Everyday Humanist Heroes, a new series in the American Humanist Association’s weekly digital newsletter, celebrates our movement’s group organizers, activists, support staff, and volunteers making a difference in their communities. Who do you want to celebrate? Email the magazine at email@example.com to tell us about them.
Heroes don’t always wear capes but, when they’re part of local humanist groups, they often wear many hats. Matthew DeGrave, the organizer of the Southeastern Virginia Atheists, Skeptics, & Humanists (SEVASH), a chapter of the American Humanist Association (AHA), is a perfect example. He contributes to their Free Food Pantry project, is an active member of their Legislative Action Team, and has represented humanists with an invocation during local city council meetings. He’s also the new Treasurer of the regional Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH).
“Despite the amount of work ahead of us, Matthew maintains a cool demeanor and steel resolve,” said WASH President and fellow SEVASH organizer Aiden Barnes. “He’s been an inspiration to me on how to approach challenges without resorting to overly emotionally-charged rhetoric, even though we’re all emotionally and psychologically drained from the constant attacks on our secular worldview.”
With the SEVASH Legislative Action Team, DeGrave is currently tracking and lobbying on over forty bills relevant to secular interests in the Commonwealth of Virginia. “Some of the bills are steps in the right direction, like HB605 in Virginia, which seeks to remove the prohibition on same-sex marriage from the Virginia constitution,” he explained. “Unfortunately, there are quite a few bad bills that we are tracking from major steps back on abortion rights (like HB212 and HB1274), to discrimination against trans-students (SB766, HB988).” The team sends action alerts to group members and partner organizations to address bills coming up to committee. Last year, DeGrave was able to speak to a sub-committee to support a ban on religious organizations being allowed to discriminate against couples trying to adopt children.
On July 13, 2021, DeGrave gave an important invocation, inspired by the AHA’s Ten Commitments, for the city council meeting for Newport News, VA. He said:
As this body convenes to do the business of the city, instead of lowering our heads in prayer, I suggest that we look ahead, with anticipation and enthusiasm, for the task set before us. To accomplish this let us use:
Altruism—Seek to alleviate the suffering and hardships of others with compassionate action. By caring for others around us and lifting each other up, we reinforce healthy connections and contribute to the betterment of our community, society, and the world.
Empathy—Empathy requires us to step outside of our own perspective to consider someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or circumstances from that person’s point of view.
Critical thinking—Thinking critically allows us to make sense of information presented and reason our way to good judgments and effective solutions to the problems we face while rigorously avoiding pitfalls like rationalization, conformity, and stereotyping.
Let us also cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, and our shared love for the people of Newport News. Let us root our decision-making process in these values that are relevant to all regardless of religious belief or nonbelief.
And finally, if I may borrow a little bit from Mayor Price,
May the actions that you take tonight uplift the city of Newport News.
“All the city employees were awesome and seemed genuinely happy for me to be there,” recalled DeGrave. So it was frustrating to later learn that Mayor McKinley Price had decided to block future humanist invocations because he believed that “an invocation required a belief in a higher power” and only one or two council members wanted to be more inclusive. DeGrave tried to push back and requested the council adopt a moment of silence instead to help center the council to conduct their business. (Other Virginia cities do a mix of nondenominational invocations and moments of silence).
DeGrave would love to support the humanist community with more invocations in the future and will always speak up for his values. “It is tiring but I really want my kids and their generation to have a better life. Honestly, I think that everyone wants the same thing. The problem is that, for certain groups, this means resisting any changes that even slightly appear to change or challenge the current status quo.”
Thanks to dedicated everyday humanist heroes like Matthew DeGrave, the humanist community is confidently looking ahead at the work that needs to be done to ensure a better life for future generations and not letting our challenges block our view.