Perspectives is a monthly column dedicated towards presenting the wide variety of thought across the Pagan/Polytheist communities’ various Paganisms.

The Wild Hunt received responses from four members of the community—Ember Cooke, Gytha of the Vanic Conspiracy and member of Seidhjallr (Sudhri); Richard Reidy, Kemetic Reconstructionist, author, moderator and founder of The Temple of Ra and the Kemetic Temple of San Jose; Erynn Rowan Laurie, author and Celtic Reconstructionist polytheist; and Sannion, the archiboukolos of the thiasos of the Starry Bull—detailing their opinion on whether larger interfaith work (Abrahamic, Dharmic, etcetera) is needed or if it’s a distraction from Pagan-Polytheist-Wiccan-Heathen-Recon-African Tradition inter/intrafaith work?

Selena Fox and other clergy at a National Interfaith Service in Washington DC.

Selena Fox and other clergy at a National Interfaith Service in Washington DC.

“I absolutely do NOT think that one kind of interfaith work is a distraction from another kind. Both are necessary if Pagans in general are to have increased stability, civil rights and respect, and influence on the world around us. Interfaith work within the Pagan movement is necessary so that we can increasingly work together and function in ways that we have intended to in the past while overlooking the fact of our differences in theology.

Interfaith work with non-Pagan traditions is necessary for us to gain the understanding and support of the larger faith population, which is most of the world. To discard either one is to say that some categories of humans don’t matter very much, so if they don’t understand us and care about us, well, we don’t need to understand and care about them which is a dangerous drawing of lines in the sand that I think causes a lot more harm than good. And yes, I try to actively engage in both kinds of interfaith work when I have the time and energy to do so.”Ember Cooke, Gytha of the Vanic Conspiracy and member of Seidhjallr (Sudhri)

“I see no compelling reason why we cannot be involved in interfaith/intrafaith work with both groups. For myself it is not an either/or proposition. Whatever we may think we know of individual groups or theologies, it helps our own cause to dialogue with them in order to dispel some of the common misconceptions many of them have regarding earth-based religions, pagan and neopagan religions, polytheists, as well as other spiritual/religious groups. Currently in the West the dominant Abrahamic faiths very often label us idolaters, devil worshipers, and profoundly misguided. We—in our own self interest—can work to dispel such potentially dangerous thinking. We owe it to ourselves to try to dispel the myths surrounding our religions.

In regard to the various intrafaith groups, it helps us to interact with others in order to build a sense of solidarity, mutual respect, and understanding. When we see people as “us” rather than just “other,” we enrich each other. Many if not most of our groups are fairly small in number. Many are somewhat isolated. If we wish to last beyond our own lifetimes and achieve any real stability and growth, we cannot afford to remain insular. I remember the great Platonic and Neoplatonic schools that once existed in the Greek empire. They were led by charismatic men and women, with a small group of like-minded students and followers. They all—each and every one of them—died out under the weight of Christian expansionism and repression. All of them—gone! We must not let that happen to us. We cannot afford to simply enjoy our little fellowships and groups and “hope for the best.” The gods and the spirits deserve more.”Richard Reidy, Kemetic Reconstructionist, author, moderator and founder of The Temple of Ra and the Kemetic Temple of San Jose

“I think it really depends on the nature of the work a person is called to do. In my case I’m trying to build a religious community that venerates Dionysos and his associated gods and spirits. The majority of my time and energy goes into research, writing, worship and tending to the spiritual and other needs of my people.

Pagan Leadership ConferenceWhat remains after that goes into fostering dialogue with other polytheists around ways that we can mutually support each other in the restoration and promulgation of our ancestral traditions, which has resulted in projects such as Wyrd Ways Radio, the Polytheist Leadership Conference and the forthcoming Walking the Worlds journal.

I also feel that it’s important to engage in educational outreach with the neopagan and occult communities, particularly with regard to respect for diversity and boundaries, since ignoring our differences tends to create a hostile environment that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to work together on areas where our interests do happen to overlap.

Beyond that I have an interest in ecology and social justice, though I rarely have anything left to give beyond contributing financially to groups whose aims and efforts I agree with. As such I have almost no engagement with members of Abrahamic, Dharmic, indigenous or other religious communities, to say nothing of secular humanist or political groups, though I applaud their efforts when they are not in conflict with my own agendas.

But that’s me, and I have no expectation that others share my vocation or prioritize things the way I do. Indeed I think our communities are made stronger by encouraging people to pursue the goals and activities that they care most about and are uniquely skilled to perform. As Homer said, “No island is made for the breeding horses nor is any man capable of accomplishing all things.” We need priests and scholars and magicians and artists and educators and homemakers and laborers and politicians and soldiers and activists and so on and so forth, each doing their part to create a better society. This is what makes the polytheist worldview superior to all others—the recognition that there are many gods and many ways to serve those gods. It’s only a distraction if you’re not doing the work of your heart.”Sannion, archiboukolos of the thiasos of the Starry Bull

Erynn Rowan Laurie

Erynn Rowan Laurie

“I don’t see why it has to be just one or the other. Both types of work need doing, though maybe not all by the same individuals. It would be a lot to lay on any one person. But it’s important to have communication and attempt to find understanding both within and outside of our various communities. I don’t think restricting ourselves to only one option would actually be a very polytheist type of response, nor do I think doing one of these types of work is a “distraction” from any of the others. That would be like saying “I’m only going to inhale until I’ve got that down. Forget exhaling until I have perfect inhalation technique.” You really rather do need both to function.” Erynn Rowan Laurie, author and Celtic Reconstructionist polytheist

Send to Kindle

“Time and again, parents and community leaders have recounted to me how the American conception of camp offers an opportunity for a cultural, religious and, in some cases, linguistic immersion with other American Hindu children. This is understood to be all the more important because within the dominant American and Christian culture, Hindus and Hinduism are often exoticized and maligned.” – Shana Sippy, professor of religion at Carleton College in Minnesota, on the value of Hindu-American summer camps for children.

The above quote comes from the recent New York Times article “Building on U.S. Tradition, Camp for Hindu Children Strengthens Their Identity.” In it we meet Neha Dhawan, a Hindu-American woman who says her life was changed by attending “Hindu camp” when she was eleven.

Like many children growing up in a minority religion, she felt set apart from her more mainstream friends. Her holidays were different; her culture was different and she dreaded questions such as “where do you go to church?”

At first Neha did not look forward to summer camp for Hindu children. But eventually she loved doing morning yoga, her hair still cool and damp from the shower. She discovered a favorite bhajan, a Hindu devotional song. She spoke with her peers and their college-age counselors about dealing with stereotypes and racism. “I realized,” she said, “it’s O.K. to be proud of who you are.” Neha is now the director of the Hindu Heritage Summer Camp.

The US has a long tradition of religious or ethnic summer camps for children. According to Professor Sippy, they help to “strengthen the denominational and ancestral identity of young people in a polyglot nation with an enticingly secular popular culture.” Because they are surrounded by their peers, children learn what living their religion looks like for them. They learn how to be more comfortable with their religion which allows them to be more comfortable in mainstream society. If that’s the case, are summer camps something that would benefit Pagan children?

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit - C. Schulz]

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit - C. Schulz]

“As a family, we are a solitary unit. We attend one Pagan Festival every summer, but that is the only exposure they have to us being part of a larger community. I would love for my children to have another opportunity to make those important connections,” says Kristin, a Pagan mother of two who lives in the Chicago area. She says that she would budget through the year to be able to afford sending her children, ages 5 and 8, to a Pagan summer camp and would spend up to $700 a week for a sleep-over style camp. She says not only would children benefit from knowing they aren’t alone, but Pagan communities would also benefit through a focus on instilling Pagan ethics in children.

Ashley Sears, a Pagan mom living in the Minneapolis area, also welcomes the idea of a Pagan summer camp for her three children, ages 15, 13, and 11.“Having raised my kids Pagan since birth, it’s been a struggle to help them find their own “identity” within our faith. We’ve moved all over the country and have been blessed with many Pagan friends and Pagan Parenting groups, but never a chance to expose them to an immersive experience in our faith.”

We sought opinions from many Pagan parents. Other than questions about affordability, there were no parents who were opposed to the idea. One parent did say that he wouldn’t send his children because he didn’t see a need for summer camp and declined to be interviewed. However, he wasn’t opposed to the idea.

Pagan summer camps – past and present
While there appears to have been a summer day camp for Pagan children in the past, there aren’t any operating now. So what options do Pagan children have for a summer camp experience? Not many.

The closest to a Pagan summer camp currently operating are programs like Indigo Camp. These are summer camps with no specific religious take, but with Pagan-friendly components such as spiritual drumming, yoga, and non-violent communication techniques. These camps welcome people of all, or no, religious background. However, they won’t be able to give a child the benefit of being surrounded by those of their same faith.

For a specifically Pagan camping experience, a family could attend a Pagan or Heathen camping festival. These can last from a weekend to a week or longer. Festivals vary in the programs offered specifically to children.  Some are increasing their offerings as more families with children attend.

One of those festivals with a robust child and teen program is Pagan Spirit Gathering. “Every year, Circle Sanctuary [the organization which produces Pagan Spirit Gathering] creates programs for youth of different ages as part of its Pagan Spirit Gathering,” says Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister of Circle Sanctuary. She says activities include storytelling, craft projects, playtime, and rituals. She adds, “It is a wonderful way for Pagan children and older youth to learn about Pagan spirituality as well as form friendships with peers.” Rev. Fox asks those with skills in youth programming to please contact her at psg@circlesanctuary.org

Yet these festivals aren’t the same as a summer camp just for children. The children camp and take meals with their parents, not with their peers. The environment is friendly towards them, but wasn’t created just for them.

Another option isn’t a camp experience at all, but an alternative to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts called SpiralScouts. SpiralScouts was created in 1999 by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and is coed and nondiscriminatory. SpiralScouts was created to be specifically Pagan, but can be adapted to work with most any faith. Like other scouting groups, it focuses on woodland lore, camping, and outdoor living skills, but also includes the mythos of the ancient world. As of now, SpiralScouts does not host a summer camp and it can be difficult to find a local group.

Challenges in creating summer camps
If there are Pagan parents who want the traditional summer camp experience for their children, why aren’t there any Pagan kids camps available? There are many challenges that a group or organizer would face in setting up a summer camp.

The first is simply numbers. Although the American Religious Identification Study in 2008 reports that there are more Pagans and Wiccans in the USA than Hindus, [582,000 Hindu vs 682,000 Pagan and Wiccans - ARIS 2008 data], Hindus are more homogeneous than Pagans. Paganism isn’t one faith with denominations; it is many different religions with little in common with one another. The largest religion under Paganism, Wicca, is mostly either coven based or solitary, but it isn’t family based – although that may be changing. While Paganism may have the numbers on paper to host summer camps, in reality the number of Pagans practicing one specific religion is still very small. Yet it’s not impossible. There are an estimated 135 Hindu summer camps. That’s one camp for every 4311 Hindu-Americans.

Another challenge is the cost:  the cost to buy or renting land with the facilities for a summer camp; the high cost of insurance for taking care of minors without their parents on site; the cost of employees and volunteers to staff the camp and the cost to parents.

While parents may say they want a summer camp for their children, do they value the idea enough to pay for it? There’s a common misconception that Pagans are economically lower than the general population. Yet data from Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States shows Pagans are slightly higher than the general population in both education and income. The average cost of a summer camp stay is anywhere from $400 to $2000 per week, depending on whether it is a day camp or an overnight camp. In addition, parents need to transport children to and from the camp and pay for supplies. While other religious and ethnic minorities do find the summer camp experience of value enough to support, it’s unclear if the Pagan communities feel the same.

