I was just about to get on my bike when I looked in the basket and saw the note.
“When you’re done finding Jesus, come by the shop and say hi.”
It made me laugh, and yet it also immediately brought me back to something I had been thinking about a lot lately. Indeed, my bike, which is well-known downtown and easily recognizable, had been locked up outside First Christian Church for the past two hours while I was inside for a meeting with a small group that included the church’s pastor. The author of the note was a Pagan friend of mine who worked around the corner from the church, and I sensed that the mood behind the note was both joking and curious at the same time. And while I hadn’t found Jesus in the previous two hours, I realized in that moment that I had been finding Jesus popping up constantly in my work over the past few years. It also occurred to me that at this point I had completely normalized these constant interactions with churches, pastors, and those who follow the philosophy of Jesus in a way that many Pagans would find a little strange to say the least.
I find it a more than a little strange myself at times. But the process of building those bridges has led me to not only greatly respect and appreciate those who work with the poor in the name of Jesus, but has brought me to constantly recognize and reflect on the fact that other than the specifics behind the deity that called us all to the table, we are all in the exact same fight for pretty much the exact same reasons. Over time I have unexpectedly come to understand and accept that the church folks are without a doubt my greatest allies, politically as well as spiritually.
I work with the poor and the homeless. I found myself doing so as a result of listening to both my conscience as well as the Gods. I do this work because I was called to it through an unexpected merging of ethics and spirit. It is much more a divine mandate than a free choice; for me it is a calling in the true religious sense, and yet not one that results from any specific belief or doctrine. Most people who work with the poor in the same way that I do fall into three categories: those who work for government agencies, those who work for non-profit organizations or social service agencies, and those who are following the teachings of Jesus. More often than not I find myself to be the only person in the room who stands apart from these three groups.
When I first felt the pull that started me on this journey, I recognized that the spiritual narrative around that pull was much common and relevant to Christianity than it was to Paganism. While I hadn’t quite given up all my worldly possessions and sworn a vow of poverty, I have sacrificed a theoretical life of ‘comfort’ and inevitably accepted a life of near-poverty in order to do this work full-time in a way that at least in America, is seldom seen outside of a Christian context. Jesus tended to the poor, preached to his followers that they should do the same, and an untold number of people since then have dedicated their lives to the poor in the name of Jesus. I had never stumbled upon a Pagan parallel to this phenomenon, at least not in terms of service to the poor. For me, while this work is a spiritual calling, it is not necessarily an extension of my religious beliefs. There is nothing specific in the teachings of my tradition that critiques wealth or that tells me to serve the poor, nor have I ever stumbled upon related teachings or mythologies that command service to the poor and a rejection of wealth with anywhere near the strength and passion that the teachings of Jesus do.
Most Pagan-identified folks that I know personally who have devoted their lives to a cause tend to dedicate themselves to environmental or civil rights-related issues. They do so with the same degree of ethical motivation and spiritual dedication that I see among the Christians who work with the poor, but they do so in the name of the Earth and/or their Gods as opposed to Jesus Christ. My own activist path brought me to the forest years ago, and it was a natural and direct extension of my spiritual path at the time to be protecting the forest from loggers. It was a passion and drive that directly put my religious beliefs into practice, the belief that the Earth was sacred and needed to be protected. It was a passion, but not a calling. The Gods never insisted that I stay in the forest. They do, however, keep insisting that I work with the poor, and by extension of that insistence I find myself constantly working closely with others who are not only acting in accordance with the insistence of a different God, but who also have a solid text of quotes and reference points as to why they are commanded to serve the poor. I don’t have a comparable reference text. In many ways, my only true reference texts are contained in the reflections and thoughts of others and the constant signs and signals from the universe itself.
But in pondering the perceived lack of mythology/theology that could serve as guidance on this journey as someone who is operating on the basis of divine imperative, I’ve also come face-to-face with the other side of the coin: how this lack of relevant mythology can affect those who are on the receiving end of divine mercy.
In my experience, there are a much higher percentage of self-identifying Pagans in the homeless community than there are in the general population. While I would still say that a majority of the homeless population identifies as Christian, the amount of people on the street who subscribe to some sort of Pagan belief system is quite striking and somewhat surprising at first. It made perfect sense to me quite quickly, as it was easy to see how living on the physical and psychic margins of society would bring with it the tendency of adopting an earth-centered, polytheistic, and/or magical philosophy. But what is even more notable, and in time has become more and more relevant to me, is the way that the beliefs and practices of the two groups often blend together in the context of street life and the way that the two groups have found mutual agreement in ways that are quite atypical but accurately reflective of their situation. I equally seem to run across self-identified Pagans who embrace Jesus in the same manner that their Christian counterparts do, as well as many who considered themselves to be Christian and yet are accepting and often even participatory in the beliefs and practices of their Pagan friends and neighbors.
My friend Mary Ann, who lives in a symbiotic relationship with the riverbank, is one of the Pagans I know who has a deep love for and faith in Jesus. Early on in our friendship, I once asked her why.
