“What do I have to give?”: Poverty and devotional activity

By Jennifer Lawrence

Collected at Thorn Creek Nature Preserve, Park Forest, Illinois, on 9/3/2012.
Collected at Thorn Creek Nature Preserve, Park Forest, Illinois, on 9/3/2012.

To be pagan and/or polytheist in this society is to be part of a minority. Whether you’re in the closet or out and proud, there are still things about the way you worship and the beings that you revere that not only most people in this country don’t understand, they don’t want to understand. Ancient Egyptian architects that became gods? Oh, but a man can’t be a real god. Genius loci? What’s that? Thor? Oh, he’s only from those movies. Worshiping your ancestors? What, you mean, like, Grandma? That’s just ridiculous. The Horned Lord? Don’t you mean the devil? We’ve all heard similar ignorance, some of it genuine, some of it willful, some of it intentionally meant to offend, and some of it just ridiculous. In a society where the idea of what’s acceptable to worship is decreed by the monotheistic worldview of the majority, we have all eventually learned to simply deal with it — by ignoring it, or by trying to educate, or by fighting it — and move on. That’s true of the problems of all minorities, in essence, not just those faced by individuals in minority religions.

On the other hand, being poor in this society makes you part of a majority. According to Census Bureau data, 49% of Americans get some sort of government aid: SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, Medicare, housing subsidies. Of those, roughly 14.5% live below the poverty line, including 20% of American children. For some of us, this is the result of a single, sudden catastrophic incident that happened recently: a death in the family, the loss of a job, recent health problems. For others, who grew up in a poor family, it is simply the status quo, rarely if ever remedied. I fall into that latter group; I grew up in a family where my father was awarded all my mother’s credit card debt after their divorce ($30K in new debt in 1976 was quite a bit more devastating then than it is now). He worked three jobs, my stepmother two, and we relied on government cheese and peanut butter to help get us through the hard times — and pretty much all times were hard times. The summer I turned 12, I can remember the last week of July, when things became tighter than normal because the factory that was one of my father’s places of employment laid everyone off without notice. For a week, everyone in the family except my 6-month-old half-brother ate nothing but mulberry smoothies, made from the ice in the freezer and the abundant mulberries growing on the trees in the back yard of the apartment building we lived in. (My baby brother received government aid that allowed us to buy formula.)

What percentage of that 49% might be pagan or polytheist? There are no concrete studies on that, but it has been noted anecdotally in plenty of forums on the internet that pagans, by and large, tend to fall on the less advantaged end of the economic spectrum. When a pagan, a Wiccan, or a polytheist becomes wealthy (such as 2007 lottery winner “Bunky” Bartlett) or when a wealthy person is, or becomes Pagan (most often when we hear of items like this, it is with celebrities whose every act in this media-saturated society becomes news — examples include Godsmack lead singer Sully Erma and actress Fairuza Balk) it’s big news in our community, partly because it is so very rare. It is also worth noting that, despite the First Amendment of the Constitution and laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of religion, I have known far too many pagans and polytheists who lost their jobs for “unrelated reasons” in the event that their (always monotheist, and usually Christian) employers found out about their faith. Such employment difficulties directly contribute to poverty among Pagans; it’s hard to keep one’s head above water, economically speaking, when you can get fired if your boss learns you aren’t down at the First Baptist Church every Sunday, singing your heart out.

One of the major differences between the three main monotheist faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and the various faiths practiced under the umbrella of paganism (Wicca, animism, druidry, heathenry, and too many forms of polytheism to count) often comes down to belief vs. practice — orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. In a religion where believing the right thing is given more moral weight than how those beliefs are expressed, such as Christianity, there tends to be an eventual evolution among the people who follow that religion. As an example, when Christianity began, it was a religion of slaves, the poor, the oppressed and downtrodden, who believed that even if they could not have the good things they saw that belonged to the elite in this life, they could still become loved, uplifted, and chosen in the afterlife. Nowadays, while Christianity still has its hold on the poor and miserable in our society, it has become all too common to see it also espoused by the wealthy and privileged, often at multi-million-dollar megachurches built on tithes from those impoverished followers who go without their needed medications and survive on food stamps and cat food while the pastors and the upper crust of their flock buy new cars every year and blithely continue ignoring Matthew 19:24.

