Seeds of Tolerance

(original version August 2004 – the version below was published in January 2008 in “If, a Journal of Spiritual Exploration”)

The Alumni Magazine bore an unexpected caption on the front cover. “Leap of Faiths: With 57 religious groups on campus, USC leads the way in defining the multifaith university.”

Multifaith. It was a word I’d never heard my freshman year. As a Pagan I never felt particularly welcomed on the sunny Southern California campus, but most people left my beliefs alone. That all changed during a week-long Christian festival in my second semester. With aggressive proselytizing, widespread flyering, and evangelical events all over campus, I felt like a trapped animal. I could not go anywhere without someone waving a Bible in my face; even the insides of bathroom stalls were covered with Christian propaganda. Their attacks on other religions were subtle but unmistakable. What was next, witch burnings? From the first day, I was terrified.

I sought refuge with Agnostic friends, but they didn’t understand why I was so upset. They were Agnostic out of cynicism; I was Pagan from a fragile sense of wonder. I had kept my spirituality secret for six years, and sharing it was a sensitive matter. Attacks from the Christians were more painful than they could imagine.

I needed other Pagans. And more than that, Pagans needed other Pagans – there had to be others on a campus of 30,000 students. But Witchy types are notoriously secretive, and somebody had to bring them together. Rather than sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I made plans to form a campus group. When I returned for my sophomore year, I was energized and optimistic.

With the encouragement of supportive friends, I started advertising, posting bright purple flyers that said “CALLING ALL PAGANS!” in letters that filled the page, guaranteed to attract attention. Unfortunately, they attracted the attention of campus evangelicals. In the mail room of my dorm, I watched a Christian girl tear down my handiwork. When I asked her about it, she said that everyone has the right to be saved by God, and that I was taking away their salvation. I reasoned that everyone has a right to choose their own religion, but there was no arguing with her. She spoke with an edge of fanaticism in her voice, a glint of zealotry in her eye. I was not Christian, and that was reason enough to hate me and to ignore everything I stood for.

The encounter left me even more shaken than the Christian festival the year before – and more determined to create a safe space for Pagans. I wasn’t going to let intolerance and intimidation scare me away. Most of my 500 flyers were gone within a few days, but my inbox was full of e-mails. More than twenty students had responded – I’d never even seen twenty Pagans before!

Suddenly, everything took off. I came up with a name for the group: Students Of Ancient Religions, SOAR for short. While drafting a constitution, I was interviewed for the student newspaper, and the resulting article attracted even more attention. Before long, there were over forty people on the e-mail list. A theatre professor offered to be our faculty advisor, and soon we met with the Dean of Religious Life. Rabbi Laemmle was dedicated to creating space for all faiths on campus, and she gave us her complete support. After the animosity I’d felt from the Christians, it set my mind at ease to know that someone believed in what we were doing.

Our first meeting attracted about 25 people, and I felt like a teacher on the first day of school. After introducing ourselves and talking about our experiences with Paganism, we decided to hold biweekly meetings. Members would take turns sharing their knowledge about topics of interest, from ancient mythology to runes to ritual design. Nobody was an expert on everything, but we were all eager to learn from each other.

The following weekend, we held our first SOAR ritual at our advisor’s house, in honor of the autumn equinox. We sang and chanted together in a circle of candles, amongst altars with symbols of the season. Looking around the circle at the excited faces lit by flickering firelight, I knew that it was really happening – we were truly forming a Pagan community. Over the next few months we celebrated the lunar cycles and Pagan holidays, and our meetings grew more and more focused. We went camping together, took field trips to “Witchy” shops, made crafts to sell for fundraising, and attended workshops and celebrations led by local Pagan groups.

Meanwhile, I was suddenly a spokesperson for Paganism. I was interviewed for student websites, and classmates had dozens of questions. I was glad for the opportunity to speak openly about my spirituality. At the Religious Diversity Fair, SOAR was assigned a table next to a Born-Again Christian group, and the hostility was palpable – but passers-by were encouraging. We braced ourselves for hate mail after displaying a colorful banner celebrating the Goddess – but none came. I began to feel the first stirrings of acceptance.

January brought the first-ever Multifaith Service, where members of different religious groups on campus shared elements of their practice. Hindu and Sikh students led meditations, Bahá’í students performed an interpretive dance, a Gospel choir sang hymns, Catholic students led a call-and-response prayer, Christian groups read Bible passages, a Buddhist student performed a magic show based on the life of Siddhartha Gutama, Jews offered a prayer in Hebrew, and we Pagans led a participatory chant and song. To see members of diverse religious groups sharing each other’s traditions in an attitude of respect and openness was inspirational. Even some of the Christians sang about the Goddess with us. For the first time, I did not feel defensive around them.

The spring Religious Diversity Fair held a much more positive atmosphere than the fall one, and it seemed that the Multifaith Service had opened communication between different groups. There was still a tense attitude with many Christian organizations, but we formed alliances with the Buddhist, Bahá’í, and Atheist groups. A Buddhist student came to one of our meetings to teach meditation, and we shared the similarities of our beliefs. SOAR members were deepening our own understanding of what it meant to be Pagan, with the incredible privilege of expanding our horizons to learn about other spiritualities.

Later in the year, we returned from a Spring Break retreat to find hateful postings on our message board, calling us dirty names. I reported the postings to campus police and e-mailed the student newspaper about it. A front-page article the following week denounced hate crimes towards Pagans, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews. It was clear that discrimination was being taken seriously – for all religions.

The strength of the budding multifaith community was tested on September 11th, 2001. Suddenly, interfaith connections weren’t just enriching, they were vital. On the day after the attacks, a vigil was held at the center of campus, and it didn’t matter what deities anyone prayed to. Two days later, the main auditorium was packed to overflowing for a multifaith service. Personal differences were put aside, and everyone banded together in a spirit of common grief. When our turn came, five Pagans looked into thousands of tear-stained faces. We sang, we are alive as the earth is alive, we have the power to stand for our freedom, if we have courage we can be healers, like the sun we shall rise. Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists, everyone sang with us. For a brief moment it felt as though we could all be healers, of ourselves and the world around us.

Gently, we continued to nourish our connections with other religious groups. With the trajectory of world events, we became increasingly concerned with tolerance and discourse, which led to the formation of a new Interfaith Coalition for Peace and Understanding. The following spring, the multifaith service had grown into a week-long festival, and graduation events included a multifaith Baccalaureate ceremony. What was once the exclusive privilege of monotheistic students was now open to all, and four SOAR members carried our colorful banner alongside graduating students from twenty other religious groups. In the midst of the ceremony, I realized that we had been successful. Even if SOAR faded away after I left, I felt that USC was finally a safe place for Pagan students.

Two years later, the alumni magazine delivered the news that a Pagan organization was still active, as it remains to this day. It is an integral part of a diverse and tolerant religious community, fostered by the efforts of Rabbi Laemmle and students from across the religious spectrum. Aggressive proselytizing is no longer allowed at USC, and each campus religious group must agree to respect the beliefs and practices of other groups. A student-run Interfaith Council meets throughout the year, and a variety of events allow religious students (including Atheists) to learn about each other.

When I set out to connect with other Pagan students, I never imagined I’d become part of a wider religious community. But by sowing the seeds I felt called to nurture, I was able to contribute to the planting of a much wider garden. By pursuing my own spirituality with integrity and approaching other groups with an open mind, I discovered that our commonalities were more important than our differences. I hope that USC’s multifaith community continues to deepen and grow, providing a safe space for students of all faiths.

1 Comment

  1. Alastair McIntosh
    6 December 2007

    You talk about people being agnostics out of cynicism. I think this is very true. Religious totalitarianism of any faith is the enemy of spirituality, which is concerned with what gives life, and specifically, life as love made manifest. So many people who I meet who are agnostics or aethists are so not from their core conviction, but in reaction to having been spiritually abused by those whose God is too small to encompass the totality in all places and times of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Ho hum!

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