SILVER SPRING, MD. –In the wake of one of the most contentious U.S. presidential elections in history, a rising number of hate crimes are now being reported against people of color. When an extremely multicultural Episcopalian church near the nation’s capital was targeted, nearly 30 local Pagans showed up at the following Sunday service to make it clear that the victims do not stand alone.According to reports, a banner advertising Spanish-language services at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior was slashed, and on the back was written the message: “Trump Nation. Whites Only.” That message was also scrawled on a wall, and a “Black Lives Matter” sign was painted over.
An article published by the Episcopal News Network includes pictures of the vandalism.
Local Pagan Sunny Simmons, who has worked in the church office for more than three years, coordinated the efforts to get a Pagan presence at the Sunday service following the incident. It was a gesture that was welcomed by church rector Rev. Dr. Robert Harvey, who knew that Simmons identified as Pagan from the day they met.
As Simmons told interviewers at Pagans Tonight Radio, it was something she could focus on after some weeks of feeling depressed and numb over the election. “I was looking for Pagans that could be grown-ups,” she said, “[and] support a Christian church without freaking out.”
In an interview, Rev. Harvey told The Wild Hunt, “Certainly I will never forget this week.” News of the church vandalism was carried all over the world, he said, and he’s been fielding calls from reporters constantly.
Rev. Harvey’s church is the most diverse one in this Episcopal diocese, with congregants coming from more than 50 countries, mostly in West Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Some 80% of those who attend are immigrants or first-generation Americans, he said. “I’m a white male serving a congregation of mostly black and brown skin,” he said, and those people “felt those racist messages acutely.”
The diversity of the church is intentional, Rev. Harvey said, as an expression of “radical hospitality.” That hospitality was experienced directly by those who came to show their support, which in addition to the Pagan contingent included Muslims, Quakers, Jews, Unitarians, and other Episcopalians. They were all made to feel welcome, and were even invited to participate in the Eucharist, the most sacred ritual in this and many Christian faiths. It is rare for non-Christians to be allowed to accept communion, but not here.“He believes that communion is God’s table,” explained Simmons, and that anyone who wishes to sit there is welcome.
Rev. Harvey took pains to make non-Christians feel welcome without proselytizing to them. Another portion of Episcopal mass is the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, a statement of faith. “I announced that they should not feel pressured to say this, it’s how we express our faith and ethical imperatives.”
Caroline Kenner, a shamanic practitioner who lives not far from the church, said that this was the first time she’d ever shared the Christian sacrament of communion, and she found it to be an “interesting spiritual experience” that she “felt very deeply.”
Recognizing that some members of this church are now fearful of attending services, she said that she is committed to doing so herself for the foreseeable future. “They have been traumatized,” she said, which can’t be healed with just one show of support, no matter how large. Kenner said, “The idea that they were singled out because of the status of the parishioners really angers and offends me.”Rev. Harvey acknowledged that some of his parishioners are not in this country legally, including some with children who are citizens by virtue of being born here. “They are concerned about deportation,” he said, and the fate of their citizen children should that come to pass.
Even though the Pagans as a block were the largest group of non-Episcopalians in attendance — sources say there were either 28 or 29 present — Simmons made clear that this wasn’t about Paganism itself. In fact, she worked with Rev. Harvey to minimize any distraction that their presence might engender.
The rector introduced the different groups represented, and Simmons recommended the phrase “Earth-based religions” instead of “Pagan” for two main reasons. First, many members of the congregation come from very conservative Christian traditions where the word “Pagan” has a negative connotation. In addition, Simmons wasn’t sure if everyone she’d gotten to show up used that label for themselves, given the complex nature of the interlocking communities often lumped together under that label.
Those diverse groups included Circle Sanctuary’s Order of the Pentacle, the Order of the Elemental Mysteries, CedarLight Grove of ADF, Open Hearth Foundation, Gryphon’s Grove, and participants in the annual Sacred Space conference. According to Kenner, they came from an area spanning from northern Virginia to Baltimore. Simmons made a rainbow sign with the simple message of “love,” which was signed by all the Pagans who attended. It was then presented to church members.