This is my December 14, 2019 address at the HCCO Winter Solstice banquet: What has the HCCO done to help foster my growth as a Humanist?
I’m not going to church today.
What do you mean? It’s Easter.
I know, but I really don’t think it is right for me to go and pretend, when I don’t believe in all of it…at all.
You mean Catholicism?
But what will everyone think of us when you’re not there? At least go for me.
That’s not how this works, dad. If I can’t play by the rules, then I shouldn’t be playing the game.
This is an abbreviated version of the conversation I had with my dad at 18 after 12 years of Catholic school. He was the church’s youth group advisor. He led our meetings every Sunday night, with my confirmation sponsor; my future husband, Eddie, too, had been a member, for about the same. This was our world. This was how we identified ourselves. That was family. And now I declared I wanted to be apart from it, rather than a part of it. And I am certain my dad hated to hear this. But I couldn’t keep lying.
Over the next decade or so, dad chose to ignore my deviation until Eddie and I decided to get married. He said he and my mom wouldn’t attend the wedding if it wasn’t in the church. Most specifically, his church near Youngstown, Ohio where Eddie and I both grew up, despite the fact that, at the time, we both were into our 30s, and lived just outside of Columbus—3 hours away. So, we made a couple appointments with his priest. A man who seemed to already know, and thankfully, respect our truth. We attended the Pre Cana classes required of all Catholics prior to holy matrimony. We thought we’d have to give church-life an authentic try, so, we attended a mass the Sunday following 9/11. As you would imagine, the parishioners were spilling out of pews and aisles…out into the parking lot; they came there, as we did, with empty hearts, broken trust, and fearful thoughts. We were all craving solace and sense because of all that had happened earlier that week. We were craving inspiration, and balm… Seated, shoulder to shoulder with the congregants, we all anticipated the gospel reading and homily: the message that was bound to swell and fill the holes in our souls—to our let down, the reading was not tailored for the day. But certainly the priest would remedy that, right? The homily was going to rally these “troops”. Nope. We heard a tale about corn being planted in the appropriate field…about growth and tending crops, and harvesting. Now, being an English teacher, this was not some metaphor I just wasn’t seeing. This was not an address of the needs of the 100s who came for resolve that day and we left more empty than we came.
11 months later, we were married at St. Paul’s in New Middletown, Ohio, where my parents’ priest helped us out a bit by offering to have a rare, outdoor ceremony; allowing our guests, at our request, to cast a Pagan prayer circle (although we didn’t explain it in quite those words 😉) around the altar while our vows were exchanged. He then delivered a homily that talked about our “lack of religiousity” while touting our commitment to community. We were a bit relieved.
Another year later, after our son, Danny’s, birth, we went back to the Catholic church near our Columbus home, to talk about joining not only their church, but THE church. We had a kid now, right? This is what adulting looks like. As we sat in the waiting room to talk to someone, the ever-present questions ran through our minds: Maybe we can find a place to belong. Maybe we could table our disbelief if we just found the right people, the right hook, to lead us back… The secretary re-entered, stating, that the priests were unavailable to talk to us, but could we give them our address to mail us our pack of envelopes for our weekly donations? And perhaps could we come back another day?
We walked to the car with our little boy in tow. I was tearing up.
Ed was angry, wanting to head back in for a stern conversation.
But it wasn’t worth it.
None of it was worth it.
We were done.
But now what? Where do we find people? Who makes us casseroles in our time of need? Where do we go to donate our time and resources? How will we build “family” with ours 3 hours away? These questions pressed close as Danny moved into his toddler years, and it became clear that with Eddie and I both teaching, we were already settled into our school communities—volunteering, coaching, supporting…we knew so many families—and were joyfully overtaken shaping our own, that being a part of a larger community outside of all of that became superfluous. So we settled into our very small “us”.
One day in an 8th grade English class I was teaching, we were talking about how two of our Jewish kids often felt marginalized for their beliefs. They spoke candidly and those in the room offered their support. Then the question of faith got turned to me—Mrs. Repko, what do you believe? And I blurted out, unprepared, but willing to share: I don’t believe in any god. I just believe in other humans—I’m a… humanistmaybe? I giggled at my “made-up” word, and the kids smiled and we got right back to our lesson. On the drive home, though, I was wondering what damage I had just caused. Humanist. What an idiot. Will I get any parent phone calls? Is that proselytizing? Is “humanist” even a thing? Am I an idiot? Humanist! Right… I shared the story with Ed and tucked it away. Then I started researching… I stumbled on the HCCO website. I wasn’t inventing the word. These people really existed. * I wasn’t alone.*
Moving from teaching middle school to one of our high schools, it took a short while to find solace in a few, close-knit colleagues who were also non-believers. And one day, we namelessly added up all the other teachers we knew, who had admitted their atheism in confidence, and concluded it was a solid 25% of our staff. 25%! I was not alone at all! So, what should we do about that? Some of us, longing for more connection, attended a UU service one Sunday and we debriefed the experience over coffee. It wasn’t what they wanted, but I actually might be willing to give it a try. Ed wasn’t. Getting up on a Sunday morning to be read to and learn with others sounded too much like how we already spent our workdays. And church? What did it even mean to us now? Was it a physical space? Was it about community? Was it about doctrine? Doctrine? Uh oh. What DID we believe?
