The other day, I read a “you know you’re a New Yorker/ Californian/Midwesterner/Southerner when…” post in my G+ stream that consisted primarily of mildly to moderately negative stereotypes. Needless to say, this is not a form of “humor” I enjoy. Not only do Southerners rarely have names like “Jim Bob” and “Billy Sue,” but there is also a high degree of variation in dialect rather than a single “Southern” mode of speech. And I’m going to need y’uns to spell “y’all” correctly if you’re going to make fun. And even then–
While it’s easy to roll your eyes and dismiss the bad jokes, the idea of Southern cultural homogeneity persists. You hear that sort of thing about other regions, too, but I’m writing what I know here. My husband, who spent many of his formative years on the left coast, tells me that not all Californians are surfer dudes. Shocking, I know. In fact, he and I were talking earlier about the kind of liberals we are and how liberals are not all the same, either. I’m pro-hunting1 and it hurts my soul when my government spends more than it takes in. He’s not anti-gun2 and more or less with me on the penny pinching, but we both support marriage equality and affordable health care. It’s like saying “All moths are nocturnal” (they’re not) or “All butterflies are brightly colored” (again, no). The religious landscape of the South isn’t monolithic, either. If it were, Women of Faith wouldn’t exist. Not only do we have a fair number of transplants from around the world and across the country, but the natives vary in belief and practice quite a bit, too.
Firstly, Paganism in the South is not an anomalous thing. We may be in the minority, but we’re not outliers. The same goes for Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim communities here. To quote “Southern Suggestions” by Michael Reno Harrell, “The Baptists don’t own the South, they just use the name.” Even the Protestant Christians around here aren’t the closed-minded far right bigots they’re often portrayed as being. We have those, sure, but they’re not representative of what most people are like.
I’ve been wanting to write here about a couple of nice elderly ladies I know who are much more representative of Southern religious attitudes than the stereotype. I met them at my eldest daughter’s dance school (they take their grandkids there) and I was a little worried they might treat us differently because we don’t go to a Christian church. One is a local and the other one is originally from Georgia, but has lived in Middle Tennessee for many years. They’re about what you’d expect in a pair of elderly Southern grandmothers and though I dreaded the “Where do you go to church?” question, my fears about these ladies were entirely unfounded. The first lady is an atheist who can’t believe in a loving god that would allow women and children to suffer and the second does believe in the Christian god and follows the teachings of Jesus, but has no problem whatsoever with those who believe differently. Mrs. Mary, the lady from Georgia, is under the impression that I believe in everything– which is close enough to true that I don’t fuss over the details. It’s obvious she doesn’t have a lot of experience with Paganisms, but my septuagenarian friend places more importance on being a good neighbor than on being right.
Interfaith work is not only about appealing to like-minded people, but also about filling gaps in knowledge and experience for people like Mrs. Mary. She then becomes an ally, a friend, and a voice for us. In all honesty, I don’t know what it’s like to be a Pagan or do interfaith work in other parts of the country. I’ve never lived anywhere else. Maybe it’s easier out in California or up North (that’s what “they” tell me, anyway). What I do know is that the work we do here is entirely worth it. Sara, Women of Faith’s token agnostic, came up to me and said, “Before I met you and [Sophia], I thought Pagans were… silly. I don’t think you’re silly anymore.” I had the strong urge to put my hands up in victory and shout, “MY WORK HERE IS DONE,” but I also know that there are many more people like Sara and Mrs. Mary out there.
My hope is that if I can impart a little more knowledge or understanding to someone, that person will share that understanding with others. With any luck and the grace of the gods, that means an exponential increase in acceptance and a willingness to coexist. Even in this reddest of red states, I believe the cultural momentum is toward more equality and greater freedom. The objections of those on the conservative fringe who believe that religious freedom only applies to Christians represent the thrashing death throes of intolerance. There will always be bigots, but institutionalized bigotry is ever-dwindling, in part due to people who are willing to talk to others who may or may not share their views. I’m very proud of the work I do at the local level and changing even one mind makes the whole thing worthwhile to me.
1. I don’t hunt, but I do kinda wish someone would be a successful enough hunter that s/he had an extra deer to put in my freezer or one of those yummy-looking wild turkeys that sometimes cross through my yard.
2. Neither of us owns guns, but nor do we want to take anyone’s guns away.
3. That almost never happens because I look, talk, and dress like everyone else around here. I consider myself fortunate in that respect.