March 8 was a day that had loomed large on the calendar of the Bronx Community College Secular Humanist Club for a long time. The SHC was sponsoring a lecture by Massimo Pigliucci on the role of comic books in the popularization of philosophical concepts, immediately following which we would be tabling at the semesterly BCC Club Fair.
The night before the events, I received a Facebook message from a young black woman using a pseudonym. A former BCC student, she had run across my contact information in connection with promotional material for the Massimo lecture, and asked if she would be permitted to attend though not registered. She sent a second message moments later, saying that she’d looked at my online bio and discovered I was in fact an atheist, and that she’d never met one before aside from herself. She also shared her fear and frustration over not being able to come out to her family and community. “The black community is not so accepting of people like me,” she wrote, “so I keep pretending to be a believer and it’s killing me.”
It’s a familiar story, one which I’ve now heard in dozens of permutations both on and off campus. I assured her that she was not only permitted to attend the lecture, but very welcome at our Club meetings, where she would find an understanding and supportive group. I also pointed her toward some other organizations that would quickly disabuse her of the feeling that she was the only black nontheist in town, such as African Americans for Humanism, Black Atheists of America, and Harlem Humanists — with whom we had spent the inspiring Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers on February 26.
Massimo’s lecture the next day was lively, thought-provoking, and decently attended. At the conclusion of the presentation, I spent several minutes distributing materials to interested students, one of whom smilingly introduced herself as the previous night’s Facebook correspondent. I told her I was very, very glad to meet her, and introduced her to Stephanie LeRoy, the Director ofCenter For Inquiry-NYC, who had come to help with the Club Fair and whom I’d spotted in the audience midway through the presentation. The two spent half an hour talking together while I tied up some loose ends.
By the time we reached the Club Fair, things were already in full swing, with lively conversation and colorful humanist swag on display (courtesy of Stephanie, AAH’s Debbie Goddard and the Secular Student Alliance). We were tabling alongside our friends in the Rainbow Alliance, a recently rebooted LGBTQ club, and fielded the occasional question above the noise. Glancing up at one point, I saw my Facebook correspondent standing next to SHC President Theodore Edwards and busily explaining her beliefs to a cluster of animated students.
“Happy?” I asked her after the conversation ended.
“Oh yes,” she beamed. “Very happy.”
That night, she changed her Facebook account to display her real name.
It’s the same old song, but forgive me for indulging in yet another chorus. Think of the young people who will benefit from your efforts and example. Be part of the network of connections and support they so desperately need. Build bridges. Be out. Be active. Be engaged.
And check your Facebook messages. You never know.