Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Thanksgiving with Our Homeless Population

Most years the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy presents an interfaith religious service on Thanksgiving Eve.  These events include music and singing, poetry and drumming, stories and prayers.  Some of the speakers come from the homeless population and some are religious leaders.  I’ve participated in many of these services as a representative of the Pagan paths.  (Technically, I’m Witchen, but I try to present the broadest and most diverse faces of Paganisms.)

In the past I’ve chosen to highlight Demeter, for several reasons.  One is that many Americans are familiar with the Greek and Roman myths; often they’ve heard of about Persephone’s descent into Hades and subsequent reunion with her mother Demeter in the Spring.

I also find that short talks that end with a song tend to be more memorable, leaving people with a song in their head.  The song called “Demeter’s Song” contains words, such as “the lover’s smile and the worker’s arm,” that are relevant to contemporary life.  People can relate to them.  They are not obscure or other-worldly. The song is not laden with appeals to a divine entity; rather, it’s sung in the first person and tells who she is, sort of like a brief introduction in a conversational group.

So I briefly tell how the land became barren during the time of Demeter’s grief and search for her missing daughter, and how the hens begin to lay, the orchards to bear fruit, and the people’s hunger is then assuaged when mother and daughter are reunited and Demeter again assures abundance.  I conclude with a duet with my partner Corby of “Demeter’s Song.”[1]

At the time in the service where offerings are proffered and the collection plates are passed, people pile gifts of new sleeping bags and packages of socks at the base of a harvest-bedecked altar.

Afterwards we gather in another room for casual conversation and refreshments.  During this after-gathering both homeless people and other religious leaders have told me how much they’ve appreciated this talk and song about Demeter.  For, although the service is broadly welcoming of all forms of religious expression, the fact of the matter is that, like society at large, it’s overwhelmingly Abrahamic in manifestation.  This year, in fact, there wasn’t even a rabbi or an imam there.  Except for a Buddhist and myself, all speakers came from one or another Christian denomination.  So it’s really great for me to learn how my offering was perceived.

This year’s service came shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris.  The discord around the world, especially in the Middle East, seems to be expanding.  Only the completely oblivious can remain unaware of these unfortunate developments.  This situation has been on my mind, and I’m sure it’s been on the minds of those at this event.

I was ready to rehearse our harmonies on “Demeter’s Song” again this year, but another song kept nagging me.  Another song about another goddess in another time and place.  I pondered the notion of speaking of something so unfamiliar and remote.  Then I decided to go for it.

I spoke about a goddess named Inanna, who showed herself to the people of the Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago, about 4000 Before the Common Era.[2]  I talked about how the people of her homeland in Mesopotamia (literally, “[land] between rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates), now considered to comprise modern day Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait, live in such distress.

I told of Enki’s gift to Inanna of the 10,000 Me, all the gifts of civilization (music, medicine, agriculture, writing, mathematics, weaving, pottery-making, et al.).  I spoke of her journey to visit her sister Erishkigal in her underworld realm of heat and dust, and how she divested herself of her possessions at each of the seven levels or portals, beginning with her shigurra crown, then her bejeweled breastplate, until she arrived before Erishkigal naked.  I said that some consider Salome’s dance of the seven veils to have been a reenactment of Inanna’s descent, but that I was not prepared to argue the merits of that contention; I wanted to emplace her and give them something to think about.

Then I invited them to join me in a spell, a spell to reawaken the spirit of Inanna and all the wonderful gifts she represents – joy and abundance, beauty and prosperity, peace and creativity.  Like the Christian prayers for peace and healing of those gathered, we would do a “working” using our voices in song.  I said that if they were uncomfortable at the thought of performing a spell, they could view what we were about to do as simply a sing-along.

The song I used is a call-and-response in which every line is sung and then repeated by everyone; in other words, each line is sung twice.  They didn’t need to remember anything; all they had to do was to sing back the lines as I sang them. 

I explained that the words and images are from those ancient times when Inanna was worshipped, translated from the original cuneiform into modern English by the late Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer, and thence turned into a song.  They are not the words of romantic fantasy.

