It’s been a difficult couple of weeks in our little corner of the interfaith world. All of us who are mindful of the dear old Earth are conscious of the horror of West Virginia–a horror of carelessness compounded by the invisible world of classism that kept the eye of the nation on the governor of New Jersey when it should have been on the people and critters and waterways and corruption in West Virginia.
Yes, we’ve sent water and held candlelight vigils and called the governor and all that one does when the situation is needful and the media is silent. We have looked for hope where there is probably none left to feel and we have shaken our fists at a nation that always prizes money over people, money over the biosphere, money over all.
In the midst of this, I had my usual and annual issue of MLK Day. It’s a big deal around here–there are several prayer breakfasts and a big march through our downtown that ends with music and prayers and speeches. And there used to be big African drums–and who doesn’t thrill to that? The community’s clergy folk usually walk at the head of the parade–which leaves a prominent Black church, following a call to rally for justice, usually in Jesus’ name.
I used to go every year with my daughter and some of her friends. Sometimes we’d have a wee sign or a banner made from an old bedsheet. Some years the weather was sunny and perfect and other years, it was cold or drizzly.
A couple of years ago, it was made clear to me that I wasn’t the kind of clergy they wanted as part of the march. Word got back to me–as word does in small Southern towns–that my name had been brought up in a meeting and some of the organizers were shocked and appalled that I chose to come out and be visible.
To be honest, I was a bit surprised. After all these years of interfaith work, I’ve gotten used to being one of the tokens any time there is a public interfaith event. I’m fairly presentable, I think, and don’t usually rock the boat.
But I wasn’t wanted in this public religious ceremony. It could be because that was the year that the middle-aged African American man stood on the sidelines in his Confederate uniform, waving a large Stars and Bars. The addition of a Wiccan priestess may have been the tipping point for the organizers. I don’t know. They never really talked to me about it and I bowed out with what I hope was some grace.
But a year or so after that, a new rabbi in the community (and a woman who is a good friend) was all about getting our interfaith group to have a strong showing for the celebration. We got ourselves organized and I even made a little banner for us but when it came down to counting up who would be there on the day, I didn’t raise my hand. She was, understandably, puzzled and I gave her a bit of the story but referred her to one of the organizers of the march. The organizer was quite clear that I wasn’t welcome. They couldn’t actually stop me from attending but it would be better if I didn’t.
And so I don’t. There is a huge ambivalence in this community–and I suspect in others–between traditional African-American Christians and people who self-identify as Wiccan, Pagan or, heaven forbid, witches. It is deeply cultural and entrenched, and will require a concerted effort on both sides to come to a place of reconciliation.
When I talk to friends and colleagues who are clergy members in traditionally Black congregations, they acknowledge the problem. They know I have great respect for the work they do on so many justice issues and I think they have some respect for my work in those same fields and some even have personal affection for me.
But there is, at least in this small Southern town, a widening gulf and it does little for the cause of justice that we don’t work on it. But with so many other justice issues–and other issues–it is on the back burner, if it’s made it to the stove at all.
So I will continue to speak and march where I can be effective and where I am welcome. But that is not MLK Day here. Not now. Not yet.