Making Light: Interfaith 2 – Electric Boogaloo

Saying “Interfaith” around here is kind of like running through a pack of hyenas wearing a dress made of bacon. No matter where you stand on the matter, it’s bound to get people very excited. I imagine that most people who are kind of “meh” about the whole thing just don’t comment. There’s a bit of sampling bias there, but I am very happy to continue the conversation as long as it stays polite. How we approach interfaith work is one of those big things that will shape Paganisms as our movement continues to grow. Our county Women of Faith group is how I do it and I’d like to spend some time talking about what we do and how it benefits everyone who is a part of the group.

Salaam Y'all. Image by Sunweaver.Back in 2009, the imam at the nearby Islamic Center had an interfaith brunch for the local clergy. They were having some difficulty building their new worship space and he wanted to get together with other clergy persons to show that faith leaders in the community could hang out and be groovy. And, of course, by “having some difficulty,” I mean “several years of litigation plus hostile rednecks vandalizing the site, burning construction equipment, and making death threats.” I could only imagine what manner of kerfluffle might arise should the local Pagans try to build anything, so throughout this ballyhoo, I chose to march, speak, and eat baklava and beef weenies for freedom and justice. After all, freedom of religion is for everyone. At this clergy brunch, I met some wonderful ladies from various places of worship around town, including the Islamic center in which we stood. We chatted about things women chat about, husbands, children, food, and before the day was through, we had decided to make a regular thing of it. Thus was born the Women of Faith.

Our purpose is to be an example of how people of diverse faith paths can work together toward positive change in the community and to foster understanding between people of various faith paths. Charitable works are a part of this, but that’s not our whole story. We spent a goodly part of our first year learning the basics of each others’ religions and we continue learning from each other as we discuss how we handle things like death, marriage, mental health, and charity in the context of our respective religions. We talk about what we believe and how we practice, the two biggest questions when talking about religion. This serves to inform us so that we might be better equipped to defend the religious freedoms of our neighbors and to speak out against bigotry. More than once, one of the ladies from Women of Faith has heard someone speak ill of Pagans and was able to come back with an intelligent and informed response. Likewise, the Pagan ladies can do the same for any of the other faiths we regularly talk about. One of the cofounders is a very outspoken Methodist minister and it tickles me to death when she corrects someone’s misinformation on Paganisms, not only because she’s a Methodist, but also because she’s a hoot when she gets a rant on.

Our charitable works serve several purposes. Firstly, we want to help our local community and we tend to focus on works that benefit women and children. We’ve collected school supplies and clothing for the needy in our county, we’ve worked with a program that educates incarcerated pregnant women, and we’ve contributed time and resources to help out our local women’s shelter. My favorite is the annual Ramadan food drive. Lacking infrastructure, Pagans must rely on other organizations if we want to do some hands-on charitable works and it doesn’t always go very well. More than once, Pagans here have been turned away and not allowed to help simply because of a religious bias. Most of the charitable organizations around here are run by Protestant Evangelical Christians and, frankly, they don’t want us around. When Women of Faith chooses to do something in the community, it must be open to all of us to ensure that all of our members, even our token Athiest, are welcome and given an opportunity to help. Finally, when women from all different backgrounds get together to make positive changes, it shows others that friendship and compassion are possible in spite of our religious differences. Our actions speak for us.

Throughout our few years as an organization, we have discovered that while our approach to the divine is often very different, we are more alike than not. To quote one of our Muslim members:

We try to understand the differences among us, and it’s leading us to see, feel, appreciate, and value the sameness within us.

We have T-shirts.

Over all, this has been a great experience for everyone involved. I have made friends I never thought I’d make, learned lots about the other women in my county, educated my eldest about other faith traditions, and had the opportunity to help people in need. I encourage anyone who wants to make the world a better place and a safer one for Pagans to reach out to the other people of faith in your neighborhood. After the Fox News kerfluffle, Another Pagan Podcast responded (Episode 63), promoting exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about here. Reasoned response and calm dialogue gets us closer to a world in which it is safe and normal to be Pagan than does reactivity and belligerence. We need to meet on common ground with our monotheist neighbors and engage in true dialogue, listening as much as we speak. We need to work with our neighbors toward peace and justice. An attitude that “Your holy book is dumb and let me tell you why” gets us exactly nowhere but more marginalized.

Though I am no longer Wiccan, I have always and still believe that all paths to the divine are sacred and that freedom of religion is for everyone. Apart from this, the most important thing to remember is to bring snacks. People are much more willing to listen to your ideas if there are snacks.

