My first encounter with the group was not very positive.
It was early October. I was a sophomore in college and frowning at a bulletin board in my residence hall. In particular, one flyer. It was black ink on a pale orange piece of paper, depicting an image of Baphomet with the words “Learn the TRUE MEANING of Halloween!” across the top in large letters. As I stood there, gently running my fingers over my silver moon pendant, I learned that a Christian group on campus was having an ex-Satanist or ex-Pagan lecture on the “evils of Halloween.”
I tore the poster from the bulletin board in anger, balled it up, and chucked it in the nearest trashcan before heading back to my dorm room to prepare for my next class.
Weeks later, some friends of mine came to visit. We were sitting in my floor’s lounge and they were telling me about the event they had gone to that night. It was the same event written on the flyer I had torn down and they had gone to figure out what the hell the man was on about and why the group was having him visit. (I hadn’t been able to attend due to a night class or something.) According to them, it had quickly devolved into a shouting match between the audience and the guest speaker – as it did every year. I found out then that this event had been happening on my campus for many years and that made me angry and upset. We finished up our talk shortly after that and they went home to their respective residence halls.
The next semester, my uni Pagan group started up due to the university administration realizing that we had a multi-faith campus and they were not equipped to handle the spiritual demands of everyone there. That and they got a lot of money from a grant for having multiple faiths represented at the university. Go figure.
I quickly became a part of the group, attending meetings with just a couple of other students: the two EBoard members, a Unitarian Universalist who came and went depending on her schedule, and me. Our spiritual and faculty advisers came to meetings and we would often go to dinner afterward to continue talking and just hang out. It was a good group.
The next year, I was elected by the two remaining members (our UU had transferred, sadly) to take the position of Treasurer. Our President wanted to step down, needing to work on their dissertation. We recruited many new members that year, bringing our three to a grand total of about fifteen members, ten of whom attended regular meetings with the others drifting in and out as their schedules allowed. The following year, I remained on as Treasurer and we gained an additional ten or so members, bringing us up to about twenty people. It was that year that our spiritual adviser sat us down and told us the news.
She spoke of a man who ran the group I mentioned above, the minister who had run the anti-Halloween event. There, she told us how his wife had taken sick and he had requested prayers for her from all the ministers and spiritual advisers from the various religious groups on campus. Of the thirty or so ministers and advisers, many of whom were also different flavors of Christian – like the minister who made the request, it was only our spiritual adviser who sent prayers for his wife’s recovery.
Apparently this shook him up a bit. He’d been learning from her a bit about what Pagan faiths were – the more palatable ones, at least – and correcting many of the negative assumptions he was making about the members of our group. The result was that he and his students were asking us to attend an interfaith discussion on the nature of God.
Needless to say, we were all quite hesitant. None of us wished to go if we were going to be assaulted with Bible quotes about how we were damned and go through bullying attempts at conversion. We’d all heard the horror stories of the prayer circles that went on at other campuses – and our own, in past years – where groups of students would encircle one particular student and be prayed for. So the idea sat uneasy with many of us. We’d gotten through the last two and a half years without any bullying by other religious groups, had successful fundraisers, were on good terms with the local UU church who let us use their space for our Samhain celebrations), the lot. But our adviser assured us that the Bible quoting would not occur, that the prayer circles would be non-existent. We were just meeting to talk and find connections with one another.
So we agreed.
And y’know what? I’m really glad we did.
Our group showed up that night with desserts – the other group had bought pizza, chips, sodas, etc. since they had funding we didn’t – and we all sat down in a circle with pizza and soda: the Pagans on one side, the Christians on the other.
Immediately, the ministers noticed what happened and began selecting a few members that could be more “trusted” to not cause a fuss and asked us to switch up the seating a bit.
So we started chatting. The other group had invited the Atheist group on campus, which sadly did not go over well. I think that, in part, it was due to the nature of the discussion question. (Asking an Atheist to define their view of God or the Divine tends to raise a few hackles. I spent much of the night wondering how to posit the question of what an Atheist thinks the Divine is, since in order to reject something, one should have an idea of what that thing is.) I ended up leaving early, partly out of frustration and partly because I had a paper due at midnight that I still needed to finish.
