In Conversation with Helen Austen – Executive Director, Kansas City Oasis

I had the opportunity to talk at length with the wonderful Helen Austen, Executive Director of Kansas City Oasis, which is part of the Oasis Network.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was your family background – geography, culture, language and religious faith if any?

Helen Austen: I grew up in the Midwest in a generally small town. I had what you would probably consider to be an average, liberal, American upbringing in a small town. I come from a highly educated family.

I grew up in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, which is about 40 minutes outside Kansas City, Missouri. I was there from 1st to 12th grade. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a city manager in the same town for 12 years.

I had a typical, average upbringing. My parents both being public servants were always compassionate and kind and thoughtful. Church-wise, we went, but I never recall it being a big deal. I have no recollection of learning anything.

Ironically enough, they never pushed it on us. We ate dinner together at the table at night and talked about our days, which usually revolved around what happened at their work or what was going on with us at school.

I have an older brother, 3 years older. It was incredibly average. Then when I met my now ex-husband, we went to high school together. I started dating him. That’s when I get pulled into the Assemblies of God and started going to their groups.

Of course, at that age, you’re highly susceptible to being pulled in and wanting to belong and they were incredibly warm and welcoming people too. So, when it came to looking at colleges, I auditioned; I was a classical singer.

I wanted to do opera, so I was auditioning all over the country, but got pulled into that. I did a music scholarship at a small university in Minneapolis. It focuses more on training in the industry and for the Assemblies of God.

I went there, graduated. I ended up changing majors so many times. I ended with a pastoral degree because that’s what I felt, but the Christian speakers…that’s where I was manipulated. Then when I left, it became a matter of wanting to know why.

I started getting into apologetics and reading Tony Campolo’s books. It was probably one of the most significant shifts in my perception of life. I would say I was younger than 25, so my prefrontal cortex was not fully developed.

Because I was done by about age 25. I reasoned my way out. I started putting pieces together and one thing after another, then it did not line up. It came to a point where I don’t believe in any of this. I went to grad school; I have a graduate degree too.

From there, I have this pointless degree. Also, I even tried to get some type of – I wouldn’t say job – work for my career. I’m a highly driven person. There were roadblocks immediately after I finished school.

After I got my undergraduate degree, they say that want women in the ministry, but no they don’t. They want women to be in children’s ministry, which totally is not my thing. Or some other type of sub-ministry thing.

Anyways, so, it was not going to be a good fit for me. I decided to go into the counseling field, which is still I would say my niche to be true to myself. So, during my graduate degree, that’s when I started to be done with stuff but still went to church.

It wasn’t until I had kids when my ex-husband and I decided that we had concerns about raising them in the church. We didn’t want them to be predisposed to hate, especially against LGBT. Of course, things are so different now, even more so with the conservative right.

But the church’s beliefs on homosexuality were a major issue. So, we decided to completely unplug. At that point, I had young children. I had lost in some way my community with the people of faith friends.

We had a small group we were close friends with. You lose a lot when you leave that. I had always loved it; what I loved about being part of a religious community was the community, I knew the Bible. I didn’t need to go to church to learn more about that to be frank.

In fact, that was boring if anything, because intellectually I was in a mega church. They aren’t going for high intellectual stimulation. They’re going at some surface, pat yourself on the back to feel good about life stuff.

So that’s when I got the idea to consider why not start something that builds community but without all the things that no longer resonant for me. I figured I wasn’t alone and that’s when I googled Atheist Church.

I stumbled upon and I did reach out to Sunday Assembly; I didn’t hear anything for 6 months and I reach out to Houston Oasis and started talking with Mike Aus. Everything that I was considering doing and wanted for this community to possibly be was what they started to do in Houston.

And from there, so the history of me going ahead, I had a group here in Kansas City that wanted to help start an Oasis, and so we did it.

Jacobsen: With regards to background, that’s a thorough background. I appreciate that. That provides the foundation and a pivot into your perspective on how you view things.

You provided information on not only your background, but also this position that you have. With respect to the larger North American culture – and I’ll include Canada and America together in this question, what do you make of the reasons – or what do you consider the reasons – for the rapid increase in what are called the Nones”?

Austen: Multiple factors. You’ve probably seen this already in your research, but The Rise of the Nones. That is a good book. I’ve experienced with my own people and from other atheist communities that the access to information, to the Internet, does play a big role in that.

The empowerment of women because the Church was built on the backs of women; women who, maybe, are more the stay at home mom type, so the culture has been changing with that. That’s also the big reason why we see a shift and then also the politicizing of religion has been distasteful.

Especially the younger generations, I’m a Millennial, technically, by birth date, but I’m on the edge. I can say that I have the perspective of either way. That’s why I want to be part of a community that accepts all people.