Interfaith Pagan Pumpkin Bread

2/3 c. room-temperature butter or shortening
16 oz. pumpkin puree (canned is fine)
2 2/3 c. sugar
2/3 c. water
4 free-range hippie eggs
1 tsp. each cinnamon, ground cloves
3 1/3 c. all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2/3 c. raisins (optional)
2/3 c. nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F, grease two loaf pans. Cream sugar and butter or shortening in a large bowl. Add eggs, pumpkin, and water. Blend in dry ingredients and stir in raisins and/or nuts if so desired. Pour into pans and bake for 1hr 10min, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

You can also pour the batter into greased muffin tins and bake at the same temperature for about 30 min. Makes approx. 2 dozen.

Allow to cool slightly before removing from loaf pans or muffin tins. Share.

Making Light is an occasional column by Hellenic polytheist Sunweaver. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

When Worlds Collide – Coming Back From Pantheacon
Socially Responsible Magic: Why We Need to Have the Hard Conversations
The Zen Pagan: What Does It Mean For the Gods to Exist?
The Busy Witch: Snow and Stillness
About Sunweaver

In addition to her personal and group practice as a priestess of Apollo, Sunweaver works as interfaith clergy with a diversity of religious groups in the Middle Tennessee area. She is a founding member of the Rutherford County Women of Faith and has worked with the area interfaith center, Wisdom House, to help bring positive awareness to the non-Abrahamic religions. She is a mother of two, a fiber arts enthusiast, and a holds a Master's degree in biology.

  • Kenneth

    This is an excellent example of how interfaith work should happen.  Person to person diplomacy works because people at street level have an interest in getting along with each other. It doesn’t work at the macro level of popes and synods and seminaries and grand councils because those folks have a huge financial and political interest in maintaining and deepening division.  In your group’s format, people learn something about each other’s religion beyond Wikipedia, they realized “we’re not all the same” and that’s OK and most importantly, everyone realizes they have some common interests that transcend their own practice and theology. 

    • Sunweaver

       I think it *can* work on a larger scale if the people in charge are willing to let go of a need to be right in favor of a willingness to work together toward some positive end. But the work begins at the local level. If we’re unable to form partnerships and alliances at “street level” as you put it, there’s no hope for interfaith on an organizational level.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I have done interfaith work on various levels–and often, I have to admit, rather disastrously, not because of anything that I didn’t consider, but because the “core group” of individuals from various religions has had their act together, but their co-religionists didn’t understand things in quite the same nuanced fashion.  An interfaith discussion I co-organized in Ireland, for example, with a Catholic, a Muslim, and a Pagan (myself) was fine between the three of us, but the Muslims came to question me and point out how my gods were actually djinn trying to confuse me, the (non-Catholic) Christians came to critique both the Catholics and myself, and the very few Pagans in the audience tried to make both the Catholic and the Muslim believe that their god is evil and domineering, etc.  In an effort to provide a forum for people to learn more, instead they created questions to reinforce their views that all the other groups were “wrong” for various reasons.  Eeesh…

    So, while I have other occasions to relate about “Interfaith OH NO!” I wanted to very definitely commend you and your group for the solidarity you have.  The fact that you insist all of your members are not discriminated against in any of the activities you do, rather than saying “We’re doing such-and-such this week, so all the Muslims can stay home; and on Wednesday at the soup kitchen, Pagan Kathy and Papist Dianne can go play bingo,” etc., is really good.  This is where actual interfaith action begins to be taken seriously, I think, with the insistence that all in the group (and people of all religions and none) are human and are deserving of respect and acceptance, and to do so rather unconditionally.  It’s admirable, and it would be a good way to start and to form such groups in the future, with the understanding that this is how they should/will work.

    • Sunweaver

      Did you have snacks? A gob full of cheese and crackers encourages listening and I am of the firm belief that people are more willing to listen to your ideas if they have a bit of nosh. If the person you disagree with makes an excellent baba ganoush, you’re way less likely to tell them off than you are to ask for the recipe. I’m being a little flippant here, but only a little. Sharing food is a tried and true way to bond people together.

      We also encourage our members to set aside a need for being right in favor of listening and learning. Our conversations are not about whose way is right, but about learning a new thing about our neighbors. We’re allowed to ask the hard questions of each other, of course, but not as a way to prove how right we are. We appoint a moderator from one of the cofounders to keep us on track and behaving. UU Jill is very good at this.

      It’s unfortunate that you’ve had such difficulty with interfaith work before, but I hope our story encourages you to keep trying. If we can do this in the Bible Belt, anyone can anywhere.

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