Among the many atrocities committed by members of the Islamic State of Syria and Levant (ISIL) is the group’s attack on the Yezidis, a tribe in northern Iraq known mostly for its secretive religion and repeated persecutions by neighbors. The reports on the Yezidis hiding on mountainsides to escape conversion or death was a factor in President Obama’s decision to use airstrikes against ISIL.

Yezidi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp [Photo Credit: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee/UK Dept of International Development]

Yezidi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp [Photo Credit: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee/UK Dept of International Development]

The average westerner knows little about the Yezidi people and their religion, and media channels have struggled to learn more. The Yezidis are typically described as polytheists and have been branded as devil-worshipers many times over the centuries that their culture has endured.

However, neither label is a good fit. The Yezidis could be considered polytheistic in the same way that Roman Catholics might be. They do honor more than one entity. But the Yezidis don’t consider themselves polytheists. Many Pagans and polytheists will understand how one’s gods can become the devils of another.  That is the case with the Peacock Angel, the primary among seven angels worshiped in the Yezidi religion.

The sacred texts of the Yezidis and the religion itself are not intended for sharing with outsiders. The only translations into English come by way of The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz, written by Isya Joseph in 1919. Joseph translated the sacred texts from an Arabic manuscript, which he was led to believe had been translated from an authentic original. Because the primary sources — the Yezidis themselves — are very secretive about their practice, any historical records of their treatment is left up to the interpretation of fragmentary knowledge within a context of political expedience.

Amin Tomeh, member of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, explained why Yezidi beliefs are sometimes interpreted as devil worship by followers of Abrahamic faiths. He said:

They view the Abrahamic traditional story (of God asking His angels to bow before Adam upon creating him) from a different perspective. According to what I read, they believe that there are seven archangels; chief among them is Malek Taous (with Malek translating to angel and Taous translating to Peacock or chief, i.e., Chief of all Angels). It was this Malek Taous that refused to bow before Adam while the other six forgot their pledge to God to not bow before anything or anyone other than to Him (i.e., God).

The similarity between this belief and what Muslims believe in that a creation of God (who dwelled with the angels, but was not an angel himself) called Iblis was the only one to refuse bowing before Adam. Iblis was cursed for refusing God’s command and was given a reprieve until the day of judgment before he would face his punishment. Iblis, Satan or the Devil are one in the same from a Muslim perspective. The intersection of these very similar stories is why – I would suppose – some may think that, in fact, it is Satan whom the Yezidis worship. But Yezidis themselves see the nature of Malek Taous as different from the whispering Satan who suggests evil deeds to humans.

Melek Tausi [Public Domain Image]

Melek Tausi [Public Domain Image]

Malek Taous, Melek Ta’us, Taus Melek, or Tawsi Melek is the being that the Yezidis primarily worship. Also called the Peacock Angel, Malek Taous is an intermediary between what they call “God” and the physical world. As described on yeziditruth.org:

The Yezidis do not believe that the Peacock Angel is the Supreme God. The Supreme God created him as an emanation at the beginning of time. He was brought into manifestation in order to give the invisible, transcendental Supreme God a vehicle with which to create and administer the universe. Tawsi Melek is thus a tangible, denser form of the infinite Supreme God. In order to assist Tawsi Melek in this important role, the Supreme Creator also created six other Great Angels, who were, like the Peacock Angel, emanations of the Supreme God and not separate from him.

The references to Adam and God are not coincidental according to Hatim Darwesh, a American-based Yezidis who maintains a Yezidi Facebook group. Darwesh served as translator to the U.S. military during the Iraq War, when Saddam Hussein was persecuting the Yezidis as part of his broader oppression of the Kurds. For his work, Darwesh was granted a visa to come to this country. He now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

While quick to say that he is not a “religious expert,” Darwesh was clear on several points: God is the same being who is worshiped in Abrahamic faiths; the Peacock Angel is not any sort of devil and the Yezidi religion is definitely monotheistic. In addition, within Yezidi culture, he says that the term “pagan” is used as a pejorative and not a label they themselves would welcome. At the same time, he explains that the Yezidis “worship the sun” and are sometimes called “sons of the sun.” He did not elaborate on that point, nor did he respond to a question about whether his religion is an Abrahamic one or not.

