This is a true story. The culminating events took place just after the Summer 2008 salmonella outbreak.
Those who are unfamiliar with atheism always seem surprised when I tell them I do charitable work and astonished when I tell them I do more of it since I became an atheist than I ever did earlier. To me though, there is no disconnect between my beliefs and doing service for my community. I don’t need divine sanction to see that the Golden Rule is a sensible guide for anyone wishing to live within a community and it is in my own interest to help make that community the kind I’d want live in. Hence, I do charitable work.
A couple of years ago I volunteered to work in a local food bank. That’s a place that distributes donated food to the needy. This particular bank was run by an evangelical church. I didn’t have any problems with that. Our motivations might not have been 100% the same, but the end result was that food got distributed to those it could help. There were a few problems though that were caused by the church-folks’ needs. They preferred to have both their volunteers and customers join in prayer and bible study groups …before they handed out the food.
Every so often they would ask me to join them in prayer, etc. Once I was stacking items on the shelves when two men and a woman came up to me to ask if I had a minute to discuss something important.
“Sure,” I said. “I never argue with anyone who wants me to take a break.”
“Well,” said one of the men, “we’d really like you to join us in group prayer this morning.”
“I’m sorry but I can’t join you in a Christian prayer. You see, I’m not a Christian.”
The woman seemed puzzled by my response. “What are you then,” she asked, “a Catholic?”
“Uh… no,” I replied. “My family is Jewish.” That answer was slightly evasive. My family is Jewish. I, however, am an atheist. Still, they seemed satisfied enough to drop the subject and not ask me to participate in their prayer groups for nearly a month.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed my couple hours a week volunteering at the food bank. The work wasn’t onerous and the people were friendly and easy to talk to …provided I kept away from the subject of religion. It couldn’t be avoided altogether of course, but I studiously kept my personal views to myself whenever it was brought up.
Things went well for about a year and a half, but then came my downfall. One of my duties as a volunteer was to watch over the distribution of food. Besides the pre-packed bags we handed out, there were a number of tables where things were placed so that our “customers” could pick items out for themselves. Since there were always a lot of customers but not always a lot of these items, certain limits had to be applied to see that no one took too much of any one thing; for example, we allowed only two bread loaves and one dessert item to go to each family.
So, one day I spotted a heavyset woman taking far more than her allotted amount of food from the tables.
“Please Madam,” I said, “take only your share and leave some for the others.” She rounded on me angrily and snapped, “You can’t tell me what to do. I’m moved by the Holy Spirit and you aren’t!”
I was flabbergasted by the odd response but only replied, “well, I may not be moved by the Holy Spirit but I do know what the rules are here.”
She gave me a dirty look and flounced off angrily… to complain, as I found out shortly, to the pastor in charge of the food bank. As it also turned out, I really didn’t know what the rules were here.
I could feel the thunderclouds gathering though when the pastor asked to speak to me in private. He sat down behind his desk and motioned me to sit down as well. He looked very serious and perhaps a little sad too.
“You know,” he said, “you’re the only volunteer here who isn’t a member of our church. Now we don’t mind that,” he added quickly, “because we’re a democratically-minded organization. However, we hoped you would eventually see the light and get with the program. That hasn’t happened. Instead, we feel you have become a disunifying influence and we don’t want you to work here any longer.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Is this about the woman who was taking too much food? I only told her what I was told to tell everybody.”
The pastor sighed and said, “Look, you’re a smart fellow so I’m going to explain it to you. We believe in the Holy Spirit and in following what the Holy Spirit tells us to do. That woman is a member of our church and when she says that the Holy Spirit moves her to do something then it is evident to us that what she is doing is God’s Will.”
I must have looked dubious at that because he then added, “I know the Holy Spirit works through us. During the recent salmonella outbreak, we were offered many batches of donated tomatoes and the Holy Spirit moved us to take only the safe batches. As a result, none of our customers or congregation has suffered from food poisoning.”
I politely refrained from pointing out how impartial the Holy Spirit’s help was since no one else in California had come down with food poisoning either. I doubt whether pointing that out would have made any difference anyway. Rules, whether of logic or food banks, are only important when the Holy Spirit wants them to be and I was still going to get kicked out of there. In the final analysis, I may not have been moved by the Holy Spirit, but I was definitely removed by him!
Note: My story first appeared in the July/August 2009 edition of The Humanist, and is reprinted here with their kind permission.
Another interesting side note is that it eventually turned out that tomatoes were not the culprit in the salmonella outbreak; peppers were. It makes one wonder why the Holy Spirit didn’t know that and moved the food bank people to turn down a number of what were, in all likelihood, completely safe batches of tomatoes.
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1) Dove representing the Holy Spirit (art from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome)
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