CIW: International Day for Women, A Prayer Service (Part 5 of 6)

A prayer service takes place every morning at the Fast for Fair Food. I often fail to attend due to my dedication and excitement for tent building, but I do join the prayer on the morning of the International Day for Women (http://www.internationalwomensday.com/). On this day, we honor the lives of women. For many, this is the most touching moment of the week.

We form a large circle, or rather fat ellipse. Some hold banners; others sit on the grass; most plop down on red, upturned tomato buckets. The service is punctuated by the honks of passing cars and the jubilant waves and hollers that they draw from the protesters.

Members of the religious community open the service. A man and woman perform an Aztec ritual. The two carefully burn a bundle of brown and mint-green twigs. The red spark remains obscured, while grey smoke rises up, and the scent of sage fills the air. They place a small solid on the sage, and a new scent rises through the air. I learn later that the substance is Copal. The two bow and speak a prayer, thanking Mother Earth. The woman ends by saying “O Mateo o.” (Please excuse any misspelling.) Then, we turn to the Christian tradition. A pastor offers a reading from the bible and personal reflection on its significance. The pastor opens a space for three members of the community present a candle, enclosed in a glass casing.

The focus turns to the day’s theme as another man stands. He speaks of women’s contributions today and historically, many forgotten or rendered invisible by historians, comrades, or themselves. Images race through my mind…

For the stories left untold,
Unwritten,
Unpublished,
Never spoken
Then remembered
Not honored,
Revered,
Loved,
Nor cherished.

Silenced,
Muted,
Forgotten.

A reminder of her hands and mind, the growth of her children, the success of her crops, the organization of her movement, the memories of those she touched.

We are then asked to call out names of personally influential women.

We stand.
Shout.
Slight smiles
Of memory.
Curiosity for unknown names,
Excitement for friends.

Continuing, he speaks of the women among us. He then asks the men to stand and touch the women around them. We pray together.

Now, I am not a religious person. My belief and understanding of god seems unrelated to the common presentation. I revel in the world’s mysteries. I find inspiration and meaning from the stories and people that surround me. My morals are enriched by my mother’s love and daily experiences.

On another note, I do not fully abide by or support the strict two-gender system; it dominates our culture and infiltrates any person’s individual identity. Variables of sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual expression become consistently wrapped into two common packages. Those who embrace alternative combinations are not mentioned or acknowledged at this service. This framing makes me uneasy, but I hold onto the common ground.

These thoughts run through my mind, an obstacle course of questions and doubts. The man who touches me is also the one who performed the earlier Aztec prayer. He holds me tight on the shoulder and with his other hand touches the woman next to me. He kneels down, his head bowed, and begins to pray. My stomach churns, and my breathing becomes quickened and crisp. I close my eyes as tears well up. In the previous months, I grappled with my own experiences of growing up as a woman, especially relationships with sexual undertones and sexual interactions. These experiences were event more present in my mind after being triggered by events at Occupy Wall Street (a story for another time). It is a process to address the wounds, habits, and expectations of being a woman in modern day America; these structures that color my life.

I feel my anger. Anger pointing at a patriarchal society, but sometimes directed at all men, as individuals. It wells up in me like a fire suddenly in sight. It burns wildly, clearing out the underbrush. It has been easy to dismiss this as an exaggerated emotion, irrational. How could I feed this anger, this hatred and distrust, when I know many honest self-identified men? I do not want to fulfill the stereotype of a man-hating lesbian. So, instead, I reach out. It’s ok. It’s not your fault. You, yourself, are not sexist. I forgive the moments of harshness, ignorance, silence, and lust.

I snap back to the present, to the warm sunlight, the pressure on my skin. Many people working for change surround me. Some work in the hot tomato fields not even for a living wage. With these struggles around me, my own life seems a cakewalk. Yet, for the first time a man reaches out his hand to acknowledge and pray for the struggle of living and growing up as a woman. Just then, I feel a release. A small piece of anger lets go.

The prayer ends and I am silent. I am overwhelmed by shock and sadness, yet at the same time strangely elated. I tell the man, “Gracias… Thank you!” He squeezes my shoulder. I brush away a few salty tears.

The prayer’s impact is visible. Many are crying, holding each other, though I cannot know what they are thinking or feeling.

A farmworker stands up to speak. She says that she is a mother who spends countless hours away from her children. She wakes them in the early morning from a beautiful slumber, because she must go out to find work. She wishes they could sleep longer. Exhaustion consumes her moments of peace. The inability to take a joint holiday saddens her. Tears come alive on her face, curling down her cheek. She hopes her children have a better future. She closes by saying her words are in honor of the women of Immokalee.

Others continue, making tributes to mothers, sisters, comrades, and friends.

The spoken words dwindle, and the service ends. Blessings for individuals are offered to the group. Some approach for a Christian blessing, forming a line. A few remove their hats, revealing tan lines across foreheads. Others’ hats are tipped up. The pastor touches each forehead with holy water, given in the shape of a cross. Another line forms for an Aztec blessing given by man and woman who perform the ritual with the sage. One waits to breathe in and be consumed by the burning of sage and copal. A few kneel down on the grass, carrying the smoke to their face and guiding it over their bodies. The man and woman circle around and touch every spot of each person’s body with the sacred smoke.

I sit watching the procession unfold. Again I smell the sage and stand up to walk away in the direction of the main event site. I think about my reasons for coming to Florida: to support the CIW and friends, learn about organizing, make connections, and broaden horizons. I did not expect my most personal struggles to be, in some way, healed. I leave the morning service feeling perplexed, honored, and connected to those around me. We will dream together for a better world, another day, one extra penny, and maybe one extra smile, and a sigh of relief. Si se puede!

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