Grand Rapids (MI) Pagan Pride Day is a wonderful event, and I used to speak there on a yearly basis. It was always well organized, featured some fantastic vendors, and had a pretty big turnout. It was always in late September/early October too, a beautiful time of year in Michigan; slightly chilly, but still invigorating in the way that only an autumn day can be. It was a day or (weekend) I always enjoyed, even if it meant missing a little bit of football.
The only blemish on those perfect fall days involved the inevitable protests by Christians. Grand Rapids is a fun town, but it’s also the buckle on the Midwest Bible Belt. It’s a conservative city in the way that most Midwestern cities aren’t, and Pagan Pride Day there often attracted a rogue Christian element. The end of the day often saw me peeling off “You can be saved from hell!” flyers from the windshield of my car.
On the years when the Christians showed up I’d keep my distance, but glance at them now and then to see what they were up to. Inevitably, every year, the same Pagan guy would be engaging them, arguing for hours. He tended to look about 24, with long hair and a hat, and he’d usually have a little gaggle of followers around him. I’m not sure it was always the “same guy” every year, but it was always the same type of guy; a guy so convinced of his Pagan awesomeness that we needed him to be our spokesperson, and that he had the power to show the Christians the error of their ways.
In many ways I found that guy just as annoying as the Christians. His actions simply egged them on, giving them the audience they so desperately desired. In some ways the protesting Christians and that guy had a mutually beneficial relationship. Both of them got to feel important, with neither group accomplishing a damn thing. If anything, engaging a handful (and in this case, it was always just a handful) of protesting Christians probably sets useful religious dialogue back a bit. The type of rabid Christian who gets off yelling at Pagans is not someone who can generally be reasoned with, so why bother?
The people running the event always took a far more effective, and sweeter, approach. If the protesters were in a particularly disruptive spot (like near a workshop area) they’d nicely ask them to move. If they didn’t move they’d call the police. They never made any attempt to change anyone’s mind or engage in useless arguments.
Engaging in religious outreach is a difficult thing, and there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Often the approach to it we take as Pagans depends on the circumstances and the individuals involved. If a group of Christians shows up to protest your Pagan event, it’s likely that you are dealing with the most rabid of the rabid, and that real dialogue is most likely out of the question. In those cases it’s best to ignore them (or call the police if it gets to that point).
Despite what that guy always tends to think, you can’t convert those types of Christians, and that’s not our modus operandi anyways. Pagans don’t proselytize, we educate, we inform, but we don’t have a duty to “spread the word of the Goddess” to every corner of the Earth. When conversion attempts failed, that guy would often talk about the inaccuracies and falsehoods of the Bible. It’s true that there are a lot of problems with the Christian Bible, and that many Pagans are far more literate about it than Christians, but you aren’t going to get a radical fundie to agree with you that the Apostle Paul only wrote seven of the thirteen books attributed to him in the New Testament through yelling and arguing.
When engaging those in other faiths about Paganism, our most important duty is to simply tear down misconceptions. I don’t care if people agree with my religious beliefs, what I do care about is that they know I don’t sacrifice babies or engage in homilies to Satan during ritual. Yes, you can yell “I don’t worship Lucifer” at Christian fundamentalists and perhaps they’ll catch on, but engaging them in an antagonistic sort of way confirms their belief that we are their “enemies.” My enemies are people who would deny me my religious freedom, not Christians as a whole, and the best remedies tend to involve civil conversation, the courts, and the occasional school board meeting.
Away from protesters, I’ve been lucky enough to engage in some meaningful, and constructive religious dialogue over the years. I’ve been on inter-faith panels, and visited a few churches, and when I was done with those things the impression I left was a positive one. Many times I ended up with new friends as a result of those experience, and I accomplished this through being positive and being respectful. When doing inter-faith work the goal is not to convert anyone or get them to agree with you, but to help them see you (and our community) as a positive. A successful interaction with a Christian is one where they leave seeing you as a person, not an enemy or a servant of evil.
Having grown up outside of Nashville Tennessee I have a lot of conservative, Christian Evangelical friends. When discussing spiritual matters with them there’s always this little bit of me that simply wants to “discredit” what they believe. Sometimes I just want to go through their Holy Book and point out every little contradiction, but what’s the point? Being antagonistic like that is simply going to make them defensive, and it’s only going to reinforce the perception that I’m against them. I’m not against anyone, I disagree with people about a whole host of issues, but those are entirely different things. What’s most rewarding when dealing with my Evangelical friends is when their friends realize that I’m just another person, living a painstakingly average life in a lot of ways.