Monday, October 01, 2007

Holy Convergence

Yesterday Patrick and I attended an event at Peace Lutheran Church in Danville, CA called "Holy Convergence: An Interfaith Festival for Families." Billed as "a celebration of Ramadhan (Islam), the Feast of St. Francis (Christian [at least those brands of Christianity that have saints]), High Holy Days (Jewish), Divali and Gandhi's Birthday (Hindu) [is Gandhi's birthday a religious holiday or a national holiday?], Indigenous People's Day [fka "Columbus Day" and now known in PC San Francisco as Italian Heritage Day], Sikh Guru Gadhee, In Love with Life Season (Buddhist, Sufi and Bahai), and World Communion Sunday (Protestant Christian). Note there is no mention of Autumn Equinox, which is called by different names but celebrated by nearly all Pagans.

At the opening ceremony in the sanctuary, I met Bob Stranathan, a Christian Science practitioner, who seemed bewildered by my presence, and said he thought that Pagans were godless. I told him we had lots of gods and goddesses. Bob asked me if I were 'black or white'? We conversed in a spirit of openness and friendship. He did ask me if my poppy-tattooed arms were part of my religion. I said, no, they weren't a required accoutrement of Paganism, but, yes, they express, for me, my connection with and dependence upon the land where I live, a land covered with these flowers from early Spring until late Summer.

Right after we concluded the opening with self-introduction of religious representatives in attendance, a lovely young woman approached me and said how glad she was to see a Pagan presence there. She introduced me to her female partner and their daughter of about 9. We only had a few minutes to chat because Patrick and I were off to the first of two panels.

The first panel addressed the questions: "What are the 'end goals' of your faith? And how are they achieved in practice?" Each panelist had five minutes to speak, with the rest of the time taken up with Q&A. I didn't get all their names. A Sikh man said that Sikhs live in the world, and must leave themselves as Allah made them -- meaning no shorn head or facial hair, no embelleshments of the body (while seeming to be looking directly at my colorful arms).

The Rev. Carole Anderson from the Church of Religious Science in Concord said that there is only one god but that god can be complimented and integrated into other religions.

Rabbi Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim Congregation in San Ramon, said the world is borken and needs repair. He seeks to find a balance between justice and compassion, to seek peace. He said there is little in Judaism by way of theology, but that we should listen with our whole hearts.

The abbess of Buddha Gate Monastery in Lafayette, Master Jian-Sheng, claims that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood, or enlightenment, by (1) observing the precepts -- she spoke of five precepts and eight precepts, but only itemized the six I'm mentioning here -- (2) practicing tolerance; (3) practicing charity, with no attachment and without greed; (4) practicing meditation; (5) being diligent; (6) attaining wisdom, beyond knowledge. She cautions to avoid extreme views and keep to the middle way.

The final panelist, a Sufi woman from the Rahima Foundation, said that the goal of Sufis is to attain divine pleasure and divine love, to serve 'the lord' (I don't know what lord, exactly; Allah, I assume) by serving his creation.

During the Q&A, I wanted to bring up the topic of the feminine divine. I said I felt at a disadvantage because there had been no expression of anything other than monotheism and that in NeoPaganism -- yes, I used that term in this rather conservative context -- and my question was about acknowledgment of the feminine divine. I said that many women left the religions in which they were brought up because they saw no image of the feminine divine in those religions, and instead they found a more personally meaningful spiritual path in Paganism.

Having been specifically invited to this event, you can imagine my surprise when several people, both panelists and particularly two men in the audience (one a Muslim, one Euro-American, presumably Abrahamic) spoke rudely and condescendingly. The Muslim man told me how Allah revered women. That, my friend, is not the feminine divine. The Euro-American man gave me a lecture about all the deities of both sexes in Hinduism (he neglected Ardhanarishvara and other androgynous or two-sexed deities); how highly esteemed women are in Christianity and Judaism. Again, so narrow and limited were their world views that they couldn't seem to grasp the meaning of my question. They were nasty and I was upset.

I told myself that encountering Pagans was a new experience to this community and that I should cool it and speak to individuals afterwards. I leaned over to Patrick, all nice and proper in a suit, with a CHS pin in the lapel, and tie, and whispered, "Am I being too contentious?" He said definitely not, but wait till later to address my discomfort. I said, "These guys are gettin' my Irish up. Am I being too thin-skinned?" I experienced these men (and even the abbess) as patronizing us. And if you wanna piss me off, just talk down to me.

