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(Post 11 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

1:00 pm EDT

I’ve always been ambivalent about clergy. The automatic grant of deference, not to mention their complicity in reinforcing belief in things I consider false (and knowing that sometimes they do, too), bothered me even as a kid. But for the last 20 years or so, I’ve spent a lot of time paying attention to what they do so I can understand what human needs are being met. There’s the need for an authority and for easy answers and all the rest, of course, but something else has begun to gel.

I saw this thing at work as I sat last December with my mom, aunt, and uncle, surrounded by boxes, as my entirely secular Mom prepared to leave her St. Louis home of 22 years to move to Atlanta. As we sat and talked about nothing, we noticed a man crossing the drive from the UCC church next door. It was the minister.

Though Mom was not a parishioner of his, they’d been very friendly neighbors, and he knew she was leaving that day. He knocked and entered, filling the room with a warm, magnetic personality. He was in the right profession.

He greeted my mom, and the introductions began. “Pastor Greg, this is my sister Madeline Denning and her husband Ben.”

The minister then did something I’ve seen countless times: “Denning, Denning — are you by any chance related to Herb Denning over in St. Charles? He attended my dad’s church for many years, wonderful man.” They thought a minute, said no, they didn’t think so.

“And this is my son Dale from Atlanta.”

“Hello Dale! Good to meet you. I love Atlanta — been there many times, especially up in the north end around Marietta. My brother and his wife are there.” When I replied that, sure enough, Marietta is not too far from me, he grinned broadly. “Wonderful place, so many trees. Just a forest everywhere you go.”

And we sat down, connected.

He told my mom how much she would be missed, remembered this or that conversation they had had, anecdote anecdote, told her he was certain she’d make many friends in Atlanta. “You’re just one of those people who draws other people to them,” he said, knowing the type well.

We chatted for a while longer, then he asked if he could offer a prayer. It was short and simple: Please protect Carol as she moves into this new phase of her life, watch over her, etc. He hugged her, shook hands with the rest of us, and was on his way.

It was nice, and Mom appreciated it very much.

I’ve quoted a line from Jennifer Hecht several times in this blog — that we live in a meaning-rupture because we are human and the universe is not. It remains one of the most insightful and eye-opening quotes I’ve ever seen. The minister was putting a human face on the universe at a challenging time for my mom, a time when it’s not emotionally convenient to live in a faceless universe.

As humanism continues to work toward building completely satisfying human community without gods, this is yet another lesson from the other side of the aisle that’s worth paying attention to.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.