The last challenge is more nebulous – trust. Pagans generally are less trusting of organizations and less inclined to follow traditional organizational processes. While there are benefits of this, the downside can be poor business practices coupled with lack of support from the community, which is a reinforcing cycle. Recent and past sexual abuse within Pagan groups and gatherings, although similar to what other groups of any type face, may also cause some parents to be more cautious in sending their children away to camp.

Do the benefits outweigh the challenges? That’s a question which can only be answered by potential organizers and parents.

“Our children have met other Pagan children, but normally have to hold their faith close to their vest for fear of social exclusion or not being able to answer questions,” says Ms. Sears. “Having a Pagan camp for kids would be an amazing way for our kids [to] freely celebrate their love and faith in the Gods.”

Send to Kindle

This year, the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) held its annual business meeting, Grand Council, in the southern city of Atlanta, Georgia. The meeting was sponsored by Dogwood Local Council (DLC), the Atlanta-based chapter for the national organization. The two-day meeting is the center-piece of a full four-day conference event called MerryMeet.

green-faiths-3atrans

Before I continue, I must divulge my affiliation with the organization and event. I have been a CoG member for years, and I am currently serving as its National Public Information Officer (NPIO) – a position that I will hold until Samhain 2014. Often when I speak publicly about CoG, it is in an official capacity as NPIO. What I share below is my own personal reflections. Additionally, I happened to also be one the event planners.

This year, the bulk of the MerryMeet conference was held at the Crowne Plaza Ravinia, selected partly for its exceptional green space. The 2014 theme was “Standing on Common Ground,” which reflects both the organization’s attention to interfaith or intrafaith work, as well as its spiritual and practical focus on the Earth – our literal “Common Ground.”

The four day conference opened, as it typically does, with a daylong leadership institute. This year’s topic was the expanding interfaith movement. Over 40 attendees met at the beautiful Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC) in Roswell to participate in discussions led by leaders in interfaith work.

Interfaith Panel at MerryMeet 2014 [Photo Credit: HGreene]

Interfaith Panel at MerryMeet 2014 [Photo Credit: HGreene]

The morning Pagan-only panel consisted of CoG inferfaith representatives Don Frew, Rachael Watcher, M. Macha Nightmare (Aline O’Brien) as well as special guest Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary. In the afternoon, they were joined by Garth Young (Buddhist), Cliff Trammel (Jewish), Carl McCollum (Catholic), Syndey Linquist (New Thought Christian), and Iraj khodadoost (Baha’i).

Both panel discussions began with introductions, relevant stories and questions on general interfaith work. However, the conversations slowly gravitated to the intersection of the interfaith and environmental movements. What role does or should faith play in protecting our ecosystem and how can the interfaith movement support that role? *

Several of the panelists lamented that their interfaith work is frequently kept separate from their environmental concerns. However, Frew relayed a story on how the 1990s global focus on the environment led to a greater interest or support for Nature-centered religions within the international interfaith world. Unfortunately, that interest waned after 9/11. However, Frew added that now the attention appears to be shifting back once again.

In the afternoon, Garth Young, a Buddhist, brought the discussion down to a personal level and said, “Caring for myself is caring for the Earth. Caring for the Earth is caring for myself.” In the end, the panelists all agreed that Earth care is and should be at the forefront of the interfaith movement because, as the theme states, the Earth is our common ground.

Heron  Pond at Chattahoochee Nature Center [Photo by: AmberMoon]

Heron Pond at Chattahoochee Nature Center [Photo by: AmberMoon]

Outside of Earth stewardship, the panel spent a longtime discussing the obstacles of interfaith work. What are the walls that prevent “bridge building” toward interfaith understanding? Cliff Trammel, representing Judaism, noted that his biggest obstacle is fear. “Will I be accepted or represent my faith well?” He added that, in letting go of expectations and personal anxiety, he is able to bring down those walls and listen to others. All the speakers agreed and shared their own experiences with confronting personal fear.

Before and after the panel discussions, attendees had the opportunity to go out into nature and explore the literal “common ground.” For those guests that didn’t want to brave the 90 degree temperatures, the CNC treated them to an animal encounter. The wildlife rehabilitation manager brought a Merlin falcon into the meeting room and answered questions about raptors and other native species of Georgia.

The very next morning, Grand Council began. Working by consensus, CoG representatives from around the country convened to discuss all manners of business from internal organization, external works, policies and the voting of next year’s officers.

CoG National Board 2014-2015.  Front Row: Stachia Ravensdottir, Lady Emrys. Back Row: Zenah Smith, Jack Prewett, XXXX, Kathy Lezon, Lady Annabelle, Cat Perron, Lady Mehurt.

CoG National Board 2014-2015. Front Row: Stachia Ravensdottir, Lady Emrys. Back Row: Zenah Smith, Jack Prewett, Gordon Stone, Kathy Lezon, Lady Annabelle, Cat Perron, Lady Mehurt.

This year’s meeting resulted in two landmark decisions. First, CoG adopted an official environmental policy statement. Spearheaded by CoG interfaith representative M. Macha NightMare (Aline O’Brien), the statement was the result of a year’s worth of collaborative work. She says, “It gives me a great sense of accomplishment that we, the Witches of the Covenant of the Goddess, have crafted a statement about our beloved Mother Earth that reflects our shared values and expresses our mutual concern for our planet, as well as our responsibilities for its current state and our hope for the future.”

Second, CoG approved the creation of an internal Abuse Advisory Committee to “advise, educate, and support the Covenant on issues of physical and sexual violence.” The committee will be made up of CoG members who are professionally trained in this field and those who “remain current on information pertinent to the issue.”

The CoG Abuse Advisory Committee was proposed and presented by Lady Aradia and Lady Emrys, two licensed social workers from Pennsylvania. Lady Aradia, also psychotherapist, said:

Sexual offenses and family violence happen in every community including the Wiccan and larger Pagan community. Although we pride ourselves in not being a religion with a large institution, this places us at a disadvantage when issues of abuse arise.

During the two-day meeting, Lady Aradia also presented a well-attended workshop called “Boundaries,” and another member presented a workshop on “Mandatory Reporting.” Aradia says:

By COG agreeing that a committee be formed to address and help the community navigate this issue, they/we take an active stance in both reducing these offenses but also providing safe ways for everyone to engage in their religions communities … We know we may not have all the answers but it’s a beginning, a way to keep talking about the issue from an educated and knowledgeable perspective.

In addition to these two landmark decisions, CoG held three important ceremonies honoring various Pagans for service and dedication. Just after the meeting opened, National First Officer Kathy Lezon called for a moment of silence to honor those members and others who had passed over the year. Names were read aloud.

After lunch Friday, CoG was joined by Circle Sanctuary for the first-ever joint presentation to honor Pagan military servicemen and women. Lezon presented CoG’s Military Service Award Medal while Rev. Selena Fox and Rev. Dawnwalker presented Circle’s Pagan Military Service Ribbon. Jack Prewett, a Vietnam Veteran and former Sergeant United States Air Force, said:

As a Vietnam veteran, I didn’t get much of a homecoming. So I felt both honored and humbled to be recognized by both Circle Sanctuary and Covenant of the Goddess for my service to my country. To have both these organizations recognize servicemen both past and present is truly a gift from the Gods and I know from personal experience how much it means those that do and have served.

In the third and final ceremony, CoG presented its newly-established Award of Honor for outstanding service to community. The membership had only just approved the new award Friday morning. Spearheaded by Ardantane director and longtime CoG member, Amber K, the CoG Award of Honor recognizes people for “outstanding service to the greater Pagan and Heathen communities in areas such as religious rights, international peace, environmental protection, interfaith leadership and education, the creation of lasting institutions, and the promotion of social justice and civil rights.”

CoG Award of Honor Presentation

CoG Award of Honor Presentation

After its approval, the membership awarded the honor to eight people including, Margot Adler, Alison Harlow, Sparky T Rabbit, Deborah Ann Light, Kathryn Fuller, Don Frew, Selena Fox and Judy Harrow. After receiving the award, Rev. Fox said, “I was deeply moved to be among the 8 selected by Covenant of the Goddess at this year’s Grand Council to receive the newly created Service Award.  It means a lot to receive recognition and appreciation by peers.” Also present at the ceremony was member Kathryn Fuller. She said, “I was taken aback by the nomination, and both honored by the award and humbled to be in the company of such giants in the Pagan community.”

Outside of the landmark decisions and moving ceremonies, there was an overwhelming sense of presence at the meeting. During those four days the membership looked back at those who had passed or had contributed to our cultural progress.Their efforts were exemplified strongly in the group’s ability to safely meet in a openly accessible hotel deep within the conservative Southeast. Because of those people and that work, “we are here now.”

Covenant of the GoddessAt the same time, the membership looked toward its future – one that looms ahead driving all of us to continue. “Here we are. But what next?” In considering this unknowable future, the delegates discussed the results of the CoG Vision Survey and how to apply its data to the organization’s direction going forward. How can we affect positive, lasting change in a fluid, evolving world filled with so many unknowns? This discussion will continue as delegates return home and digest their MerryMeet 2014 experience.

Next year, CoG’s Merry Meet and Grand Council will be hosted by Touchstone Local Council and held in Ontario, California, Aug 13-16. The organization will be celebrating its 40th anniversary.

 

*Dogwood Local Council has made the MerryMeet Leadership Institute Prayer Book to the Earth available for download.  The book contains prayers, chants, songs and other writings dedicated to the Earth.

Send to Kindle

Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So let’s get started!

10585339_10152348396531365_1555763864_nYesterday was the funeral for slain teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Throughout the country, vigils were held in solidarity with Brown’s family. Among them was #HandsUpDC in Washington DC. Quote: Join us for a candlelight vigil as Michael Brown’s family lays him to peaceful rest. We’d like to stand in solidarity with #Ferguson and demand the de-escalation of the police and military.” A group of local Pagans took part in the event, carrying signs that said “Justice for the beloved dead.” Pagan author and activist David Salisbury, who lives and works in Washington DC, also organized an informal ritual at the vigil which “will invoke the justice goddesses: Libertas, Justica, Columbia, and Themis.” For more on Pagan responses to Ferguson, please see Crystal Blanton’s Wild Hunt post from this past Sunday

10634262_10152348396461365_1754006794_n

ice-bucket-challenge-fb-user-profile-1There’s been a huge viral outpouring of support on the Internet for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which participants in the challenge are doused with ice water to help raise money and awareness for those living with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. At this point in the campaign an immense assortment of prominent individuals (including an assortment of non-human individuals) have participated, so it stands to reason that there have been Pagan who’ve accepted the challenge as well. Notable Pagans who’ve taken part include author and Pagan Unity Festival co-founder Tish Owen, Pagan children’s book author Kyrja Withers, Llewellyn Worldwide authors Deborah Blake and Melanie Marquis, and ADF Archdruid Rev. Kirk Thomas. Those are just the ones I could easily produce links for, I know there are more out there, so feel free to share them in the comments. As for myself, I prefer Patrick Stewart’s utterly sensible response. I’ve embedded the video featuring Archdruid Kirk Thomas below.

Covenant of the GoddessThis past weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, the Covenant of the Goddess (COG) one of the largest Witchcraft and Wiccan organizations in the United States, held their annual business meeting, known as the Grand Council. Our own Heather Greene will have more about the Grand Council and the accompanying public event Merry Meet on Wednesday, but I can report on one piece of news today: the organization has adopted a formal policy on environmental issues. Quote: “The CoG environmental statement was originally proposed and developed by longtime member and national CoG interfaith representative M. Macha NightMare (Aline O’Brien.) She said, ‘It gives me a great sense of accomplishment that we, the Witches of the Covenant of the Goddess, have crafted a statement about our beloved Mother Earth that reflects our shared values and expresses our mutual concern for our planet, as well as our responsibilities for its current state and our hope for the future. Having this official statement on behalf of the entire membership will be immensely helpful to those of us who work in interfaith arenas. I am proud to have it to share.’” You can read the entire policy statement, which includes a section on climate change, here.

