Home > Atheism/Secularism > WSU SSA Separation of Church and State Week …and what to do and what not to do when planning events

WSU SSA Separation of Church and State Week …and what to do and what not to do when planning events

I don’t know how we did it, but we did – and it turned out to be the most successful event that we’ve ever done. In September, the Secular Student Alliance at Wayne State University was contacted by a Christian group to participate in an inter-faith discussion panel, which we later decided was going to take place in early November. By the time October came around, I somehow had the bizarre idea that the WSU SSA should host a “Separation of Church and State Week”, which would include the discussion panel as one of it’s events. It was bizarre because we realized that the time required to plan and finalize a whole week of events required a lot of effort and time, so much that we had to push the week back a week to November 14th. Had the group board not been committed and helpful enough during planning, this week would have fallen through and it would have been a disaster.

The week was packed full of exciting events and talks about the topic of separation of church and state. This wasn’t our first time hosting a week event series, but it was on a much grander scale than anything we’ve done before. We ran into some problems, but the outcome was rewarding – for a cost.image

Lesson #1 when planning for events: make sure you check the weather if planning to do events outside. We had to cancel a planned “Pastafarian communion” because it was freezing outside. Even if you are planning events indoors, you still want to check the weather, because if it’s raining, for example, you know that everyone is going to be indoors and therefore you can plan the location of the event as well.

Not a lot of other problems occurred during the planning phase, except for the most important element for anyone planning events: delegation. It was a pain in the posterior for only two people to do everything alone at first. Here’s an almost specific account of what we had to do all alone: we contacted any professors and or speakers within our reach; make sure they were going to speak, that they knew exactly what we expected from them, and the exact date and time of when they were supposed to be speaking; booked a speaker’s flight, hotel, and security (due to the nature of the talk); tried to find three more panelists (Muslim, Christian, Jew) for the discussion panel, and let them know what they’re expected of, including questions they might be asked; changed a bunch of dates and times around a thousand times; filled out over 10 forms (and redid many of them due to changes); filled out a budget planning form which took days to complete (Note: have someone who knows money and numbers help with this!); advertised the events through email and Facebook; find someone to design and print the posters and flyers; thought of a last minute showcase idea, then quickly (but nicely) put it together; posted the flyers around campus and chalked every day for a week (for larger campuses, try to get as many volunteers as you can – it’s exhausting); reserved auditoriums, equipment (such as projectors, screens, microphones, speakers, camera, and tripod) for each event; found a last-minute photographer and videographer; made sure all panelists knew how to get to campus and auditorium; made sure the flown-in speaker got to the hotel safely and was dropped off at the university, and much more.

You can see how hard it would have been if only two people tried to do all of this, on top of classes and other stuff they might have going on.

So, lesson #2: if you see a fellow group member posting flyers or whatever, please offer to help out. For group leaders, having enough committed volunteers and making sure they know exactly what they are expected to do is crucial for the success of events. Both group members and leaders should not hesitate to ask.

All things considered, however, everything went smoothly, as we did find enough last minute volunteers.

As the day of the events rolled around, everything was set and planned, and as last minute changes were made, we could feel the excitement of the group growing stronger. We sent out a mass email a week before the events and Facebook reminders were posted before each event. Page likes and discussions on our Facebook increased. As November 14th arrived, we were running around from building to building, setting up for the events like ants building a colony. Here’s an account of each individual event throughout the week:

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Monday: The Last Supper Parodyimage

This event went great. Our idea was to have everyone dress up in costume, but that’s hard to do at a commuter school, where not everyone can go back to their dorms and change. So, it was more of a lunch, but it generated some talk and controversy – which is awesome. We still stuck to the Mediterranean theme by serving hummus and pita as lunch, but still served some pizza. The conversation was great and everyone enjoyed the food.

Tuesday: Is America Really a Christian Nation?