Even more so now with Oasis, our first value is that people are more important than beliefs. That’s key to who I am. That’s important to me.

Jacobsen: And what have been some of the more touching stories that you heard of within your own network in Kansas City? Touching stories, emotionally touching stories to an Oasis community, for instance.

Austen: The fact of having relationships and friendships. The running joke is now that those of us who are connected and have been a part of Oasis for a while; everyone was like, “We don’t know what our life was before Oasis because there are so many friendships, social things, volunteer things that you could be doing that you didn’t have before.”

Especially because if you were never religious, it’s different. But we’ve had people tell us that they have more friendships than they’ve ever had before. They know they are friendships that they’ll have for the rest of their life.

I can completely resonate with that. Even my own leadership in Kansas City, I love one of them. It’s an absolute pleasure to work with them. It’s a fascinating thing and something I don’t think happens too much in life.

I have a large group of people helping make Kansas City Oasis run. We’re the largest of all the Oasis communities. It takes a ton of volunteer hours to make it happen on an ongoing basis outside of myself.

But story-wise, things that you take for granted in a religious community would be death and being able to have that support network when life is brutal. So, we had a member lose a child tragically and suddenly when we had been on for 6 months and watching a young community that did not know each other.

That good rally around this family; it was unimaginable. It was a Thursday afternoon and we did a small graveside ceremony, not the right word, but what they had wanted and what they thought would be helpful.

And it was almost 2 hours outside of Kansas City, they were a military family, so it was upon a base and there were 30 people. And we were a small community. At that point, who took off from work and drove all the way up there and were present to be supportive of this family going through something that none of us ever want to know what would be like, we lost another member.

The same thing watching the community rally around losing one of our most favorite members to cancer. There are those instances. And then we have tons of young families.

So, there’s been lots of babies. We get to celebrate new life. It’s getting to experience life with a group of people who share some of your same values that is precious. And what’s cool about it is, we do have some diversity of thought.

So unlike in a church or any other religious community, we have people who would identify with spiritualism. They may believe on some level of what some of us might call woo. And then I have hardcore atheists who are hardcore anti-theists.

We all live; we all get along well. We have great conversations where we disagree and still look after each other afterward. The thing where you would hope would be an ideal for the future.

Jacobsen: I have a question about demographics. Because I do know that in what I have researched in terms of the demographics of, for instance, mainline churches, the more prominent churches in North America, women tend to attend more than men – in greater numbers and in greater frequency.

What are the demographics in terms of the Oasis network whether in Kansas City alone or the network as a whole?

Austen: It’s been shocking. We vary in age greatly, which is a barrier that most religious communities can’t get past – the 40 and under. They can’t reach the 40 and under group. We have college students to young families to 40s, 50s.

We have some people who are 70s, 80s, 90s, so it’s a wide spread of ages. And that happened. We talked about how that would be the ideal and offering childcare and being family friendly is super important to bringing that to the table.

But we’re also relevant when it comes to what we’re offering, not Sundays, but socially. Giving back and volunteering to whatever city that the Oasis community is in, it appeals to most people, the wide age range.

Jacobsen: That’s interesting because then it leaves not having to cater to a population. It attracts a broad base.

Because some of the mainline churches in America, some of the mega churches, you can find attempts to present in the past or recent past, a hyper-masculine leader and church life as you find or did find in Mark Driscoll or Matt Chandler, or to present oneself as a “everyman” – so to speak, such as Rick Warren.

And that’s a barrier that you don’t have to overcome given the broad base you’re talking about. That’s exciting.

Austen: Yes, it is. It is.

Jacobsen: With any community, there will be the problems of a community. What do you find to be problems of an Oasis community?

Austen: It wouldn’t be anything unique to any other group of people. You organize a group of human beings and we’re all evolved beings as well. So, there’s the standard people dynamics, but we are board-governed.

So, we don’t have the vicious yearly votes that a lot of church organizations have; we purposely designed ourselves to be that way. You can be on the board, volunteer, and help and show us that you’re committed.

We can include lots of people on the governing board. That honestly has made a huge difference. In the church world, it’s brutal and vicious. But also, we have some incredible culture where lots of ideas are welcomed.

There isn’t a cult of personality; it doesn’t revolve around me. That’s been intentional. It doesn’t revolve around who the primary organizer is. It is team-led. I am one of the main people making Kansas City Oasis happen in the network at this point.

But still, it’s not the Helen Show by any means. We’ve been intentional about making sure that I’m not up front every Sunday. I speak maybe a couple times a year.

Jacobsen: So, I won’t be looking forward to any H Magazine coming around the corner – akin to Oprah’s magazine – that’s O Magazine.