I asked them to think of the plight of the peoples of the Middle East and to envision them enjoying the gifts of Inanna and the pleasures of life -- safe homes, plenty to eat and drink, dancing.  With our song we would work towards reawakening these qualities among the people of her homeland.  And so we sang:

Barge of Heaven[3]

Your crescent shaped barge of heaven,
So well belayed, so well belayed.
Full of loveliness like the new moon.

Your fertile fields well watered
The hillock lands well watered too.

At your mighty rising
The vines rise up and the fields rise up,
And the desert blooms in green
Just like a living garden.

In the heat of the sun you are shade,
A well of water in a dry dry land.
Swelling fruits to feed the hungry,
Sweet cream to quench our thirst.

Pour it out for me.
Pour it out for me.
Everything you send me I will drink.

I had called for us to sing this through three times.  At the first round, some of the congregants’ responses were tentative.  Responses grew more convincing during the second repetition, until when we arrived at the third repetition, my words and their responses were full-throated and powerful.

I concluded with the words, “By all the power of three times three, as we do will, so mote it be!”

This year at the after-gathering I was a bit apprehensive.  I wasn’t sure if I’d pushed too hard against the prevailing mindset.  The feedback I got, however, reassured me that what we Pagans can bring to the common table of interfaith resonates and carries meaning.  Annie, the wife of the street chaplain who organizes this event, said, “You rocked!”

May the welcome reception I received for this spell-working encourage others who represent a public face of Paganism to make our presence known in a constructive way.

This was my Thanksgiving spell.

[1] Corby and I also sing this song as a form of grace before family holiday meals in our complex multi-religious and atheist families.
[2] You have to say “Before the Common Era” because most people think of BC (instead of BCE) as “before Christ.”  However, it’s more accurate, at least in a broad inter-religious context, to use BCE.
[3] Words adapted from Sumerian text (tr. Thorkild Jacobsen, Diane Wolkstein, and Samuel Noah Kramer)  Music by Starhawk, arranged by Lunacy.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Parliament Report - Rachael Watcher

Dear All:
(Note: This is being posted about a month and a half late because for a while our Interfaith Reps could not access this blog to make their reports.  So here is what I tried to post in October and just made it on the Blog now.)

Whew! What an October eh? I think I broke something trying to keep up. On October 10th I got to the LA airport only to discover that Raul had been held up by the Mexican equivalent of the TSA, missed his flight and had to sleep on the airport floor awaiting the next flight out. He got here around 11AM on the 11th and the next two days were spent on planning and talking business. My Spanish was a bit rusty and had to keep looking up words on the phone. Thank the Gods for smart phone technology.

On the 13th, we left for the Parliament driving a mere 5 hours to arrive in Los Vegas for the night. Price line gave us a great hotel at $59 a night. It was full of cowboys, as the national rodeo was in town. Raul was so excited to see real cowboys, identifiable by their very bowed legs, worn levis and real hats on square. He kept wanting me to take pictures of him with everyone he saw. You should have seen me trying to explain that an indigenous person (translate that as indian) wanted to have his picture taken with a ‘real cowboy’. He kept asking if they really were cowboys and what did cowboys do these days; they were slow talking in typical cowboy style, kind and getting a chuckle out of the irony, reminding me of my own grandad. This close to Samhain I’m sure that he was with us and smiling.

Greg took him to the strip after dark to see all of the lights and got a pic of him with two models, dressed (I use the term advisedly) as bikini clad cops. I told him not to worry, that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas…for a moderate price of course. We teased him unmercifully for the rest of the trip, but he was a good sport about it.

He was amazed at the ease with which he found people who spoke Spanish during the trip. He was always able to find someone who could translate the menu for him or give him directions or explain something.

We got to Salt Lake the next day around three and I immediately tried to contact the person who had the arrival information and meal cash for Arvol Looking Horse and his wife so that I could pick them up at the airport. I failed that in every respect. Anna meantime had come over to see how we were settling in and I texted Paula, Arvol’s wife to notify me when they arrived in a final desperate attempt to catch them before they had to wait at the airport for an indefinite period. Thank heavens she had the foresight to check her phone right off of the flight and responded not more than 15 minutes later telling me that the plane had just landed. I asked Anna to come with me as I had no idea what the Looking Horses looked like and could not leave the car unattended. Of course she didn’t either but with typical Anna organization immediately wrote a sign with “Looking Horse” on it and set out to find them while I drove the car to a type of parking I had never seen before. There is a holding lot at Salt Lake airport that has huge LED signs giving the status of each flight so that you can see when your flight has landed while sitting in your car. Very Cool! After some searching and bag claim issues Anna called and said that they were ready for pick up so I drove over and picked them up and back we went to their hotel.

