Thanks for the stories guys. I enjoyed all of them, including the one from Michaelyn linked to above. I knew some of these details but definitely not all of them. It’s encouraging to see what the group has provided for everyone and how. It gives me some useful perspective on what might be going through new members’ heads.
As for myself, SOMA became a lifeline for me when I reached the point where I could no longer tolerate being a covert atheist is a Pentecostal church anymore. Like Thomas and Michaelyn, I came to the first meeting with some trepidation, not knowing what to expect.
But Andrew Stangl, the president at the time, made me feel very welcome. Keiv, Emily Stangl, Jon Voisey, and Henry (“The Jew”) also made me feel welcomed and respected.
SOMA provided an outlet for me to connect with other like-minded secular people and share my story. I had many lively debates with Paul Youk on the SOMA listserv about all kinds of philosophical and social issues, which eventually transformed into mutual respect and friendship. I connected with Brenda and Mark Frei in sharing a vision for a kinder, gentler expression of atheism. Bruce S. Springsteen was a constant source of intellectual encouragement and continues to be someone with whom I share respect and admiration.
Along the road, many new SOMA friends came and left. I felt they had varying degrees of positive influence on the direction of the group and helped set the stage for an ambitious, energetic, and outgoing new president, Joey Ralph.
I had served with Joey on the officer board prior to his presidency. Joey, myself, and other new officers had recently participated together in a contentious “SOMA name change” debate. We ultimately conceded to leaving the group’s name the same. But I think the underlying issue was that we wanted a new direction for SOMA. We wanted the group to be more welcoming and to provide more opportunities for participation and input from non-officers and newcomers. As Joey would come to say frequently at meetings “This is YOUR group. SOMA is what YOU make it.”
I was pleasantly surprised to see the new approach and the energy that Joey poured into the group to be a stunning success. Newcomers were rising to Joey’s challenge and indeed making the group their own. More and more energy and investment were being poured into SOMA by new people. New members like Thomas and Conrad took the lead in adding new expansions to the group’s activities. Older members like Paul, Charlie, and I had new people to connect with and new activities to invest our time into. Meetings evolved from the basic format they once had to become more energetic, inclusive, and personal.
Along the way, I had created my YouTube series as an attempt to help foster empathy between religious believers and secularists, as well as provide a resource to secularists still trying to understand their new identity and possibly reconcile it with a former religious background. I was extremely encouraged when Conrad, Thomas, Joey, and other members discovered my series and enthusiastically supported it. I was touched to meet new SOMA members like Jon Nelson who found the series personally meaningful.
SOMA has continued to be a source of incredible friendships and experiences for me. It means so much to me to be able to connect with people through intellectual and empathetic discussion as well as just enjoy their company and have fun. Everything from Java Break to the group meetings to the parties provide a joy in my life that I will always value.