Let me be honest. I struggle.
I struggle with being a pagan working as a music minister in a Christian church. Mostly, I feel very alone. I don’t know of anyone else in a similar position that I can talk with, and it’s frustrating.
When I was younger and mixing with other white, more academic choral directors, the answer to a frustration like this was, “be an actor.” Fake it till you make it. Pretend. You don’t have to be Lutheran to sing a Bach cantata, nor Catholic to sing his B Minor Mass. Heck, Bach himself didn’t have to be Catholic to WRITE the B Minor Mass. Just sing as if you believe in what you’re saying, and that will be enough. The audience will believe you, even if you don’t.
But this can’t be the answer. I am no longer satisfied with singing under pretense.
I have to ask myself what motivates me to do the work I do, what my real intention is with being an interfaith music minister.
First of all, I realize I’m creating this distinction of “interfaith music minister” for myself, because I don’t yet know anyone else describing themselves this way. I do it because making distinctions is an act of will, an act of power that I have cultivated for myself in my pagan practice. And the power I’m creating is balance between directing a church choir and a pagan temple choir. The distinction keeps this balance in focus.
Second, I also realize that the distinction “interfaith” by itself carries a lot of meaning and connotation, and I have to be clear about what I’m expressing with that. In the Christian world, interfaith is a dangerous word, especially in communities that preach an exclusionary gospel, where only cisgender, heterosexual “true” believers go to their idea of heaven. Interfaith conversations do disrupt this picture because, let’s face it — white Christianity has the most political power in the West right now, and white Christians don’t want to lose this power, even though it guarantees their place atop a racist, misogynist, homophobic, exclusionary system. Such power is more important to them than actually living their faith. No wonder the interfaith conversation sounds dangerous.
Fortunately, I don’t work in a church that preaches an exclusionary gospel. When Pastor Susan first hired me years ago, she said “we don’t do hell here,” and it stuck with me. I felt that I could take that as my flag, and feel confident to remain authentic to myself. And the whole church community took that flag too, accepting same-sex marriages and launching racial justice talks. I’ve had a lot to be happy about, being part of this community. It’s because of this that I saw the possibility of having an interfaith conversation with my choir, and I was happy that a first conversation took place, where I actually shared my pagan beliefs and let my singers ask questions.
But that was before the pandemic.
Now that I’ve experienced lockdown, isolation and loss from the pandemic, I’ve had the opportunity to examine — down to the bedrock — my whole career as a musician and my disposition as an interfaith person. What am I actually doing and why? What is my service to the community? What am I communicating?
And I realize that it’s time to start over again — create the distinction “interfaith music minister” from a place of authenticity. That means asking the fundamental question “who am I” and answering it. And since we’re living in a world reeling from social injustices of all kinds, I have to take the question further than I ever have. I can’t just ask who I am artistically. I must ask who am I politically and historically, because the answer to that question shows up more than any other when I’m in community.
And it shows up in my singing. I can’t deny that. My political, historic, spiritual, and artistic self all show up in my singing and I can no longer be an artist who thinks only a couple of those things are important. They all show forth. No matter if I’m singing in a Christian or pagan setting. I am the same artist in each place, engaging in the interfaith conversation as best I can. This is what being authentic looks like to me.
Doing this work doesn’t alleviate the struggle of being pagan in a Christian world, but it helps me to face it with more confidence, and a stronger sense of identity. And this is an ongoing job, a journey, so this won’t be my last word on it.