This talk was the first major event of the week. It was given by Michael Goldfield, a political imagescience professor at our university. He has written several books, on race and labor, and is one of the faculty advisers for our group. I had taken an introductory political science course with the professor before, and as I mentioned in the introduction I gave before the talk, professor Goldfield was the primary catalyst for me starting the group. He was an avid proponent of separation of church and state, and frequently put questions on exams like “True or false: the constitution mention the word “God”. To which the correct answer would obviously be “False”. Before the event, I was personally nervous, as the professor had just gotten back from the airport, but he contacted right when the plane landed (which was a good move). So, Lesson #3: always make sure the you and the speaker have proper communication with each other, like having their telephone number aside from their email. That way if anything goes wrong, like if they are going to be late, or got lost on the way, or forgot the room number, you can let each other know right away.

Before the talk, we set up a table with our information on it, along with a sign up sheet. We also tied up balloons with our university colors to attract attention. Upon talking to some students that were lingering around our table, we learned that some students attended because a political science professor was giving his students extra credit for attending any or all of the talks that we were hosting. How neat was that! We had a great turn out. However, unintentionally competing with us were the Muslim Student Association, as they hosted an event in the same building that drew huge crowds. We thus placed a poster on an easel at the entrance of the building advertising our talk. The talk then began and it was great, though and through. Pictures and video were taken, although we couldn’t get a tripod, so we had to set the video camera on a trash can, which was fine as it served it’s purpose well. There was a very diverse audience and many thought provoking questions were asked during Q&A.

You can read more about Professor Goldfield here and here.

Wednesday: The Great Satan: How Satanism is the Most American Religion

The event we had been planning the most for was finally here. Prior to this day, we madeimage sure that everything was in order and that the stay of the speaker was pleasant. We booked a hotel room, bought plane tickets, made sure he had proper transportation, and because of the nature of the talk, we provided security guards to guard the auditorium. On our end, we deployed a team that chalked all over campus like never before seen. We wanted to make sure the speaker’s efforts and travel were worth it. Everywhere I went on campus, I would hear people talk about this. A classroom even broke into conversion about this event and the SSA. Some students were offended, some interested, and some thought it was just plain stupid. As the time of the talk approached, we set up an information table just like before, tied up the balloons, set up the microphone, projector, and all that jazz. As I was organizing some brochures enters Kevin I. Slaughter, a man with an eccentric vibe and great charisma. “Ah, there he is!”, I hear from behind. His attire and look was reminiscent of the devil from the original Church of Satan COOP poster.

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He had a great sense of style, a Nietzschean mustache with a devilish twist and a peculiar look on his face, as if he could see right through you – you could see his cynicism and skepticism in his eyes. His intelligence presented itself through his speech, and even though he looked like he was only in his mid-thirties, it seemed as if he’d seen and heard it all – he was a blunt and no bullshit kind of guy. Still, he was a nice guy, and with a very friendly smile he gave a me a hearty handshake. We exchanged kind words and started setting up. We had some trouble with the camera and projector, but the problems were quickly fixed (Lesson #4: always have someone who knows IT on hand when setting up equipment; something almost always goes wrong when it comes to technology). Security arrived, and the auditorium started to fill with SSA members and curious onlookers, many perplexed with the words “NO GOD? NO PROBLEM!” on our poster board outside. If you looked hard enough, you could see Mr. Slaughter sitting in the back corner of the auditorium, overlooking the audience and probably mentally preparing. I started to give an introductory speech, and then the stage was Mr. Slaughter’s. Immediately, the audiences’ reaction was that of amusement. They were taken back by his dominating and witty diction; I guess no one had ever thought that a Satanist could be so articulate. The first place winner of the 2010 “Ingersoll oratory contest” hosted by the Center for Inquiry definitely deserved it. The talk was to the point, well put, and poetic. Throughout the whole thing, I didn’t see one bored audience member as they were all intrigued by what the man from down under had to say. Most were intrigued by the fact that he was an atheist and an ultimate skeptic. Alas, they realized why we had invited this man to speak, and (hopefully) most realized that to a Satanist, Satan was nothing but a symbol or an archetype of individuality, rebellion from the status quo, skepticism, and a love for life in the here and now. One of my most favorite parts of the talk was when he said that instead of a prayer or supplication, a Satanic alternative would be a simple toast. He then proceeded to recite a turncated version of Giosuè Carducci’s “Hymn to Satan“. During Q&A , Mr. Slaughter entertained many questions.