In Other Pagan Community News:

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Send to Kindle

There have been, generally speaking, two primary reasons why fortune telling and other divinatory services are banned in a town or city. The first reason is to address concerns about fraud, about individuals running cons to bilk the gullible out of their money. The second reason is about religion, specifically in America, the Christian prohibition against (some forms of) divination. Often these two threads will conjoin, sometimes inflamed by prejudices against minorities who have engaged in divination to make money (the Roma, for example). In our modern era, these laws have been increasingly challenged by those who believe it limits free speech, or the free exercise of religious beliefs.

shutterstock 1114023

Tarot cards.

Because many Pagans, Polytheists, occultists, practitioners of Afro-Caribean or indigenous faiths, and other fellow travelers, study, use, and sometimes sell divinatory arts, this site has taken a keen interest in how challenges to these ordinances (not to mention the creation of new ordinances)  might affect our own lives. The current trend has been towards regulating fortune-telling shops to “red light” districts, along with the strip clubs and pawn shops, since the courts have been largely favoring divination as a form of protected speech, making total bans hard to defend. Back in 2010 I interviewed Rachel Pollack, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the modern interpretation of the Tarot, who categorically rejected the need for regulating divination.

rachel_pollack“I do not see any need for such regulation. If people are using the guise of divination to defraud or steal from people I would think current laws cover that. It’s not divination that is a problem it’s con artists. If con artists pretend to be doctors in order to trick people out of large sums of money, should we be fingerprinting doctors? Con artists who pretend to be diviners are just the same.”

Pollack’s view isn’t shared by everyone who offers professional divination services, but I think her stance gets to the heart of something regarding the regulation of divination. That while fraud can be carried out in a myriad of ways, there’s a focus on tarot cards, crystal balls, and psychic services that seems to expose a cultural bias, despite the occasional high-profile fraud trial. This cultural bias was center stage recently in the town of Front Royal, Virginia, where the local town council have been moving forward to remove an old law against fortune telling.

banner_final

“For decades, the town of Front Royal has had a code listed among its ordinances that bans  fortunetelling and the practice of magic arts. Understandably, the ban’s legality and use of offensive terms like “gypsies” has come under fire. More than 50 supporters and opponents showed up at a hearing last week to voice their concerns, after a local tarot card reader was allegedly asked to stop practicing her craft because it violates city code. The town council voted to remove the section of the code that prohibits fortunetelling and the use of offensive terms, but a second reading of the motion will be heard at their next meeting.”

However, opposition to removing the fortune telling ordinance took an ugly turn at a recent Town Council meeting, exposing a toxic nexus of both homophobia and fear of the religious other.

“Foes of repealing a ban on fortunetellers in Front Royal recently attacked a nonprofit group and claimed it supported pagans. The executive director of the Center for Workforce Development ended her silence this week by responding to the accusations, including one claiming the organization recruits youths into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community through witchcraft. Arlene Ballou called the actions by a few people who recently spoke at a Town Council meeting in favor of keeping the ban on fortunetellers “disgraceful” and accused them and others of spreading misinformation about her organization. Ballou said she hopes to get a chance to speak to Town Council soon about the issue.”

The issue began when a Pagan, Maya White Sparks of The Spiral Grove, was asked to stop giving readings at a local shop due to complaints. In the aftermath of that incident, White then discovered there was an old anti-fortune telling ordinance on the books and started working to get it repealed.

Priestess Maya White Sparks [Photo Credit: M.W. Sparks]“This law had no influence or bearing on the Marketplace incident. However she decided to use the code, or the removal of the code, as a rallying point to begin the conversation. She wants this effort ‘to be a catalyst that gets [the local community] talking about religious discrimination.’ When she informed friends about her discovery and mission, Maya received immediate support both in person and on Social Media. She says ‘Within seconds of posting on Facebook I had a tremendous’ response from people across the country.”

That initiative, which was initially thought to be a quick and simple matter, soon became increasingly complex as it brought out a strong current of hostility towards the local Pagans who spoke out on the issue, with the predominantly Catholic opponents of the repeal heckling them at Town Council (it should be noted that Front Royal has a thriving Pagan community, and supports a metaphysical store).

“Addressing council as the last of 18 public hearing speakers, ordained Pagan Reverend Kelyla Spicer found herself being shouted down after giving her Middletown home address. Before she could continue someone in the crowd rose and yelled ‘Is this necessary?!?’ challenging Spicer’s right to speak […] Spicer disputed allegations by some that allowing [P]agan practitioners to operate legally in Front Royal would lead to general social descent into criminality and otherwise ‘un-Godly’ behavior, including the recruitment of children into a life of homosexuality.”

It was quite clear that opposition to repeal was seen through a starkly religious lens, with local Christian groups holding prayer sessions outside the government center, and anti-Pagan rhetoric being spewed inside by self-proclaimed Christians. 

“Do you want it to be your legacy that you are the ones who opened the door in this community to make Front Royal a haven for witchcraft, fortunetelling and other pagan practices? [...] I guarantee you that no American family, religious or not, will want to raise their children next to a shop that sells fortunetelling, tarot cards, witchcraft and so forth.”

At the most recent council meeting the councilors seemed to be moving towards regulation and licensing, rather than just removing ordinance and being done with it. Legal council for the town referenced a recent 4th Circuit Court ruling that was covered here at The Wild Hunt, which says that local governments do have the right to regulate divination services in a reasonable manner. That said, officials of Front Royal should be careful, because that ruling also leaves a door open for divination performed within the scope of a religious service.

Cognizant that defining the borders between the personal and philosophical on one side, and the religious on the other “present[s] a most delicate question,” id. at 215, we conclude that Moore-King’s beliefs more closely resemble personal and philosophical choices consistent with a way of life, not deep religious convictions shared by an organized group deserving of constitutional solicitude. Yoder teaches that Moore-King must offer some organizing principle or authority other than herself that prescribes her religious convictions, as to allow otherwise would threaten “the very concept of ordered liberty.” Yet Moore-King forswears such a view when she declares that instead of following any particular religion or organized recognized faith, she “pretty much goes with [her] inner flow, and that seems to work best.”

For the foreseeable future (no pun intended), barring intervention from the Supreme Court in the United States, we’re most likely going to continue on the course we’ve been on. A mixture of unenforceable bans, a web of different (and sometimes arbitrary) regulations depending on where you live, and an undercurrent of fear of beliefs and practices considered outside of a certain norm. The ban of fortune telling in Front Royal will be removed, and no doubt some licensing procedure enacted, as it has been in other towns, but what’s important here is what we’ve learned about why some of these laws persist. That in places like Front Royal it isn’t about fraud, or con-artists, it’s about control. Control not only over what kind of businesses can exist, but control over what kind of belief systems can exist.

Be sure to check out the previous installments in our coverage of this repeal effort:

Send to Kindle

National Guard Called In As Unrest Continues In Ferguson

Courtesy of Scott Olson

The small town of Ferguson, Missouri has become a household name over the last week. Following the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by local police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, the city went into a state of turmoil as local residents responded to the shooting and police responded to the community. The protests of community members sparked a response from local police that displayed a clear picture of the militarization of law enforcement in this country by turning the streets of an average American community into what looks like a war zone.

City Data reports that Ferguson had a population of 21,135 in 2012, and approximately 65% of the residents are Black. This urban area has a documented history of disproportionate arrests and police involvement with people of color from a predominantly Caucasian police force. This pattern contributed to the tension that has fueled the community response to the killing of Michael Brown.

Courtesy of Scott Olson

Courtesy of Scott Olson

While speculation of police corruption and the media’s depiction of the victim have raised some concerns, two issues stand out in discussions about Ferguson: the unjust killing of an unarmed 18 year old Black man and the militarized response of law enforcement towards community members who peacefully protested in response. Tear gas, arrests, military weapons, and tanks on the streets pushed the situation into a full-scale state of emergency and national news material. While some looting activity took place with a small group of people, the mostly peaceful protests were disrupted by police action.

From the killing of Michael Brown to the full-scale response of the local police department, there are more questions than answers coming out of Ferguson. The local authorities’ tactics in withholding the name of the officer involved in the shooting added a lot of fuel to the situation. The local police also released information about an alleged robbery involving Michael Brown at a local store prior to his death, although the police department now admits that officer Wilson was not aware of this incident at the time of the shooting. The continuously changing information, and a recently released private autopsy stating that Brown was shot six times – two in the head – has led to a lot of speculation and national outrage. The media coverage of what is happening in Ferguson has been massive. Footage, articles, and video commentary on social media appear everywhere, adding to the angst felt by many people who are watching this tragedy unfold. CNN and MSNBC are not the only outlets talking about the images on the screen, some which are reminiscent of civil rights demonstrations of the 1960’s. Pagans are talking too.

Author T. Thorn Coyle’s latest piece, Yearning to Be Free, addresses the militarization of police across the United States and the impact that it has on the way human beings are viewed by those in power.

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

“And then we (some of us) wonder why a young man or woman seeking help are killed instead of given comfort, medical attention, or access to a phone.

We (some of us) wonder why, yet another young man who was just walking to his grandmother’s house ends up lying dead on the street for four hours. When people are mourning, being taunted by police, and the armored cars, snipers and SWAT teams roll in…we then (some of us) wonder why some windows are broken and some stores are set on fire.

And then we (some of us) wonder why – after our government has toppled small government after small government, instituted a war on drugs that has destabilized whole communities at home, locked up unprecedented numbers, and given greater power to those who make the drugs – the children are massing at our borders.”

T. Thorn Coyle was not the only Pagan to write about this unfolding set of issues in Ferguson. The past week has seemed to bring about more upset, confusion, and anger from people of all types, who found their way to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and a multitude of blogs to express their thoughts.

Courtney Weber, author and Wiccan priestess, posted a status on her Facebook page describing her feelings around spiritual workings for justice, and the complexity of the situation in Ferguson.

Courtney Weber

Courtney Weber

“ I will not be lighting candles for peace in Ferguson. Peace is what comes when a problem is resolved. Peace does not mean sitting down and being nice. I will be lighting candles to Lady Justice. I can’t go to Ferguson myself and stand with those who lost, but I can call on the Goddess who sees that order and fairness be restored. I heard this morning of a direct manifestation of unjust actions punished in accordance with how they were dealt. I look forward to seeing this unfold in Ferguson. I look forward to seeing this be the first step in rectifying the severe injustices that are seizing our country and killing off our children. I look forward to seeing that those whose businesses were damaged are appropriately compensated and hope that is soon. But I will not light candles for peace as peace is only the reward of rectifying wrong and we have a lot to do before that can be enjoyed. For those who have asked me if I “support the riots,” if that means, saying, “Go, Rioters! Go!” then no, I am not in support of rioting. But if support means not condemning, then perhaps I could be labeled a supporter. My feeling is less “Rioting is Right!” and more “What did we expect?” This riot is not a reaction to one young man’s death.”

In an attempt to explore this further with other Pagans, I asked several people what their impressions were on the current situation and why they felt this was important to Pagans, as well as to everyone else.

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

“I think the situation in Ferguson has forced society to see the ugly truths in the mirror it has long worked to ignore. Michael Brown is far from the first young black man to be murdered by police officers but their response has forced his tragic demise into the public eye in a way that should have happened a long time ago. The combination of the increasingly convoluted, deceptive, and unsubstantiated police efforts to justify Officer Darren Wilson’s actions and the level of force used being comparable to occupying armies smashing an uprising showed how systemic these problems are. It isn’t just that a white police officer killed an innocent black man and tried to cover it up; the entire department moved swiftly to smash innocent people because they dared to protest the actions of those whose duty is allegedly “to protect and serve”.

