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Don’t call it atheist church; secular communities are growing

Participants listen to speakers during Kansas City"™s first Oasis gathering on April 6, 2014, in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
Participants listen to speakers during Kansas City"™s first Oasis gathering on April 6, 2014, in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
Sally Morrow, Religion News Service

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A group of nonbelievers held its first secular Sunday service here earlier this month. These meetings fill a need that area atheists say wasn’t being met: weekly get-togethers for like-minded people in a family-friendly environment.

The group is called Kansas City Oasis, and it’s modeled after Houston Oasis in Texas. But don’t call it an “atheist church” — they prefer “secular community,” or “humanist community.”

These Oasis communities aren’t the only Sunday meetup. Another secular Sunday meeting model, Sunday Assembly, has spread throughout England, the U.S. and Australia.

Kansas City has several active groups and organizations targeted toward the nonreligious. The Kansas City Atheist Coalition has well over 100 members — and those are just the dues-paying members.

But most of the groups only meet once a month, or for special events — and most of them aren’t geared toward those with young children.

“Things tend to be for the under-30 and childless, and that’s hard,” said Helen Stringer, executive director of Kansas City Oasis. She and her husband, both atheists, have a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old.

One group that is family-oriented — Freethinking Family Fellowship — meets monthly, which can make it hard to build community.

Stringer said she wanted to connect with parents who share the same values on a regular basis.

Houston Oasis offers special programming for the kids, and Stringer said Kansas City Oasis is following Houston’s model.

That model doesn’t include “teaching atheism,” said Lynae Vingle, who oversees the children’s activities at Houston Oasis. “There’s no indoctrination into anything,” she said.

Instead, it’s about building community.

At Houston Oasis, a typical Sunday morning for the kids usually includes playing with Legos, doing puzzles, coloring and some other fun activities. One week, they did an architecture craft project with toothpicks and orange peels.

Last summer, the Houston Oasis held a one-day camp, Camp Oasis.

“If you’re a family that has a secular perspective and you have children, you’re probably not going to want to send them to the local vacation Bible school during the summer,” said Mike Aus, a former Lutheran pastor who is now the head of Houston Oasis.

He also mentioned how teens sometimes feel pressured to go to church youth groups; Houston Oasis has been working on its youth programs.

Aside from the specific children’s activities, the overall culture of both Oasis groups is meant to be family-focused.

At Kansas City Oasis, every Sunday is set to include live music from local artists. Josh Stewart, the assistant director and music director of Kansas City Oasis, said he looks for bands that are upbeat, positive and family friendly. He said the music is all performance-based, so people don’t feel pressured to sing along — but if sing-alongs happen naturally, that’s fine. The point, he said, is to provide entertainment and community.

Each gathering also features a speaker — sometimes, Stringer said, she might speak, while other times it will be a guest. Darrel Ray, the founder of Recovering from Religion, is scheduled to speak at the group’s second gathering on Sunday (April 13).

Stringer hopes that eventually, Kansas City Oasis will provide more layers of connectivity through mom’s groups, other niche get-togethers and service opportunities.

“I want us to be a community that really gives back,” she said. “I don’t want it to be just a big Sunday party, but I also want it to be something outside of that.”