The Host and Hostess with the Mostes by Catherine Fahringer (October 2000)

Early in August I received a phone call from an FFRF member in Brownsville, Texas, telling me that the big news down in the valley was that a German high school exchange student had been booted out of the host family’s home. The reason? The German student was an atheist. Horrors!

The weird thing about the story was that the student had plainly filled out the required papers and had put a-t-h-e-i-s-t in the space for religious preference. The host family (C-a-t-h-o-l-i-c) was given that information before the student was assigned to them and had expressed no alarm or displeasure.

The coordinator for the local chapter of SHARE! High School Exchange Program had been quoted as saying, “We exist so that we can help people from other countries learn about Americans, to develop an understanding and a tolerance.”

It wasn’t quite clear to me who was to develop the tolerance, but the American family certainly flunked it bigtime. As for learning about Americans, the German student learned very quickly that “tolerance” meant control. When invited to attend Mass with them, Martin demurred politely. The host family quickly called Yvette Coffman, Texas State Director of SHARE! High School Exchange Program, and told her that things were not working out because the German boy would not attend Mass with them, thus exhibiting a distinct disinclination on his part to partake in the exchange of tolerance.

Of course I do not know the full story of what was said, or how much time elapsed between the opening of the door of the Catholic family’s home to the exchange student, and the slamming of it behind him (about a week, I think). Nevertheless, it put Ms. Coffman in a terrible fix, but, in her unflappable manner, she found the student a temporary home until she could find a more stable host family for this sixteen-year-old pariah.

News of this act of American tolerance reached the ears of a reporter at the McAllen newspaper. He wasted no time in spreading the story, which resulted in Ms. Coffman being bombarded with offers from families wanting to take in the homeless student. He was placed . . . take a deep breath . . . with another Catholic family! However, they had read the whole sad tale and were eager to remove the stain of intolerance from the Catholic escutcheon. So far as I know, the family and the exchange student are getting along peacefully.

On September 20, I received a phone message from Ms. Coffman, requesting I return her call so that we could discuss something that was on her mind. I wasted no time in doing so. She had been delightful when I had called her last August to express concern from the freethought community, and our wish to help with the placement of the evicted student.

I was now further delighted when she said that she had been thinking about foreign students and host families and realized that the program’s contact for these families was largely through the churches. Since many of the foreign students were atheists, she felt that they were not given a wide enough option regarding host families. Did my heart jump for joy? Right out of my mouth.

Ms. Coffman suggested that perhaps atheist groups should be informed of this fact and would be inclined to volunteer as hosts. I assume that terms such as freethinker, humanist, rationalist, etc., would also be welcome designations. However, do remember that the word atheist is not, in more enlightened countries, the big scary horned beast that it is here in the United States.

Knowing many freethinker folk, of one designation or another, I feel confident that many of them have hosted a foreign exchange student at one time or another. This program is the sort that would be appealing to them. However, I think that, possibly, these nontheist families never registered their true religious nonpreference in the space provided, maybe daring to go so far as writing the word “none” as a response. I know that in civic activities we have all learned that it is better not to advertise.

I am aware that British and European citizens do not regard religion with the same adolescent fanaticism as do a vast number of Americans, but it never entered my mind that in one mainstream activity, the exchange student program, our nonbelief category would be wanted, needed and welcomed!

There’s a big push here in Texas for host families for the 2001 spring semester. Wear your religious dis-preference proudly and print your preferred freethinker designation on the forms you may request from:

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
United States Department of State
475 Washington Blvd. Ste. 220
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
Tel: 1-310-821-9977 or
Fax: 1-310-821-9282

In Texas, contact:

Yvette Coffman
TX State Director
1-972-727-7966 or 1-800-941-3738

Waste no time; go for it

The writer is a long-time Foundation activist and officer who lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation