The Helpers: Becoming a Humanist Crisis Counselor

“Looking for love in all the wrong places.”  -Johnny Lee (1980)

Saul of Tarsus was one hell of a community organizer. During the first century CE he single-handedly took his version of a minor Middle Eastern prophet’s teachings, smite the many competing sects, and, as St. Paul, created what became orthodox Christianity. Much of the reason Christianity subsequently dominated European history was due not so much to Paul’s content as to his procedure and structure.

As the peripatetic Paul’s epistles demonstrate, he organized “communities” throughout the Mediterranean, keeping them in line with admonitions he created on the fly. That these communities not only survived but supplanted the declining Roman Empire is nothing short of genius. Well, at least to this professional organizer.

The perceived human need for “community” continues to this day manifested by churches, fellowships, meetings, and other self-identified groupings. A recent article in the December 30, 2012, New York Times reported that some evangelical Christians are now marketing their wares in coffee houses as mega churches lose their luster. And in a January 6, 2013 NYT article, Susan Jacoby lamented the shortage of atheist communities able to respond to crises.

So, where do humanists seeking community congregate? Unless one is a member of an organization affiliated with the American Humanist Association, it’s hard to meet with like-minded folks for coffee and metaphysics. In university towns like Lawrence, Kansas, there are freethinking groups on campus, but other than sponsoring occasional controversial lectures or more controversial civic actions, this is no substitute for church.

I prefer to live my values (I hate to call them “beliefs”) as behaviors and would like to think other humanists do likewise, but where can we congregate? It was quite a revelation when I fell into a nest of humanists while simply trying to do some good. I was looking in all the wrong places.

After 30 years as a professional organizer, I quit. Seeking an encore with meaning, I applied for and was accepted to crisis counselor training, a rigorous 100-hour boot camp that compels serious self-reflection and commitment. The ten-page application and intense hour plus interview to merely qualify for training forced me to review an inventory of my sexual, religious and political feelings. The eleven-week training was part encounter group, part playing your nightmares. Those who survive the training become strong enough to take on the demands of helping “persons in need.”

What I found humanistic about the selection, acceptance and training of crisis counselor applicants is that one must be “…motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being…”, “…support[s] liberty and opportunity consonant with social…responsibility” and “derives the goals of life from human need and interest…” Sound familiar?

I now serve on an interview team and selection committee, having to ask the hard questions about religion, sexual orientation, abortion, substance abuse and any ugly personal experiences. Candidates we recommend may be religious, but their beliefs cannot be allowed to compromise our exacting nonjudgmental, empathetic standards. In short, we become a band of humanist siblings.

Once trained, we assist “persons in need” ranging from on-the-bridge and already-taken-the-pills suicide callers to lonely/bi polar/depressed regulars to drug and sexual abuse victims. Anyone with a problem and nowhere further to turn contacts us.

I was on shift the evening of the Sandy Hook tragedy and did my best to help make sense of the senselessness to callers. I posted on my Facebook page Mr. Rogers’ sage reminder: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

My crisis counselor colleagues are those “helpers” that we hope may make some sense of senselessness. We are on the line trying to save lives as we address suicide calls. More importantly, we help those who just want to connect with another human being. Among my colleagues, the vast majority, if asked, would agree with our definition of “humanist.” But the untold story is that many humanists (who may not even know they are humanists, but live by our principles) are doing great things without a banner on the side of the bus.

It is frustrating that religious organizations are able to take advantage of crises to tout their wares and promote their product while thousands of humble humanists do similar essential work. It reminds me of the standard for a successful organizer: “Get them to do what they don’t want to do and then let them take credit for it.”

Should we add “humility” to our definition of “Humanism?”