By contrast, in a group of religion where the right acts are emphasized over right belief — given that so many pagan and polytheist faiths have no historical equivalent to a single group of texts laying down precisely what the right beliefs are, as Christians have in the Bible, Muslims have with the Koran, and Jews have with the Tanakh — carrying out acts meant to show devotion and honor to the deities, spirits, and ancestors that we revere can definitely be impacted by poverty. Devotional acts can be divided into those that require money and those that do not; generally, the ones that require money are better-known and require less effort than those that don’t. Examples: burning candles or incense or food offerings (barley and meat, for example, are common offerings for Hellenic polytheists); pouring out libations of wine, whiskey, other alcoholic beverages, milk, cream, fruit juice; and making pilgrimages to places such as the Parthenon in Athens (or the duplicate one in Nashville), Tara in Ireland, or the site of the old Germanic temple in Uppsala, Sweden.

Of these acts, the only one possible to adapt into something that doesn’t require any money is that of pouring libations; as a wiser writer than me has said, even pouring out clean water to the deities and spirits you revere shows more respect than doing nothing, and the gods understand when you truly have nothing but still want to show Them honor.

But there are other ways to show Them respect, to honor Them and make offerings to Them that require less or no money. An example, oft-quoted, of a way to show respect for nature spirits is to pick a location and spend time picking up other folks’ garbage. A city park, a beach, a forest — I have visited all of the above and spent hours gathering up used diapers, aluminum cans, mylar balloons, broken glass, plastic snack wrappers, old condoms, styrofoam containers, rusty metal, and too many other forms of trash to name. Adopting such a location and going monthly, weekly, or however often as one’s personal health issues allow (disclaimer: I have fibromyalgia, tendonitis, arthritis, bursitis, and ACL damage in both knees, so the frequency of my visits has gotten less as I age, but I have never stopped going completely) is an excellent way to show devotion to the spirits of nature, in a way that scattering bread or popcorn never cat. (Note: high-carb, low-nutrient food like bread and popcorn, when ingested, can have harmful effects on the growth of waterfowl such as geese and ducks, and which can also lead wild animals to acclimate to being fed by humans, which can lead to malnutrition at best, and the actual euthanization of dangerous animals like bears, who can become aggressive in trying to take food from humans, at worst.)

Human creativity also provides a way to create offerings for the gods, spirits, and ancestors. If you have a talent for any sort of creative endeavor, from painting to sculpture to writing, bending that gift toward creating things for Them provides offerings of a quality that simple store-bought goods never could. I’ve been writing poetry since I was seven, and writing requires only my thoughts, a pen or pencil, and some scrap paper; even the back of store receipts or blank areas found on junk mail will do. Other arts require art supplies, of course, but I have seen amazing sketches produced by pencil on scratch paper, or with broken crayons picked out of the gutter outside a restaurant. For the last fifteen years, the majority of the work I write has been dedicated to the gods and nature spirits, and every indication I have gotten — through divination, through other forms of communication, and from speaking with other co-religionists who have bonds of their own with these beings — indicates that They approve of the work I write on Their behalf. So, too, can your creativity be devoted toward making things for Them, even if the only human being that ever sees those things is you.

Living in abject poverty definitely affects religious practices, but it does not need to prevent devotional activity. Devotion comes from the heart and soul, after all, and we get those for free when we’re born. How we choose to use them is up to each of us.

Jennifer Lawrence

180551_497118365372_724085372_6591686_7622854_nPolytheist, animist, and all-around outsider for over twenty-five years. Writer for much longer than that. Jack-of-many-trades who got used to doing things the hard way because it was the only way available. Lives outside of Chicago with five cats, an ossuary, an overgrown garden full of nature spirits, and a houseful of gargoyles.