The Good Place of Religion

Dan Liechty | August 15, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Sunday afternoon, while driving through west Bloomington (what we might call “the poor side of town”) I saw a sign that said “Free Sale.” Intrigued, I followed the arrow to a bunch of tables with all sorts of stuff on them. The idea of this “Free Sale” (which learned takes place every other Sunday afternoon) is that if you have something to give, you put it on a table. If you need something you see there, you take it. It was like the old hippie days, the Diggers and the Hog Farm, all over again! So now I wanted to find out what was behind it all. I got into a conversation with the people running the affair and learned that they are a collective dedicated to “raising up the neighborhood,” with projects including a whole free education program (if you have something to teach, just sign up for a time, if you want to learn something someone is teaching, just show up at that time), a garden vegetable exchange, and weekly democracy discussions, and other such projects. Included also are some regular buying ventures, such as a food store stocked with things going out of date at local grocery stores (3x weekly pick up at the stores) and a sort of crafts store stocked with items like embroidery made by local community people.

So, social work professor that I am, I immediately thought of this project as something that could potentially involve some of my students. I exchanged contact information, but then the thought hit me that these energetic, scruffy-looking folks may be part of some religion, and I had to check that out, given that my affiliation is with a large, secular state university. If they were indeed religiously affiliated, that would not be a problem in and of itself, but if I were going to encourage my students to become involved in some way with their activities, I would need to make clear to students up front that this is a religiously affiliated organization, so that students could make their decision to become involved with this information in hand. I explained my position to the neighborhood organizers, saying explicitly that if there were going to be any proselytizing, either of student volunteers or as any part of the program, I would need to know this front so that there would be no surprises for students who decided to get involved.

Their answer was very interesting. They said, in effect, that while many of them are Christian or of other religious commitments, there was no uniform religious basis for what they are doing. Their unifying desire is to build up the neighborhood at the grass roots level. And while some of the individuals among them are clear that their motivation for this work does spring from religious teachings about love for others and concern for the poor, I could rest assure that (and this is how they said it) it all comes from “from the good place” of religion and I wouldn’t have to worry about proselytism. All are welcome to join in the work regardless of religion or no religion, with no distinctions made.

This week I have been mulling over that phrase, “the good place” of religion. It is a peculiar phrase, but said what needed to be said rather succinctly. They recognize the difference between the “good place” of religion and, what(?), the rest of it? What gave the phrase its clear meaning in this situation was exactly the work they are doing. “By their fruits you shall know them,” is how the Good Book says it. I sure would like to see more of the good place, and a lot less of the rest of it!

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