“Well, there ain’t no pagan Jesus. at least not when it comes to looking after the poor,” she said. “I’m not saying that you can’t compare Jesus to some of the old gods in many ways, but I never heard of Osiris and Dionysis tending to the poor and oppressed, chastising the rich, specifically promising the persecuted an eternity in Heaven. Jesus has got my back. Who else has got my back like that? None of the other gods or spirits I talk to. They got my back for other reasons, but not because I’m poor. They don’t want to liberate me. They don’t inspire masses of others to fight oppression. Not like Jesus does.”
She had an important point, a point which related closely to my own musings around the spiritual nature of my work and what I was increasingly viewing as a theological hole of sorts in Pagan mythology around poverty and the poor. What Mary Ann spoke of not only pointed to that hole, but also reminded me in the instant of how Jesus is framed in both liberation theology and black theology. Mary Ann sought a deity of liberation, and found that energy to be strongest in her understanding of Jesus.
Not long after that encounter, I was on the opposite bank of the river when I came across another homeless friend, one I knew to be a regular at the local Methodist church. He was perched at the river, with flowers and what looked like salt his hand, and from where I stood ten feet back or so it appeared as though he was making offerings to the river. He turned around, saw me, and waved me over.
“What kind of pagan nonsense are you up to?” I teased.
“You’re not the first to ask,” he said. “I’ll just say this: you live our here long enough, and this place becomes alive in a way where you would have to be a fool to ignore it. The least I can do is acknowledge it.” That’s the other side of the reflection, I thought to myself. The missing theology from his own religion, which he supplemented with what he learned from the activities and beliefs of his Pagan peers. I saw this as the inverse of what both Mary Ann and I found to be missing in Pagan spirituality. His words reminded me immediately of conversations I’ve had with friends who identify as “Christo-Pagans”, who have told me that they walk that path mainly because the reverence of nature and nature spirits is for the most part absent from the theology and liturgy of Christianity.
It makes sense that ideological sticking points become rather irrelevant in the face of oppression, desperation, and survival. While Pagans living in housed communities often face the realities of Christian oppression on a regular basis, on the street everyone is equally subject to specific oppressive forces from outside the street community which act with no regard to creed. Those forces cause the community to unite and put differences aside just as much out of necessity as choice, but they put aside and embrace their differences in an honest and authentic manner. While a few homeless Pagans I know have very strong negative reactions to anything related to churches or Christianity, many do not view Christianity as an oppressive and harmful force in the way that seems to be the status quo among most housed Pagans. If anything, the churches are often the only institutions that help and protect them in the face of systematic oppression from both government and citizenry alike. Churches feed them, help to shelter them, provide clothing, toiletries, and other resources, and in Eugene most of them do so with no strings attached, no conversion attempts, and with a sincere respect for the fact that many of those they are serving may not be of the same faith. One of the churches in town housed a Pagan woman in a Conestoga hut for several months this past year. Not only did the pastor welcome the idea of a Solstice ritual in the parking lot, but he advertised the event on his congregational calendar.
I’ve basically been a polytheist since I was first old enough to understand the concept. I have never had either a significant interest in nor a significant resentment towards Christianity, save for an overall wariness and skepticism that I hold towards all institutional powers. Before I ever worked with the poor, I always regarded Jesus as one of a untold number of deities out there, one whose fan club seems to have missed the point of his teachings for the most part. But this work has brought me in contact with so many individuals and communities of faith that have not missed the point, and my experiences in their company have brought me a deep understanding of the energy of love that is Jesus and how it affects both those who serve the poor in his name and those who are oppressed and seek out his comfort. Working in such environments motivated by love and compassion also makes me strongly yearn for such a tradition of service to the poor in my own community. I realize that my experience in itself is most likely atypical and to an extent is a reflection of a community that is known for progressive ethics and religious diversity just as much as it is a testament to the power of those who truly follow the teachings of Jesus. But their example and their kinship helps me to fill the holes I found in my own theology, not so much filled through teachings of Jesus himself but from what I see and learn from those who reflect and emulate that energy in their words and actions and the love shown towards the poor.
While I have no desire to explore religious Christianity beyond the interactions that are already built into my present life, Teo Bishop’s recent piece about why he felt called back to Christianity spoke to me on a very deep level, and was a strong reminder of the sacred aspect of being in service to the poor. The moment that Teo describes in his interaction with a homeless woman, and the way that he was affected by that interaction is the kind of moment that I sometimes experience on a daily basis. And in the desperation and helplessness that I too often feel in those moments, often it is a specific taste, a specific energy that comes through. There is a current of surrender and desperation in those moments where you truly do give your heart, and the essence in that moment is incomparable to anything other than what I have come to understand as the love and energy that is Jesus.
A few days after I read Teo’s piece, I was riding my bike along an underpass when I saw two police officers in the process of rousting and citing a group of homeless campers. I remembered that the owner of the shopping complex next door had been regularly complaining to police about the homeless that take refuge under the bridge. As I stopped and approached to watch, someone came up behind me. I heard a man muttering softly as the police began to write another ticket.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And there it was, that energy again, that sentiment that has no other comparison. I tried to think of something else to say, but nothing came. In that moment, I was grateful for those words. They were words of hope in an otherwise hopeless moment, originally spoken by someone who I knew for certain had our backs in this.