Have I slipped into a parallel dimension, or is this the real world? A religious fanatic decides to target several schools in my neighborhood, including the one my kids attend, and therefore pickets the car line where people receive and drop off students, before and after school. She shows up with a four foot sign of an aborted fetus and the phrase “This is not healthcare” in large white letters. She flashes her sign and speaks into a microphone she is wearing. Her voice echoes her religious views to the astonished kids, teachers, parents, and caregivers that gather there every weekday. Because nothing sells a message like frightening children and disrupting the school day.
She is a provocateur, and clearly wants to instigate some kind of altercation or get media attention. I complain to the police officers on the scene. I am informed several times that the street is public property. She has the right to shout whatever she wants. The school responds by hanging sheets on the fence so as to block her image, and teachers walked the kids to and from cars. This goes on for several days. Later she climbed on top of her SUV and yells from up there.
The creepy thing is that she is not alone. Several men come with her, then pace up and down the street of the assembled cars. The men are smiling and confident. Their T-shirts proclaim them to be what my mother calls the “Jesus People.” They are affiliated with some sort of Christian sect that engages in harassing the greater community at large. These folks have been around for a long time. They used to show up on my college campus with signs and megaphones, always yelling about something. These people show up in Ybor every so often, to remind all of the party goers the wages of sin.
Proselytizing is anathema to me. The thought of aggressively marketing one’s religious beliefs to others makes my skin crawl. Most Pagans I know feel the same. Many of us have had negative formative experience with religious training. We are not interested in perpetuating a cycle of guilt. We do not choose that for the next generation. People are encouraged to find their own path to the Divine. Wicca, for example, specifically forbids proselytizing.The act of shaming someone into religious compliance is completely dehumanizing. I am disheartened and upset by the audacity of this woman to force her moral concerns on grade school kids. I feel that elementary school, in particular, is sacred ground. Children have the right to go to learn and grow in confidence. Not to be assaulted by disgusting images, while adults who have an agenda attempt to high jack their attention away from innocent concerns. I was not the only parent who feels violated by these events.
The same day this woman showed up, I travel across town to my alma mater. I go to show support for the director of my undergraduate thesis, who is the head of the Religious Studies department. Turns out that my old school is considering disbanding the department. The aim is to shrink it to a program. Apparently other disciplines, such as Classics and Geography, have already lost independent status. The new trend is to lump different departments (now programs) together to form conglomorate degrees that specialize in nothing. As a result, students get a fraction of the expertise in specific subjects available to previous generations.
It is an odd moment. I am struck by the irony of discussing how to explain the relevance of religious studies to young adults, while my kids’ elementary school is targeted by folks forcing their message on everyone. Speaking calmly about various belief systems is a valuable skill. I use it everyday. Encouraging interfaith dialogue allows students to examine their own ideas, and therefore to appreciate the viewpoints of others. I am concerned about the future of religious dialogue in my town. Will it be dominated by loud fanatics when the college stops offering classes that teach folks to engage in neutral and peaceful discussion of these topics?
These events remind me that it is important to keep writing, speaking, listening, and participating in conversations of faith. These are signs that the work is never complete. We all influence the dialogue. The verdict is still out as to whether this is a parallel dimension, seems like it is a good time to remember that I am here. I am awake, and I am ready to engage and speak up. I pray that others gain the courage to speak their truth, with love and compassion.