Not half an hour later Paula called and said that they were walking over to my place so that we could all go to dinner. Every restaurant in or near downtown was full and we ended up driving out of town to a Golden Corel, which is a cross between a Home Town Buffet and a steak house. The food however was pretty good, the steaks cooked to order if that was what you fancied, and of course it was all you could eat. Anna, and Raul were with us along with Greg and Arvol’s daughter, Makasha, a lovely 18 year old who only came in order to spend time with her father so there were seven in a van really made to seat five. I had to cram Anna in the back on a cooler while Greg sat cross legged facing her; a feat he reminded me later that he’s getting a bit old for. Further, as this is a working and not a passenger van, there are no windows past the front seat. None the less Paula did a masterful job of backseat driving. I got a kick out of it.
The next morning I picked them up again and we headed over to the opening of the Parliament with the lighting of the sacred fire at dawn (which was, in typical pagan fashion, two hours late). Arvol remarked that dawn fires were usually lit at dawn, with a wry smile, and I returned that it seemed perfectly in keeping with most pagan events. He just laughed.

The rest of the parliament was really a juggling act, trying to translate for Raul and Alejandrino, and trying to meet all of my obligations while also trying to get to the indigenous tracts. Raul and Alejandrino, found someone to translate for them part time, and Katia, a member of Don’s coven helped out a couple of days, so that they got to feel a bit more independent. I’ve no idea why, with the university there, they did not have volunteers offering to serve as translators but that didn’t happen.
 Alejandrino and Raul
Another puzzle was trying to track the indigenous events. Lewis Cardinal, the head of the indigenous program gave the indigenous people a room in which to handle their own programing, and in typical style they would decide to change something and post a sign with about half of the necessary information. I kept running into an Ojibwa gentleman who introduced himself as White Dove, who was pushing his friend in a wheelchair, and who was also trying to decipher all of the handwritten signs. It was a fun time in general.
Lewis and Arvil
Early on, I ran into Lewis again and introduced him to Raul and Alejandrino. He was pleased to meet them and told me that they should march in the First Nations parade and the opening plenary. When we got there I found that I knew several folks and we passed the time visiting. You may remember my mention of Tokyia Blaney, the young woman who attended our indigenous gathering for the URI. She and her father were there, and Fran├žoise Paulette, a Dene from above the Arctic Circle in Canada also. You may remember that Elder Paulette was the one who needed a circle formed for morning rites at the Parliament in Melburne but was unsure how to proceed, and whom I was able to help in that respect. We chatted, I introduced them to Raul and Alejandrino and we spoke of the importance of holding the energy strong and not letting it dissipate, as we thought we were at the end of the que. As it turns out, a situation that I was not aware of at the time, many indigenous traditions from all over the world were behind us and only the Americas were represented before us.

I should say at this point that I kept trying to put Raul and Alejandrino in line and then step out to sit down but Lewis kept putting me back in line and saying to stay there. I still have no idea why he was so insistent unless he just felt that Raul and Alejandrino would need a translator. I felt a bit strange marching but the people marching with me seemed to think that I was ok there so I gave up and marched along.

Much of my time was spent in reestablishing networks and bonds. I could not go down the hall without being stopped several times, often by people whom I could not remember for the life of me. Going to the bathroom was always a challenge, hoping to make it in time. At one point though going to the bathroom proved a serendipitous moment. I met a woman with whom I had been trying to connect since she has spoken at an indigenous talk on prophesy. She is carrying the waters of the world for an elder doing international work. As it turns out she lives about half an hour from me and is very excited to exchange waters with Don and our Waters of the World project.

