Why Prayer Can Be A Powerful Tool For Social Justice
By Tarin Towers
After a gun-related tragedy, two genres of well-intentioned posts surface on social media: Calls for “thoughts and prayers,” and responses saying prayer is not enough. Following the massacre last Sunday of 49 people — mostly gay men of color — in Orlando, I found some of these tweets and Facebook posts troubling. Beyond demanding that prayer must be followed by action, some people were saying, simply, “Don’t pray,” and calling prayer itself a harmful act.
I don’t want to quote any of the tweets, because I don’t want to hold up opinions that scatter from the thumbs of hurt people for examination as if they’re doctoral theses. But for me, a witch, prayer is a call to action and a summoning up of the resources we need in order to, say, contact politicians or march in the streets.
Of course, asserting that prayer cannot substitute for legislation is sensible. However, the sentiment that prayer is harmful, or that all religion is the source of ills such as homophobia and gun violence, doesn’t jibe with what I have experienced in my own spiritual and social justice communities.
I wanted to see what priests and priestesses who work in and around communities of color had to say about how prayer supports their social justice work, and vice versa. So I contacted four faith leaders — all of whom identify as queer, and all of whom consider their spirituality and their activism indivisible — to ask them to address criticisms of prayer as counterproductive or damaging.
“I understand why [people] would have those perspectives,” Katrina Messenger told me, “especially if it’s coming from an individual’s personal experience.” In particular, some queer and questioning people raised within Abrahamic traditions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that have one, male, patriarchal god may not have had great experiences with prayer growing up. “I can understand them having difficulty associating religion with anything that can be nurturing and progressive or even helpful. I don’t negate that.”
Messenger is a Wiccan High Priestess, Elder, and Mystic in the Order of the Elemental Mysteries in Washington, D.C. She described her congregation as diverse, in terms of “age, race, identity, orientation and expression.” A large portion identify as queer, as does Messenger, who is an African-American leader in a tradition of neopaganism, one that has struggled with its whiteness.
Messenger said she understood that the “Don’t pray, do something” exhortations have their origins in calls for political action and “have been targeted at legislators at both the local and national level who are coming out now after the massacre of our queer brothers and sisters, to say, ‘Oh, we’ll pray for them,’” when they have been weakening existing gun control laws and blocking the passage of new ones, as well as legislating against the health of queer communities.
However, Messenger said, “saying it’s religion in general that got us into this mess in the first place is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Those who have had a bad experience with religion or with religious people should know that “there are other religions out there, and [that] even in your religion there are people who are working toward change and can make a difference in the world.
“Condemning an entire region for the actions of the individual person is bigotry, and should be called bigotry,” and this holds true, Messenger told me, not only for those blaming Islam for the fringe violent extremists who call themselves Muslim, but those blaming all of Christianity for its homophobic legislators. Messenger says she prays frequently, most often asking for answers, “sometimes calling it a prayer and sometimes a spell.” Her congregation of witches and pagans will be holding a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting during their full moon ritual tonight.
Everyone I called on for this story was heartbroken by the news from Orlando, but for Lou Florez, a gay man of color, hearing of the massacre was particularly shattering. “It was a queer people of color space that was attacked,” Florez told me, “and that looks very different from white queer spaces, in terms of my ability to be able to let down my guard, and to show myself.”
Florez leads the Ile Ori Temple of Oakland, California, as an awo — a high priest — in the Ifa tradition, which is part of the West African diaspora traditions that work with spirits called Orisha. Born in rural Texas, Florez also calls himself a pagan, conducting spiritual work with ancestors, performing divination, and teaching rootwork, sometimes called hoodoo, a tradition of Southern folk magic.
Florez told me he understands the impulse to argue against prayer: “I don’t feel the need to silence people,” he said, but “what I also think is necessary is for them to allow me to have my spaces” to pray, particularly for queer communities of color.
“The reason why I can go and get arrested and get beat down and be in front of people and talk about social justice — it is inherently rooted in love before spirit, and that is the core of my being. That doesn’t mean that [prayer] is right or that it’s for everybody — but being able to use it as fuel is how I keep going.”
“Last Monday,” Florez told me, “my orisha community in Oakland came together and we held ceremony. It was also a holy day for Eshu, also known as Eleggua, who is “spirit of the crossroads, carrying that type of energy that takes our prayers and delivers them to the creator and brings back blessings and messages.”
