On Being An African American Neo-Pagan
I am a Pagan newbie who happens to be an older woman of color. I am not trashing anyone’s choice of religion, but I do want to put out there why it is an important radical change for me to make an about-face from Christian-based religions to the nature-based Pagan faith. Raised in a relatively strict Catholic household, I did the whole parochial school education from K through high school. Many of life’s common questions that came up for me during those years and throughout my adulthood were unanswered. But I clung to tradition, afraid that any radical change would condemn me to eternal damnation; images engraved in my mind like so many Renaissance paintings that enthralled the nuns of my school days. Yet, surprisingly, it was one of my elementary school teachers, a nun, who said never accept anything blindly. Always question what you are told. (Unknown to me at the time, many of those highly educated teachers were closet feminists, and though glimmers of racism peaked through, I walked away with valuable life lessons.)
I later dabbled in a couple born-again faiths as well as conventional Protestant religions because I was searching for meaning, direction and spiritual connection as people sometimes do. I wanted what “they” had. I wanted to feel touched by the spirit, but that never occurred. Yes, I did feel a sense of community with other worshippers at times, which is what many crave in their churches and receive in abundance. And still, their hierarchies and knowledge (or lack thereof) seldom soothed my restless soul. Organized religion presents, above all, a social order. You belong. Church membership is not too far a stretch from those age-old private guilds with secret handshakes upon encountering a fellow member. That is so important to our human species, that sense of membership. It does in itself nurture our spirit. And I see it up close as the epitome of the social structure since I moved from New York City to the deep South where religion, barbecue, fried green ‘maters and football are king (not necessarily in that order).
Though I continued to travel on my own spiritual pilgrimage after moving to the South, I started to see how my brothers and sisters so deeply embrace their church affiliations. This raises the question of whether a faith, based on doctrine and punishments, with the possibility of reward looming brightly only after death, is the right spiritual path for the African-American suffering in the here and now.
The one thing I have come to realize that never previously crossed my mind is how African Americans embrace their introduced Christian faiths. It is like saying that the Jews decided to either become Lutherans or discard their religious practices altogether in acquiescence to their Nazi oppressors. By and large, that did not happen to them especially long after their threat of genocide ended. Having been raised in a “conquering” religion I learned about the Spanish Inquisition. I was taught the importance of conversion to secure that special place in the afterlife of Heaven. As a child I, as I am sure many children have pondered the torturous cruelty heaped upon those who were not born into the Christian faith and call to question how it reconciles individuals to a loving God. Much later I learned that religion presents a most convenient tool for propaganda and control by ruling governments. It is repeatedly used as a means to oppress the rebellious nature of the community it seeks to dominate. As a whole, we people of color seem to suffer from mass amnesia. We forget or don’t acknowledge that Africans came out of a rich thriving heritage of Pagan beliefs that were largely handed down by means of oral tradition. I know in the Caribbean as in parts of Louisiana, though many people converted to Christianity, certain Pagan practices thrive, though largely practiced “underground”.
Living in the South has become a most invaluable experience in my life. As I found myself in a part-time job at a local greengrocer, I started to meet residents of my small town. I saw parallels to the small Caribbean island where I was born. Both places are filled with storytellers handing down histories. But in the South, I heard how poor whites lived and learned that their lives mirrored the lives of the segregated Black community living across the tracks, never crossing paths if it could be avoided. And as I came to observe in this small demographic, there seemed to be unifying church-affiliated bonds in the white churches that don’t manifest themselves in the same way in the black church community.
It was also in the little market that I worked with a person who has the preachings of prosperity down to an art form, yet struggles to achieve financial heights he cannot begin to fully envision. His faith seems to keep him bound, in my observation, to the same world that keeps him in his place. I do not see a spirit of deep freedom and possibilities in his life because the workings of Christianity take on a different form for African Americans than for the white church membership. Specifically, they do not support the uplifting of the quality of life of their congregants. Also though the black churches do provide that close-knit social network, they appear to be relegated to the standard church hours. The prosperity of the churches, gained largely through donations and tithes, seems to flow in one direction, toward the pastors who embark on the path of growing their churches with an eye on mega-churches. And they require all the trappings that go with these lofty goals. I have not witnessed the church communities supporting the financial success of their congregants or helping neighborhoods as some churches of my parents’ generations and prior did. They very well may exist but I am not witnessing it, especially in these troubling days.
I have a few have close friends, Blacks who are practicing non-denominational Christianity and it works very well for them. They are confident of their African American identity, maintain a strong faith and are very successful. But I do believe that it is slightly different for them because their forebears were not from the United States, so cannot identify with the religion introduced through the oppression of American slavery.
I believe that Paganism is my birthright. As an Afro-Caribbean woman with Celtic blood running through my veins, I have started following my personal call, and as I learn to trust my intuitive voice, I know I am connected to Universal Spirit. I have found myself. By tuning in to what nature and spirit were whispering to me all along, I have been able to heal from the long held traumas exacerbated by the fierce pressures of stressful city life. I now feel the deep sense of personal freedom.
Paganism is the ancestral faith of the whole of humanity.
—The Pagan FederationInternational—
It is not steeped in doctrine. A Pagan can be polytheistic or pantheistic. We revere nature and as some of you may know, we are now seeing environmental repercussions for not caring for the earth that has sustained us from the beginning of our planet. Indeed good health as well as shelter and most all of our basic needs to live come from the earth’s bounty. We are the original conservationists and now more than ever need to be ever diligent about the care of the planet. I learned the timing of nature and that everything truly has its season, thereby teaching me patience in difficult times that organized religion never could. This allows me to grieve properly in the face of the death of loved ones. This is important because our modern society does not teach us how to deal with death and the process of grief. My answers to grief and loss, to healing and hope, came from the deep roots of my Pagan beliefs. I see the invisible energy become manifested in wonders that teem with life around me each summer and turn to sleep or die in the cold days of winter only to reawaken with the bright sun and warmth returning once more in the spring. I learned and continue to learn the blessings of my herb garden as I study the ways of natural healing.
This was the old path of my ancestors and I get glimpses of this tradition that some of my extended family in the Caribbean still practice. I have also come to know in my heart the deep value of the motto of “do no harm” in the respect of life on the planet through Pagan living. I believe in an afterlife because as my soul is connected to the Divine Spirit (a form of God if you will). I reject the perspective that once the physical body stops functioning, the spirit dies. When I explored the Christian faith of the Protestant variety, I could not grasp the preached teachings and acceptance of a God whose position on doctrine changed from one holy book to the next. It makes me uncomfortable as this becomes the tool of cults. One person designates that his or her interpretation of a holy book is the only interpretation and for those who do not follow, they will face physical or mental punishment, live with guilt and possibly be ostracized from the group to which they are mentally tied. Separation is the ultimate torture for people who opt to stay in highly dogmatic religions.
I respect the virtue of faith and even more so when that faith is maintained after stringent questioning. But in the long term, the various shades of western faith no longer sustain me. I think that it is a natural calling of humans to want to believe in something greater and more powerful than themselves. I have heard atheists argue their position leading me to believe that their non-belief is their religion. But I still question, prompted by an antiquated photo floating around the net, of a black man, a slave, whose back was torn to shreds by the whips of his owners, how someone can embrace a religion that allows one man to do this to another.
Nuwla contributor – Frances Jarvis.
The images may be subject to copyright.
Born in the Virgin Islands, Frances Jarvis grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Spending most of her life there, she earned her BA from Brooklyn College and worked primarily in non-profit office management. Frances is the mom of three and grandmother of 3. She currently resides in small town Alabama where she spends time raising organic vegetables and herbs and dabbles in writing.