Good Works: Humanists of Rhode Island Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity

by Steve Ahlquist

As a humanist interested in service work, I have to say that I approached my first Habitat for Humanity build with some trepidation. Though the charity is well regarded for having provided thousands of homes for low income families internationally, Habitat was founded by Millard and Linda Fuller as a “Christian housing ministry.” I am wary of groups that do good works based on religious convictions instead of human compassion and reason.

But in my research I learned that Habitat factors neither “race nor religion… in choosing families” for assistance. Also, Habitat is structured so that individual offices in various communities throughout the United States are independently run, nonprofit organizations. What this essentially means is that the level of religiousness within Habitat can vary region to region. I had heard that members of the Secular Humanists of the Low country in South Carolina were asked to turn their t-shirts inside out when they volunteered for a build. According to the group’ sfounder Herb Silverman, “The back of our shirts say: A Non-Prophet Organization.” In my opinion, that’s a pretty innocuous message to take offense to, but as a result, the entire Humanist/Habitat plan fell apart there.

As an individual volunteering with Habitat I never encountered anything akin to outright proselytizing, but many of the site managers do start their builds with prayers, which I respectfully stood silent for. Habitat is a nonprofit organization, and they have every right to pray. I was there because, as a humanist, I felt that my values and the values of Habitat had aligned, at least on the issue of providing housing for low-income families. As often as I encountered prayers, however, I encountered builds that began with a short moment of silence. I really like moments of silence: I see them as opportunities to take a breath, align my priorities, and mentally prepare for the tasks ahead. Moments of silence are also more inclusive. Perhaps more people would feel freer to volunteer if that became the norm.

Another reason I was inclined towards Habitat is because I had heard excellent things about the executive director of the Rhode Island branch, Herman deKoe. Herman has spent a lifetime engaged in volunteer work, first as a Dutch Peace Corps worker and then later with Plan International. No one I knew had anything but good words for him.

When our group, the Humanists of Rhode Island, formed around the concept of humanist service, volunteering at Habitat became one of our primary goals. Committing the group to one Saturday a month seemed like a pretty good start. Habitat structures volunteering in groups of six. Initially, only Sarah (a fellow group member) and I volunteered, but our experience was so positive that we are already well on our way towards filling all six spots for our next build in August. As our group grows we’ll be able to add more dates within the month as well.

On a hot and humid Saturday in July Sarah and I showed up at Newcomb St. in Providence to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. The day started with the site manager, Andre, saying something to the effect of, “It’s been said that every Habitat build starts with a prayer. That said, I’d like to have a moment of silence, to reflect on why we’re doing this.”

I don’t know if that was for the benefit of us humanists or not, but it was very appreciated.

Early on in the day, as we were hammering some of the exterior wall in place, the alarm of a car parked in a neighbor’s yard went off. The alarm cycled through it process and then stopped, only to restart when we began hammering again. The man who owned the car was not home, and there was no way to legally stop the alarm from going off. A woman from across the street came over to complain, not about the hammering, but about the alarm. Her elderly mother lived in the house across the street, and though the sounds of construction did not disturb her, the car alarm did. Fortunately Herman deKoe was on site, and because of Habitat’s commitment to building strong communities, he decided that until the car alarm situation could be resolved, we would have to work more quietly. The work shifted to things that could be accomplished without banging hammers. When nails were required, we got to use a nail gun, generously lent to us by the site manager Andre. The quick whoosh of the nail gun did not set off the alarm the way the manual hammering did.

I really appreciated Herman’s decision, because it was based on values. His decision put the well-being of the neighborhood first. If Habitat for Humanity is about building better communities, then being understanding of our neighbor’s very real concerns is the right place to start.

Along with Sarah and myself there were students volunteering from Brown University and the Wheeler School, as well as people from the community. I worked side by side with another Steve, a hand surgeon, as we cut boards with a rotary saw. Safety first means that we never risked our fingers, right? I learned to use a compressed air nail gun, which is an awesome and scary tool, and when used properly is very safe and fast. We transferred lumber hand-to-hand up a ladder, which is quite a workout. In the end we built the fourth exterior wall of the second floor, and together we all lifted it into place. When we were finished we had turned a breezy three walls into an enclosed second floor.

As we cleaned up and went our separate ways, there was a real feeling of accomplishment, as well as exhaustion.

Doing service as a humanist often means working with established service organizations, and very often those organizations will be religious in nature. It is important to make sure that these service organizations help everyone, and that the help they give falls in line with our humanist values. It is also important that we stand up as who we are, clearly stating that we are humanists, espousing a godless philosophy of reason and compassion. Sometimes this will mean not being able to work with some groups, as the Low country Humanists learned, but sometimes it means you can start to bring about just a little bit of change, as we did working with Habitat for Humanity.

Steve Ahlquist is a writer, artist and award winning filmmaker who has been happily married for over two decades and is the proud father of three college students. He is one of the founders of Humanists of Rhode Island.