As a Heathen such injustice should not be allowed to stand.  Our lore teaches us to assess based on the merits of another’s words and deeds. The actions of the police are grossly unworthy. The underlying causes spit in the face of honorable conduct, rooted in fear and self-deception.  There are some who have said this is not an issue Heathens should be speaking up on, even in an anti-racist context, as it is not happening in our community. That argument misses the point.  We are part of the world around us and what happens in society impacts us in countless ways. As it says in Havamal 127, “when you come upon misdeeds speak out against them and give your enemies no peace.”  I don’t see anything in there saying that is limited to only those who are closest to us. – Ryan Smith – HUAR Web Admin.

Okay Toya

Okay Toya

“Most definitely what is happening in Ferguson is an important issue. Mike Brown was assassinated for simply being black. The punishment for alleged ‘shoplifting’ is not death by firing squad. It is showing the underbelly of true ugliness. This is what happens when we don’t have an honest and open discussion about White Supremacy and attempt to sweep it all under a carpet in this country. All Black/Brown and Trans/CIS men and women have to deal with this fall out, for trying to survive in a society that doesn’t view us as human beings.

Most of us were not even born when the 60′s civil rights movement was happening. We didn’t have social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Vine to keep us up to date on the latest. The framing on how the MSM portrays this narrative is troubling. Focusing on the violence that ‘supposedly’ happen and not focusing on why we are out there in the first place. A young man was assassinated by Officer Darren Wilson. All the lies, the cover up to protect one of their own. With blatant disregard for this young man’s life.

It is personally important to me being a Black Female living in a country where I am demonized, dehumanize and criminalize all based on my skin color. I want the conversation to happen. I want us to be able to dismantle the “Altar” of White Supremacy once and for all. I am so tired of the Respectability Politics. I want the Old Guard Elder Black community to listen to us, just like they wanted the Old Guard Elder Black community to listen to them during the 60′s. My pagan side of me is split between burn it down, burn it all down and we need to do this constructively with well thought out plans and process. But too many rapid succession of deaths have happen that should not have happen in the past few weeks and my anger level is extremely high.

Linking arms and Chanting We Shall overcome someday hasn’t gotten us very far, if we are still trying to get the world to view us a simple human beings.” – Okay Toya, Priestess and Author

Meredith Bell

Meredith Bell

“I believe it’s very important. I grew up in Florissant, right next door to Ferguson. The schools that have been closed are the ones I went to as a child. I am not surprised to see the obstruction of justice happening at the police and government level. I am surprised at the amount of force that has been allowed on the part of the authorities. It’s very frightening. As a pagan, I believe that we are one human family, and that we all suffer when any of us suffer. But, as a white person originally from North County St. Louis, I also believe that I have suffered differently than my black neighbors. That I can’t know the same fears and rages that they know. As a priestess, I believe it is my job to bear witness to that rage and fear and try to find systemic ways to shift the causes. In addition to retweeting, reposting, spreading the word of the violence that has happened after sunset night after night, I believe we must engage in changing the tone of racist policing and politics in Missouri and throughout the country. Too many have been killed because there is no accountability for killing black men. Too many have been hurt because police have weapons far beyond what is necessary. I believe in the transformative power of spell work and prayer, but I also think real change comes after the extent of the problem is known.” – Meredith Bell, CAYA coven

Connie Jones-Steward

Connie Jones-Steward

“Yes, it’s important. It’s important to show that we still live in a country where racism is not only alive and well, but that it often has deadly consequences. It’s important because the reactions to Michael Brown’s murder and the following unrest brings to the forefront the attitudes and treatment towards young Black males’ not just by the police but by people in general. I have learned a lot about some people based on their reactions. It’s important because it shows Black people what happens when you become complacent towards politics. Maybe after this the people of Ferguson and Black communities around the country will realize the importance in voting and exercising political power when it comes to creating changes and shifts in power. As a Black woman with young Black males in my family this whole situation touches me deeply; however it has no bearing on my beliefs or faith as a Pagan.” – Connie Jones-Steward, Multi-traditional Priestess

Erick DuPree

Erick DuPree

“Six bullets and no accountability is my impression. It’s crucial we not forget that because here we have another case of an unarmed young black man shot by a white police officer, not too dissimilar to Oscar Grant (allegedly committing a crime that witnesses don’t support actually occurred.)

The situation was destined to happen and reaction in some ways needed to happen, but it has become like a pressure cooker. This is because law enforcement has decided that instead of allowing space for the emotion, the pain, the anger, and the call for justice; they instead want to cover it up, in affect putting a lid on what needs to be addressed, which is accountability. Yet there are still six bullets and an officer uncharged. So, what could have been some civil disobedience has turned into a shit show.

What I find most disconcerting is the amount of media about everything but the six bullets that killed an unarmed black man. Specifically the amount of attention to arrested white journalists and white civilians. This issue isn’t about them. It’s about murdering an innocent black man, and that being “ok” in our society. Somewhere in this media frenzy of militarized officers and ‘victimized civilians” the focus has shifted to creating a motive for six bullets and criminalizing an innocent black man. Six bullets and not justice, that is my impression and it is precisely those six bullets that makes this not just important but paramount.” – Erick Dupree, Author

Barry Perlman

Barry Perlman

“The situation in Ferguson, MO, is but one more example illustrating the systemic injustices in how our society enforces the law. In this country, people of color are likelier to be treated poorly at all points of the law-enforcement cycle… from being profiled or stopped without fair cause, to their rougher treatment as suspects during arrest, throughout the entire trial process and into their harsher incarceration penalties, all while facing an increased chance of being harmed or killed at every step.  Ferguson is so important because it draws more widespread attention, beyond just communities predominantly of color, to the way structural racism intrudes upon our collective capacity to apply the law fairly in all cases.  The specifics of how the Ferguson situation has been handled in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting is also important because it forefronts the frightening trend of police militarization, a threat to everyone’s freedoms regardless of race. Thankfully, in this age of social media, we’re able to quickly and widely disseminate images and videos which document this trend, so it’s no longer just a battle of unsubstantiated claims.

Ferguson is important to me personally because I strive to be an ally to those who, due to the quirks of birthright in an unjust society, have not received the same benefits I’ve been afforded. As a spiritually aware person, I feel it’s my duty to speak up whenever I see the effects of racism, with the intent of doing my best to help alleviate the suffering it causes, one interaction at a time.  We all suffer from the effects of racial injustice. If I sit back and do nothing, I’m tacitly signing on as an advocate of the system which promotes it… and my conscience won’t allow that.” – Barry Perlman, Co-Owner of the Sacred Well, astrologer.

After a plethora of resources, blogs, posts and news articles about this incident, I found that the Pagan response is very similar to the response of individuals around the United States. They are all attempting to understand what they are watching on the television. Pictures depicting what looks like war are actually images of a small town in Missouri. Those pictures are shattering perceptions of existing justice and peace, and reminding the world of the complexity of equity.

Once again Pagans are asking themselves some complex questions, finding a balance in the challenges of living in the environment around us. How do we feel that peace and spirituality coincide? Is there a time that justice gets messy and what does that mean to us as a community? What are the correlations between Ferguson and our own struggle to be open to diversity, differences, and equity?

Courtesy of Scott Olson

Courtesy of Scott Olson

I have found that through all of my personal processing of the events of the past two weeks, I have also been asking myself the same questions and evaluating my sense of justice with dual citizenship in the Black community and the Pagan community. The death of Michael Brown, and the unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri open old and painful wounds for many in this country. I have also witnessed what appears to be a lack of empathy and understanding for the damage of systemic problems and militarization of law enforcement that plague marginalized communities, and dialog in threads, on the news, and in articles that are dismissive of the multi-layered problems that Ferguson is reflective of. Ferguson is one snapshot of an age-old problem within historically oppressed populations, and the flooding responses to this situation sometimes forget that piece of complexity. I have watched threads dissolve into overtly racist dialog that is very harmful, not just for people of color but also for a community in mourning, and a nation in the process of trying to understand the actuality of racial equity.

I think Erick Dupree’s answer to my question of why he feels that what is happening in Ferguson is important to him personally and, as a Pagan, is the most fitting closure for this piece. The complexity of his answer mirrors the myriad of things I am seeing online, hearing in conversation, and feeling internally.

“I really am struggling with this because I want to believe that love is still the law. I want to believe that humankind is better than this savagery that is power, oppression, privilege, and racism. I want to believe that love is stronger than fear, but I can’t help but know that every mother of a brown child lives in fear that her child will be the next Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown. In times like this I ask how do we as Pagans lead and be vessels for change? How do we become the Goddess’ conduit?

What I do is work magic in private and within small community to bring swift justice and healing. But that magic is more than lighting a candle, it is bringing the circle to the situation through social justice initiatives. Where I live, it was attending a vigil and protest in NYC, standing beside my religious community and social peers and using my voice. By speaking out about those six bullets, and reminding the world that an unarmed black man teenager is dead and that there is need for accountability I hope to manifest change. That may sound flippant, but if the Pagan voice and our actions can add one drop of Love back into the bucket of humanities egregious injustices, then love is still remains the law and change happens.”

 

Send to Kindle

Today there are engineered foods designed to not trigger leptin, the hormone that tells us we are full, so we eat the whole bag. Planned obsolescence has us throwing away rather than repairing appliances and other consumer goods, so they go to landfills and scrap yards. Advertising is intended to cause desire and dissatisfaction, so we buy things we don’t need and don’t even want.

We are told that economic growth is the way for all of us to financially succeed. Yet the growth since the 2008 crisis has been entirely to the benefit of the ownership class; this tide floats only the yachts. The exemplars of things that grow uncontrollably are cancer and algae blooms. The first kills its body; the second drowns itself in its waste. How can we believe in an economic doctrine that contradicts how we know Nature works?

The Pagan way of walking lightly on the earth is a value, even if often only an aspiration. It is a way of expressing the experienced sanctity of this world in which we live; a way of positively valuing the natural and the sustainable. It is rooted in our experience of ourselves in integration with the world, especially the natural world around us. This spirituality (spiritual knowing) leads to ethical decisions and policies regarding our patterns of consumption, intended to reduce their negative effects.

The alternative to this are the zombies. The current form of this trope is the deceased, and the newly so, become mindless consumers…of consumers: us. In this image, ‘we’ are the prey-food. But we also represent all consumer goods, and the zombies are the ultimate consumers. They have no limits to their consumption, nor any apparent goal, save to consume, and perhaps to make more consumers; that is zombies.

Zombies from "Night of the Living Dead" (Public Domain)

Zombies from “Night of the Living Dead” (Public Domain)

Zombies are also lacking one other critical component: interiority. They are mindless and unfeeling, relentless and untiring. There is “no one home” in the mass-consumer zombie. From this comes the zombie hunter’s ethic: zombies can be killed without qualm. Humans have long had classes of beings that can be thoughtlessly killed: slaves, infidels, foreigners, never mind the animals, even plants, ecologies and so many more. Their otherness makes them easy to slay. The zombies are aggressive, which makes it ethically easier.

Where does this lack of interiority in the zombie trope come from? There is a place in life where we meet humans that appear to have no interiority. They are silent until their stop comes. Then they all move without any apparent cognizance of each other. These are the people on the street, on the bus, the train, even in the other commuting cars on the road ways. Deep down inside, with the flickering of the subway lights, do the fellow riders look pale and bloodshot, ready to rise up and eat you? Consumers, consuming all in their path. It is the image of our society.

This image is a failure of spirituality. It is a failure of the lived experience of the interiority of the Other. Most folks can barely conceive of the feelings and thoughts of others; not naturally, of course. The dulling of their lives on the treadmill of indentured servitude servicing debt narrows the horizon of the ‘cared for’ to their families, if they are fortunate, or only to themselves. Arms stretched out to clutch at the desired, never to be satisfied, yet consuming all. What else is there to do?

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Pagans recognize that an animistic perspective is a profound contradiction to this horror show. While it takes many forms throughout the world, animism is fundamentally the intuition of interiority and subjectivity in all entities about us, whether humans, animals, plants singular or in collectives, ecologies, even machinery, buildings, natural features, nations and so forth.