I could have told this fellow that I attend Kali pujas on the New Moons. I could have told him lots, but alas, there was no time.

I felt that the moderator, who was at the rear of the room rather than on the dais with speakers, should have interrupted and made it clear that this was an interfaith gathering, and at interfaith gatherings we come together in respect. At that point in the day, I was ready to just leave and go home; instead, I walked around and cooled off between sessions.

While the interfaith discourses were taking place, there were other activities going on at the gathering. The various local churches and other religious organizations had tables in the courtyard where they handed out literature and had some refreshments. The Buddhists, bless them, had free bottles of water on this hot dry day. Meanwhile, some people took their pets the Children's Garden for a blessing of the animals; the Sikhs led people in chanting and dancing in the sanctuary, others walked the church labyrinth (a medieval circuit labyrinth), while children got henna tattoos or made balloon animals, worked on a large mosaic. The design of the mosaic, by Richard Caemmerer, is pictured above. Whether Pagans paths were intended to have been interwoven into this design, when I see the multicolored spiral uniting all the images, I know we're there.

After a short break, we reconvened for an "interfaith discourse" on the questions: "What are the views within your faith about other faiths? What are the relevant scriptures? What is the status of interfaith relations within your faith?" I'm happy to say that Patrick was the first to speak, and he stopped immediately when the moderator, still from the back of the room, signaled time. He was followed by a Baha'i gentleman, then Father Tom Bonacci, a Roman Catholic priest from St. Ignatius of Antioch.

Bob, the Christian Scientist I met earlier, said Jesus' job was to express the divine, not to tell about it. The goal of Christian Science is to heal "sin," and its teachings are Bible-based. He said we are to "be merciful, just and pure." From the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Danville, Bob also maintains a healing practice from his office in Walnut Creek. He prays and performs healings by telephone or e-mail, but prefers working face-to-face.

The last to speak was the Sufi woman from the Rahima Foundation.

A woman went up to Patrick right after the discussion, so I left the room to look around at what I had missed in my hurry to get to the opening ceremony in time. People, but for a few stragglers like me, were packing their instruments and literature, folding tables and chairs, and cleaning up. I went back into the room after a bit, but I could see Patrick and the woman were deep in conversation. After another little while, I returned to the room and sat quietly waiting for them to finish. Evidently the conversation had gotten very heated on both sides; I don't think it would be constructive for me to detail it here. Suffice to say that the woman, who happened to be a Protestant convert to LDS, was apologizing profusely to Patrick, saying how ignorant she had been. What a guy he is! One of the smoothest talkers -- he surely kissed the Blarney Stone, he has such Irish charm -- one of the most diplomatic people I know, Pagan or not.

I'm glad we made this connection with the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County. Patrick was wanting to connect with a local interfaith group close near his home.

I'm a little confused: our invitation came from ICCCC, the sponsor, yet the program indicates the event was sponsored by Interfaith - San Ramon Valley. For a completely different perspective on this event from mine, see this article from The Argus, a local paper. It also seems to have caught the attention of the Huffington Post.


Mercury Redbone said...

I'm delighted to have found your blog and I'm enjoying reading about the interfaith events. I feel this is important work that individual Pagans need to take on. I'm in a rural area and there are no regular interfaith opportunities nearby, and I'm thinking of starting something but wondering if I have the energy or the ability to be diplomatic when it's most needed.

The experience you describe here reminds me of a couple of bad interfaith experiences--one almost just like what you describe, except with Pagan+Queer elements instead of the Divine Feminine--that happened at a couple of Bahai-sponsored events just after 9/11. (Apparently, lots of Abrahamic religionists are highly invested in what they imagine to have been the disappearance of polytheism). This was unfortunate--I let it pile up with lots of other post 9/11 things and withdrew in frustration and resentment... interfaith is an area, I feel, where I might have been more productive, where I'd like to put a little more energy in the future. Though I don't have the regional richness of institutions and practitioners that you have, your reports are interesting and inspiring... and sometimes duly noted cautions.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think that "interfaith" is a club for monotheists only, where the attendees can compare what they have in common.

Do they want to feel in their bones what it is like to live in a polytheistic world? I kind of doubt it.

Hecate said...

You are doing the Goddesses' own work out there interacting w/ the monotheists and patriarchials. I can't do it. Goddess guard you

Anonymous said...

Oy vey, good for you for sticking with it Macha! I have so very little patience for gatherings like that, but I know it's good work to do.