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Pathfinders Diary: Los Angeles gets the Pathfinders off to a good start

02 Aug

Pathfinders ProjectPathfinders Project is a yearlong international service trip (July 2013–July 2014) sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief. As they carry out their service work, the Pathfinders send us occasional reports about the projects, the places, and the people they meet along the way. Pathfinders Project Director Conor Robinson shared this inaugural report after the team’s launch in Los Angeles.

As I write to you, I am sitting on a plane to Cambodia. To the right of me are Wendy, Ben, and Michelle. Ahead of us, Bridge of Life School, Angkor Wat, intercultural exchange, challenge, and growth. Behind us, two fantastic weeks of service and training in Los Angeles.

Ben and Wendy arrived on the 16th of July, just in time for a screening of God Loves Uganda at LA’s LGBTQ film festival, Outfest. The film documents the aggressive actions of missionaries from American conservative Christian organizations such as IHOP, the International House of Prayer. Efforts by these organizations were among the factors that led to the drafting of legislation that seeks to criminalize homosexuality in Uganda. This legislation has not passed yet, and likely will not because of international pressure, but the homophobia behind it remains. Fortunately, there are organizations in Uganda that are promoting reason and compassion, organizations like Saint Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre, led by Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, which provides a safe environment, contraception, and basic medical treatment to Ugandans with HIV and AIDS regardless of sexual orientation. The schools where the Pathfinders will be volunteering are also of critical importance in raising the next generation of Ugandan children. Schools such as the Kasese Humanist Primary School and the Mustard Seed Secondary School help children understand that all humans, regardless of race, culture, religion, or sexual orientation, are interdependent and valuable.

Wendy, Conor, and Ben after volunteering with Heal the BayThe very next night, Wendy, Ben, and I had the opportunity to see another important documentary at the Topanga Film Festival. There we watched Elemental, a documentary that follows the stories of an inventor who makes more efficient machines by observing efficient structures in the natural world, an environmental scientist on a pilgrimage to clean the Ganges, and an activist fighting to preserve the rights of indigenous Canadians living on land being destroyed by tar sands drilling. All in all, the documentary underscored the importance of the clean water work we will be doing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Over the course of the following two weeks, Ben, Wendy, and I volunteered with the Westside Food Bank and TreePeople. Our work with the Westside Food Bank was a matter of sorting good fruit from bad and separating non-perishable food items by type, so that the items may be distributed to local social service organizations. In our work with TreePeople, we first tended to trees planted at Washington Elementary School to provide shade in the otherwise urban desert of Compton, and then helped to weed invasive species and water native ones as part of a habitat restoration project in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

The three of us also participated in one of Heal the Bay’s beach cleanups, an experience that illustrated the consequences of our consumption habits. When we first arrived at the beach alongside dozens of other volunteers, we didn’t think there would be anything for us to do. The beach appeared pristine. But when we got on our hands and knees and looked closely, we discovered millions of individual Styrofoam beads, all that is left of cups and plates after they make their journey from the gutter to the sea. Above the tideline, we also found fragments of plastic bags trapped under the leaves of the succulents that grow there. No matter how gently we tried to pick them up, they would often disintegrate between our fingers. Not your typical day at the beach.

The volunteering we did with each of the three Los Angeles organizations was simple but meaningful. The advantage of such uncomplicated volunteering tasks is that they allow for conversation. Incidentally, so does Los Angeles traffic. We bonded.

When we weren’t volunteering around Los Angeles, discussing cultural sensitivity, hiking around Topanga State Park, or cursing traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, the 10, or the 405, we were spreading the word about Pathfinders Project on Internet panels and in interviews. I encourage you to check out our “Meet the Pathfinders” panel that was part of FTBConscience, or our interviews on The Pink Atheist and Sgt. Skeptic podcasts. We also chatted with the folks at A-News, but that podcast isn’t up yet.   

The Pathfinders arrive in CambodiaMichelle arrived the morning of the 28th, just in time for a round of video interviews with Foundation Beyond Belief’s videographer, The Secular Human, and the Pathfinders Project launch party at Center for Inquiry–West’s Steve Allen Theater. The event featured hilarious and rousing performances by Gary Stockdale and Eric Schwartz, beautiful a cappella singing from Voices of Reason, and a Pathfinders Project panel moderated by our very own Dale McGowan. Major thanks to Bob Ladendorf and Jim Underdown of Center for Inquiry–West for letting us use the space, and to all of the supporters who came to join us in celebration! We will be posting pictures and video soon.

I have to sign off now or face the ire of the flight attendants. But before I do, I’d like you to consider this: On our flight there is a large Korean-American Christian missionary group from Orange County, California. I’ve spoken with the pastor and the pastor’s son about their work and the work of Pathfinders Project. In having such a conversation, the comparison between missionary work and our work cannot be avoided, and it shouldn’t be. Although initially put off by what I told them, ultimately the pastor and his son were impressed and even slightly chagrined about the lack of secular service involved in their itinerary, and the absence of ulterior motive in ours. Perhaps on their next trip they will incorporate more service alongside their proselytizing. Either way, I know they have an altered view of atheists and humanists as a result of our conversation.

We are making progress already, and we haven’t even begun our work in earnest. Please support us in this work by donating to Foundation Beyond Belief or directly to one of the Pathfinders, each of whom is fundraising $10,000 individually. We cannot do it without you.

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