For some at the beginning, this is the mere knowledge that the Other has interiority. But with development comes the taste and touch of other minds and presences. Over time these presences become relationships, friendships, even kinship. Many Pagans have this experience; mature Pagans live in it. Here the subway lights steady, warm to flesh from their pale florescence, and we perceive the inner lives, joys, suffering, and purpose in those who sit beside us. We feel with them and share in those subjective realities. We feel their fears of the zombie apocalypse, the revelation that everyone else is out to eat them. But, we catch an eye, share a smile that spreads and warms the entire car. We see the person, not the consumer.

Our society in its current, raging pathology does not support seeing our neighbors as ourselves. We are isolated in our competition for the few and the rare, even when the shop shelves are full. Even in the pews, they all sit in rows staring up at the man with the book, not seeing each other alongside themselves. The zombies are a pale, aggressive reflection of our consumer, consuming culture. Yet when the light shifts, the color to their faces return, their feelings within become visible. When they are animate, ensouled and living beings, we see them as none other than ourselves.

In the animistic view, we meet the domestic cat and dog, the wild bird and squirrel, the creek, the mountain, and the sea all as living entities, to talk with, cry with, to support and be supported by, just as we do with the rest of our two-legged neighbors.

Can we see in the zombies flesh-eating dissatisfaction, in their out-reaching arms the desire to connect with other? Is there anybody out there? Would they sit beside us ungrasping if they were fed and satisfied? If the food filled, if the goods were reparable, if the media did not dangle forlorn carrots of unobtainable delights to sell laundry detergent, would the zombies stop?

In the sixth century BCE the Buddha taught that in all experience is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and that the way to end this is to not grasp after the transitory. Our overculture makes insatiable zombies of us all, trapped in profound suffering, creators of suffering. Yet the nectar of subjectivity recognized in all, the profound insight of animism, cures the zombie plague. Then we meet our neighbors, human and not, and know we are not alone.

Send to Kindle

I still can’t believe you’re moving there. That neighborhood is dangerous.

At that point, I had already had this conversation way too many times, with way too many well-meaning friends who simply couldn’t see past their prejudice. It seemed that every cup of coffee over the past month came with a free intervention attempt. It was getting quite tiring, and my patience was wearing rather thin.

I took a deep breath, preparing myself to once again engage in the same line of arguments that I had gone through countless times over the past month.

“Actually, it’s not much more dangerous than this neighborhood, and when it comes to the kind of crimes that I’m most concerned about, its quite comparable to this place. According to the latest NYPD statistical breakdown, I have just about the same chance of being mugged in the heart of Park Slope than in the five-block radius of my new place in East Flatbush.”

I paused for a moment, knowing full well that the next thing I was about to say would not go over too well. “Your beliefs around safety are based on a flawed perception, not reality. This neighborhood is not any safer than the one I’m moving to. Its just much fancier and much whiter.”

She bristled. “What, now you’re suggesting that I’m racist? I just think you’re making a bad choice, that’s all.”

Choice, I thought to myself. As though this move was a matter of free choice rather than of economic displacement. And while my friend was not a conscious racist, I knew her opinion on this issue was based on prejudicial fear much more than she realized or would ever admit. It was the exact same reaction that I had gotten from all my white, middle-class friends over the past month.

She continued. “I know you need more space, and I know your place isn’t ideal, but I just don’t understand why you would move there.

There. She simply couldn’t hide the distaste in her voice. She didn’t understand. She had said so numerous times, and the depth of that lack of understanding was becoming quite evident. And such a lack of understanding definitely wasn’t limited to her. Apparently the entire neighborhood felt a need to warn me of the bad “choice” I was making, a neighborhood almost exclusively made up of white, liberal urban professionals where the average person made well over four times what I did in a year. The friends so concerned about my well being were all college-educated with jobs that paid well enough to be able to afford market rate rents in the Slope. They never quite figured out over the years that I had been expertly “passing” as one of them by virtue of my whiteness and my middle-class roots while in reality I had been barely scraping by from paycheck to paycheck.

I was tired of maintaining that illusion, and once my living situation took a turn for the worst it was clear to me that I needed to move on. Moving on meant I had no choice but to move out of the neighborhood. While my reasons were primarily economic, I also felt a strong need to get away from a community atmosphere that I had come to regard over time as an insular, privileged bubble. I may have passed for years as just another one of the Park Slope locals, but I had realized over time that their values were not synonymous with my own, and my recent interactions with well-meaning friends had driven that point home in a very painful way. I was more than ready to move on. In fact, I was greatly looking forward to it.

I. Displacement and Divine Intervention

It was the spring of 2004. For the past four years I had been living in a falling-down Victorian-era brownstone in the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn, the one shabby brownstone on a million-dollar block that had been renting for less than half of what the apartment was worth on the market due to its condition.

The “deal” had come with many downsides, tolerable at first but which worsened over the years: little to no working heat combined with drafty windows, broken appliances that were rarely repaired, and a landlady with schizophrenia who had recently taken to sneaking into our apartment on multiple occasions and snipping the phone wires in an attempt to quell the voices in her head. While the intermittent inconveniences such as no stove, no flushing toilet, and no heat were things that I had been willing to put up in exchange for a front-stoop view of Prospect Park, the unsettling invasions of my privacy was the straw that had finally broken the camel’s back.

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

Finding somewhere else to live proved to be much trickier than I had expected. Gentrification had already taken hold in previously affordable areas such as Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights, and the rents in those neighborhoods were far out of reach. I had very few criteria for a new apartment: I wanted to stay in Brooklyn, I needed to be within walking distance to a subway line within an hours commute into Manhattan, I needed a bodega within walking distance, and my preference was to feel safe when walking at night, though I was also quite aware of the relative nature of that last piece. I had been looking at places in surrounding neighborhoods for over a month, and I was starting to feel quite discouraged. I wasn’t sure where to look next and I was worried that my realistic options were few to none.

The brownstone next door to me in Park Slope was occupied by a husband-wife architectural duo that worked at home and employed two Haitian nannies, one for each of their children. One night, I had been driving home late after a day of unsuccessful apartment searching when I saw one of the nannies, walking in the opposite direction, south down McDonald Avenue. I assumed she had missed the last bus and was headed home on foot, and I pulled over and offered her a ride.

She refused at first, not wanting to be an imposition, and as we went back and forth through the open car window an overwhelming feeling came over me, one that was too sudden and intense to simply ignore. I felt very strongly that I needed to take her home, that I was supposed to, on a level the reverberated far beyond the motions of kind gestures and good deeds.

“Please, I insist. Driving past you was no coincidence. I’m supposed to take you home. Really. Please.”

I got the impression that she hadn’t quite understood everything I said, but something in the urgency of my voice caused her to relent. She opened the passenger door and climbed in. I asked her where she lived, and she told me to head “towards Flatbush, near the crossroads”.

“The crossroads? Do you mean Flatbush Junction?”

She nodded. “Yes, I’m sorry, I forget the name sometimes,” she said in steady, careful English.

“Nothing at all to be sorry about,” I answered. “I just wanted to make sure I’m driving to the right place.”

As we drove towards her destination, that feeling grew even stronger, a feeling that I had long ago come to associate with aspects of divine intervention. As we neared the junction, it occurred to me that in all the neighborhoods I had searched for apartments in, I hadn’t yet considered this one. I was vaguely familiar with the area, as I had applied to (but never attended) Brooklyn College a few years back. It was a working-class Caribbean neighborhood, and as I pulled up to the “crossroads” I remembered that it was at the end of a subway line, just about an hour’s distance from Manhattan.

She got out of the car, thanked me profusely, and walked eastward down Glenwood Avenue. I drove a block or so in the other direction, parked my car, and proceeded to walk the entire neighborhood for the next several hours, staying out all night long.

A block past the commercial strip that constituted Flatbush Junction, I discovered a quiet, modest, working-class neighborhood, with residential blocks that alternated between a mixture of Victorian and post-war homes and 50’s-era five and six-story apartment buildings. As I walked around, I became increasingly charmed and captivated by the energy and aesthetics of the neighborhood.

As the sun rose, I realized that not once had I felt unsafe at all while walking the streets at night. Heading back to my car shortly after sunrise, I encountered the first wave of morning residents, and noticed immediately that Kreyol, not English, was the dominant language in the air. I briefly felt as though I was in a foreign country, and there was a great appeal to that feeling. I stood at the corner of Flatbush Junction, and recognized it for the first time as the true crossroads that it was. There was some deep magic in that neighborhood, and the pull I felt was indescribable.

Flatbush Junction, looking north, Summer 2004.

Flatbush Junction, facing north, Summer 2004.

A day or two later, the very first ad that popped up on my morning apartment search was for the first floor of a house in East Flatbush, only a few blocks away from where I had dropped the nanny off. I called the number, and went to look at it the same afternoon. It was literally everything I had been looking for. The house was a beautiful old Victorian with a handsome front porch, a driveway, and a front and back yard. The price was right, it was near the subway, and it was bright and spacious. I knew immediately, this was the place. Best of all, the landlady seemed quite eager to rent to me.

“I just rented the second floor to a young Puerto Rican couple,” she told me as I walked through the house. “There’s a small studio up on the third floor, but I’m not trying to rent that out right now. All I ask is that you all split the yard work.”

We talked out some details, and a few days later the papers were signed. I started to pack, broke the news to my current friends and neighbors, and after a month’s worth of well-meaning folks trying to dissuade me from my decision, moving day could not come fast enough. I left Park Slope without much fanfare, relieved to be free of that environment and looking forward to a new experience.

II. White House, Black Street

I was an economic refugee of sorts, trying desperately to carve a little hole for myself in a quickly gentrifying city that seemed to have less and less space for folks like myself. Many of my new neighbors, on the other hand, were actual refugees. A significant portion of the neighborhood population consisted of Haitian immigrants who had fled the regime of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and settled in Brooklyn in the early-to-mid 1980s. The rest of the neighborhood was mainly composed of folks of Jamaican or Trinidadian descent, many who had been born in the Caribbean and had settled in the neighborhood a few years after the first wave of Haitians.

flatbushstreetcolor

My new landlady, Leslie, was a second-generation Jamaican-American. She had grown up in the neighborhood, had become the first in her family to graduate from college, did well for herself in the business world, and had bought the house as an investment property. This distinguished her from the other homeowners on the block, the vast majority who were all Haitian or Jamaican-born working-class folks who owned their homes and lived in them with their extended families. I could sense immediately upon moving in that the neighbors were not thrilled with her decision to rent the house out to “white folks”, and I also learned quickly that the neighbors considered my upstairs neighbors to be “white” as well, at least white enough to be regarded as outsiders in their eyes.

Within the first week of moving in, I was buying some fruit at one of the corner markets when a tall, college-aged Black man came right up to me and introduced himself.

“Hey there, I’m Karl,” he said. “You must be the girl who just moved into the White House.”

“The White House?” I asked, baffled. “It was mauve the last time I checked.”

He laughed. “That’s what my momma calls your house, as does most everyone else on the block. It’s got nothing to do with the color of the paint.”

My face must have revealed my sudden discomfort, as he immediately tried to put me at ease. “Don’t take it personally,” he said. “If it helps, they were calling it that even before you moved in. The moment that Miss Leslie bought that house, we all knew she was gonna try to rent it to white folks. She’s just trying to make money off that house. I get it, I don’t blame her, but many folks around here think she’s a sellout. They’re worried about gentrification, and the last thing they want to see is wealthy Blacks who don’t live here buying up properties to rent to white people with money.”

“But I don’t have money,” I countered. “That’s why I moved here in the first place.”

He laughed again. “What you actually have don’t matter much. It’s the perception. You ARE money, even if you don’t have money.”

