At our Annual Meeting in February, the congregation voted to affiliate with the Oasis Network, a growing group of secular communities. While our affiliation will make little difference to what happens at West Hill in Scarborough, we hope it will provide inspiration and a framework for the development of new communities in other areas of the city and perhaps even further afield as the network becomes more established in Canada.
The seeds for the Oasis Network were planted in 2012, when Mike Aus, after a long process of rationalizing his Christian faith, left the congregation he had been pastoring, convinced that he could no longer lead them as a non-believer. But within a few weeks of his departure, members of his former congregation approached him about starting a community for those who were questioning traditional beliefs or who had already transitioned beyond them.
Gathering a leadership team together, Mike and a handful of other interested people worked together to create a community. They opened the doors of their rented conference facilities that September. Over a hundred people showed up and Houston Oasis was launched. Since then it has become a thriving community and a model that freethinkers in other cities have begun to emulate.
A little over a year later, Helen Stringer (that’s her in the striped top!), a life-long church goer, sat down at her computer in Kansas City and Googled “atheist church”. Finding a kindred spirit in Mike, who happily shared ideas with her, Helen, too, pulled together a leadership team, and in April 2014, launched Kansas City Oasis with over two hundred in attendance. Along the way, Helen and Mike created the Oasis Network. Its mission is to help others form their own Oasis communities by providing support, a working model, resources, and a greater community at large.
West Hill and the Oasis Network have much in common. The Oasis’ core values resonate with our VisionWorks, a document Mike immediately recognized as a fuller expression of the Oasis’ succinct, five-point list:
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.
There are now five active Oasis communities in the States. In addition to Houston and Kansas City, leadership teams have come together and launched communities in Boston, MA, and in Logan and Provo, Utah. Seven more teams are in the process of developing communities in other cities across the States. West Hill is both the first Canadian community to affiliate and the first existing community to do so.
There are two principles that are essential to the Oasis Network beyond its core values: collaboration and autonomy.
Each community affiliated has access to whatever learning previous communities have amassed and that can be incredibly helpful. (For example, the Network has collated their most successful practices in a comprehensive document for starting new communities.) And resources can be shared within the network. West Hill, over the past fifteen years, has been challenged to source or create resources that respect the diverse perspectives of its members; there is a dearth of material out there. Now, we will have access to materials created or used in other Oasis communities and we will share our resources with them.
As for autonomy, each community can create a style that suits their context and the people who gather. So far, most meet on Sunday mornings but one could just as easily decide that Wednesday evenings are best. West Hill, to date, is the only Oasis community that has communal singing, something that others have not introduced or found to be a barrier to participation. And before being affiliated with Oasis, our West West Hill community determined that it wanted to meet around a potluck meal. That’s the kind of autonomy Oasis expects and inspires. In other words, Oasis communities can do almost anything they want to do as long as they do it in a way that respects the core values the network has identified.
But there are a few things that Oasis communities won’t do and these are so alike West Hill that we thought them worth sharing. They won’t require adherence to a belief system or the lack of one; participants represent a wide spectrum of religious and ideological beliefs, just like West Hill. And, also just like West Hill, they won’t provide a soapbox for anti-religious rhetoric. Those who have been at one of our services or who attend regularly know that disparaging believers isn’t welcome here. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have people in our community who actively pursue the right to freedom from religion through other avenues in their lives. Gretta often speaks publicly to the need for public space that is free from religious intrusion. But our Sunday morning gatherings seek to create a barrier free space and, in order to do that, that space needs to be as comfortable for religious believers as it is for those who are not.
We’re looking forward to the collaboration that affiliation will provide and we’re excited about working with Mike, Helen, and others like them. If you have any questions about what our affiliation with the Oasis Network means, don’t hesitate to talk with a member of the Board or gretta.