01/22/2013 11:11 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

A Tale of Two New Humanist Service Initiatives

A little more than a year ago, the two of us walked along a beautiful California beach. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and all around us people laughed and frolicked, enjoying the sun and surf. We, too, were enjoying the day, but we weren't there just to take in the beautiful views or some extra UV rays -- we were there with a group distributing resources to the homeless youth who spent their days on the beach, unable to find assistance elsewhere. We shared food and clothing, offered medical assistance and listened to their stories.

We were there because we care about those kids. We were there because we care about service work. And we were there because we are atheists and Humanists who care deeply about making the world a better place.

We are two incredibly different individuals living on opposite ends of the country, but our work in the Humanist and atheist movements, as well as our commitment to service, has brought us together. After three years of unofficial collaboration, we are excited to announce a partnership between our projects -- Pathfinders Project at Foundation Beyond Belief, and the Values In Action (VIA) initiative at the Humanist Community at Harvard (HCH).

Over the past three years, Chris has worked at HCH as the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow and now Assistant Humanist Chaplain to launch and develop the Values In Action (VIA) Initiative. VIA aims to better the conditions of life for others through service to humanity, build alliances between religious and nonreligious individuals and communities, and combat the misconception that the nonreligious do not contribute to society.

In this respect, VIA has brought together thousands of people in Massachusetts to clean beaches and parks, weatherize community arts centers, make scarves for homeless veterans, collect nonperishable food for those in need, write letters to elected officials in support of important social justice causes, assist LGBTQ teens in crisis, mentor youth in the poorest county in the United States, raise thousands of dollars to benefit charitable initiatives such as the Walk for Hunger and Light the Night Walk for Leukemia and Lymphoma research, and fundraise for and package more than 70,000 nutritious meals for food insecure children in Massachusetts. In these programs, and many others, Humanists invited their religious friends and neighbors to work alongside them, shoulder to shoulder, to make the one world we can all agree on a better place.

As VIA has grown at Harvard, Conor has worked to build a program guided by the same principles, but structured very differently. Two years ago, in his spare time as a Teach For America special education teacher in Los Angeles, Conor began planning a yearlong international service trip called Pathfinders Project, with the goal of tackling clean water, education, sustainability and advocacy projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America. From the very beginning, the objectives of Pathfinders Project were strikingly similar to those of VIA: to use service projects as an embodiment of Humanist values and a foundation for dialogue across religious, cultural, linguistic and ethnic boundaries.

Pathfinders Project is now sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief, a non-profit organization that focuses, encourages, and demonstrates the generosity and compassion of secular humanists. In partnership with Foundation Beyond Belief and Values in Action, Pathfinders Project will evaluate global partner organizations and service locations in order to select a launch site for the Humanist Service Corps, which will become an ongoing program of the non-profit. Once established, the Humanist Service Corps will give Humanists and atheists around the world the opportunity to put their values into action, develop their leadership skills, and better themselves and the world through a year of international service.

At the same time, VIA is planning for the launch of a fellowship program that will provide an opportunity for young Humanists to plan and organize service programs that directly improve their local communities and our broader society, expand people's understanding of Humanism, advance human cooperation and build empathy. The VIA Fellows will work to advance a cooperative vision in tangible and concrete ways for a world that desperately needs it, while equipping emerging leaders with the skills to advance these ideals throughout their lives. While it will begin in Massachusetts, we hope to see the idea of young Humanists committing to a year or semester of domestic service spread throughout the United States.

Humanistic and atheistic proselytism are not the aim of Pathfinders Project or VIA, nor will they be the aim of the Humanist Service Corps or VIA Fellows. However, we do hope that our work will promote understanding about Humanism on a global level, and that is not an insignificant matter. Humanists have a number of challenges with regard to public awareness and image. First, few outside the movement know what Humanism is. Second, much of the world perceives atheists and other nonreligious individuals very negatively. Just as with any other movement, the way we are perceived by others critically affects our ability to promote our values.

Working in tandem, Pathfinders Project and Values in Action can help change that.

Both are opportunities for Humanists to put their values into action, thereby demonstrating those values to the world. Both are about building mutual understanding through service, establishing common ground and working toward goals shared by all. These aims are the pathos and ethos of Humanism -- and in a world where we believe it is up to humans to solve our problems, they require immediate action.

Want to help or get involved? Both of these programs need financial support, without which they cannot reach their potential. Additionally, Pathfinders Project is still accepting applicants for the program's first year -- but only until Feb. 1. If you or someone you know is interested, please don't hesitate to contact us.

Whether you are a Humanist, an atheist, a religious person or somewhere in between, please consider what you can do to improve the conditions of life for others, and encourage those around you to do the same. If you'd like, we welcome you to join in our efforts.

This piece was coauthored by Chris Stedman, Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, and Conor Robinson, Director of Pathfinders Project and founding teacher at Jose A. Castellanos Elementary School in Los Angeles.