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.

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share your secular storyWhen we put out a call for stories just a few months ago, we received an influx of submissions from all across the United States and even across the globe, with entries from Ireland and Kenya and a story from one entrant’s childhood growing up in India. This great diversity of submissions made judging these and determining a batch of winners a difficult task for our esteemed panel of judges made up by the former Director of Amnesty International and 2000 “Humanist of the Year” Dr. William Schulz, the highly regarded author and academic Dr. Sharon Welch, the highest ranking Asian-American slam poet of all time Alvin Lau, the brilliant interfaith activist Mary Ellen Giess, the respected and poetic young West Coast writer Nick Mattos, and the renowned blogger, community activist and DJ Erik Roldan. But they rose to the occasion and the votes are in; we’re pleased to announce the winners of the Share Your Secular Story contest!

Interfaith

Winners: Jeff Pollet and Vandana Goel LaClair (tie)

Runner-Up: Rory Fenton

Moral Imagination

Winner: Corinne Tobias

Runners-Up: 1. Beatrice Marovich | 2. Jonathan S. Myerov

Youth

Winner: Joseph Blaha

Runners-Up: 1. Stephen D. Goeman, II | 2. Kyle Morgan

Congratulations to all of our honorees! You should be receiving your prizes (depending on the category, a signed book by Eboo syssPatel or Greg Epstein, a signed DVD by Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens or signed CD by Ben Lundquist, per the contest description page) soon. And a special congratulations to our winners Jeff Pollet, Vandana Goel LaClair, Corinne Tobias and Joseph Blaha — your submissions will be eligible for publication in the Washington Post Faith Divide, Killing the Buddha, and Jettison Quarterly. More information on that to come.

Thank you to everyone who submitted to our contest for demonstrating that secular stories really do matter. Thank you to our panel of judges for donating your time and wisdom, and to our partners who donated prizes and publication space. But more than anything, I cannot wait for everyone to read what our honorees have produced.

Today’s guest post comes from Joseph R. Varisco, a member of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC). It is a response to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day and an explanation of why SHAC is organizing a different kind of event for tomorrow (details here.)

bridgeDialogue is one of the simplest, most complicated processes for people. Approaching that person you’ve had your eye on all night to ask for a date, telling your parents news you know is going to make them go red in the face, entering into a new school or job for the first time and running a script through your head, editing and reediting what you want to say to make a great first impression — dialogue is both unavoidable and messy.

And then there are the greater dialogues of our times: Can I honestly and openly speak of my sexual orientation? Can I express my position on the state of the wars we are currently engaged in? Can I represent my religious or secular beliefs and remain respected among my friends, peers, co-workers and community? 

We live in a time where dialogue is happening instantaneously. We can update our facebook status and blog our hearts out in the ambiguous and safe realm of the internet every millisecond. In doing so my greater hope is that this dialogue will find a way to transcend the boundaries of keyboards and box screens and find a more active place at our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, on the streets and in the institutions that represent a civilized society.

A few weeks ago an event took place known now as Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), which took the principle of transcending our electronic lives and actively spoke out. However, there was perhaps one important lesson missed in the transition. Call it respect, responsibility, compassion or consideration; call it, if you wish, human decency, political correctness or engaging in polite society. I call it “hope.”

Among my peers I have witnessed an emerging conflict of spiritual identity. While many follow in the footsteps of their predecessors — family, heritage or otherwise — there are just as many spinning free out there in the world simply attempting to connect to one another. Still others are taking a history of deeply embedded religious and spiritual conversation and attempting to bring it to the 21st century.

EDMD brought a conversation to the 21st century in its decision to make a political statement against terrorism when the writers of South Park received death threats for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a recent episode. The decision of those participating in EDMD held a meaningful intention yet, perhaps through a lack of leadership or an unwillingness to engage in dialogue, missed the greater opportunity.

The choice to take a day and create numerous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad was intended to send a message of commitment to free speech but instead took what was already an unsteady bridge of difference in culture and identity and removed a few more rungs. The bridge I am envisioning is one of those Indiana Jones deep-in-the-jungle bridges — you know, that one where we know at least one person on the journey is going to fall through an unreliable old wood step and maybe, just maybe, someone will not be making the journey back. 

Indiana Jones always finds a way to make it to the other side and back. He is not looking at what is right in front of him but what is all around him, and he has the trust of those he travels with. Sure, that is a rather dramatic approach to our discourse, but we are talking swashbucklers here. And when it comes down to it, a fight for free speech against Islamic terrorists is quite the human drama (or so Fox’s 24 would suggest). 

Dialogue. Let’s create an alternative plot to the already predictable pitfalls that beset us. Let’s sit down with those of different belief systems — secularists, Muslims, etc. — and create a better script.

On Wednesday, June 2nd at 6PM the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and various members of Chicago’s Muslim community are coming together to do just that. We each have a shared value and commitment to free speech and recognize its plight within our own communities and internationally. Working together with one another we wish to bring back hope; hope that we can transcend our personal perspectives and the sanctuary of our home offices and laptops to create a dialogue that carries us all toward a better world. 

