Local North Carolina activist Han Hills describes his experience of being invited to deliver a non-religious invocation at a Wilmington City Council meeting.
On April 2, 2013, much to my surprise, I was asked to give the invocation* for the Wilmington City Council meeting in North Carolina. The council had been recently criticized for favoring and allowing overtly Christian statements to open their meetings. In my telephone invitation, and upon arriving in the council chambers, it was made repeatedly clear that I could not use partisan prayers. Hopefully, I put their minds at ease by explaining that I had no intention of offering prayers of any kind and that, by its nature, humanism is explicitly for everyone.
The role of “Minister” is certainly accorded special prominence and respect in the proceedings. They have a notably distinct and comfortable chair reserved at the very front and center of the audience. Before my address several councilors made a point of coming to greet me. In several cases the use of the word humanist caused them a brief look of bafflement.
Called to start the meeting I stepped forward to read my statement:
“As the council gathers here to make laws affecting the people of Wilmington I ask you to lift your heads, to open your eyes and open your hearts.
Our most serious duty is to look to the community we share, the examples we make, and the legacies we leave. That should be our greatest, most courageous and noble intention.
Let this be our most constant success. Thank you.”
My intention had been to “invoke” social responsibility, and remind those present that practical consideration and constructive action is the very core of good government.
From my vantage point I could see every reaction of the elected officials. Heads initially bowed out of habit were slowly raised. I had expected frowns, but found none. I suspect that some had thought I would denounce religion and were now pleasantly surprised. I then noticed that several members greeted my words with nods and smiles—a very unexpected approval.
I stayed standing centrally for the pledge and then turned to leave the chamber. My next shock was that the room was now filled to standing room with visitors. By chance this was a special meeting which had invited many local groups including a great number of school children. Again I expected to run a gauntlet of disapproval, but saw only smiles or polite disinterest. The court clerk also threw me an approving nod. Apparently, I had not offended the Christian community.
The next morning I took a call from a client who I knew to be a very serious and devout churchgoer. He made a point of stating he had attended and hugely enjoyed my words.
The lesson I have taken is that positive human values of community, social responsibility, rational thought and action can thrive without any need for Christian or other religious trappings. Humanist thinking can find acceptance even here in the South. This is the truth of our human spirit and we must never stop invoking it.
*In addition to delivering an invocation at the Wilmington, NC City Council meeting, Hills also delivered a humanist invocation for veterans at a recent Fourth of July ceremony.
Han Hills is a Humanist Celebrant, writer, broadcaster and community activist based in Wilmington, North Carolina.