Rastafarian stands ground on marijuana & faith

Christopher Woodson laid the $30,000 check on the coffee table in the small living room of the small house he shares in Waynesboro with his wife and two of his three daughters. Another child, a son, is due in December. If current plans hold, his name will be Christopher Lion Woodson. Woodson, 34, said the money — from a settlement with a Botetourt County company that wouldn’t hire him because he refused to cut his long hair — will pay bills and perhaps help promote the music of the band for which he sings, Righteous Friendz.

Reggae music by Toots and the Maytals played in the background from cable TV. Most art objects around the shade-darkened room reflected African origins or themes. Woodson said he just might be the only actively practicing Rastafarian in Waynesboro, a city with a population of about 21,000. He said he converted in 2004 to the Rastafari religion, which traces its roots to Jamaica and Africa and the 1920s and ’30s. During an interview Thursday morning, Woodson, a Waynesboro native, said he began life as a Christian, converted to Islam in Atlanta about 1996, and then became a Rastafarian about seven years ago. He said a grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher.

“I was always a man of faith,” he said. Woodson has not cut his hair since the end of 1998 — a practice predating his Rastafari conversion — or his beard since 2008. As is true of many Rastafari, he wears his head and facial hair in dreadlocks and “beardlocks.” In June, during a trial held in federal court to consider religious discrimination allegations filed by him and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against a regional company, he tucked and tied his long hair and beardlocks in a head wrap — which he had said he’d have been willing to do to get the job he was denied.

“I came to court that way to show what could have been done,” Woodson said. “I would have done everything they wanted me to do.” On Thursday, he let his hair down. In May 2008, Lawrence Transportation Systems, based in Botetourt County, denied employment to Woodson at its Waynesboro facility after he refused to cut his dreadlocks or trim his beard to conform with a long-standing company grooming policy intended to ensure a neat appearance among its household movers.

Later, the EEOC sued Lawrence Transportation, alleging religious discrimination because of the company’s unwillingness to make “reasonable accommodations” for Woodson’s long hair and beardlocks — such as agreeing that he could secure both in a head wrap. Woodson said at the time and Thursday that his Rastafarian beliefs prohibit him from cutting his hair. Lawrence Transportation, an employee-owned company, has described the case as “frivolous to the extreme” and cited it as a prime example of heavy-handed government regulation. It has estimated that fighting and then settling the case has cost the company about $400,000.

Lawrence Transportation executives said the company’s grooming policy helped provide an edge in the highly competitive moving business and that making personal exceptions could cost it business. They said the head wrap option also would have violated policy because the hair would not have fit beneath a standard ball cap. The case went to trial in Harrisonburg in June and ended with a hung jury. On Aug. 17, the EEOC announced it had settled the case with Lawrence Transportation and that Woodson would receive a check for $30,000. The check arrived Thursday.

If the commission had prevailed at trial, it is likely that Woodson’s take would have been much higher. He insisted Thursday that his participation with the EEOC in the case was not motivated, at least initially, by money and that the commission told him up front that the effort might not yield a dime. “A man’s faith was being put in the way of a job,” he said. “Now, some rules in place [at the company] have been changed for the betterment of the persons behind me.”

Yet Woodson acknowledged that he turned down a settlement offer of $25,000 from Lawrence Transportation and asked the EEOC to hold out for more. He said he sees the $30,000 as compensation for anonymous name-calling, primarily on Internet sites, and other hostile reactions he said he endured while the case moved forward.”Mophead, turdhead, n—–. That stuff killed me,” Woodson said. Christian van Gorder, associate professor of religion at Baylor University and an expert in world religions, said in an email that many researchers have concluded the religious practice of wearing dreadlocks comes from the Nazarite vow of the Bible.

“Samson did not cut his hair and the Bible says that the power that he had came from his hair,” van Gorder said. “Rastas build on this tradition and focus on how uncut hair reflects an enduring legacy.” He said the phrase “dreadlocks” refers to the Jamaican idea that “the fiercer a warrior was in battle — in the spirit of Samson — the more dreadful they would be in the estimation of their opponents.”Van Gorder said that for many Rastas, hair is invested with spiritual significance. “The unshorn hair speaks of naturalness and legacy and the power and capability and potential of the spiritual to intersect with the natural and visual world,” he said.

Woodson said he never considered shearing his dreadlocks. “For me, it was never a choice because it was connected to my soul,” he said. Many Rastas smoke marijuana. They emphasize that “ganja” is a holy plant given by God, or Jah, that can deepen a smoker’s understanding of both Rastafari and its beliefs. Asked about his use of marijuana, Woodson dismissed the question as irrelevant to his story and anchored in stereotype. “My deal, man, I pretty much live life,” he said. “When I pray, I pray.”

Woodson said he strives to live a good life, based on faith and a fundamental understanding that most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Rastafari and Islam, celebrate the same belief system in a higher power. He said he can speak to people of other faiths and typically find common ground. He said he does not believe one religion has the corner on truth and works to avoid making such judgments. “I got no heaven or hell to put people in,” he said.

And he said he harbors no animosity toward Ron Spangler, president of Lawrence Transportation, or others with the company. He said he believes the dispute about potential employment reflected a lack of company and regional knowledge about the Rastafari faith. “Now that everything is done, I don’t hate them, and I don’t think they hate me,” he said. Before the dispute, Woodson, who considers himself an expert mover, had worked for Lawrence Transportation many times as an independent, for-hire mover. During the trial, company officials said Woodson had an excellent performance record.

Several months ago, he began to work for Move Masters, a small company based in Waynesboro. David Runkle, president and owner, spoke highly of Woodson. “He’s my lead man,” Runkle said. “He really is stepping up and shouldering responsibilities.” He said Woodson’s dreadlocks gave him no pause. “It didn’t bother me because of his experience and I needed someone with his experience,” Runkle said. “Chris just brings a wealth of information and knowledge.” Woodson said he knows as well as anyone that making a favorable impression is key with customers preparing to move their household or business goods. “I’ve been doing this a long time. No matter what you look like, you’ve got to win people over before you go into their house. Usually, there’s a tip involved.”

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