In nature, monocrops are extremely unhealthy ecosystems–they are in a perpetual state of damage and cannot support other life. A monocrop is where only one thing grows, and that thing is the same as far as the eye can see–acres and acres or corn, soybeans, or lawns are three such common examples. To create monocrops, humans strip what was likely a healthy, diverse ecosystem away and then replace it with a single thing–a lawn, a potato field, a monocrop forest. The opposite of this is a polyculture, where many things grow and live together in an intertwined, interdependent whole. A forest is where there are literally billions and billions of lives intertwined: a healthy soil web, a healthy overstory canopy, a healthy understory, insects, invertebrates, birds, plants, reptiles, and mammals–all living together. As a druid, I recognize that there is much value in looking to nature for guidance on how to live, and the message from the ecosystem is clear, diversity is beautiful and necessary for life to function. We can apply these same lessons in nature to human diversity and religious diversity.
I, like many others who take up a pagan path, have had my own share of religious intolerance. It is particularly bad where I live, in a rural “red” area (to use the term in the US), which is predominantly a religiously conservative, fundamentalist, Christian area where those in the dominant majority are opposed to the existence of anyone who is not white, Christian, and heteronormative. This means that even though I’m a leader in the druid community and am open about my path in many areas of my life, I still feel the need to hide my spirituality from my neighbors because there are hate groups who live around here, and I don’t want trouble. But it also means that being a pagan for almost 18 years has, unfortunately, had a lot of direct experiences with intolerance. I can count the negative experiences on both my fingers and toes, and I run out of fingers and toes before I am done counting. How about the time when I was at a pagan gathering and some locals drove through the middle of our camp at 3 am with guns, hanging out the back of a pickup truck? How about the time when I was accosted by some guy in the forest because I was meditating there alone? Or the time when I felt I had to leave our family gathering and drive 8 hours back to where I was living because I was being attacked by family members for being a druid? Or the time I was confronted randomly when I was out shopping when I was wearing obviously pagan jewelry? Or when I was confronted by my colleagues for taking a personal day on my major holiday, which also happened to be the day of a big meeting? Or the harassment I get on this blog on a weekly basis (you don’t see those comments! I delete them!)? I can go on and on.
And I’m sure that what I just described is hardly anything new to anyone who has walked a pagan path. I don’t know about other countries, but being a pagan is not easy here in the US–especially if you live in a more conservative, Christian area of the country. When you are a leader in a tradition, you have an even bigger target, because you are dealing not only with your own personal challenges but also, any that are directed toward your organization. Thus, I find that I am usually in a place of being on the defensive, and if someone asks me a question about my religion (especially locally), I have to weigh carefully what to say, how much to say, how much to reveal and consider where it might go. Because, yes, there are real, tangible reasons to fear my neighbors, and because I grew up in this region, I’ve seen too much and know that the threats can be real. It can be really exhausting, almost like I’m in a place of near-constant vigilance trying to read a situation and decide how much to reveal.
When I recall these experiences, I also ask: How many stories of the opposite nature are true? Stories where I felt fully loved, embraced, and welcomed? I think I can count those on only a few fingers, and they are mostly dealing with specific individuals who were my friends and later learned I was a pagan. So today, I want to share an incredible experience of welcoming that I had while recently visiting Dhaka, Bangladesh (for a work trip) and use that experience to talk about the work to embrace diversity, plurality, and freedom within our own tradition, and share those values more broadly.
A visit to Bangladesh and the Ramakrishna Temple
Maybe it’s because of the list above, but I don’t really make it a point to visit other people’s places of worship. In fact, I generally actively avoid it so that I can avoid the all-too-frequent conflict with my own faith. Where I live in the USA, nearly all of the local places of worship are Christian of some variety, and I would never be welcomed in a Christian church. So why go looking for trouble?
When I went to Dhaka, Bangladesh last month to offer a conference keynote and workshop, I was hosted by a former student of mine, who graduated with his Ph.D. from the program where I teach. He’s originally from Bangladesh, and while he was here in the US for 4+ years, I got to know him really well and found him to be one of the most genuine, welcoming, dedicated, and all-around good human beings that I had ever met. We had had conversations about religion and philosophy over the years, specifically about Hindu philosophy and teachings, which is what he practices. When I went to Bangladesh, after my keynote he took me to a botanical garden, which was a great opportunity to have deep conversations about our respective religions (Hinduism and Druidry) and paths into our traditions, and this led to us deciding that the next day, we would visit his temple.
We spent almost two hours getting to the temple. In Bangladesh, the roads are packed full and quite chaotic. The roads don’t really have any rules; it is basically self-governing anarchy on the roads with no stop signs, crosswalks, lights, lanes, speed limits, or anything else. If you aren’t from there, it is extremely overwhelming and you constantly feel like you are going to get seriously harmed or killed on the roads. So by the time we got there, even though we had a car and driver, I was feeling quite overwhelmed. We entered through a secure gate and parked in the temple’s parking lot. As soon as I put my feet on the soil, I felt all of the stress of the drive release from me and instead, I was filled with peace–grounded, serene, and welcomed. Other people were already coming in, many of them to go to the medical and dental facilities available on the temple grounds. My student and I walked around the temple and met many people–including the three temple geese that the monks regularly converse with. After taking off our shoes, we went into the temple, and my student showed me how to properly signal respect and pray. We prayed at the temple and observed the monks decorating the shrines of with fresh beautiful flowers. As we left the temple, my student pointed out the different world religions that were up on the top of the temple–six different symbols from major world religions, recognizing the plurality of the quest for the divine.