“The reason why I do it is that it works for me,” Florez said, about his work both in Ifa and hoodoo. “The inherent core of root work is that if it works, do it and if it doesn’t it, try something else. These practices are based on necessity.”
I met Cary Bass-Deschenes, the pastor at Lutheran Church of the Cross, Berkeley, several years ago at a spiritual retreat for people in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol. He wasn’t yet the Reverend Cary; Bass-Deschenes graduated from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 2014 and assumed his pastorship last year.
Christianity wasn’t always kind to Bass-Deschenes. “I tried to pray the gay away,” he told me. “It didn’t work.” He understands why some queer men in particular react painfully to calls for prayer. “I spent years away from church because I felt I wasn’t welcome and I thought nobody loved me because of a minority of people for whom [homophobia] was all they were focused on.” Bass-Deschenes stresses that most Christians — even Evangelicals, he says — don’t believe that queer people should be excluded from the Christian church. “When I finally came back, I was whole, grounded with my sexuality and with my life and my spirituality.”
When I spoke with Bass-Deschenes, he was still working on his sermon for yesterday’s services, which he said would necessarily, for a self-described “out gay man with HIV who’s married and a pastor,” address the targeted killing of gay men of color in Orlando. He said he planned to work with a story from Luke 8:30 and Mark 5:9 in the Christian New Testament; in those verses, Jesus is casting out a demon from a tormented homeless man. Jesus asks the man his name, and he responds, “‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him.”
Legion, Bass-Deschenes told me, means a unit of thousands of Roman soldiers.
“The demon is complex, and multiple, and I’m going to talk about the demon of homophobia, the demon of radical fundamentalism, the demon of easy access to weapons designed to kill multiple people. So many things came together to make this horrible event.”
Bass-Deschenes described prayer — in a queer, Christian context, and in general — as a way of sending and receiving the love that fuels communities in times of need. “We don’t pray for things that are against God’s will,” he said. “Praying for people who are different — ‘praying the gay away’ is not in line with God’s will. But praying for people to change their hearts and minds to be more compassionate — that is something we can do for God.”
Dominique Leslie, who also goes by Flame, is a transgender woman who lives in San Francisco. Flame is a teacher and priestess in the Reclaiming Tradition of witchcraft — my tradition as well — which she describes as “spirituality that promotes action.”
Flame came to witchcraft when she was in drug rehab. “During my using days,” Flame told me, “I was against God and all concepts of God, and then when I came around and got sober I needed to find a spiritual practice, and that’s how I ended up at Reclaiming.” She was looking for a Goddess-based tradition, in part because of her own transition.
In San Francisco at Samhain — what muggles call Halloween — Bay Area Reclaiming puts on a ritual called the Spiral Dance about honoring the ancestors, not only of blood but of activism and witchcraft. A core piece of the ritual is reading aloud the names of the beloved dead, those who have passed through the veil in the preceding year.
Naming rituals address collective pain. Queer communities in San Francisco gathered starting in the ’80s to read the names of those who’d died of AIDS; at a Black Lives Matter ritual earlier this year, veiled priestesses read hundreds of names of Black and trans people killed by police violence.
Flame was the first person I saw to post a list the names of the Orlando dead on Facebook as a sort of prayer or spell. I asked her what she thought resonated about this kind of ritual. “Names carry a lot of power. We use them our whole lives, and other people use them, and there is a lot of energy and power in them. By reading the names it releases them of that energy, or adds to it. It’s not always solemn, per se, but it’s serious, and it moves energy when you do it.”
Flame uses prayer to gather courage and reconnect to her belief in something bigger than herself.
“In my life at least, I have found that prayer can do good, so for me the hypothesis has been tested. I know that prayer has good outcomes. But this is about me and what I need, and I understand what other people need may be a lot different from that. So I hear them — but I want to be heard too, and it sounds like [people advocating against prayer] are trying to silence people.”
Each of these priests and priestesses advocates for social justice, between them doing work in anti-racism, reproductive rights, abolition of prisons and the death penalty, serving the poor and homeless, and advocating for the disabled and queer communities. Each separately described prayer as something they do because it works: It draws communities together, in times of crisis and celebration, and helps focus their shared core value — love — so it can be directed toward the practical, hands-on work they feel is their mission.
The tendency in secular activist communities to look askance at religion is understandable, particularly for individuals and groups who have felt marginalized by conservative, patriarchal religious institutions. However, we ought to be careful not to further marginalize queer people, and especially queer people of color, who rely on prayer and fellowship in order to grieve, to support one another, and to summon the strength and courage to mobilize.
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