SSA uses Easter to diminish stigma

Written by Muleskinner Staff

Story by Mitchell Brown, for The Muleskinner—
On the week before Easter, room 229 in the Union was alive with merriment and filled with students.
Some were dressed in fashions one could see at a rock concert or skate park, while others had on business casual attire.
One Tool shirt and one Iron Maiden shirt were on display, contrasted with a few students dressed in button-up dress shirts.
“Monty Python’s the Life of Brian” was on in the background, but most people were not watching the movie. Many of the students were talking and laughing.
A group gathered around a table, inserting condoms and chocolate into plastic Easter eggs. This was not an Easter party– it was a Wednesday night meeting of the Secular Student Alliance of UCM.
SSA is a group of students with no religious affiliation. They are atheists, agnostics, skeptics and “free-thinkers.” The UCM chapter was founded in 2011 by Annie Callicotte, senior psychology major.
She was raised as a Catholic and began to question the faith at age 17, and after finding out about SSA at the 2010 Skepticon convention in Springfield, Mo., she was inspired to start a chapter at UCM.
Two days later, the merriment continued, as the group assembled outside of the Union for their “Have A Good Friday…Night” event, during which they passed out the plastic eggs and fliers.
During downtime, in which student traffic was sparse, the group passed the time by joking and talking about video games.
Times have not always been so happy for the SSA. The group has experienced turbulence, ranging from on-campus ridicule to division within the group’s leadership.
Corey Glasscock, UCM alumnus, and former SSA executive board member, explained that the fracture was between members who wanted to take a more confrontational approach versus those who wanted SSA to be more of a support group.
UCM graduate student Brandon Christen wanted to spread an atheist/secular message with a fiery fervor that trumped the others in the group.
“I was a fresh young atheist, full of spunk and still fuming about the way I felt religion had treated me, so I wanted to go full-steam ahead,” Christen said. Although Christen left the group and altered some of his methods concerning the theist verses atheist dialogue, he still enjoys debating ideas.
“The thing about challenging someone’s religion is they take it very personally,” said Glasscock, adding that he had no interest in offending the religious. Callicotte said she didn’t want to see SSA turn into a “hate group,” and Glasscock said the divide turned the group dysfunctional, bordering on being inactive.
The divided identity was reconciled in the fall of 2012 when the more militant members broke off from the group.
Christen said any rifts that may have occurred among the original members of the group were unimportant. He said what’s more important is that the group still exists.
Christen still recommends SSA to secular-minded students.
After the divide was settled, the group moved in a more “humanist” direction, via Callicotte’s leadership, with an increased emphasis on philanthropy.
The group undertook its first major philanthropic action last semester, which was a clothing drive for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
As change swept through the group, a new executive board position was created. Stepping into the role of vice president of philanthropic events was Aaron Conklin, a senior physical education major.
Conklin started going to the group’s meetings in the spring of 2011. He said the group met his need to communicate with like-minded individuals.
Conklin is a non-traditional student who grew up in the Midtown section of Kansas City, Mo. He said he was apprehensive about moving to Warrensburg. “I feared living in a community where I was vastly outnumbered by opposing political and religious beliefs,” Conklin said.
Conklin was raised as a Presbyterian, but left the church at age 12. He said many of his questions were not being answered via the church.
In high school, he studied Eastern spiritual philosophies, like Buddhism, which correlated with his practice of martial arts. Although Conklin studied Asian spirituality, he rejected the idea of the supernatural on the basis that there is not enough evidence to support its existence.
Conklin and other members of the SSA were outside of the Union on the afternoon of March 29, two days before Easter Sunday.
This was the reason for stuffing condoms and chocolate into plastic Easter eggs. Callicotte said such an event can help diminish stigmas and stereotypes about atheists and secularists.
The last time the group did the activity they were downstairs in the Union, and they didn’t get a lot of traffic.
This time, they were outside the Union on a sunny day and able to interact with more people. Most of the members stood around their table and offered the plastic eggs to passersby.
Mark Quinlin, a freshman history education major and one of the newest members of the group, took a more energetic approach. He darted all over the fountain area, passed out materials and talked with random people.
At one point Quinlin, who has a stocky frame and a sports crew-cut, gave multiple high fives to three female students who were wearing brightly colored shirts with Greek sorority letters on them.
Quinlin said his pro-active approach is related to his past. He spent nine years in the United States Marine Corps before coming to Central. Quinlin used the salesman-like tactics he did while recruiting.
He said it’s easy for him to build a rapport with people. Quinlin grew up in Kansas City, Mo. He said being white in a mostly black school district, taught him how to build connections across color lines.
The responses to the contents of the plastic eggs were varied. Some people just smiled and walked on, and other students were enthused.
One onlooker, a middle-aged woman, approached the group’s table and asked, “What does secular mean?”
“It means unaffiliated with religion,” Conklin said. She then began relating personal anecdotes and briefly talked about modern events in Egypt. “There is going to be an eternity, and if you’re wrong, you are going to hell,” the woman said. She then asked what was their purpose and passion in life.
“We don’t know if there is a god or not or if there is life outside of the cosmos,” Conklin said. “What we do know to be true is that I’m here, and you’re here, so we should help each other.”