After that, the monk was done tending the temple and came to meet with us. From the moment we sat down to meet with the monk, I felt so welcome. He offered me fresh fruit and my student translated for me since I did not speak Bengali and the monk did not speak English. From the moment I met him, I felt welcomed by his smile and kind eyes. It was a fascinating conversation, ranging from how to address religious intolerance and hatred, to exchanging prayers and sayings and discovering many similarities in our paths. I learned more about the Ramakrishna tradition and teachings of the holy trinity that were a part of this specific branch of Hinduism, and he learned about druidry. But the resounding message that I took from that was that we are all climbing the same mountain. The routes may look completely different, but we are all seeking the divine (what they would call God) in our own way. Thus, we are all the same. Peace is the only way.
After we finished conversing, we took some photos and visited the temple bookstore. Then, my student and I went back into the temple and shrines to the holy trinity to say our farewells and pray. I went to the women’s side and he went to the men’s side, as is customary in the culture. And there, I went on my knees and brought my hands up in prayer. As soon as I did this, I felt an overwhelming sense of welcome, love, and peace. The deities there spoke to me, telling me I was welcome, that I had come such a long way to see them, and that they were delighted that I was visiting. I began to weep because I had never felt any such welcome from anyone else’s tradition. Between the visit with the monk and this experience, it healed a wound deep within me that I didn’t even realize that I had. And of course, the fact that I had had both an inner and outer experience really spoke to the importance and magnitude of that moment.
We left the temple and got back into the car for our long drive back. At that point, I shared the experience with my student, openly weeping again. I was so grateful to him, and he held space and listened and was amazed by the experience. I realized that so many years of religious intolerance in my own country, in my own home community, and in my own family had weighed on me tremendously. And I had never had an opportunity to feel such love and welcome from another tradition that was not my own. And that this experience had given me such deep healing, healing I didn’t even know I needed. I have such gratitude for this experience on so many levels. And since then, I’ve been meditating on tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom.
Peacemaking: Towards Embracing Religious Diversity and Understanding
Tolerance is a term I’ve always had trouble with. Tolerance implies that we “tolerate” something, in that we deal with the fact that it is there, but not the fact that we might like it. If I tolerate someone or something, it means that I’m actively not working against them or driving them off, but I’m also maybe not embracing them. When we seek religious tolerance, I see that that’s the very first minimal step. This means there are no open hostilities. Tolerance in and of itself doesn’t seek to build bridges or embrace diversity, it just prevents harassment, discrimination, and war. Tolerance also perhaps implies that there is a person in a stronger position of power (in religious terms, a person from a dominant religion) who can make a choice of tolerance. Thus, while it is a good first step, it seems there is much more work to do. I’d like to suggest that really, this broader work beyond tolerance is about peace and peacemaking.
I think that what sometimes happens in druidry and neopaganism is that so many of us have experienced such religious intolerance (often from people we know, including our own families or consistently from Christians here in the US) that we become on the defensive as a whole when it comes to non-pagans. And while there are reasons to be on the defensive, it also affirmed the need to move “beyond tolerance” sets of peace-making practices to do good in the world. What this experience taught me is that I need to do work beyond tolerance and into fully embracing and understanding other faiths, being open-minded, and welcoming, realizing that different religious traditions all have their sacredness and inherent truth, and recognizing that people have the right and privilege of choosing their own path. And maybe I need to be a little less defensive and take more risks, even in a risky place, like where I live.
These kinds of ideals are already embedded into many neopagan traditions, certainly, into druidry. In AODA druidry, for example, we are really committed to helping each person find their own unique path, tied to their own ecosystem and cultural history….and that means that no two druidries are alike. It means that we honor and respect the choices of each individual to find their path, to weave in other traditions as they see fit, and to pretty much do whatever they want as long as they are abiding by our ethical standards. It means honoring that whole person as they are–regardless of body, gender identity, sexuality, ability, or anything else that a person brings. Within our tradition, I think we do that really well and many organizations, gatherings, groves, etc, have been formalizing policies to ensure that all peoples and paths are honored. But what kind of outreach are we doing to those outside of our traditions? Is this work to do now and into the future? Why might we do it? How can we do it collectively?
The Ancient Druids were peacemakers, and much of our focus in our tradition is on peace–calling peace in the quarters, saying the prayer for peace, and seeking peace broadly within the world. I think each of us can benefit from thinking about the work of peace and how it may be present in our own lives. Some druids participate in things like the Parliament of World Religions or engage in extensive peacemaking in online spaces, while others do work closer to home, showing up at Pagan Pride days, doing local classes, and sharing about druidry. Still, others teach people how to make peace with their local ecosystems (which is what I do with my wild food foraging classes, for example). It is a good time to remember this work of peace and even–in a world that seems to grow ever more divided–work to make it happen in our own way.
Because ultimately, that’s what this experience was for me. It affirmed what I already knew as a druid–the path of peace is a crucial part of the druid path, particularly to honor our ancient druid ancestors on the path of peace, but also, to build a more peaceful and just world today. What the experience did was shared with me the “other side” of being a recipient of those works of peace, and how deeply that can impact a person. I’ll never forget what it was like to be so welcomed and loved–both by religious leaders in the outer world and by the deities in the inner world. It is an experience that affirmed to me the importance of this work in the world and the profound impact that peacemaking beyond our tradition can have on others.
Dear readers, I’d love to hear from you. Have you had experiences like this you want to share? How do you help engage in peacemaking and bring tolerance and understanding in terms of different faiths? What are the conditions like for you where you are in terms of religious freedom and tolerance?
PS: My new book – the Sacred Actions Journal — is now available for preorder! Here it is on Amazon.com :).