Overall, though, it seemed like it was a success. A small success, but a success none the less. The next year, I was elected as President of my uni Pagan group and we were, again, extended the offer of joining for pizza and discussion on religion. This time, the Atheist group was not invited, so it was just the Pagans and the Christians. We were asked ahead of time to think of questions we had for each other about the nature of the other’s religion.
And again, we met up to eat pizza and discuss religion. Having had the event last year, we knew much more of what to expect from each other. The same rules were applied: no Bible quoting and no conversion attempts. Instead, we were invited to ask questions of one another.
I made a few in-roads with some of the Christians immediately as I was wearing my team jersey for the Chicago Blackhawks since there was a game that night. Many of them were also hockey fans and we were playing one of our rivals that night (the Detroit Red Wings), so we immediately found a sense of camaraderie. (I got a wink from my spiritual adviser for it when she noticed, which earned a grin from me. When in doubt, sports tends to bring people together.) There were many new students in the other group that I hadn’t seen the last year, so it was nice to have those connections made between us. Something we could get together and talk about, without the pressure of religious differences.
Having no paper due that year, I was able to stay the whole time. We got together at 5pm and the discussion lasted until about 8pm with many of us staying behind to chat about other topics, like sports and tea and The Lord of the Rings. The discussion itself ended up being more of a question-answer session with the Christian students asking we Pagans various questions about our beliefs and how we view different things. One particularly…eager student wanted to know how we were able to have a moral system without a Holy Book like the Bible telling us right from wrong. And, honestly, that stumped us for a bit. It wasn’t that we didn’t have morality, but rather how to explain our values and morals to people who were told what to value and hold dear, versus reasoning it out for ourselves.
I learned a lot that night about how some Christians view the world and why their beliefs affect many of their opinions. One instance in particular was when the wife of the second minister (a man who seemed deeply unhappy with the events of the night, sadly) came up to me and asked me why I view the world as sacred. In return, she spoke on her love for Jesus Christ and how she saw him in the world, touching the world and making it divine and how he lives through her actions in being a good person.
Growing up, I was not raised Christian so I didn’t understand a lot of things about Christianity. Having never read the Bible, I didn’t understand many of the references people made to it (though I learned some over time). It just wasn’t a part of my life, so I didn’t understand that viewpoint or religion at all. I walked away from the possibility of Christianity when I was ten and a girl in my class asked me if I believed in God. I don’t remember why she asked me, but she was very interested in the answer. When I told her, honestly, that I didn’t know, she replied “You know you’re going to Hell, right?” The fact that, at the age of ten, she was so adamant in this belief that, since I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed in God (and, at ten, that seems like a very deep question to ask), I was going to Hell…. It made me cold with fear. I did not want to be made to believe in a God whose followers seemed, for lack of a better term, brainwashed into believing in him. And that was my opinion for many years, even through the brief stint I spent looking into Catholicism, up to the day that I sat down and spoke to these Christian college students, to a minister, and to a minister’s wife about their faith and how they lived it every day.
Walking out of that second discussion, I knew that I was Pagan. There was no turning back. It wasn’t that speaking to them about their faith made me turn away from Christianity, but that explaining my faith and beliefs to someone who had no knowledge of it before meeting me made me embrace it all the stronger.
And I am quite grateful for that.
Later I would learn that they never again brought back the man to lecture on the evils of Halloween. This year, for the third year running, my uni Pagan group got together with the Christian students and discussed religion and faith over pizza, soda, and homemade desserts. I found myself sighing unhappily, wishing I could be there. Out of everything we ever did with my uni Pagan group, I think those discussions were the most important thing. Finding a connection, building a bridge between faiths and belief systems that people are so eager to separate, on both sides. I hope that, in the future, the discussions not only continue but grow, including other religious groups and students of other faiths. While I can only keep my fingers crossed and ask the gods for luck regarding this pursuit. In the end, it’s up to the students.