I looked down, not sure how to respond. “Hey, look, I don’t care,” he said reassuringly. “I think your presence here makes it all a little more interesting, to be honest. But I thought you should know what’s what as far as the neighbors are concerned.”

I learned later that Karl was the son of one of the local preachers. He was the son of Haitian immigrants, born and raised in the neighborhood, and he was a student at Brooklyn College. He lived a few doors down, spoke both English and Kreyol fluently, and was the only person on the block who actively made a regular effort to be friendly toward me. From our very first conversation onward, I understood what his role was and would be: as a middleman and mediator between the “White House” and the surrounding neighbors. In the beginning, our exchanges began and ended at simple courtesies, but he soon became a trusted acquaintance, always willing to talk about anything. Karl was never afraid to ask hard questions, would always give honest answers, and had an uncanny way of reflecting my truth back to me when I couldn’t see it for myself.

“My friends think that my living here is dangerous,” I mentioned to him one afternoon a few weeks later. He laughed. “HA! Dangerous? For you? You’re the safest soul for miles. Nobody’s gonna touch you with a 10-foot pole.”

I looked at him, puzzled. “I don’t quite understand,” I said.

“Its easy. If anything happens to the nice little white girl, this place’ll be crawling with police in about five seconds flat. And nobody, absolutely nobody wants to bring that around here. I’m not saying bad things don’t happen around here sometimes, they do. But crime around here is driven by disputes, and those disputes tend to be interpersonal, and when they do happen its usually kept on the down low and dealt with by the community. But you, nobody dare mess with you. I can promise you that. We all got 41 reasons to make sure nothing happens to bring the police around, if you get my drift.”

I was silent. While it was a slight relief to be assured of my safety, the implications of what Karl just told me were very unsettling for several reasons. I had experienced police oppression as a political activist in the form of pepper spray and riot gear, but I did not fear police violence as an everyday reality in the way that I knew so many Black residents in the city did. Karl’s mention of “41 reasons” was a well-known reference to the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, shot to death in the vestibule of his Bronx building. He was pulling out his wallet to show the police ID, and police mistook his wallet for a gun and shot him 41 times. I was now living one block from the border of the NYPD’s 70th Precinct, where Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was brutalized and sodomized by police in the bathroom of the stationhouse in 1997 after being arrested at a nightclub. The beating led to the indictments of five NYPD officers, four of whom were found guilty.

The murder of Amadou Diallo, as well as the deaths of Patrick Dorismond, Ousmane Zongo, and the brutal beating of Louima, were still fresh in the minds of New York’s Black community. Those deaths were still fresh in my mind as well, but I did not personally walk around in fear as a result. For the first time, I truly understood the meaning of “white privilege” as it applied to my life.

III. Invisibility, Racism, and Unwanted Attention

There’s a thin yet definite line between cordial and friendly, a line I had always been aware of but learned to sense very quickly around my new neighborhood. The neighbors were mostly polite to me, but not always welcoming. They were understandably wary, not so much about me personally, but about what my presence in the neighborhood meant on a larger level. I accepted their wariness and understood it very deeply, always sensitive to my position as an outsider in the community, and I never took it personally when I was met by aloof behavior. I considered myself to be a guest in the neighborhood, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was wear out my welcome.

There was a wide range of reactions to me from various business owners, from outright coldness to an over-emphasized politeness. While some shopkeepers would often pretend not to notice me and deliberately pay me as little attention as possible, one of the Korean women who worked at the produce market would go out of her way to wait on me every time I walked in, deliberately ignoring all of her other customers in the process. I found that while being ignored at the deli counter brought a certain discomfort, the preferential treatment I experienced at the produce market felt much, much worse.

The simple act of buying food quickly revealed certain cultural differences that stood between myself and the rest of the population. The man who owned the meat market around the corner took a liking to me immediately, and we were equally fascinated and respectful of each other’s ways and mannerisms, but he made it clear to me that I stuck out as an anomaly in ways that went far beyond the color of my skin.

“Why you always in such a hurry?” he asked me one day.

I hadn’t been in a hurry at all, or so I thought. But instead of answering him immediately, I took a moment, looked around, and really thought about his question while taking in the environment around me. It was true, there was an impatient edge to my energy that was absent amongst everyone else in the market. There was a certain patience that most around here seemed to exercise that was not easy for me to tap into. I also realized that when I had lived in Park Slope, I always saw myself as the patient one, constantly having to deal with the arrogantly rushed nature of time-obsessed business types. Oh, how the tables had turned.

“I’m not really in a hurry, but I’m starting to realize that I do need to learn to slow down a bit,” I finally said to him. He smiled and nodded while handing me my purchase.

A few blocks down was a Caribbean carry-out restaurant with a smell coming out the door so intoxicating that every time I walked past I slowed down to enjoy it. The first few times I peeked inside, it struck me as being as much as a social club atmosphere as it did a restaurant. People gathered together and talked while waiting for their food — loud, animated conversations that carried across the entire room. Going inside felt intimidating, but eventually the smell of curried goat overtook my feelings of hesitation, and I opened the door and walked in.

The entire place immediately went silent at first. I froze for a second, and after what seemed like a very long moment, everyone went back to their conversations, and I walked up to the counter and ordered some curried goat. I paid and stepped to the side, looked around for somewhere to sit, and finding none I leaned up against the wall and waited. And waited. And waited.

I looked around, and the social aspect suddenly became very clear to me. The wait was part of the experience, and a very enjoyable and anticipated part for everyone else in the room; time spent catching up with friends and relatives after work. But I didn’t know a soul in the room, I didn’t understand most of what was being spoken, and I felt both like I stuck out and yet was completely invisible at the same time. It was unlike any feeling I had ever experienced. It felt alienating and lonely, and yet it was also fascinating.

I felt so impatient, and yet was militantly determined not to show it. After what literally seemed upwards of an hour, my name was finally called, and I walked back up to the counter as slowly and calmly as I could. As I was handed my food, the woman behind the counter looked me in the eye and gave me a warm, genuine smile. “I know it can get rough and loud in here,” she said to me. “But thank you for coming in, and thank you for waiting. I threw some extra plantain in for you.” She smiled again, maintaining eye contact. I returned the smile and thanked her for the food.

It was one of the best meals that I’ve had in my entire life.

* * * * *

A few months later, one of my friends from Park Slope came to visit for the afternoon. She had stopped to buy a soda at the deli while walking from the subway to my house, and when she arrived at my door she expressed her anger at the experience.

“They completely ignored me in there,” she said. “I’ve never experienced such racism in my life.”

“That’s not racism,” I said to her. “Its aloofness, its arguably prejudicial, but its not racism. If you want to really experience racism, go buy a soda at the produce market down the street from the deli.” She looked at me quizzically. “Come on, I’ll even go with you. You’ll see what I mean.”

We walked the few blocks to the Junction and went into the produce market. I grabbed a soda and walked up towards the front counter. And just as I expected, the shopkeeper saw us and immediately waved us over to the front of the line while shooing away several Haitian women who had been waiting patiently to pay for their groceries.

“No,” I said firmly to the shopkeeper. “They were first. They are waiting. Please serve them first.” The shopkeeper looked at me with anger and frustration, and reluctantly went back to ringing up the Haitian women, already in line. I looked over at my friend. She was frozen with disbelief.

“That happens every time I walk in there,” I told her after we walked out. “Every single time. That there, that’s what racism is, and that’s what it means and what it feels like to be on the beneficiary end of systemic racism. A few grumpy old-timers at the deli counter just don’t compare. What you just witnessed happens every single time I enter that produce market, no matter how many times I voice my disapproval to the shopkeeper.”

“Is it because she thinks you have more money than everyone else?” she asked.

“I think that’s a part of it. But I also think it runs much, much deeper than that.”

She nodded. I could tell that she had firmly grasped the point I had tried to make, but I knew that she was also having a very hard time processing what she had just experienced.

We still spoke once in a while after that day, but she never visited me again.

* * * * *

I was sweeping my front porch one afternoon when Karl waved me over from the sidewalk. I put down the broom and walked over.

“You’re being watched, just so you know”, he said to me. “Or someone in your house is, anyway.”

“Watched? By who?”

“I don’t know who, men in suits in an unmarked car. They’ve been watching you for at least a week. Not sure how you missed it, but I can tell you that the rest of the block is quite aware of the situation and more than a little uneasy about it.”

“Why are they…” I started, and immediately stopped and swallowed the rest of my words. I was asking a question that I realized I already knew the answer to. We stared at each other for a second as the weight of the situation sunk in.

I knew full well why my house was being watched by men in unmarked cars. It was a only a few weeks before the 2004 Republican National Convention, and my place had become a hotbed of activist organizing over the past month. Other activist friends had experienced police and FBI surveillance in recent days, so it was no surprise to me that I was being watched as well.

But I immediately realized that while I wasn’t bothered by this, my actions were bringing law enforcement attention at the expense of everyone else’s comfort, and while I had no control over that reality, I was responsible nonetheless. My very presence brought police surveillance to a community that held a deep-running fear and mistrust of police, due to the history of police brutality in NYC as well as the significant number of undocumented residents living in the neighborhood. My lack of fear was a testament to my privilege, and the reactions of my neighbors were a testament to their lived reality. I did not fear the police the way my neighbors did, but I also did not have reason to fear the police as they did. I had always understood this in theory, but nonetheless, when it hit home for me, it hit quite hard.

I stopped holding organizing meetings at my house. It was the least I could do.

IV. Gods, Ghosts, and Ghede

I had never been surrounded by so many churches, and never any that piqued my fascination quite like the storefront churches near the house. The “Apostolic House of Prayer” on Nostrand Avenue was but a tiny brick front with bars on the doors and windows, but the singing in that church on Sunday mornings was so powerful that it would often wake me up from a sound sleep. Equally fascinating was the Haitian Freemason lodge right next door, which bore the name “Respectable Loge Les Frères Unis, Orient de Brooklyn”. The “Mistical Order of St. Gabriel’s Spiritual Church Inc.” down the road was often shuttered, but when it was open the line to get in stretched halfway down the block. But more than anything, I was drawn to the energy emanating from the “Yoruba Orisha Baptist Church”, further down on the same block. Every time I walked by, I felt a distinctive pull, and resisting the urge to satisfy that curiosity was a challenge. Once, I placed my hand on the door, and while I felt the pull even stronger, I sensed that the very doorknob itself recognized and regarded me as an outsider. Stepping through the door felt quite inappropriate, despite my gnawing curiosity.

But I soon learned that one did not have to step through the doors of a local church to experience the local gods, however. I had been working with various Lwa and Orisha long before moving here, but being in a place where my neighbors granted them strong attention greatly elevated their presence in my everyday affairs. I had always perceived gods and spirits as real, independent beings, but in East Flatbush, the Gods themselves were literally my neighbors. The Gods were everywhere; their voices and opinions were often louder than the sounds of the neighborhood itself. I felt them in the sidewalks, heard them in the streets, and after a while, their presence became normalized, a part of everyday affairs. I would find myself regularly conversing aloud with spirits on my treks around the neighborhood, prompting a few of my neighbors to start quietly referring to me as “Le Fou” as I walked past.

One afternoon, I was approaching the house when a gleam from the third floor window drew my attention. In the window, stood an elderly white gentleman and a young girl in a bright red dress. Both looked out towards the street.

That’s funny, I thought. Leslie had given me the distinct impression that the third floor was vacant. I thought hard, racking my brain for her exact words. She had said to me that she wasn’t trying to rent it out at the moment, which I had taken to mean that it was uninhabited. Perhaps I had misunderstood her? I looked up again, and the man and the child were gone. A split second later I spotted a fleeting image of a smallish-looking man in a top hat. As soon as I realized what I was seeing, he disappeared from the window.

Le Fou indeed, I thought to myself. Perhaps I am going a little crazy. I deliberately put that last image out of my mind, making a mental note to introduce myself to the old man sometime. I saw the old man and the little girl a few times after that, but their existence had a tendency to fleet from my memory. While their presence remained a lingering curiosity, its one that I left lingering instead of chasing it down.

