Jeff Thomas, Sunday Assembly Sacramento
Imagine church without God. Some might call it sacrilegious, but to the folks at Sunday Assembly Sacramento, it’s a little bit of heaven. Sunday Assembly, “a secular congregation that celebrates life,” debuted in Sacramento on Sunday, September 28, and there wasn’t an empty chair in the house. The group’s Meetup reservations exceeded capacity days before the event and by 10 a.m., more than 100 bright-eyed congregants had left their best potluck dishes on an overflowing buffet table and stood together, singing secular pop songs with the church’s live band.
Music, fellowship, inspirational messages, small-group gatherings and an emphasis on community service are all included in the Sunday Assembly package. As its website explains, “It’s all the good bits of church, but without the doctrine and deities.” The volunteer-led congregation is part of a rapidly growing international movement of Sunday Assemblies, 35 of which held their first service on the same Sunday as the Sacramento group. All celebrate the same creed: Live better. Help often. Wonder more.
Jeff Thomas, a Citrus Heights native and one of several founding organizers of Sunday Assembly Sacramento, met with SN&R to explain why the local community needs a secular church.
What’s your spiritual background?
I grew up nonreligious for the first 11 years of my life and then my mom found the Mormon Church. … I was baptized Mormon and I went to church for a couple of years and I stopped believing in it. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was over it. So I have three sisters who are still active in the Mormon Church and my mom is still, and my dad is not and my sister and I are not.
Are your parents still together?
They are. They’ve been married for almost 40 years. It’s definitely been interesting, and there’s been some conflict in our family because of religion, but basically it’s been good. But I really missed that community that comes with church. When you go to church, you get to know people and there are people there to help, you know? When someone has a baby, for example, in my mom’s church, for a week or two, other members will make them meals and bring them to their house. Stuff like that. People who don’t have a belief in God don’t really have any place where they can have that.
So you got involved with Sunday Assembly?
Sunday Assembly started in London in January 2013. Eight or nine months later, they started this crowd-funding campaign because they wanted to expand it. I was instantly interested and sent them my information, because they had a thing where, if you were interested in starting your own Sunday Assembly, you could let them know. Then they sent all of us in Sacramento who had contacted them an email with each other’s contact information. So we started talking and there was a meeting or two, and then it kind of fizzled out.
Did you know any of the Sacramento people already?
I did not. There’s a huge atheist community here in Sacramento. I think it has something to do with it being the capital, there’s a lot of activism. But I was never really a part of it. It never really struck a chord with me, and when I saw Sunday Assembly, it did. But like I said, the plan fizzled out. Then David Diskin got involved back in May or June and it just took off. He is so involved in so many organizations—the Coalition for Reason, SacFAN—which is Freethinkers, Atheists and Nonbelievers. He runs Freethought Day, this annual event. So when I saw David had picked Sunday Assembly back up, I was right on board and we just took it from there.
Is atheism a theme at Sunday Assembly?
It’s just not supposed to mention God at all, so whether you believe in Jesus or whether you believe in Muhammad or whether you believe in nothing, whether you’re Buddhist or very spiritual or not spiritual, you should be able to come to Sunday Assembly and find inspiration. On the charter, it says we are “radically inclusive.” We don’t exclude people because of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, anything. Everybody’s welcome. And the only way you’re going to maintain that is by not offending people. Obviously, religion is a touchy subject, so we try to just avoid it completely.
You could start any secular organization. Why a church?
If you look at history, churches have clearly been very successful. There’s something they do to the human spirit that strikes a chord. Countless religions have come and gone throughout human history, but they’ve always been there. The motto of Sunday Assembly is “Live better. Help often. Wonder more.” Those are three things churches do really well. … I think the church thing fills a need and that is clearly evidenced by the growth of Sunday Assembly. There was one meeting in January 2013 and now there’s more than 60 Sunday Assemblies.
What do members of Sunday Assembly believe in?
Instead of basing our godless congregation on what we don’t believe, we’ve found these principles we think everyone can get behind: Live better. Help often. Wonder more. Who doesn’t want to live better? There’s great joy found from helping others. It’s very important. And then wondering more, that’s trying to find answers about the universe. People have been looking up at the stars forever and wondered what’s out there. Everyone does, whether you believe in God or not.