The point here is that maybe — just maybe — if we look at all of those around us and take into consideration a growing and changing culture already a part of the American palette we too, like Indiana Jones and company, can make it across the bridge together and back. We may have to leave the so-called treasure we find on the other side behind, but if we cannot all share in it, is it even worth having?

variscoJoseph R. Varisco is a Political Science major with a Public Policy Concentration from National-Louis University living in Chicago, IL. He is currently networking with various pro-gay rights campaigns and LGBTQ organizations across the city in an effort to highlight some of the more pressing issues facing the LGBTQ community. Building momentum to increase awareness of transgendered and race/religious issues while cultivating progressive dialogue on policy and leadership programs for queer youth has become the center of his current study and work. Joseph is also the Outreach Coordinator for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago and spends a solid majority of his free time in the kitchen.

I’m the co-founder and Service Project Coordinator for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC), and we’ve got a big event coming up in less than a week. See below for more information — please come and invite others!

WHEN: Wednesday June 2 (6/2) at 6 PM
WHERE: 910 W. Van Buren St., 4th Floor
WHO: Secular and Muslim Chicagoans
WHAT: An event convening the secular and Muslim communities of Chicago to write letters for Amnesty International to defend free speech as an alternative to “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

 
amnesty-internationalThe Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC) is partnering with members of Chicago’s Muslim community to promote free speech and demonstrate that people of different religions and no religion at all can collaborate around common values. This event comes in the wake of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a campaign for free speech done as a reaction to the recent censorship of a South Park episode featuring a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a death threat to the creators of the show. Many secular student groups and individuals participated in drawing representations of Muhammad (an offensive act to many Muslims) as an attempt to promote free speech. However, in doing so they attacked and alienated a specific religious group.
 
Because EDMD was purportedly about advocating for freedom of speech, SHAC is engaged in a project that will specifically address the issue of free speech. Rather than directly respond to EDMD, we want to move forward with the mission that EDMD aimed to fulfill – advocating for free speech – but do so in a way that more directly addresses the issue without targeting our Muslim brothers and sisters. The intention is that it will stand as an example of how diverse groups can collaborate to advocate for free speech through a more effective tactic than EDMD.
 
Scheduled for Wednesday June 2nd at 6pm on the fourth floor of 910 W. Van Buren St. Chicago, IL 60607, this event will find secular folks and Muslims coming together to write letters for Amnesty International USA’s Shi Tao case. In 2004, Chinese journalist Shi Tao used his Yahoo! email account to send a message to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website. In his email, he summarized a government order directing media organizations in China to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Police arrested him in November 2004, charging him with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” Authorities used email account holder information supplied by Yahoo! to convict Shi Tao in April 2005 and sentence him to 10 years in prison. You can find more information on his case here.

RSVP on Facebook or Bridge-Builders!
 
Interested in being an event partner or affiliate? Contact Chris at nonprophetstatus@gmail.com!

share your secular storyWe’ve been hinting that something exciting has been in the works for the past couple weeks; well, folks, the day is finally here.

We are so excited to announce the Share Your Secular Story contest, a call for stories by NonProphet Status!

We’re seeking previously unpublished personal stories written from a secular (Secular Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, et al.) perspective. The stories of secular people are scattered because we as a people are scattered. Because there is little cohesion among us, our voice is often not loud enough to be heard in the modern religious marketplace. The secular stories that do get broadcast are most often volatile – secular people taking swipes at religious people – and reflect a divisive “us versus them” mentality. What gets told less often are the stories of people, secular and religious alike, living alongside one another peacefully and secular people expressing their own values within a diverse society. We want to hear more of these stories. We want to hear your story.

PRIZES: We are thrilled to offer a wealth of exciting prizes, including a ton of signed gear (DVDs, CDs, and books) from Harvard University Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, filmmaker Ky Dickens and musician Ben Lundquist. On top of that, a couple of the winning selections will be eligible for publication in the Washington Post’s “The Faith Divide” and Jettison Quarterly. Visit the contest page to hear more about our awesome giveaways!

PANEL OF JUDGES: We are also so very enthusiastic about our esteemed panel of judges featuring Dr. William Schulz, former director of Amnesty International USA and 2000 “Humanist of the Year,” academic Dr. Sharon Welch, superstar slam poet Alvin Lau, Interfaith Youth Core’s Mary Ellen Giess, writer Nick Mattos and DJ Erik Roldan. Check out the contest page to learn more about this all-star line up!

You can access the full details of the contest here. Click here to download a PDF of contest details; you can download it as a Word Document here. The submission period opens in one week on March 1, 2010. Spread the word, and don’t hesitate to contact us at nonprophetstatus@gmail.com with any questions you may have.

Stay tuned here, at our Facebook page, and to our twitter for more updates on the contest. We can’t wait to read your stories!

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