One afternoon, I opened the main door to the house to find a young man struggling to move a small loveseat up the stairs. “Hi, I’m Sam,” he said to me as I entered. “I’m moving up to the third floor.”

I thought back to the old man and little girl whom I had seen at the window. Had they moved out without my noticing? I drifted off in thought, then quickly snapped back and offered my assistance with the loveseat. As we rounded the top of the stairs through the door to his studio, I suddenly felt an immediate shift in energy, as though I had walked through an invisible barrier. The apartment felt slightly claustrophobic, despite being spacious and nearly empty. It also felt old and stuck in time, though the paint was fresh and the floor had a polished shine to it. Sam seemed oblivious to everything I was feeling, and as I stood there taking in my surroundings, he excitedly started to show me around.

“It was just refinished,” he said to me. “Everything’s new, except for the bathroom sink and tub. Leslie said she’s pretty sure that nobody’s lived up here for a long time.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t trust my instincts at the moment, and I was overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts. Subjectivity and rationalization were battling in my brain, and I tried to tune the fight out as I followed him around, nodding in approval as he showed me the bells and whistles. When I walked into the bathroom, I noticed that the fixtures were original to the house, unlike the bathrooms on the other two floors. The beautiful, claw-foot tub took up more than half the bathroom, and the sink had a quaint, 20’s vibe that made me just a tad envious. Other than the strange energy that I couldn’t quite shake, the apartment was quite the sweet space. I complimented him on the find, and he beamed. “It’s my first apartment away from home,” he said. “This is a dream come true.”

A few weeks later, I was sitting at my kitchen table, putting the finishing touches on a series of sketches, when I felt a drop of water on my head. I looked up just as the first ceiling tile started to fall, and I pushed my chair back just in time to avoid a whack on the head. Within seconds, the entire ceiling started to fall, and after the water-soaked tiles all fell, water started to pour through the holes onto my kitchen table, destroying my work.

The ceiling as it started to fall

The ceiling as it started to fall

I ran upstairs to the third floor and knocked on the door as hard as I could. I could hear the water running. I knocked again and started to yell, but no answer. I tried the handle but the door was locked, and as I stood there debating whether to whack the handle off with a brick, a bleary-eyed, barely-conscious Sam opened the door. I ran right past him into the bathroom. The tub was overflowing, and there were at least four inches of water on the floor. I turned off the faucet and turned around. Sam was standing there at the doorway, aghast.

“I don’t even remember turning the tub on,” he said, both his voice and body shaking. “I mean, I guess I must have and just forgot, because, well, obviously it was on, but I’ve been sleeping this whole time as far as I know. I went out drinking last night, and I’ve been out cold for hours.” He pointed to the couch next to the door. “I didn’t even make it to my bed,” he said, sheepishly.

We were equally in shock, for very different reasons. By the amount of water, I estimated that the tub hadn’t been on for more than an hour or so. But I could also tell by Sam’s lack of responsiveness when I entered the apartment that he had been in a deep sleep. Something didn’t add up, but I couldn’t dwell on that at the moment. The entire house was flooded, and it needed to be dealt with.

The next day, I was dragging the wet mess of ceiling tiles and debris from my kitchen out to the street when Karl ran up to help me. “What happened?” he asked, as he grabbed one of the bags of tiles from me.

“New kid on the third floor overflowed the tub and it flooded down through all the floors as a result,” I told him. “My kitchen’s a disaster. He’s been up there less than a month, and he just caused at least ten grand worth of damage to the house. He says he doesn’t even remember turning the tub on, and for some reason I actually believe him, but at the same time I want to slap him senseless. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is keeping in mind that my anger is nothing compared to what he’s going to get from Leslie.”

I paused. “I feel like the house was much better off when the old man and the little kid were living up there. What happened to them, anyway?”

Karl immediately froze in his tracks and turned noticeably pale. He looked at me, eyes wide and round with fear. “You’ve seen them too?” he whispered quietly.

“Yeah, once or twice. They were real quiet up there, I never spoke to them, but….” I trailed off when I noticed that Karl was literally shaking. “What is it?” I asked. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Have you see the Ghede as well?” he asked, his voice still barely above a whisper.

“Ghede?” I asked. “Do you mean the man with the top hat?”

Karl nodded. “Momma’s been seeing them all since before I was born. Papa won’t let her speak of it, says it’s the devil’s work.” He pointed to the house across the street. “I talked to Emmaline about it once. She says something bad happened, years ago. She’s not quite sure what, but she sees them too. She told me that the man in the top hat is one of the Ghede. I always wanted to ask her more about it, but Papa doesn’t like me talking to her.”

Emmaline was an elderly Haitian woman who lived down the street. I knew very little about her overall, as she had made it clear to me at the beginning that she was not interested in meaningful interactions with me, but she was well-known around the neighborhood as a competent and powerful vodouisant, much to the displeasure and distaste of some of the more Christian neighbors. I could only imagine how Karl’s strict Baptist father would react upon finding out that Karl was learning about ghosts and Ghede from Emmaline.

“That answers a whole lot of questions, even ones I didn’t know I had yet,” I replied.

Karl nodded. “Every time someone else says they’ve seem ‘em, I feel a little less crazy,” he said.

It all made a little more sense now, although I was still unnerved. Sam was evicted from the apartment due to the extent of damage he caused, and once Leslie received the full estimate for the damage, she chose to only repair the bottom two floors. The third floor apartment remained vacant from that point forward.

I still felt a need to tie up one last loose end, however, to remove any lingering doubt I had about the facts of the matter and what I had witnessed. The next time I saw Leslie, I innocently asked her again about the third floor apartment. “You know, I hadn’t even realized that apartment had been vacant and for rent until I ran into Sam in the hallway that first day. When did the other tenants move out?”

She looked at me surprisingly. “There’s been nobody living up there since I bought the place,” she told me. “I told you that when you moved in. It’s funny, though… one of the other women down the block just asked me the same thing the other day.

V. The Green Goddess of Gentrification

I was walking towards the bagel shop next to the Brooklyn College campus when a panhandler stopped me at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Hillel Place. He pointed to the next corner over. “Look, missy,” he exclaimed, his voice equal parts excitement and sarcasm. “They’re building you a coffee shop!”

“Me? What?” I looked where he had pointed and my heart sank. The vacant restaurant next to the bagel shop had hung a huge sign in the window overnight, impossible to miss. “Coming Soon: Starbucks Coffee” it said.

“Yep, missy,” he continued. “That’s for you there, that’s there’s the honey to attract all the flies with money. Some are gonna say ‘there goes the neighborhood’ right there.” He paused, and looked down at his can, empty but for a few quarters. “But for me, I’m rather looking forward to it.” He grinned.

I walked off with a knot in my stomach, thinking about his words and how they had made me feel. You, he had said. That coffee shop is for you. Me, the gentrifier.

A few weeks later, the Starbucks was open for business. And sure enough, over the next several months, I watched with fascination and horror as the signs of gentrification became more and more apparent around the neighborhood. Businesses were opening where storefronts had been vacant. New construction projects started to break ground. “For Rent” signs appeared on phone poles and bulletin boards in English, where previously Kreyol or Patois had been the norm, and the posted prices made it clear that the landlords were marketing towards a more affluent crowd. While I had literally been the only female white face around the neighborhood until that point, over time I started to see more and more white folks in their twenties and thirties during my daily outings.

The Starbucks, a few months after it opened

And with that change, my relationship with the neighborhood changed, both with the people as well as with the place itself. In proportion to the signs of gentrification all around me, I started to feel a resentment that had previously been absent. While my presence in the neighborhood had been accepted or at least tolerated as an interesting novelty by most, more and more I felt that I represented something else, something that my neighbors understandably found threatening. I had moved there due to continuing gentrification of my old neighborhood, and two years later I was filling the position of the invasive gentrifier, through no fault of my own. I was once a casualty of the problem, and now I was on the other side, a part of the problem.

Just as the neighborhood beckoned me there, I strongly felt that it now coaxed me to leave. As the months passed, the feeling became unmistakable. The sidewalks, the trees, the buildings — everything subtly suggested to me that it was time to move on. In desperation, I abandoned my requirement of being within an hour’s commute of Manhattan. I found a barely-affordable place at the south end of Bay Ridge, trading the last stop on the 2 for the second-to-last stop on the R. It felt right, and I was just as confident in this decision as I was in my last decision.

But though leaving Park Slope felt like a mutually agreed-to breakup, leaving East Flatbush felt different. It was sentimental, painful, necessary yet sad. Never had a place taught me so much, lessons that centered on myself as well as what it means to be both Black and white in this “melting pot” that is Brooklyn and America. I was sad to go, but I felt satisfied with what I took away from this experience. I was supposed to move here, I thought to myself, and now I’m supposed to leave, and I completely understand why. I understand all of it, and I’m thankful for every moment of it, and I’m ready for the next chapter now.

Karl walked over when he saw me loading my van. “Good luck to you,” he said to me, with a bit of sadness in his voice. “I get why you’re leaving, but its been nice having you around. I know not everyone thinks so, but I do.”

“Thank you,” I said, and gave him an unexpected hug.

After the house had been emptied and swept clean to my satisfaction, I bid the house goodbye, and tipped my cap to whoever or whatever was upstairs. But as I started to walk down the porch steps for the last time, I was hit with an unexpected wave of sadness. I suddenly felt an urgent need to leave some small part of myself behind. I turned around back up the stairs, took out my knife, and hastily scratched my initials as a sigil-like design into the back of a set of vintage theater seats that sat on the front porch, seats that I had placed there when I first moved in and was now leaving behind due to space constraints. I placed my hand on top of the scratching for a moment, noticed the warmth of my flesh against the metal in the sun, and felt satisfied. I walked back down to the stairs and started up my overloaded van.

As I pulled away, I glanced back at the window on the third floor. Standing at the window, staring at me as I drove off, was a figure wearing a top hat.

VI. Afterword

According to a recently released report from the NYC Comptroller’s office, the average rent in New York City rose by an average of 67% in the period from 2000 to 2012, compared to a 44% rise nationwide. The steepest rise was seen in Brooklyn at 77%, with Manhattan rents averaging 65% more. The average low-income family in NYC currently pays around 41% of their income in rent, and the poverty rate in NYC currently stands at over 20%.

After moving from East Flatbush in the summer of 2006, I held on in Brooklyn for another year or so, but I finally accepted that I was fighting a losing battle in terms of affordable rent. I left New York for Oregon in the fall of 2007, and I’m now sadly bearing witness as Portland undergoes the same patterns of gentrification that took hold of Brooklyn a decade ago. The scenery is different, but the script is the same, and it’s painful to watch such a play when you already know how the story ends.

I met up again with the smallish man in the top hat once I settled in Eugene, and we made formal introductions and got to know each other that time around. He’s quite an interesting character. I still see him out of the corner of my eye on occasion, and his appearance never fails to have meaning within the context of whatever is occurring when I spot him.

Despite the gentrification that I witnessed and experienced in the area around Brooklyn Junction, which nowadays features a Target and an Applebee’s in addition to the Starbucks, the East Flatbush neighborhood as a whole is still around 90% Black, and relations between police and citizens are as tense as ever. In the spring of 2013, a Black teenager named Kimani Gray was shot seven times and killed by police on the streets of East Flatbush, resulting in several days’ worth of protests and rioting. The officers involved were cleared of all wrongdoing.

Although I have lived in ten different apartments since moving from East Flatbush in 2006, the house is still a frequent subject of both my waking thoughts as well as my dreams and visions. Last month, the initial-sigil that I had carved into the back of the theater chairs drifted back into my memory for the first time in many years, and it put me in touch with a very strong link that I still feel towards both the house and the neighborhood itself.

