisexual, black, white, brown, yellow, polkadotted, republican, democrat, documented or undocumented, whatever and whoever you are we celebrate you and invite you to be part of this beloved community.” By this time he was hollering and jumping around the stage like an old-time revival preacher, but that wasn’t what shocked me half senseless. He’d named me. Along with the roll call of religions, the people who had a right to be there because they agreed at least that there was a god, he’d as much as said my name. There was no “we love you even though you’re wrong”, no “why don’t you read this scripture/listen to this speaker/let me tell you about how god can save you from your damnation”. It was just a fact. You’re an atheist. And you’re one of us.

Next Up: Conversion, But Not the God Kind; Owning Up to Being Intolerant; Trying to Explain It – “I’m Still an Atheist, Really.”