I was actually surprised at the number of folks that I knew who made it to the Parliament and much of our time was taken up with lunches and dinners in order to have a bit of time to meet outside of the noise and chaos of the Parliament. Even Imam Mallek, head of the Parliament, stopped to chat and meet Raul and Alejandrino. He and I know each other through NAIN and Carpe Diem, and I thought it kind of him to take the time to say hi.

The last two days Alejandrino insisted that we get up at 5AM to do a live radio interview back in Ayacucho Peru which took all of about 5 minutes and of course there was no going back to bed so the day was up and running. I would hardly see Greg all day, and then we would be meeting with someone for dinner. By the time I fell into bed as soon as I could get there I was exhausted.

We left early on the day after the Parliament heading out to Bryce Canyon after dropping Alejandrino at the airport. We wanted to show Raul what we worshiped on this sweet Mother Earth. He scarred the Hel out of me. He would stand right on the edge of a three hundred foot drop to take a picture then turn around with his back to it for someone to get a picture of him. I asked him if he were mad, and he just laughed and reminded me that he is from the Andes.

That evening we stayed outside of Zion and hit it the next morning then on to the Rez and the Grand Canyon. He was really excited to see real Navajo people and talk with them about experiences shared among the two groups. A young girl recounted that though things weren’t like that anymore her mother had told her how it used to be. It was clear that she couldn’t quite relate, but she is learning Navajo to honor her grandmother. He bought something for his wife and daughters there and took a picture of himself holding the ornament along with the person who made it.

When we got to the Grand Canyon we were so fogged in that you practically couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. A crow came out of the fog and begged me for food so I fed him a French fry and Raul was delighted. The crow chittered at me for a bit, I answered back, fed him another piece of fry for the conversation and we drove on. Further down the road we were able to get under the cloud cover and Raul got a good look at the canyon for the first time. Once again he had to stand right at the edge of a drop right to the bottom in order to take a picture. I am now almost entirely grey!

We got home at noon the next day and all of us spent the rest of that day resorting luggage, washing and catching up on email. I copied all of his pictures to disk and cleaned his chip as well as buying another for him. That should keep him for a while.

As we chatted about plans in general I discovered that he is very involved in a national indigenous organization working to improve indigenous rights and reserve territories, customs, and language.
He swore that he would write a report on that. I have his pictures.

The last day of his stay an indigenous friend of ours took us to the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Raul wanted to see her again as they had served on the first URI Global Council together, and he had also wanted to see where the Swallows came when they left Argentina. The mission has been preserved in a state of arrested decay with beautiful gardens and fountains. It’s a major tourist attraction and there are translation machines in a dozen languages including Spanish so Raul could get a comprehensive explanation of much of the mission.

Adaelia pointed out to us where the natives had implanted crystals and shells into the mud of the walls putting their own magic into the building and making it theirs despite the teachings of the Franciscan Priests. We both cried at the thought of a people taking back in the land in such a magical, spiritual way, and the only way they had.

Raul was appalled at what he perceived as a waste of food. A long grape arbor filled with grapes now drying and useless, cactus plants loaded with Tunas going unharvested, and a Guava tree dropping ripened fruit by the bushel. Those we ate, and then ate some more. They were the small green oblong variety of Guava, not at all like the ones you see in the stores, with white meat much like fig inside; very sweet.

We afterward went to lunch and Raul asked many questions about the “Sweet Pea” people. Adelia explained that they still had 80% of their language and one fluent speaker of a close relative in that language group so people were learning to speak it again. She showed us her peoples baskets and the plants who’s fibers were used to make them. We talked about the imprisonment of the women by the mission and forced marriage to Mexican men from Mexico. We also talked about the fact that the Mission curators were making changes and trying to be more honest in their portrayal of the Mission’s treatment of the first people. Of course all of the people with indigenous blood who live in the area are allowed to enter the mission for free and bring guests so our visit was free.

After a lingering meal, we finally headed back to the LA airport and dropped Raul off. He was headed to a two day meeting in Buenos Aires with the indigenous rights organization that I spoke of earlier before finally returning to JuJui and his family. I just heard yesterday that he had returned safely and would write us a report soon.

Raul has also written a report which I am currently translating and it should be here soon in English and Spanish. Without the generous contributions of the Covenant Raul would not have been able to attend this event. 
Hugs to All