Out of curiosity, a few days before I finished this piece I looked up the house in East Flatbush on Google Street View, and it turns out that the theater chairs are still on the front porch of the house to this day, exactly where I had left them.

(Author’s Note: Names and minor identifying details of people and places have been changed to protect privacy.)

Send to Kindle

Maetreum of Cybele, a nonprofit religious organization, may be winning its legal battles against the Town of Catskill over a property tax exemption, but if the town’s alleged tactic of pushing them into bankruptcy works, the wins in the courtroom won’t matter. Unless the Maetreum raises $10,000 for legal fees, they may have to declare bankruptcy.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

The legal issue at hand is if the Maetreum uses its property primarily for religious purposes, which would exempt them from paying property taxes. The Town of Catskill says the group is an “illegitimate religion” and is using the property for residential, rather than religious uses. The Maetreum says the town doesn’t want to “open the floodgates” to other nonprofit groups claiming tax exemptions which deprives the town of tax revenue.

Despite the unanimous decision in 2013 by a three judge panel of the Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court favorable to the Maetreum, the Town of Catskill took the unusual step of appealing the ruling to the New York State Court of Appeals. A ruling by the Court of Appeals is expected later this Fall and the Maetrum expects it to uphold the previous decision that the Maetreum is a religious nonprofit and as such is exempt from paying property taxes. Catskill also recently filed charges against the Maetreum for refusing to allow a municipal inspection to look for code violations and a trial is now scheduled for late September. The Maetreum, in an effort to preserve their property rights while the September trail takes place, filed suit against the town’s attempt to use property codes to condemn and foreclose on the property in the Greene County Supreme Court of New York.

So far the Maestreum has paid out more than $65,000 in legal fees. The Town of Catskill, the Maestreum estimates, has spent hundreds of thousands. But the town’s deep pockets, Rev. Mother Cathryn Platine says, is how the town plans to win despite their losses in the courtroom, “Rather than being over, we now find ourselves in three legal actions at once. The town dragged the original two legal actions out for years with multiple bullshit motions and now this. The town attorney is known for this tactic against non-profits all over the state. To make it too expensive to keep fighting them.”

The town may finally be successful. If the Maetreum can’t raise $10,000 in the next few weeks to cover legal fees for the appeal, the Pagan convent may close.

On August 18th the Maetreum put out this statement via Facebook:

I’ve put off writing this for a long time. We are down to the wire on our long long legal battle and we are tapped out. Basically the bulk of the legal funds to date have been raised among a smallish group of our own priestesses and several extremely loyal supporters. The bulk of the money even from the fundraising efforts came from these folks.

Our lawyer is demanding payment of the balance of her bill for this last appeal and we simply do not have it. Many of us have done without for several years now to keep the battle going but there is nothing left to do without anymore, little to sell of our personal treasures. We’ve raised more than 65,000 dollars for legal fees so far and need that last 10 grand. Think about it, our annual operating costs run around 18 thousand a year and that is what we can cover comfortably ourselves and still do charitable work. That charitable work is now at a standstill, our plans for a summer of workshop weekends put off another year, our community radio station we already have the license for, a dream only.

We need help and cannot afford to raise funds from IndieGoGo again because it costs too damn much if you cannot meet your goal and the last campaign was a disaster.

Please don’t let the town of Catskill finally succeed by spending us into bankruptcy which was their tactic all along.

Paypal whatever you can afford to centralhouse@gallae.com or send a check to:

Maetreum of Cybele
3312 Route 23A
Palenville, NY 12463

Others, we’ve heard, have raised money in our names, if so we haven’t seen any of it so please donate directly.

 

The Wild Hunt has been covering this case since its beginnings in 2009.

Here is a timeline of events as they happened:

Outdoor temple at the Maetreum.

Outdoor temple at the Maetreum.

In 2007 the Maetreum of Cybele, a nonprofit religious organization, petitioned the Town of Catskill for property tax exemption. The organization was turned down after the “town lawyer, Daniel Vincelette, toured the building and issued a damning report describing a decrepit structure that stank of cat urine, lacked visible religious symbols, and operated as a crypto-housing project” (Watershed Post, May 8, 2010,)

In 2009 the Maetreum filed a grievance with the town’s Board of Assessment Review claiming “religious discrimination.” The Board upheld the tax assessor’s denial leading to the Maetreum filing a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court in Greene County. In a letter to the Wild Hunt, Rev. Cathryn Platine and Rev. Viktoria Whittaker wrote: “We own real property and run a brick-and-mortar establishment in the Town of Catskill in Greene County, New York. Our property consists of a historic former Catskill Inn called Central House and approximately 3+ acres of land with an outdoor Temple/Grove in the hamlet of Palenville. We purchased the property 2002 and turned it into a Pagan Temple and Convent … The Town of Catskill has continued to deny our exemption to this day in open violation of New York tax law which mandates the property tax exemption for religious and charitable organizations.”

In 2010 the case, Maetreum of Cybele versus the Town of Catskill, went to court where it lingered for over a year. During that time the Town repeatedly petitioned to have the case dismissed and attempted to foreclose on the organization’s property. In May the Maetreum issued a press release saying: “The attorney for the Town admitted in court, on the record that the real reason for the denials of our property tax exemption … was to prevent “opening the floodgates to similar groups.” This is an open admission of discrimination. At this point, every single ruling by the Judge has been in our favor and we anticipate eventual victory.”

In 2011 that victory came. The Maetreum received a “court ordered stay from all foreclosure proceedings until the resolution of its legal actions against the Town of Catskill.” Judge George P. Pulver Jr. of the state Supreme Court in Greene County ruled in favor of the Maetreum. The case garnered national attention through an article printed in The New York Times.

Shortly after Pulver’s ruling, the Maetreum petitioned the Town’s Board of Assessment Review once again. Just as before the request was denied. By December the case was back in court.

maetreum sign largeIn 2012 Supreme Court Judge Richard Platkin reversed Pulver’s decision and ruled in favor of the Town stating: “The Court has no reason to doubt the sincerity of the religions and spiritual beliefs of the adherents of the Cybaline Revival who testified in these proceedings. But regardless of the sincerity of these beliefs and the importance that Cybaline Revival doctrine may attach to the property and its religious use … the Court finds that the property’s principal and predominant use at relevant times was residential, rather than religion, in nature.”

By the time of the ruling, both parties had invested large sums of money in fighting the case. Neither the town nor Rev. Platine had any plans of backing down. According to a 2011 Daily Mail article, acting Catskill Town Supervisor Patrick Walsh said that “the town was already too deep into the case to give up and that significant dollars could be saved by preventing exemptions for illegitimate religions.”

In 2013 the Maetreum of Cybele filed an appeal with the Appellate Division of the state’s Supreme Court. On Nov. 21 a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the Maetreum stating: “Considering the testimony, [the Maetreum of Cybele] met its burden to demonstrate that it uses the property primarily for its religious and charitable purposes.”

Once again the story made national news. This time it was in Forbes Magazine. After the ruling, the Maetreum of Cybele released a statement thanking everyone who had contributed to their fundraising efforts saying, “It is truly a win for all minority religions setting forth the standard that we Pagans are to be treated in law the same as the so called mainstream religions.”

At the start of 2014, the Town of Catskill filed an appeal with the New York State Court of Appeals. According to the Watershed Post, this court only hears a very small percentage of the presented cases. In 2012 that number was 6.4 percent. Therefore “the court’s decision to accept the [Town’s] appeal came as a surprise to Deborah Schneer, the lawyer for the Maetreum.”

Now in its seventh year, the case sits in the hands of the Court of Appeals. The Maetreum of Cybele stated: “The chairman of the Board of Catskill once vowed they would never give up their fight against what he called an illegitimate religion and Catskill is keeping that promise by appealing our victory to the highest court in New York once again forcing us to raise a large amount of money for a legal defense.”

The Wild Hunt will continue to follow and report on the case, and the organization’s fundraising efforts, as it progresses.

Send to Kindle

The Council for a Parliament of the World Religions made two big announcements this month. On Aug. 8, the Council reported that its Parliament would now be held every two years. Then Aug. 15, the Council announced that the very next 2015 Parliament would be hosted in a U.S. city for the first time in 22 years.

cpwr_logo_headerThe original Parliament of the World Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. As noted on its website, that meeting is now largely considered the “birth of interreligious dialogue worldwide.” The landmark event brought together representatives of both eastern and western religious traditions and, additionally, supported an unprecedented number of women speakers. After the 1893 Parliament, Hindu attendee Swami Vivekananda said:

If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not Fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.

Unfortunately, the Parliament wasn’t held again until 1993. Over that 100 years, the world’s religious canvas changed considerably. With all of those changes, the need for interreligious work only grew. In 1988, a group of religious leaders met in Chicago to form the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions as a nonprofit organization. Their purpose was to celebrate and promote interfaith dialog and peace through a regularly scheduled Parliamentary event. Since that point, there have been 5 Parliaments.

1993 – Chicago, USA

1999 – Cape Town, South Africa

2004 – Barcelona, Spain

2007 – Monterrey, Mexico

2009 – Melbourne, Australia

This past April, Council trustees met in Atlanta, Georgia for a special “Charter for Compassion” celebration event and the induction of two Pagans into the Martin Luther King, Jr. International College of Ministries and Laity at Morehouse College. During that weekend, the two inductees, Andras Corban-Arthen and Phyllis Curott, spent several hours speaking with local Pagans about the organization’s work. During that talk titled “Pagans in the Parliament,” they showed a digital slideshow illustrating the 20 years of Pagan involvement with the Parliament.

10152674_850351721648798_1602302713_n

Curott and Corban-Arthen at the MLK induction ceremony and Compassion celebration.

Today, both Curott and Corban-Arthen are on the board of trustees and involved with the decisions and future direction of the Parliament. One of those recent decisions was to hold the Parliament every two years. Up to now, the time cycle was set at five years but the actual implementation has taken various lengths of time. The last Parliament was held in 2009 and the next one will be in 2015.

Why have they moved the cycle to two years? The Board says:

As the interfaith movement has doubled and tripled in interfaith action and services in the last decade it has become necessary that this largest summit of people of faith working together for a just, peaceful and sustainable world come together more often.

Board Chair Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid also cited “the age of social media, a globalized world and shorter attention spans” for the adoption of a shorter Parliament cycle. The trustees hope that this change will draw more attention and greater support for the global interfaith movement. In addition, they believe it will engage and inspire younger generations.

The new 2-year period begins in 2015 with a Parliament to be held in the U.S. The Board has yet to announce the specific city but the organizational process is in motion. Chair Mujahid said:

America is the home base of the interfaith movement and it’s about time the Parliament come back home. The Parliament in 2015 will strengthen the interfaith movement through our listening, sharing and networking with each other.

U.S-based Pagans directly involved in the interfaith movement are looking forward to the event. In response to the announcement, the Contemporary Pagan Alliance, based in West Virginia, stated: “Excellent news! We will definitely be there.”

Upon hearing the news, Rev. Sandy Harris, M. Div noted the importance in the continuation of organizations work. She says, “The Parliament of World Religions has provided a venue for exploring [and] has opened a window into American spirituality far wider than the standard monotheistic beliefs. It has helped us all to explore the origins, practices, and understandings of people of all religions and paths.”

Holli Emore, writer at The Wild Garden blog and member of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, hopes to attend the 2015 event. She says:

I am beside myself that it will be here. This is where the first Parliament happened. I think that most Pagans in America are not involved enough with interfaith and don’t understand it. They see it as a platform for defending Paganism and miss the richness and joy of engaging and getting to know other faiths and people of other faiths.

In order to best serve future attendees, the Council is doing a survey on wishes and needs for 2015. The survey is posted on their website. Additionally the Council is seeking bids for hosting the 2017 event. The submission process and outline are on the site as well.

In meantime, the world awaits the announcement of the exact host city for the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Stay tuned for more….

Send to Kindle