In a phone call to my parents, I shared that we were discussing Universal Unitarianism and its flexibility, its welcoming nature, its celebration of our humanness. I felt the conversation utterly unremarkable until later that week my best friend called and said she didn’t want to upset me but thought I should know that she had been included in a group email from my dad and felt compelled to share it with me. Minutes later I was reading it. The recipient list comprised mostly my parent’s church family; the subject heading read, memorably, “Where’s the beef?”; and the contents: a link to the national UU website and a chastisement of our exploration into what my father deemed a faithless, and I intimated, useless, construct. I wept onto my keyboard—chastised, embarrassed, and abandoned. For years, these familial slights gnawed at me—at our relationships. At our quest to raise our son well.
It was about 2014 when I got an E-reader and was excited to read an electronic copy of a book. I recalled reading the list of titles available in the HCCO community’s library; I recognized some of them available on my reader. I considered it a dirty pleasure to skim titles I wouldn’t dare at a bookstore… sexy titles like: The God Delusion, Arguably, God Is Not Great, Freethinkers, and A Manual for Creating Atheists. My eyes rested upon Seth Andrews’ Deconverted— which promised to read more like a memoir of leaving the faith. Needing a personal voice, I clicked on it, purchased it, opened the text, and didn’t stop reading until it was done. Those hours passed by like minutes. I annotated the text, commented with questions… devoured the ideas. Was grateful my own deconversion was not as traumatic. I set the Nook on the table and talked to Ed at length about all I read and was thinking. I was changed. I saw a flicker of light and knew the shame and guilt had to end. Over the next few years, I read everything I could. (but in book form…I discovered I hate e-reading!) Including the website for the HCCO. I didn’t know who they were or what they did, but I liked a lot of the things that they liked. And thought—could that be our new “church”? I sent a message to whomever was answering emails at the time—asking for information, but that I was fearful of losing my job working in such a conservative school system; I wanted to remain closeted—anonymous. Obviously still cloaked in the shame of my former self… I got no response, but kept creeping onto the website. Opening the calendar. Wondering who or what could fit the new self I was growing to understand.
Where I taught, I began to have more and more students who were finding their voice in my classes now that I was teaching at the high school level rather than the MS. Some were finding solace in writing about their lack of belief. They were comfortable saying the word “atheist”…and like me, some were not. Some were hiding from parents and grandparents. Some were being harassed at lunch or in the halls for not joining Young Life or believing in Jesus-as-their-savior. Some came by to talk. Some were venting about the abstinence-only health class’ focus. One senior boy needed a sounding board to write a research paper on America’s burgeoning trend toward disbelief. Ryan was a former student in both my 8th and 10th grade classes; he ran his thesis by me and lamented he needed more print sources. I immediately thought of my laden bookshelves at home and quietly offered to curate some titles for him to borrow. That night I proudly packed a bag for him and he, the next morning, was grateful—and shocked I had so many of the books he’d heard of.
Even later, one girl came to talk about starting a group at school. A group of non-believers who discussed the things that made us an “us” as a group: our national politics, our needing a place to gather free of judgement and marginalization. A place to talk about the videos, podcasts, and articles we were reading. A place to feel normal. And could that place be my room? Please, Mrs. Repko? Sure, I said. Still afraid of being fired, or at least “flagged” in some way; or chastised by the other 75% of my colleagues, I conceded. The kids needed this and my fear was no reason to shy away. We put in our request for a club to the principal and they, with 4 charter members, were writing their mission statement the next morning. I owe so much gratitude to Lindsey Lenhart for her candor and persistence. Through her, I personally, finally got comfortable saying “atheist”. Humanist. I got comfortable being myself.
