How WASH Began

By Lois Porter

From the December 2010 WASHline

The decade of the 1980s was a time when freethinkers felt especially battered from all sides. Jerry Falwell was in full cry against secular humanism and fundamentalists seemed to be set to turn the USA into a Christian nation. Against this background, late in the summer of 1988, there was a meeting of humanists and other freethinkers from around the world in Buffalo, New York. The meeting was hosted by Paul Kurtz, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine and director of the organization now known as the Center For Inquiry (CFI). This important meeting attended by leaders of humanist, atheist and Ethical Culture organizations from many countries, and some of their members, took place in one of the largest hotels in Buffalo. Attendees were impressed when the major Buffalo newspaper ran a feature story about the gathering. The article also reported that evangelist Billy Graham was holding a rally the same weekend in the Buffalo Bill’s football stadium, pointing out that the number of ushers for the Graham gathering was greater than the total number of attendees at the humanist meeting. That interesting fact did not surprise us, but certainly put things in perspective.

Among those at the humanist meeting were five Free Inquiry readers from the Baltimore-Washington area who had responded to an interest survey from the magazine. They agreed to meet at the conference and arranged to discuss with Paul Kurtz the idea of organizing a local humanist group. Previously Kurtz had talked about the idea of such a group and one or two efforts had been made, but without success. He offered advice and assistance in the form of assuring us that if we got to the stage of calling an organization meeting, we could send a letter of invitation to subscribers to Free Inquiry in the Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia area. He also promised that when we were ready, he would come to Washington and address a public meeting marking the founding of the group.

The five founders were self-chosen, but turned out to somewhat resemble the demographics of what became the Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH). We were four men and one woman; one was in his 20s, one was in his 30s, three were over 60. One of us was single, one had a two year old son and three had grown children. We lived in Baltimore, Catonsville, Silver Spring and Washington. We knew one another only casually, but all were committed to the idea that there should be an organization of and for secular humanists in the area of the nation’s capitol.

Following the meeting in Buffalo we met during the fall and winter, working together and individually on various tasks. First, we needed to become incorporated and get tax-exempt, charitable status as a 501c(3) organization. We also talked about what such an organization could offer to members and what it should try to accomplish. In March of 1989 we organized a meeting at the Silver Spring Public Library to present our ideas to humanists in the area. Invitations were mailed to those we hoped would be interested, primarily readers of Free Inquiry magazine.

About 30 people from Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia showed up at the meeting. The enthusiasm was enough for the group to decide to proceed. Volunteers signed on to form a Board of Directors, and others agreed to help in other ways. Some in attendance were ready to give us checks on the spot, but had to be refused until the incorporation papers were finalized. A Board of 12, including the five founders, met several times to elect officers, decide such things as a name for the organization, how much the dues should be, what the objectives of the group would be, and how often and where to hold meetings.

By May the Board was ready for a public meeting which took place in an auditorium at American University. As good as his word, Paul Kurtz came to Washington and addressed the audience of about 100, officially launching the Washington Area Secular Humanists. A member of the Board, the late Ruth Ralph, who taught at the University, had arranged for the use of the auditorium. She also made it possible for WASH to hold meetings once a month for the next couple of years at a lounge in the University.

The idea of chapters came later as members living well outside of Washington felt the need to meet closer to home. The Board assists members in establishing chapters and encourages their growth. Over the years, some chapters have thrived, some have dissolved and some have joined forces. The style and content of meetings, special interest groups and social events differ from chapter to chapter, contributing to the diversity which is a characteristic of WASH.

The one thing above all others which has held WASH together from the very beginning is WASHline. The newsletter was established at the beginning along with the Board and continues to give members an opportunity to communicate with one another, express ideas and suggestions and inform members of what is going on. The newsletter became even more important as chapters were formed. It gives members information about what various chapters are doing, affording an opportunity to attend events of interest wherever they take place.

It is a measure of the success of a volunteer organization if it survives beyond the leadership of its founders. WASH has passed that test, and more. Ken Marsalek, Pete Lins, my husband George and I, still loyal members, no longer play leadership roles. Our fifth founder, Howard Caulk, died in 2007. Howard is fondly remembered and greatly missed by all who knew him.

Several WASH members who assumed leadership positions early on are still serving on or off the Board. As was true in the beginning, WASH exists and succeeds only because of the dedication and hard work of members who care enough to take on the important job of keeping it a thriving example of grass-roots humanism.

Lois Porter was a founding member of WASH and a former president of our organization.