I was raised in the church of politics. My pastors were Jerry Brown when I was nine, Maxine Waters when I was thirteen and at sixteen I joined the church of Jerry Nadler. Like every teenager, I spent some time dabbling in other churches as well. Socialism. Marxism. Anarchism. My parents had no common religious background and no desire to pass along holiday traditions that were not explicitly food-related, so my beliefs never took on a spiritual element.
Despite what seems to be the abiding conviction of many religious Americans, I am still a responsible citizen regardless of the fact that I am happily God-less. I am a responsible voter, involved in my community and to that end I recently signed up with a friend's church to help build houses at a Habitat for Humanity site in Los Angeles. The absence of an actual religion has never been a problem for me, but volunteering with a church brought up another question that I was wholly unprepared to deal with. As a civically engaged secular person, was I okay with doing a good deed in the name of the church?
Many religions, and I mention Christianity specifically because I was volunteering with a Christian group for a Christian organization, have a belief in helping those in need. Generally communities welcome churches with the assumption that they will be doing something good for the area as part of their mission. The presence of the church, after all, often means the presence of a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, support services for the elderly, local pre-schools, etc. These are all enviable services that are absolutely necessary to the healthy functioning of a community.
With that said, I hesitate to give credence to the notion that in order to volunteer for a charity, you should look to hook up with a church group. Churches don't do good deeds or provide community services as effectively as secular, non-partisan groups can because they inevitably have considerations beyond a simple assessment of who needs help and how much.
The basic belief of any religious organization is that their members know something that other people don't. That people need not just moral guidance in general, but their moral guidance. This isn't close-mindedness. It is simply what a church has to believe in order to believe in its own existence. A religious organization may coordinate volunteers for charity projects, as any organization can and should from large corporations to sports leagues, but their focus will never be on developing a moral compass based on shared humanity rather than religious doctrine. Church charity work will always be governed by a view of outsiders as less morally enlightened and will always come with a dose of judgment. Most troublingly, it will always be focused on the issues the church thinks are important and on the solutions church leadership thinks are most effective (abstinence-only education anyone?).
Despite all of this, it is surprisingly difficult to volunteer with anybody else, and churches are often extremely open to letting outsiders participate in their charity work. The few other options for volunteering usually involve volunteering for political groups, which are hardly less divisive. As an unaffiliated, non-religious person who is not interested in sitting out prayers or services at the volunteer site, it is difficult to find a way to help that feels both socially and civically responsible.
Over at the Habitat site, a friend of mine asked the Habitat coordinators if we could volunteer on another Saturday and was told that they were all booked up. That week, we all received an email about a Habitat opportunity at the same site during the time period she had asked about through the church group we had gone with. Habitat, for it's part, describes itself as "a non-profit ecumenical Christian organization," and I have yet to locate a similar charity that is secular in nature. There were plenty of non-religious people on the work site the day I went, however, and plenty more who probably couldn't because they were not affiliated with a group.
Helping people is in everybody's interest even if they aren't believers. Religious people don't own the concept. Taking care of others in the community makes our cities and towns nicer, safer places to live, providing food, shelter, and healthcare to those in need gives a community a measure of financial stability and helps protect the health of all of us. People have the incentive and obligation to do the right thing without religious guidance and, if there were an easily accessible way to do this and encouragement from the community and government, they probably would.
I have politics on the brain and always will, so I already have half of my civic responsibility taken care of. I vote in every election, I read the newspaper every day, and I discuss public policy with anybody who will listen. When I want to get my hands dirty, however, I don't feel right about contributing my efforts to the general body of charity work that churches takes credit for. I want my work to be considered simply an element of my civic duty, free from religious or even political categorization.
And on a completely personal note, I'd like it if I could volunteer to build a house without being asked to take a prayer break.