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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The Secular Student Alliance completes semester-long service project of offering aid to Tucson’s homeless

    Members+of+the+Secular+Student+Alliance+put+together+care+packages+full+of+personal+hygiene+products+tobe+donated+to+the+homeless+during+the+holiday+season+on+Wednesday+in+the+Cesar+E.+Chavez+building.
    Rebecca Noble

    Members of the Secular Student Alliance put together care packages full of personal hygiene products tobe donated to the homeless during the holiday season on Wednesday in the Cesar E. Chavez building.

    “Where do you get your morals? Do you worship Satan? Why do you hate God?”

    It’s questions such as these that members of the Secular Student Alliance must tackle in their mission to rid the negativity associated with the term “atheist.”

    Meeting on a weekly basis, the 40 members of the club gather to create a safe-place to discuss ideas, tell anecdotes and hold a few debates. A typical topic is learning how to be comfortable sharing one’s atheist or agnostic beliefs with friends and family.

    “Getting rid of the stigma is definitely part of the mission of this club,” said Jessica Draper, a political science junior who founded the club two years ago. As president of the club, Draper is attempting to shift its direction toward more community involvement.

    Starting earlier this semester, the SSA launched its first service project by donating care packages to Tucson’s homeless population. Members were broken up into four teams and competed to accumulate the greatest amount of helpful supplies such as toothpaste, socks and shampoo. The club estimates to have gathered enough supplies for 50 total care packages, which they will hand out later this month.

    The service project was inspired by observations made by the club’s events coordinator, R.T. Justice, a business management student. After experiencing a few, brief bouts of homelessness himself while traveling across the country, Justice noticed how some Christian-based charities required a declaration of faith before handing out donations to the homeless.

    “Our goal is to kind of mimic what churches do,” Draper said. Draper has dreams of someday opening a purely secular homeless shelter where the needy won’t feel pressured to adopt beliefs that are not their own.

    Draper realized she was an atheist at the age of 11 when she joined the chat room of the virtual pet community Neopets and had her worldview broadened by online acquaintances. Draper’s father is also an atheist, yet he grew up in the polygamist sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints.

    Though a relative of the FLDS Church’s former president, Warren Jeffs, who was infamously convicted for two counts of child sexual abuse in 2011, Draper said she and her family have long been disassociated with the church.

    Even with a father who supported her beliefs, Draper said she still had a hard time admitting her atheism while in high school. When arriving at the UA, Draper set out to build a community for atheists, agnostics and curious individuals to freely express their doubts or passions regarding religion.

    “Don’t think you’re alone, because that’s how most of us felt before we joined,” said Alexandra Mazur, an elementary education junior and vice president of SSA.
    Mazur said her journey to becoming atheistic was a long process of self-exploration. Not coming from a religious household, Mazur experimented going to church while in high school as she thought it would make her a good person.

    Disagreeing with some homophobic ideas preached by her church, Mazur left to find a new home at the SSA when she was a freshman.

    “They are the friends I know I will be friends with the rest of my life,” Mazur said.

    From hiking trips to potluck parties, the SSA encourages a strong social component to the club. In order to become an official member, a student is required to attend at least half of all SSA meetings and commit regularly to volunteering at club events.

    The SSA can frequently be seen tabling on the UA Mall throughout the semester, where members invite passersby to start a conversation on any facet of atheism or religion. “Send an Atheist to Church” is a fundraiser put on by the club every semester where people can vote with their dollars what denomination of church they send an SSA member.

    Mazur said a major principle of SSA is education in all religions. The club has begun a partnership with the UA chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to co-host events allowing members of each club to start a dialogue on one another’s beliefs.

    “Everyone has such strong opinions, and everyone thinks differently,” said Gabriela Diaz, a journalism senior. Growing up in the predominantly Catholic culture of Puerto Rico, Diaz said she found a family of like-minded people when she joined SSA just over a year ago.

    The club is a versatile mix of personalities and backgrounds. From art students to computer science majors, the SSA welcomes the most unshakable atheists but also those just uncertain about their beliefs. Draper said she hopes to expand the club’s presence around the UA community next semester by possibly staging a SSA talent show and celebrating Charles Darwin’s birthday in February with an evolution-themed event.

    Community service will remain a priority for the club as, at their last meeting, members discussed ideas to build relationships with local elementary schools to offer after-school tutoring.

    A main objective for SSA will still be trying to get others to understand club members’ ideology.

    “We are not Satanism,” Mazur said. The club jokingly discussed the future prospect of inviting a group of Satanists at an upcoming meeting to learn about a worldview it frequently gets mistaken for.

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    Follow Kevin C. Reagan on Twitter.

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