A look back at a year of Values in Action


Zachary Cole is the Values in Action Fellow for the Humanist Community at Harvard. The VIA Fellowship is partially funded by a grant from Foundation Beyond Belief. The purpose of this partnership is to develop humanist service and interfaith resources for Beyond Belief Network projects, promote humanist civic engagement nationally, and develop the VIA Fellowship into a national model for humanist service.

Since arriving in August 2013, I have had the pleasure of managing the Values in Action (VIA) program, a community service and interfaith initiative based out of the Humanist Community at Harvard (HCH). Over the last eight months, I have organized monthly community service programs, some of which involved collaboration with religious communities and interfaith dialogue. These programs include:

  • Working with the Cambridge Department of Public Works to clean the streets of Cambridge
  • Raising over $2,500 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and walking in the annual Light the Night Walk
  • Organizing the Fourth Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Meal Packing Project in Harvard Square, raising over $12,000, hosting over 400 volunteers, and packing over 50,000 meals for hungry children in the Greater Boston area.
  • Donating over 150 food items to a local food pantry
  • Hosting two panel discussions on homelessness featuring activists, service providers, and former and current homeless individuals to help break down stereotypes and reveal the root causes of homelessness
  • Creating over 256 fleece scarves for a local homeless shelter
  • Writing letters in support of Massachusetts House Bill 135, providing more resources for youth homelessness
  • Providing 140 home-cooked meals to vulnerable populations in Cambridge
  • Purchasing a permanent meal packing station for a new Humanist Hub Community Center and packing over 6,000 meals for local food shelves

In addition to organizing these service events, I have also taken time throughout my fellowship to share my reflections and advice with the BBN community through various blog posts, here and here. I also just launched the Values in Action e-book resource, which contains service project organizing tips and interfaith resources and theory.

As my fellowship comes to a close, I want to share a few final tips on interfaith service organizing based on my experience here that may be helpful for BBN groups. Here are two big ones:

1. Create an Interfaith Planning Committee. Our last Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Meal Packing Project saw over 400 volunteers pass through over the course of six hours. I knew less than half of those people. The key was investing in relationships and inviting local religious communities to be a part of planning this event. For example, for the Thanksgiving event, we had, among others, a Lutheran, Episcopalian, Zoroastrian, and humanist on the planning committee. When discussing publicity for the event, it was amazing to hear all of the different groups and communities in our combined network. We came up with a list that I myself would not have been able to produce. The fact that these contacts had connections to people on the planning committee also resulted in higher attendance as opposed to publicizing to random communities and organizations. The number of participants, and their diverse makeup, speaks volumes about the importance of having religious communities involved in planning these events.

2. Be Intentional with Dialogue. One of the goals of our interfaith service programs is to develop mutual understanding and tolerance across lines of difference. However, getting diverse people together in one room isn’t enough. Making time for dialogue and reflection at events is key. For example, before our last Interfaith Meal Packing event, we built in time before meal packing for volunteers to get to know one another using interfaith dialogue prompts. Take time to think how you will encourage people to get to know new people and discuss their shared values. If you don’t, it is likely they will stay close to their friends or the people they already know.

I have learned so much about my humanist identity, and many other nonreligious and religious identities, from planning, and participating in, these interfaith service events. I’ve found that we all have shared values, and these provide a foundation for discussion about real differences. We’ve also been able to increase the impact we have by partnering with local religious communities. I highly recommend that BBN groups try organizing an interfaith event.

This June, I will start as the new Program and Outreach Specialist in the Chaplain’s Office at Tufts University. I am looking forward to supporting students in their own identity development and providing opportunities for them to relate to others from diverse backgrounds. I believe that humanists, atheists, and agnostics have a lot to contribute to both improving our world and enhancing the learning of others. We also have a lot to learn as well! I know you will continue to do great service work, and by organizing interfaith events, you will only enhance your success and growth. Good luck!