A Visit To Houston Oasis
Your author found himself visiting the Houston area earlier this year. Rather than visiting the zoo, one of many museums, or even the Space Center, I wanted to see what the local freethinkers were up to.
When I arrived at Houston Oasis’ weekly Sunday Gathering, a volunteer opened the door and greeted me. Additional volunteers offered a sign-in sheet and name tag. Red nametags were issued to those who did not want to be photographed, and blue to those who didn’t mind.
Several others had roles to play: snack bar, audio-visual equipment, MC, videographer, photographer, and donation collector. As a group that gets together frequently, they had built a well-organized event that contradicted many stereotypes about nonbelievers. These cats were working together as a herd. I saw it with my own eyes.
A banner proudly displayed the organization’s core values:
- People are more important than beliefs.
- Reality is known through reason.
- Meaning comes from making a difference.
- Human hands solve human problems.
- Be accepting and be accepted.
A diverse crowd of 83 people attended. The program included music by a talented guitarist and a compelling talk by LGBT rights activist Debi Jackson, whose trans daughter faced severe discrimination in their home state of Kansas, and even within their family.
The event was strictly secular, yet inspirational.
I must have sounded like a space alien, because my conversation was something like the following: “I am from far, far away. Take me to your leaders.”
Eventually, I met up with Mike Aus, the Executive Director. He agreed to an email interview that I could share with the ASF audience:
Chris: Tell us the story of Houston Oasis. How did the organizers meet? Did it emerge from earlier organizing attempts?
Mike: In the summer of 2012, some of my friends who had left religion realized that we missed the community aspect of church life–getting together for social events, volunteer service projects, and the sense of mutual support that often comes from being part of a religious community. We started to wonder if could experience the things we liked about religious life–only without the dogmas, superstitions, etc. We started meeting over brunch on Sunday mornings to talk about what that might look like. We shared the idea with other friends and they started coming to the table too. During those brunch conversations we came up with the core values that would define our community and we landed on the name Oasis because we like what an oasis represents–a place of renewal, refreshment, and respite.
Chris: What sort of events do you have?
Mike: The main event we have each week is our Weekly Gathering, which happens to meet on Sunday mornings. It’s been described as a cross between a house concert and a “TED” style talk. Each week we feature some of the best live musicians in Houston and we have speakers on a variety of topics of interest from the arts, sciences, and humanities. Recently the former mayor of Houston spoke at one of our gatherings! In addition to the Weekly Gathering, we sponsor a variety of social events throughout the month all over the city: bar nights, potluck dinners, book studies, and an international dining event we call “Dining Beyond Borders.” We also have a huge commitment to volunteer events in the Houston area. Our service projects team has set a goal of 1,000 hours of volunteer service by Oasis folks this year.
Chris: I noted at least 10 different volunteer roles on my visit. Is it possible to start up this organizational model with a very small group of people?
Mike: Yes, it is absolutely possible to start an organization with a small group of people. That’s exactly how we started. Our initial planning team had ten people by the time we launched. At our first Weekly Gathering we had 25 people in attendance and we were ecstatic with that. We just kept getting together and people were having a good time so they told other people and we grew over time.
Chris: Does the Oasis model appeal to certain personality types more so than others? Are some people just more “communal”?
Mike: I suspect that the Oasis model would appeal more to people who want to hang out and do life with others. Humans are a tribal species. Getting together with others is in our DNA. But we are not out to convince people that they SHOULD be a part of a secular community, and we are not “evangelistic” about the concept of secular community. Many people are just fine without being part of a group like Oasis. We just want to provide the opportunity for those who want something like this. Recently a man came up to me after our Weekly Gathering and said, “I have made more friends in the two years I’ve been coming to Oasis than I have in my entire adult life previously.” It felt really good to hear that.
Chris: What would you advise a brand new secular organizer NOT to do?
Mike: Don’t try to do too much at once. Start small and scale up gradually. Building an organization is a marathon, not a sprint. And try not to stress about it too much. Obviously, there are challenges when launching any organization. But the most important thing is to have fun! Life is short and filled with enough stress as it is. And if you’re having fun doing this, other people will want to come and be a part of it.
The Oasis is Growing
Houston Oasis is growing, along with the secular movement in general. Now, the oasis is not just in Houston. It has become the Oasis Network, and communities following this model have sprouted in Austin TX, Kansas City, Toronto, Wichita KS, and multiple cities in Utah.
To learn more, visit http://www.peoplearemoreimportant.org .
To help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers create such an environment, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.