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The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
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…we have a winner.

In the past seven years or so, I’ve seen quite a few humanistic organizations from the inside — freethought groups, Ethical Societies, Congregations for Humanistic Judaism, UUs, etc. Met a lot of wonderful people working hard to make their groups succeed. All of the groups have different strengths, and all are struggling with One Big Problem: creating a genuine sense of community.

I’ve written before about community and the difficulty freethought groups generally have creating it. Some get closer than others, but it always seems to fall a bit short of the sense of community that churches so often create. And I don’t think it has a thing to do with God.

The question I hear more and more from freethought groups is, “How can we bring people in the door and keep them coming back?” The answer is to make our groups more humanistic — something churches, ironically, often do better than we do.

Now I’ve met an organization founded on freethought principles that seems to get humanistic community precisely right. It’s the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (above), host of my seminar and talk last weekend, and the single most effective humanistic community I have ever seen.

So what do they have going for them? My top ten list:

10. A great space. Not every group can meet in a neo-Jacobean mansion with lions guarding the stairs, dark woodwork, high ceilings and art-glass windows—but too many groups meet in sterile, fluorescent-lit common rooms full of metal folding chairs and free of even a scrap of inspiration or warmth. Budgets are tight, but every group should do whatever it can to warm up the spaces in which they meet—curtains, wood, carpet, tablecloths, art, etc.

9. Music. When I walked into the Brooklyn Society, a member was playing showtunes on an old upright piano as people stood around chatting and laughing. Twenty minutes before the gathering began, they switched on a CD of jazz standards. Think of what music does for a dinner party, filling in gaps in conversation and casting a glow around the room. EVERY GROUP should have music playing 20 minutes before the meeting begins.

8. Food. Everybody loves to eat. All meetings should start with yummy food. Not a box of pink frosted cookies. Food, glorious food.

7. A call to action. Have a prominent display calling members to collective social action—a donation box, a chart tracking funds raised, a signup sheet for the next Habitat for Humanity day. Keep social action as prominent as any intellectual content. And make sure to include human-centered social action, like soup kitchens, food pantries, battered women’s shelters, etc. — not just trash pickup and book sales.

6. Ritual. (Uh oh, I lost half the audience.) Ritual doesn’t have to mean fuzzy-wuzzy woowoo. In the case of the BSEC, leader Greg Tewksbury started the gathering by yanking on a tubular wind chime that hung at the side of the lectern. He tugged it again at each dividing point in the gathering. Gives a nice sense of rhythm and structure.

5. Emotion. Freethought groups naturally like their intellectual content, but it frequently happens to the complete exclusion of emotional and inspirational elements. BSEC managed to include a constant feeling of emotional warmth without the slightest theistic feel. Since my talk was on parenting, Greg opened by asking those present to turn to the person next to them and share a time they nurtured someone or were nurtured by someone. Five minutes of discussion followed, centered not on debunking this or that but on human emotion.

4. Symbolism. Like the UU chalice, the two candles on the lectern were a clear reference to light, warmth, knowledge, and life. Adds a very nice touch.

3. Diversity. Most groups I’ve visited are 80 percent white male. They don’t want to be, but they don’t know what to do about it. It helps to live in a place like Brooklyn, which made for the most diverse crowd I’ve addressed in years. If you are elsewhere, do some outreach and networking to invite folks from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to a meeting.

2. Multiple generations. I know, chicken and egg. But I cannot begin to tell you what a fabulous sense of community the Brooklyn Society gets from 20 kids running in and out among the legs of the adult members in the half-hour beforehand. And with kids come parents—people in their 20s-40s, another demographic missing from many freethought groups. Attract families by building community. Build community by doing what’s on this list.

Especially the next one.

1. A warm welcome. This is #1 on the list for a reason. It’s no surprise that we rational freethinking types aren’t generally good at sticking our hands out to welcome strangers into a room. I’m terrible at it. But there is no less welcoming feeling than entering a new space full of strangers without anyone saying word one to you.

This happens to me alllll the time as I travel around. I show up, walk in, and am promptly ignored. Ten minutes of awkward pamphlet reading later, someone finally walks up and asks if I’m new to the group.

Not at the Brooklyn Society. No fewer than five warm and pleasant people welcomed me in the first five minutes and chatted me up BEFORE they even knew I was the speaker.

The difference this makes is enormous. Every freethought group should find the person most comfortable with greeting fellow mammals and assign him/her to watch the door and enthusiastically usher newcomers in, show them around, introduce them to others.

And it needs to go well beyond one greeter. EVERY MEMBER of EVERY GROUP should make it a point to chat up new folks—and each other, for that matter. And not just about the latest debunky book. Ask where he’s from, what she does for a living, whether he follows the Mets or the Yankees. You know, mammal talk. (Now now…I joke because I love!)

Can’t manage everything on the list? No problem. Start with #1, then add what you can when and how you can. Before you know it, you’ll have a thriving, warm, humanistic community where people visit and then return, bringing their spouses and children and friends and neighbors. If I lived in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture would get my sorry butt out of bed every single Sunday.

And that’s saying something.

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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.