Years ago, when I first moved to the DC area, a Jewish colleague shared a Christmas story with me. She told me how, when she was in high school, she felt left out every December when her classmates had Christmas parties and she was never once invited. After I heard her talk about how that made her feel, I would think of her each year, long after we went our separate ways to other jobs. Hearing her story made me understand why the diverse county I work in asks staff not to display Christmas decorations.
In our county, we have a large Jewish population, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are school holidays. But unlike Christmas—and even Christmas Eve—which are paid holidays for all employees, only school-based ten-month employees have a paid day off on non-Christian holidays. Jewish staff who work in the county offices must take vacation leave to observe their holy days. And from what I understand about the history of no-school days, schools were closed for Jewish holidays only when it became apparent that there were not enough substitute teachers to cover staff absences. As for other holidays, such as the Muslim holy day of Eid that ends the month of Ramadan and the holy days of other faiths, school is in session, and staff of non-Christian faiths must take leave on their holy days.
Living and working in the DC area has made me far more cognizant of how non-Christians feel about the exuberance of us Christians in the days leading up to Christmas. It has also made me aware of how difficult it is to discern a distinct line that separates church and state.
Just today I heard an atheist who works for a government agency express his astonishment that the agency held a Christmas party—not a holiday party—where speeches were given about the wonder of the baby Jesus.
And just a few days ago I watched our president light the national Christmas tree, an event celebrated with a host of famous musicians performing for an enthusiastic crowd. Do they volunteer? Or are they paid with federal tax dollars? I’m not sure. As I watch the exuberance for one of the two most holy days of Christians, I wonder how well we’ve done at preserving the separation of church and state.
Last month, my husband’s employer, the American Film Institute’s historical Silver Theatre, was honored at a county council meeting for the 75th anniversary of the theater. I have never before watched a video of a council meeting, but, of course, I wanted to hear what they had to say about my husband and his colleagues, who seldom get such recognition, though students respond enthusiastically every time they visit this amazing historic landmark.
So when I did watch the council meeting, I was surprised to learn that, in a county that prides itself on being liberal and democratic, the council meetings all begin with a prayer or a moment of silence. On the night when my husband and his colleagues were recognized, I watched in stunned silence as the meeting began with a prayer and a brief talk by a Presbyterian minister.
Curious, I went to the archive to see who else might have offered an invocation to open the council’s meetings. I discovered that each meeting begins with a prayer or a moment of silence. This year, those prayers have been led by several rabbis, a Mormon, four Presbyterian ministers, three United Methodist ministers, three Lutheran ministers, a PhD from a nonprofit, an Episcopalian priest, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, two Adventist chaplains, two Muslim imams, and an interfaith reverend. Several meetings have also begun with a moment of silence, presumably in honor of those who do not practice any faith tradition.
At first I was shocked. How could a diverse county such as ours fail to observe the separation of church and state? But as I went back to those videos and watched each one, I rethought my initial objections. Watching those leaders from various faiths all ask for the same thing, guidance for our leaders to do what is right and just and good, I actually liked what I saw—diverse believers in pursuit of a common goal.
Though I’m surprised that the ACLU hasn’t challenged the county council for its invocations, I have to admit that I like their approach. I have learned so much from my friends of other faiths, and I’ve ultimately come to believe that all of us have extremists and fanatics among us. But all of us also have kind and faithful people who do their very best each day to be the face of the Spirit in the world. And whether we’re atheists or Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindis or any other faith, if the pursuit of justice and peace are our North Star, aren’t we really looking for the same thing?
So, come, share with me the stories of your North Star.