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The Finer Points of Getting to Know You

On Welcoming Indigenous Traditions to the Table

As an interfaith-active Wiccan who has developed strong relationships with indigenous leaders, I’m familiar with the uncomfortable silences that can jar relationships between indigenous practitioners and institutional religionists. Something is missing. You’re in the same room but don’t know how to talk to each other. Here are some suggestions for bridging that spiritual gap.

Addressing the Cultural Gap

My experience attending interfaith gatherings is that the dominant religion represented tends to dominate the whole event. Most invited leaders, most opening prayers, most religious cultural behavior will mirror the dominant religious culture in the room. I don’t believe this is deliberate but, rather, old habits, the fallback position of the subconscious. This is changing. Over the years more people from new religions and spiritual paths have joined the movement. There is more sensitivity and deliberate thought going into inclusion and awareness of the religious environment of a gathering.

Even with this growing awareness, we must keep in mind that so much of what is accomplished is done by leaders and volunteers who may not know anything about newcomers, generating uncomfortable feelings. I attended a meeting of indigenous people from all over the world recently hosted by a local church. They were very good at making certain that everyone’s transportation and meeting needs were seen to, and food was abundant.

But the site that they chose to meet was a nunnery built on very sacred land over an indigenous burial site. The altar was decorated with fresh flowers around the Virgin, while the fire place – which plays a central role in most indigenous gatherings – was covered up. There was no place for an altar for the indigenous participants, and the chairs were arranged in pews rather than a circle, preventing those in attendance from seeing anyone but the person on either side.

The original 1876 Robert’s Rules of Order written by U. S. Army Brig. Gen. Henry Martyn Robert – Photo: Wikipedia

This did not go unnoticed. The chairs were promptly rearranged into a circle. At some point during lunch the flowers had been removed from the Virgin and placed in the uncovered fireplace. The conveners were unhappy with this but did not change it. I doubt that many local indigenous folks rushed to join the interfaith group afterwards.

Discussion Protocols

Most of us are used to Robert’s Rules and meetings run by those rules. But you cannot imagine how difficult it is to adapt to this kind of discussion if you are not used to it. Even myself – coming from organizations that use consensus for their deliberations, I have a terrible time readjusting, particularly when I’ve chaired meetings with Robert’s Rules tucked into my pocket.

Imagine how confusing it was for a couple of rabbis attending an indigenous gathering. Every person in the circle had a chance with the mike, and each one spoke about every topic that interested them. Every time the mike got back to the rabbis they asked if we could use Robert’s rules. Everyone politely agreed. This meant to the indigenous folks that as long as the rabbis were speaking, we would use Robert’s rules. The first indigenous person to receive the mike next continued in the process to which they were accustomed.

In this approach to deliberation, you know that you have reached consensus when a topic drops out of the discussion. By the end of the day, the two rabbis were totally confused. The rest of the group felt that it had been a very fruitful meeting.

We need to consider who is at the table and perhaps take a small portion of time to state clearly what the rules of the meeting will be. With the rabbis, the meeting conveners failed to consider that some people might be lost in this kind of discussion. A brief explanation would have helped them understand and participate more fully.

Watching Our Tongues

The language we use is deeply rooted in the subconscious and is reflexive. In one meeting of North and South American interfaith leaders, many of them indigenous, the word “Catholic” continually entered the conversation. The deeper in, the more confusing it got. Clearly we were not all on the same page. Our confusion continued until someone pointed out that for those from South America, “Catholic” means all religions. With that explanation we were soon back on track.

We must be careful not to assume such sweeping statements as, “Well every religion has some form of the Golden Rule.” In fact, mine does not. And I hope that we will let go forever the notion that we are trying to have one world religion. I participate precisely because of the diversity that I discover.

There are those who will never be willing to suspend judgment long enough to get anywhere near us, and we must accept that. I do believe, however, that with attention and consideration to the gracious habits we deserve from each other, we may eventually bring many of good heart, desiring to change the world for the better, to the table.