Austen: Oh [Laughing]! No. But I don’t know; she does well with that. I would do my own personal venture if I did something that. That’s not the goal. We didn’t build the community with 1 person.

Jacobsen: Within Canada, we have a slightly larger non-religious population than America. I would assume or even assert that there are needs that are unmet for that community that an Oasis gathering, a Sunday Assembly, an Atheist Church, or a Secular Church might provide in that context.

Given the demographics, have you done any research into potential areas for expansion – if I can call it that – into areas of Canada that might desire it?

Austen: To explain the network side of this, the network was created simply out of necessity because we started getting so many people asking how they could do what Houston and Kansas City was doing after the Time Magazine article came out.

So, Mike Ellis and I sat down to discuss how we would empower the group: how do we do that? We still operate today in the sense that we are in for the long haul and slow organic growth. It’s not we’re purposively slow because we’ve grown fast, but we’re not out there trying to open new Oasis communities.

We wait for people to come to us. It’s set up to where people can say, “Hey, I’m interested.” We can talk with them, understand what it looks like, and put together a team. That’s hard to do. So, the burden then falls on more than one person.

If you can’t put together a team and aren’t self-motivated, it won’t work out. We’re all startups. We don’t have some rich history with trust money behind it, like churches do; it’s local led. We do give the infrastructure and do help coach, especially with the people challenges and understanding how nonprofits run – and boards.

There are a lot of details involved that we’ve figured out that are helpful in making this an easier thing to make happen. But we’re not out there trying to open any Oasis community that has not been initiated by someone or not even someone but by a team of people in a location.

Jacobsen: Who is a personal hero for you?

Austen: I must think about that. It depends on what sector.

Jacobsen: Within the context discussed, someone with either a secular or a formal non-religious bend who knows how to reach people. Someone who can reach out to people in an effective way without offending them.

That can bring people into a secular community if that is what the person wants.

Austen: Someone that is already doing that?

Jacobsen: Yes.

Austen: I don’t have anyone. I’ve met amazing people that I respect and that’s why having Gretta Vosper as part of the Oasis network is great. She has unique insight and experience with building community, but I don’t see it as necessarily any one person.

We’re the pioneers of this at this point when it comes to what you described. So, people, John Dehlin is an interesting voice for the post-Mormon communities, bringing him into the fold. The way I’ve looked at a lot of this and one of my skills that I do see that I have is I’m resourceful.

Although, I may not have the outright experience in many things. I’m good at finding outside resources or getting to know a network with other people who may bring a lot of wisdom to the table as we figure out what this looks like.

It’s never going to be a solid look because there always must be flexibility in our thinking and our approach. Because one, societies are always evolving and changing, but also the need to respond to what the community wants: what do the people want?

This is not “What does Helen want?”, but “What do these communities want?” and “How should they look?” So, I don’t know if I have anyone necessarily, but I have a ton of respect with the people that I get to work with, such as Gretta.

Jacobsen: I remember one person responded to a similar question in a recent interview that they don’t believe in heroes anymore, but they have people that they admire and respect.

Austen: That’s great; that’s wonderful. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a hero. Shockingly doing this after a couple years, it’s almost been 4 years, who you get to work with and dream about the future with some amazing wonderful people.

These diverse backgrounds, and perspectives and experiences on life. It makes life incredibly rich. It’s been wonderful.

Jacobsen: What are the values of Oasis? All communities have values, explicit or implicit.

Austen: People are more important than beliefs. Reality is the reason. Meaning comes from making a difference; be accepting and be accepted, and human hands solve human problems. These are our five values.

Having those, and having shared values is important to building community: if you don’t have that, it doesn’t give you something to stand on. But that is our goal; that is our filter. So, there’s a lot to be said for setting those as goals that we are now as people and how we interact with the world and how we look at life. This is it.

Most of those think this is it, but, then again, I have a feeling that there are quite a few people amongst us that are on the spectrum not necessarily heavily dogmatic. But the values are important. I don’t know if anyone else told you, but I can give you the logic behind what we do what we do.

Does that help at all? I don’t know if that’s the interesting article stuff, but this is the stuff when I talk to possible people who are starting communities, this is what we end up talking about.

Jacobsen: Please go ahead.

Austen: So, one of the things that makes us effective is frequent opportunity to get together. So, although yes, we do choose Sunday because at least in the American culture – I have a feeling it’s similar in Canada – it’s the time that’s built into our society to get together a critical mass of people of varying ages, especially families.

Otherwise, it’s a challenge. But creating that frequent opportunity to all have a shared experience, maybe to learn something, but then to have that launch out from there, you can check it out. It’s much less intimidating than going to a bar; someone’s house or a book club or a game night.

You must be one who is extroverted and okay jumping into the situation. By offering something on an ongoing basis, there is no question as to Sundays or whatever days. All of us are doing Sundays now.

