Yesterday I read the story of High Priest Bertram Dahl’s family and church in Beebe, Arkansas over at the Wild Hunt, and I was deeply moved. I don’t read the Wild Hunt as often as maybe I should, and so I hadn’t heard this family’s tale before. I didn’t know about the struggles they were having to settle in Beebe and provide the religious services that their community had asked them to bring to that town. I hadn’t heard about how the mayor and other Christians in that town were blocking the new location for Dahl’s Seeker’s Temple and store. I hadn’t heard how one city alderman said that he would not help the Dahls because their god was not his god. Now that I have heard the story, I am both angry and sad.
I am angry that anyone in America thinks that they have a monopoly on the freedom of religion. No one does. I am angry that elected officials and appointed civil servants in an Arkansas town feel that they have the right to block the presence of any religious group. And I am saddened that, even all these years after the civil rights movement, we the American people have still not grasped the full notion of what civil rights mean. I am saddened that the history of some religious groups coming to America with the intention of creating communities that could persecute people different from themselves has won out over the history of religious groups who came to America to live and let live.
It sort of makes sense, though, doesn’t it? Our European ancestors came here with some imagined sense that they were better than the people who lived here already. They destroyed the lands and religious freedoms — really ALL freedoms — of the indigenous populations that they found. Even the kindest hearted among our ancestors were complicit in this act. The historical repercussions of such unthinking domination cannot be underestimated.
So I ask myself how we can make amends in the world. How can we fix this? How can we take the mythology of America the Free and make it a reality for all: The whites and the blacks and the reds and the yellows; the Christians and the Jews and the Buddhists and the Pagans and all the rest?
Can we do it with prayer? Sure. Prayer will help. But prayer alone is just a cop out. It is the clicktivism of the spiritual world. Take on its own, prayer is just a way to assuage our guilt about not doing anything concrete.
Can we change the situation with our money? Yes, that would help, too. PayPal donations to SeekersTemple@yahoo.com will help this one family with their one fight, and if you can do that, please do. If you don’t have PayPal, you can send them a check at Seekers Temple, 608 E. DeWitt Henry Dr, Beebe, AR. 72012. But our money is not enough, either.
Can we make amends by writing about the problem, raising awareness and encouraging others to get involved? Well, I’m certainly trying, but I know full well that this is not enough. It is one brick in the arch of a bridge over ignorance and hatred, but it is not the most important piece. The keystone in that bridge is nothing short of direct action.
When I say direct action, I don’t mean civil disobedience, though that might be part of the construction, too. What I mean is stepping in and doing what needs to be done, doing the right thing at the right time.Sometimes the right thing is relatively easy, like when you have the opportunity to tell a person of another religious group that they can’t play or pray in your backyard and you do the right thing instead and welcome them into your town. (We Pagans need to be reminded sometimes that treating Christians the way that some Christians treat us is not an acceptable response.) Other times the right thing involves a much higher level of vulnerability.
The Dahls were asked by the Pagan community to come to Beebe because their old location was too far out of the way for most of the people who needed them. They were asked to be in a more central location so that people could attend the temple and walk into the store more often and more easily. Now that the Dahls are facing legal trouble, the Pagan community is sending letters of support, but it is hard to know how many will support them with their bodies and their identities in court or in the city hall. How many Pagans and how many non-Pagans who support the right of this one religious group to exist in this one American town will have the courage to show up, show their faces, risk the sorts of social and economic backlash that the Dahls have already faced? HP Bertram Dahl wonders just that.
It’s hard. I know it is.
When I was 9 years old, my family had to move to Texas for a few months as my step-father, a civil engineer, worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. We were looking for a place to live, spending the day visiting one potential place after another. There was one house that we looked at that we all loved. It had great rooms, a lovely layout, a nice yard. The neighborhood was a good one. But just as we were finishing up our tour of the place, the landlord said, “I really like you guys. You are a nice family. I won’t just rent to anyone. I wouldn’t rent to blacks or Jews. But y’all are good people, I can see that. The place is ready to move in when you are.” My mother looked down at me with alarm, and then my step-father said, without missing a heartbeat, “We’re Jewish, and we wouldn’t want to rent from a bigot in any case.” and led my mother and I out of the building.
As we climbed into the car, I asked them, “Why didn’t we just move there? He didn’t have to know we are Jewish!” I was young, and I just didn’t understand.
The Dahl’s hadn’t hidden the fact that they were Pagan when they were looking to move to Beebe. They even spoke to the mayor and gave him a business card which clearly spelled out what kind of church they led. The mayor hadn’t bothered to pay attention, though, preferring his own cognitive bias over reality. Only when the family was all moved into the town did the mayor realize his “mistake” and start to make things hard for the family.
Now that they are there, they can’t just walk away. They shouldn’t have to. No family should have to worry about what some portion of the community where they live thinks of their religious beliefs. We should all have the same rights to life, liberty, religious conscience, and the pursuit of a livelihood. These are basic civil rights.
I’m in Seattle right now, and I have other things I need to attend to at the moment. I can’t be in Beebe, AR to support this family with my face in a court room or a city council meeting, or believe me, I would be there. If you are able, if you are nearby or if you can travel to them, I urge you to do so. Email Priest@SeekersTemple.com and ask the Dahls how you can help and when they need people to be there with them.
This may not make amends for the errors of our history, but it can be one step toward making the present a better place.