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Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill celebrates church without religion

Sunday Assembly.png
Photo courtesy of Sunday Assembly of Chapel Hill.

At first glance, Sunday Assembly’s gatherings may look much like any other religious service. There’s music, fellowship and speakers; but one major feature has been excluded – religion.

Sunday Assembly is a nonprofit, volunteer-run and funded organization that promotes itself as a secular congregation that celebrates life. Their motto is to “live better, help often, wonder more.” The community hosts a large gathering once a month as well as smaller service projects and activities.

The global organization first launched in London in 2013 and has over 70 chapters. The Chapel Hill chapter held its first assembly in January 2015. Although none of the founding members are still with the Chapel Hill chapter, Kevin Klein and Heather Greer-Klein both got involved shortly after it launched in Chapel Hill about three years ago.

Kevin Klein, the chair of Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill, said although there are a few members who hold religious beliefs, the assemblies mostly attract agnostic and atheist members. 

“It’s kind of a community organization for people who maybe don’t have one by virtue of lack of faith or just like to be around other science-y, nerdy types, which we largely tend to be,” Klein said.

Klein said although he went to mass every week for years growing up, he didn’t connect with many people in the Catholic congregation. He said the congregation he grew up in was more focused on the immortal afterlife instead of the “here and now.”

While traditionally religious congregations are unified by growth in faith, Klein said Sunday Assembly is brought together by intellectual curiosity and the sciences. The community focuses on themes of their present place in the world to bring the community together, he said.

According to Klein, Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill has not received much negative feedback from religious organizations in the area. The organization holds their meetings at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, across the hall from an evangelical church, and Klein has found both communities to be very welcoming and friendly with each other. 

“I think there’s an understanding that we are doing what we are doing for very similar reasons,” Klein said.

In fact, he said the most negative feedback Sunday Assembly receives is from atheist communities who are worried the assemblies are too close to a church.

Greer-Klein, vice chair of the Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill, found out about Sunday Assembly not long after it started in London. She didn't grow up religious, but grew up with religious family members. She said she always enjoyed the multigenerational support and community aspect of faith. 

“More philosophical groups, groups that deal with big questions and grapple with big questions are interesting, but not something that I would devote a lot of my time and attention to, but community building is really important to me,” Greer-Klein said.

A unique aspect about Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill is how they're completely volunteer-run, organized and funded so it's non-hierarchical.

“We have a charter, we have a lot of documents from Sunday Assembly international and there are 70 plus chapters around the world that we are in touch with that we share thoughts and ideas and a general philosophy, but there is no one that is the authority,” Greer-Klein said.

Sunday assembly has a fairly large organizing team that regularly swaps roles to emphasize that there is no one person that is fully in control of the organization.

“That’s pretty different for folks, compared to church and it’s also one of our weaknesses because we don’t have someone who has the authority to be a sort of pastoral care provider for example,” she said.

She said one of the aspects of Sunday Assembly is to be “radically inclusive,” which means people from all backgrounds, whether religious or not, should not be offended.

“We are a sort of break, we have a lot of politically active and justice-minded folks, but Sunday Assembly is a sort of a break from the world and a place to go and be with other people and maybe talk about some interesting topic and maybe exist outside of all that and people really need that break," Greer-Klein said.

Jacob Dums, a Ph.D. student at NC State, attended his first assembly a little over two years ago after hearing about it on a podcast and quickly became very involved. 

“I really like it, and in a way, it has been a little life-changing for me because it provides a separate community for me that is disconnected from graduate school which is amazing because it means I can get away from that bubble that I live in,” Dums said.

Dums said it was a great opportunity for him to get out of his academic bubble and engage with a multigenerational community.

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“I remember it being everything I wanted it to be, or at least everything that had been described,” Dums said.

He said he grew up in a Catholic church and thinks his experience with Sunday Assembly Chapel Hill is more intimate because there is no higher power involved so they can only lean on each other. 

“It’s just secular, it doesn’t really matter who you are,” said Dum. “(Bashing religion is) not what’s being promoted like the interconnected community and interfacing with the community is what’s important; it’s not rejection of religion.”