It’s there. We’re offering it. Then we offer something people say is a cross between a Ted Talk and a house concert. So, we do 20- to 25-minute talks on all kinds of things because now we get to explore all of life and not one archaic book.

And that is appealing too. Then we get to learn things about local issues. We have a lot at Kansas City Oasis on racial justice issues, especially native to our city. So, we’ve had a speaker. He’s written a book on the history of racism in Kansas City. So, if we know where we come from then we can better figure out how to help maybe create change in our own city.

So, having those learning opportunities are great, the talks’ purpose is to create conversation. We’re not telling people what to think or believe, but to have the shared experience and give something to talk about in a conversation over lunch.

Then we bring in different live music. Every genre in every city is different. I would say that Texas feels like Texas, but we have a ton of jazz in Kansas City. It is something we’re well known for. We have a rapper. So, it varies drastically.

We had a band last week and then this Sunday is a rapper. And then the next week is the guy who sings while he plays the harp, it’s the most magical, wonderful thing ever. So, you get to also experience art, which is another part of the human experience.

So, if we can offer something great and have a shared experience, then it’s wonderful. Outside of Sunday, we are creating opportunities for people to connect socially, so different fun things. We’ve had museum meetups.

The standard things that a lot of secular groups have done, but not to the scale that we’re doing it. We want to create the opportunity to build relationships and get to know each other. We also launched a small group system.

It’s been a year and a half ago in the same way that a lot of megachurches do. My personal experience in church was that I made some of my closest friends being part of a small group. I was there thinking that there has to be some way we can use that.

All it is, you’re getting to know a smaller group of people in a home on a regular basis. We do 8 or 10 weeks for small groups now using Alain de Botton’s School of Life. The people don’t have to read or do anything beforehand and they’re all over the city.

So, this time we had 10 host homes all over the Kansas City Metro area and over the different days of the week and times. People can get to know each other even more and those have been an absolute hit.

Once we got to 150 every Sunday or so, I was worried people weren’t going to start connecting. That’s an issue that a lot of large churches have. Getting past that number can be a challenge because getting people to know each other in such a large group changes things, I was thinking, “Let’s try the small group thing.”

People have talked about that being one of the most wonderful things that have evolved out of being in Oasis. You get to know other people in your part of the city. Unlike a lot of churches who pull within a 10-mile radius, we are pulling within a 75-mile radius of our Kansas City Metro area.

We do a demographic survey every year to see who is coming and from where and all of that, so we have that data. It’s interesting. The different dynamics that we have trying to connect people is to build community; that’s why we exist. How do we build relationships?

And that’s our filter for everything we decide to do. Then we want to give back to the community because that’s part of our values. We do a blood drive every 3 months. The bus comes to our community center where we do our Sunday gatherings at.

People come in and out and donate blood. We’re one of the biggest contributors to that blood bank in Kansas City due to how we have it set up. It makes it so easy. Then we work with a faith-based organization that feeds and clothes the working poor.

Every month, we work with them and have a great partnership. They’re wonderful. They share our same values that all people matter and we want to help people regardless if you’re Muslim, black, white, gay, straight, vegan: who cares?

We want to help people.

Jacobsen: I appreciate taking your time.

Austen: My pleasure. Cool, that’s awesome. You’re the first person to reach out to all of us. I did notice because I got a couple of communities reach out to me saying hey this guy is contacting us, “Can we talk?” It’s fine.

I’ve had some strange requests lately that has made us now start to change my approach to responding to stuff. You followed one strange one that was, it was some weird Alt-Right thing that was unsettling. That they tried to manipulate us into talking with them.

It’s interesting here in the states now. it’s an alternative reality that we live in here. It’s partially horrific. We envy you guys in Canada.

Jacobsen: We’re the land of Margaret Atwood.

Austen: It’s a strange world we live in now. After the election, our attendance skyrocketed also. Everyone was in shock. In a sad way a lot of us are not necessarily getting used to it, but you do in some weird way. For the US now, with Trump’s America, we’re not a political organization, but we stand for people to be treated well above and beyond whatever their belief system is.

The whole thing with Trump and getting rid of the ability for refugees to settle here and discriminating against Muslims; people are more realizing their need for community more than ever. It did change things.

Things have been different this year. And it’s more of a way where we feel more than ever what we’re providing is so much more necessary than ever because our political system in the US is something, that’s for sure. I’m glad I have my community.

I can’t imagine going through this living in this country with Trump as president without my community. It’s been important in giving some element of hope because there’s little for a lot of us in the US.

We’re not giving up. Sometimes, it takes drastic and extreme things to wake up some people and to get involved. that’s starting to happen, so we’ll see.

Image Credit: Helen Austen.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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