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After the talk, a handful of SSA members and I took Mr. Slaughter out to dinner in downtown Detroit to thank him. We had a wonderful time with food, lots of “Opa!”’s, and great conversation about political theory, secularism, philosophy, and his many projects. We got to see a different side of Mr. Slaughter; “I think we’re all starting to get too comfortable with each other here,” he joked. After a great conversation, we called it a night, and I dropped him off at his hotel.

For more information about Satanism and the Church of Satan, visit ChurchofSatan.com, listen to this Point of Inquiry interview, or watch any of Kevin I. Slaughter’s lectures.

You can read Mr. Slaughter’s blog post about these events here.

Thursday: Interfaith Discussion Panel

This event was one that drew lots of attention as well, as we’d expected, because of theimage Muslim, Christian, and Jewish panelists that most other students sympathized with. The turnout was also great (about as many as the previous day). Mr. Slaughter served as the atheist on the panel, as it was hard to find yet another speaker, and was already here. We had planned a lot for this event as well, because we wanted to make sure that the efforts of all four panelists were worth it. Before hand, we had emailed the panelists some sample questions of what they were to be asked, and allowed them to suggest some questions that they would like to see asked. Some of the religious panelists asked specifically that this event not be a debate, so there was very little discussion between the panelists. On his blog, Mr. Slaughter said “it was a rather frustrating experience because all the religious folks asked specifically that it not be a debate, so nobody would engage one another.”

The arrival of the panelists at the university was flawless, as they all found their way to the building, and I met with the Muslim and atheist panelists at a Barnes and Noble (Note: we had each other’s phone numbers).

Oh, and Lesson #5: provide water and a couple papers and pen for speakers or panelists – they will need it.

An MC from a Christian group and I introduced the the panelists, and began the questioning. The structure of the panel discussion went like this: Each panelist had five minutes to express what it is that they believed and why. After that, I would ask a question, and each of them took turns to answer it in two minutes (some questions were allowed four or five minutes). Then, a Q&A was open for the audience to ask all or a specific panelist a question. Again, many questions were asked. There was one heckler heckling the atheist, but he was told to stop sit down and wasn’t too much of a problem. As the discussion panel ended, I profusely thanked the panelists for taking the time to participate, as you should do to any speaker (or any volunteer, for that matter) (Lesson #6). After the panel, the Christian and atheist (Mr. Slaughter) continued to have a friendly discussion and they were even seen having a good time and laughing together.

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This was the last day that Mr. Slaughter would be staying in Detroit, so an SSA member and I took him out for a quick dinner on campus and as always, the conversation was exceptional. It was sad to drop him back off at his hotel.

Monday: Being a Non-believer in Today’s America

During our planning for these events, we had to push this event until Monday the week after,image due to the professor’s schedule. The talk was given by professor Ron Aronson, who is a professor in the History of Ideas at WSU. His background is in community organization and journal editing. He is the author of nine books, and gives lectures all over the country and at Center for Inquiry events on Secularism and Humanism. He has been Chair of the Sartre Society of North America and founding editor of the journal Sartre Studies International. He has also produced television debates and is the co-producer of two feature-length documentaries. He is also a faculty advisor for our group.

We had a fewer turnout than our previous events, but most of the audience were new faces, which was awesome. The professor gave a great talk and he entertained many questions during Q&A, though it became more of a discussion between the professor and the audience, which was new and refreshing.

You can read more about Professor Aronson here and here.

I still can’t believe that we pulled all of these events off within such a short period of time, but they were a big success, we had a great time, and it was very rewarding. Our events were seen on TV screens and poster hanged in high traffic areas all around campus. However, some of us had to miss a class here and there, which is bad and why delegation of responsibilities is so important (we didn’t want to miss class, but I’ll be damned if I was going to leave the speaker at the airport without making sure he had a ride, for example). But because of the buzz that our events made around campus, we gained a lot of members and many have stepped forward to help out with running the group since then. Reflecting back on the week makes me want to organize more events!

*We have ran into trouble editing and uploading the videos of the talks, but you can check back at Facebook.com/WSUSSA, as we’ll have them up soon.

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Categories: Atheism/Secularism
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