That spring, still rattled by our own family’s disapproval, Ed and I stumbled upon the Recovering from Religion group run by Charles and Tiffany Hill. We attended a meeting with Danny, who attended Camp Quest that summer and was now almost a teenager, and we fell right into step. We found others who were also disenfranchised. We felt a camaraderie in sharing our stories. We enjoyed hearing others’ stories and supporting those who came from diverse and inspirational places. Sitting on the Hill’s couch made me feel so at ease. So at peace with the decisions I had made to get me where I was unknowingly being pulled. I met Frank Zindler who is a part of the fabric of the American Atheists—I met people whose hearts were broken by family members like mine. And I looked to the HCCO calendar regularly now to map the meetings I would eagerly attend.
That summer I took Lindsey and her dad to the National Secular Student Alliance conference on the OSU campus. I was comforted to see Bob Roehm there—he was a welcoming, memorable face at the HCCO table and someone I knew from the Hill’s meetings. Lindsey, her dad, and I were energized by being under one roof with others who thought like us, and we grew that weekend. And afterward, so did the Olentangy Orange HS Freethinkers. The kids came—and stayed. We are now in our third year going strong. Our members’ current concerns are about authentic “branding”, increasing membership, and service projects. The kids now also have a standing invitation to participate on a religious diversity panel as part of our district, community-wide celebration of diversity: the “One Community Conference” held every February.
That summer my friend Drew called and said he wanted to marry his partner, Greg. And would I do the ceremony? YES—I’d be delighted! But how? I applied to the Humanist Society, took a class at the AHA conference in Charleston, SC and got certified as Humanist Celebrant. Since then, I have done 3 weddings and a funeral. And as I progressed in my practice, got great advice from fellow celebrants, August Brunsman, and Robert Ridgard—both with whom I’d been able to access through the HCCO…
Over the most recent years, Eddie and I have enjoyed spending time with the Freethinker Media club, attending some of the monthly meetings: where else could I have seen people like Dr. Scott Gaudi, astronomer? Mark Hubbe, anthropologist? Or Dr. Meghan Raehll, philosopher? I have enjoyed ASH events at the UU, and this year’s summer picnic… Ed and I have also been steadily working at creating opportunities to gather other non-believers in our house for both solstice and equinox dinner parties, and salons where guests gather to talk and visit. We are looking to expand this into the greater Delaware County area to better serve the needs of our neighbors and utilize resources close to home. We are searching for the best point of entry—when it meshes, rather than tangles, with our existing world. But I have a feeling we’ll just have to jump in at some point…
I met Rose Hagalaz a few summers ago and she encouraged me in this venture. We met in person only once about starting our Delaware group, but having her as a touch point made me feel strong. Her connection to the HCCO was a conduit for me—her welcoming voice encouraged me to visit this community and to embrace them—you all—as template, as touchstone, as foundation, as inspiration for all a humanist community needs to be. All a Humanist human needs to be. Since then, the valuable friendships forged with Nathan Weller and Karla Norquist have energized Ed and I—and quite literally, fed us. I found the HCCO FB page where I have come to look forward to Derrick Strobl’s thought-provoking questions. I frequent the Meetup page where Randall Saunder’s posts inspire me to be more active and informed.
Throughout writing this reflective timeline for you all this evening, in my own memoir-like voice, I have found peace from my past frustrations. I have found that rather than being beholden to that past, it is more valuable to embrace my future where there is more hope than fear. It is of utmost importance to note that I come to you with profound gratitude for just your being here. For offering the tools I needed, the people to lean on, and the time to rest a minute to solidify, and articulate…and practice my beliefs. Not surprisingly, I have found answers to the previous questions I have posed throughout:
What do I believe in?
I believe in YOU. I can see you. I can hear you. I believe that humans are inherently good. I see the good you all do, and I am grateful, and humbled, to be in your presence.
Where do we find our people?
Right here. And in our work places. And in our local coffee shops. And by crossing the streets where we live. We find them with our open minds and open hearts—with our truth on our lips.
Who makes the casseroles?
The people who have come to love us. Despite our differences—more so, in-spite-of those differences. The people who see us—really see us; and love us any way.
Where do I go to worship?
My living room. And a park in Hilliard. And at a branch of the Columbus library. And Karla Norquist’s kitchen table. And Tiffany Hill’s couch. And a coffee shop with Ben Iten…
…And this hotel banquet room. On a chilly December night. Where we commune together. Where we celebrate our good will toward each other. Where we are free to BE.
In taking a step back to recount my own growth, I am left with the idea now, that my responsibility is to make room for others to walk with me. Considering the avalanche of declining churches, I recognize my visibility might be someone else’s beacon—like so many here have been for me. I see that I am going to need to stay visible, strong in my convictions, ever-present and active in my various communities. More people are coming. And people like me are watching and waiting to be their true selves. I know I need to be ever-mindful of the net I am a part of. I know I need to be ready to catch those who need a place. Where others can also safely come to BE.
Thank you all.