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PORTLAND, Ore. – Pagan author and activist T. Thorn Coyle helped build a wall Sunday separating Latino, Hispanic, and Mexican Catholics from their fellow Portland neighbors. This wall, however, was an interfaith effort aimed at sheltering attendees of a dual language church from harassment.

On January 29 several persons shouted insults as parishioners entered St Peter Catholic Church before the Spanish language Mass. Attendees of this church are mostly Latino or Hispanic. According to reports, the persons yelled ethnic slurs and called the women whores.  Several people reportedly yelled, “You’re going straight to Hell.”

After that incident, a call went out over social media for church supporters to help form a human wall of protect around the church during following church service February 5. Volunteers were asked to place their bodies between the church and anyone who would attempt to interrupt the services or taunt parishioners as they entered or exited the building.

Father Raul, of St Peters Catholic Church, speaks to the crowd and thanks them for coming out in the rain. [Courtesy T.T.Coyle]

Father Raul, of St Peters Catholic Church, speaks to the crowd and thanks them for coming out in the rain.[Courtesy T.T.Coyle]

When that Sunday arrived, approximately 200 people showed up to create a protective wall of bodies. The Wild Hunt talked with one Pagan who answered the call for support: T. Thorn Coyle.

The Wild Hunt:  How did you hear that the church needed protecting?

T. Thorn Coyle: I first heard about the attack on the church while on the bus coming home from a rally in support of immigrants, Muslims, and refugees last Monday. The woman next to me saw my signs and told me a church in her neighborhood had been targeted by people who disrupted services with racist shouting the day before. Then I saw a call for support on Facebook. At first, there seemed to be confusion: Did the church actually want our support? Once it was confirmed that yes, the church welcomed community assistance, folks decided to show up last Sunday.

TWH: Do you know the people who organized the call for support?

TTC: I did not. Since I’ve only been in Portland for 9 months, I’m still building my networks. I did the usual – double checking associations on Facebook as best I could.

TWH: Were other Pagans present?

TTC: Not that I know of or that I saw – though in a crowd that size, I’m sure there were some others! My decision to attend in support was last minute, so there wasn’t any organization around getting other Pagans out.

TWH: Why did you go?

TTC: It felt important to show solidarity with people under racist attack. That has always been important, but these days, with hate incidents increasing, it feels ever more vital. For people to enter a church and disrupt a worship service by spewing hatred? That is unacceptable to me. It needs to be stopped. The community is trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This was not an isolated event. Several of us gathered talked about strategies to help other churches and places of worship who might need support in the coming days.

I know that other groups have also mounted a boycott of the small business run by the man who seems to be a main instigator of these attacks on local churches. He also showed up at the Portland Airport when people were protesting the immigration bans. But this man isn’t the only one. He has help. And as long as racists are targeting churches or mosques, communities must come forward to intervene, and state clearly what sort of communities we wish to foster.

Caption T. Thorn Coyle arriving at the church. [Photo credit: Jamie Andrea Rae Mathis]

TWH: What do you say to people who think things like this can’t happen in Portland because it’s a liberal bastion?

TTC: That’s a huge question. Portland, like everywhere, is complex. But Oregon has a deeply racist history. It was founded specifically to exclude Black people from living, working, or owning property. Black people couldn’t even move to Oregon until the 1920s. Workers from Mexico – many of whom had been in the area since the 16th century – were temporarily barred from agricultural work during the Great Depression.

My understanding is that the Latinx population in Portland has grown quite a lot since the 1960s, even increasing recently, while declining elsewhere in the country. There are immigrants from many places living in Portland, but it is still a very white city. The indigenous population here is very small. Add gentrification into the mix, and non-white populations are at continued risk.

Portland is around 75% white. That has an impact. The less time people spend around people whose culture is different from theirs, the less open they are to examining their prejudices and assumptions. This allows racism to fester and grow, whether in subtle or overt ways.

That said, I’ve encountered many people in Portland trying to reach beyond their bubbles and find common ground. I’ve met people determined to support the more marginalized communities here. My hope is to find a place to be useful in those networks of support. The first refugee family to arrive at the airport since the federal courts suspended the travel ban was greeted by a group of cheering people yesterday evening. That’s a good thing.

TWH: You are a very active activist. Is it your religious beliefs that drive your activism?

TTC: I’ve been an activist of some sort of other since my early teens. A strong sense of justice vs injustice rooted itself into me at a young age. My religious beliefs are tied to that, and support my quest for justice, but I’d likely be this way no matter what. Lately, I’ve been doing extra work with my ancestors, trying to untangle this mess we’re in. And calling on Brigid for help with both inspiration and the forging process. But I’ve also been doing a daily meditation suggested during a reading at the new year. I won’t detail what it was exactly, but it has to do with being of militant, active, service here, in this world. That’s what I keep trying to shape my life toward.

My spiritual practices give me the foundation to do that.

TWH: Can I ask a bit more about your ancestor work? Why are you looking to your ancestors?

TTC: I always do some ancestor work, but in recent years, the more I confront the racism and white supremacy in this country, the more I need to deal with my direct blood ancestors. My ancestors were working class white folks who struggled with their own demons, but never really confronted their own racism, to my knowledge. That legacy –from people who would have been considered “good people” but who also harbored violence, racism, misogyny and other things –is a force to be reckoned with.

By communing with their photos every day, I can both thank them, and comprehend the impact of their lives on my own. It makes it easier to see the ways racism erupts all around us. For most white people, racism runs in our blood, way back. Looking that in the face helps strengthen my resolve to do what I can, here and now. Looking that in the face when it comes from the very people who shaped me enables me to not place racism outside of myself, my life, and the things I love. I love and appreciate my ancestors. So what do I do with the racism? I learn to interrupt it. We must challenge and embrace those we love in order to grow as humans.

TWH: What made you think of doing that? And what about spiritual ancestors?

TTC: Drawing on ancestors of spirit keeps me inspired –it’s part of why I make so many art memes with quotes from those who have gone before us who lived their lives full to the top –they help us comprehend what ordinary people can do with our own lives. I do ask my ancestors of spirit for strength as well.

But to be clear, both my ancestors of blood and spirit had the strength and courage to keep going during bad times. I honor them all for that.

TWH: There are some Pagans wondering why any Pagan would defend a Christian Church as they see Christians as the oppressors. How do you navigate that?

TTC: If I want the freedom to practice and worship as I will, why wouldn’t I want that for someone else? Christianity has oppressed throughout the ages, most certainly. I don’t support Christian missions, for example. I think they are terrible things. But defending someone’s right to have a religious service without being attacked? That seems pretty basic to me.

I also like to remind Pagans that Christians don’t corner the market on oppression. All we have to do is look at Ancient Rome for a great example of imperialism and oppression in action. Oppressive behaviors are part of being human. It’s a part of humanity we can do our best to correct. Holding out our hands to people being attacked is one way to interrupt oppression.

We also need to look at what scholar Kimberle’ Crenshaw named “intersectionality.” There are intersections of oppression: class, race, gender, sexuality, religion etc. This church was being attacked by white people for being Spanish speaking and serving the local Latinx community. So, while Pagans might say St. Peters has “Christian privilege” we need to take a step back and recognize that in this case, their oppression as non-white worshippers is really what is at play.

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No one showed up to harass parishioners last Sunday, but supporters say they stand ready to shield the church again, if needed. Coyle says not only was this an interfaith effort with representatives from multiple faiths, there were also members of Antifa, labor unions, and many concerned Portland neighbors.