Yesterday I once again had the honor and privilege to address the Charlotte Pride Interfaith Service as a representative of the Pagan spiritual community. Due to COVID-19, we had to do a livestream broadcast with only a few folks present in person, but it was still an inspiring and affirming time. I've reprinted below my remarks, and if you'd like to view the entire service, which included stirring music and an interfaith discussion led by the Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Initiative at Queens University, click here and scroll until you see the appropriate video.
"Good evening everyone. I’ll begin by thanking St. John’s Baptist Church for allowing us the use of their sacred space for this Pride Interfaith Service. I also want to thank the Charlotte Pride board, staff and interfaith team for all the incredible work they’ve done to bring us together as we sort our way through COVID-19. I’m impressed with your dedication and energy to make this event and all the other Pride events happen this year. Again, thank you for your work and for inviting me to speak today.
"In my Pagan spiritual tradition, it’s customary to start most gatherings by acknowledging our interconnection, not just to each other but also to those everyday or essential connections we may take for granted. And so I recognize the Spirits of the east, south, west and north; I recognize the elements of water, fire, earth and air. Pagans see this sacred circle as containing everything in our universe, and from this circle emanates everything we are as humans and everything we can become. It is also customary to acknowledge the ancestral caretakers of the land on which we stand, and here in modern-day Charlotte that would be the Waxhaw and Catawba peoples. May this connection be repaired, respected and treasured.
"Finally, this time of year is special in the Pagan liturgical calendar. Next weekend will mark the start of Samhain—otherwise known as Halloween—and Pagans use this time to remember those connections with family and friends who have died and celebrate what they meant to us. Today, I celebrate some personal LGBTQ ancestors of mine—my brother Mike Isley, my uncle Herbert Spaugh, my friend Robert Triplett, the Rev. Christine Oscar and my late partner John Taylor. And since we’re celebrating Pride, after all, I also remember Janice Covington Allison, Storme DeLarverie, Marsha Pay-It-No-Mind Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Now, if you don’t know who those last 4 LGBTQ ancestors are, you have some homework. As we say in the Pagan community—What is remembered, lives.
"My name is Wes Isley, my pronouns are he/him/his, and I’m an ordained minister with Sacred Well Congregation, an ecumenical Pagan spiritual community. I also work and volunteer as a chaplain here in the Charlotte area. While I was meditating on what I might offer you today, I saw in our program that later this evening we’ll be singing a song I had never heard before, called “Draw the Circle Wide” by Gordon Light. If you're already familiar with the song, I hope you'll indulge my excitement as I feel like it gets at the heart of why I’m here speaking to you in the first place.
"As a gay kid, a gay teen, I had no idea exactly where I belonged, and maybe some of y’all have felt the same. There were lots of circles that excluded me, that said, no, you’re different, you can’t be part of this circle. And it wasn’t just because I was gay. There were also religious circles that excluded me, that said, no, you’re not the right kind of Christian, so you can’t be part of our circle. Or when I started to question the dominant, normative spiritual beliefs around me, I was told, no, your beliefs, your practices don’t fit into our circle, so you have to stay out there.
"The song I’m referencing goes, “Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.” Fortunately, today we in the LGBTQ community do have a lot to celebrate. Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance will take effect in January, and last October I was fortunate to legally marry the most amazing man on the planet, my husband Mike. Here, we see the circle is being drawn wider.
"Today, trans folks are more visible than ever—just take the announcement that Dr. Rachel Levine—now Admiral Levine, actually—is the first openly trans 4-star officer. The circle is being drawn wider. Unfortunately, there are people who say, no, she’s different and shouldn’t be part of THAT circle. Likewise, there are people who want to make money off making jokes about the trans community, and this week hundreds of Netflix employees said, hold up, enough—we want to draw OUR circle wider. And after North Carolina’s own Lt. Governor Mark Robinson recently made anti-LGBTQ remarks at a church gathering, faith leaders across the state rallied at the capitol, calling for him to apologize. Robinson wants to keep his circle closed, but those faith leaders—and the faith leaders here today—are saying, no, draw the circle wider.
"In my work as a chaplain, that’s what it’s all about—drawing the circle wider. My goal is to help whomever I’m with tap into their spiritual resources in times of crisis, no matter what faith they follow or even if they have none at all. And it’s funny because there I am—a gay Pagan chaplain—providing spiritual care to some religious folks who might otherwise exclude me from their circle. No, he can’t be spiritual. No, he can’t be a chaplain. But it isn’t about me or what I practice—it’s about that person in front of me and their spirituality. And this gets at why I’m standing here today.
"At one time because I was gay, I thought I had to walk away from my spirituality. And at one time, I thought my spiritual beliefs would exclude me from the larger interfaith circle of religions and spiritualities. I’m here today because my spirituality is so important to me—and if you’re here in the church or watching online, you likely feel the same. Our practices and beliefs may not be the same, but within them, it seems we all find the same things—an abiding comfort in difficult times, a deeper meaning in life, greater connections with others and what I describe as a certain all-encompassing sense of beauty. Given how precious all of these things are, I find it difficult to understand why other people would want to deny me, you or anyone else access, to close their circle. So my message for you today is don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong in THIS circle, this circle of religious or spiritual people, whether it’s because you’re LGBTQ or because of what you believe or don’t believe. Let’s draw the circle wider.
"And speaking of those people who keep their circles closed—those news commentators, comedians, politicians and fundamentalist spiritual groups—I think their hurtful actions and words come down to 1 thing—fear. Their world, their circle, is small, and unfortunately, the existence of the LGBTQ community and even the existence of progressive religious voices like we have here, that threatens their world. They’re afraid. I think this is an opportunity for us to reflect on how we respond. Our overall theme for tonight’s service is “selfless love & compassion.” I have to admit that even though my initial reaction to these people is anger, that anger soon subsides and is replaced with compassion for them. I think, how sad to be so afraid of other people, to be so fearful of how others live their lives and how they connect to Spirit. In Paganism, compassion is emphasized by the perspective that we all are interconnected; what happens to one person inevitably ripples out and affects all of us. So I ask myself, can I draw the circle wider, even to include those who speak out against me as a gay man or as Pagan?
"I do want to thank Charlotte Pride for drawing the circle of this service wider to include folks like me who aren’t traditional monotheists. It’s most appreciated. Also, when I was listening to that song, it occurred to me that although the words happen to be Christian, it has Pagan symbolism—although it probably wasn’t intentional. What I mean is that in Pagan ceremony, we do everything in a circle, and sometimes we literally draw or create a circle on the floor or outdoors on the ground or wherever we happen to be. Now, it’s important to note that the circle isn’t drawn to exclude anyone, but rather when we draw a circle, we’re saying, here, in this circle, THIS is where magick happens, this is where acceptance and welcome are found, this is where we are all strengthened and empowered, this is where the Divine, God or Goddess or however you want to describe Spirit—here is where it can be experienced most intensely, together with other people. And in my tradition, there isn’t any rule that says a circle can only be so big; there’s always room for more participants. So I’ll close by leaving us a challenge, myself included. In the midst of our camaraderie and celebration here tonight, I hope we all take a moment to look around and see who isn’t here. Is someone, some group, missing? If so, let us ask ourselves why and ask, can we draw this circle wider? Thank you and blessed be."