While the nuances of the Yezidi faith continue to be elusive, what is certain is that these people have been oppressed many times in their history. Once, according to Amin Tomeh, they were considered valuable allies. He tells of the Yezidi Prince Hussein Bek Al Daseni, who supported Sulemain the Magnificent‘s bid to retake Baghdad from the Safavids, and was given the title of prince over Soran, Irbil and Dahouk.

logoTomeh says, “This story demonstrates amply that, when political expediency demanded it, the Caliph himself found no reservation in allying his empire with the Yezidis and rewarded them accordingly.” He adds:

But again that does not mute the fact that the Yezidis often fell victim to the wrath of the political power of the day under religious guise and sometimes nationalistic (as was the case in Saddam’s time) pretexts. I personally see that phenomenon as the quintessential xenophobic impulse of blaming the presumed weaklings in any society.

Followers of mainstream media may believe that the present crisis for the Yezidis is past, but Darwesh says that this is far from the case. He reports that 2-3,000 “women, kids, and virgin girls” were taken by ISIL forces, and that “their fate remains unknown.” He explains the extremist agenda as he understands it:

Men have two choices: to convert to [Islam] or they will be slaughtered. Women are assaulted sexually and sold into slavery, and our kids are taking [sic] to be trained on learning of Quran and teach them Islamic religion.

He describes the crisis as “severe,” with 2-3 families living in a house, if they are lucky enough, and many others living under bridges. “They need to be out of there very soon,” he says. He wants them to be given the opportunity to live in a western country, like the United States or Canada, but they lack the deep support that larger religions have.  He says:

Our situation is different from Christians and everyone else in Iraq; we don’t have anyone to help us. Christians have at least Vatican to support them and [the] Pope is behind them because the religion [has] linked them together and we as Yezidis don’t have anyone but God.

To date, Darwesh finds that he is able to practice his religion freely in the United States. But what hangs over him, and all the Yezidis fortunate enough to live in Lincoln, is the fate of their tribes people half a world away.

 

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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!

150318_285637801541688_2098495770_nJust as we were going to press, the passing of Jeff Rosenbaum was announced. The cause of death was a brain tumor. Rosenbaum is perhaps best known as the conceiver and a founder of the Association for Consciousness Exploration (ACE), the Chameleon Club, the Starwood Festival, and the WinterStar Symposium. Through the 1990s and early 2000s the Starwood Festival was arguably one of the most popular (and populous) outdoor festivals of its type, thanks to organizers cross-pollinating Pagan communities with other religious and visionary movements, featuring guests like Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson. Rosenbaum talked a bit about this organizing vision when he was interviewed in the book “Modern Pagans.”

“Starwood is a big college of alternative thinking and alternative spirituality that suddenly appears like a carnival or circus. The tents go up, it stays there for a week, and then BOOM it’s gone, til next year. We have 140 or more classes from 9:30 in the morning till 6:15 in the evening–sometimes as many as 12 at a time. You can learn about Druidism, Ceremonial Magic, Wicca, Tibetan Buddhism, and Native American Practices. We have classes on psychedelia and psychology, and different “movement systems” like tai chi, yoga and aikido. Past speakers have included Timothy Leary, quantum physicist Fred Allen Wolf, Paul Krassner, and Steven Gaskin, who created the Farm, the biggest hippie commune in America. It’s all included in the cost of admission.”

As Rosenbaum puts it, he was “a student of an eclectic array of spiritual paths, philosophies, and illuminating pursuits,” and it was that wide-ranging desire to experience and know that drove his life. In addition to his work with ACE and Starwood, he was Robert Anton Wilson’s lecture agent for six years during the 1980s, played guitar & percussion with Ian Corrigan and Victoria Ganger in the bands Chameleon and Starwood Sizzlers, and was published (and interviewed) in a number of Pagan-themed publications. Tributes to Rosenbaum are already flooding his Facebook profile, but I think the most apt was a posthumous status update from Jeff Rosenbaum himself, which I think does a good job of capturing his spirit. Quote: “At 6:23 pm EST tonight I crossed over and left my body behind. My friends were by my side, the Firesign Clones were playing on the TV. It was calm and peaceful. Thank you all for your good wishes and support. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.” What is remembered, lives. ADDENDUM: Here’s an obituary written by close friend Ian Corrigan.

dwsLWG1w_400x400The Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC has sent out a call for help. The People’s Climate March is less than a month away and the number of Pagans pledging to march as part of the Interfaith contingent is “exploding,” according to organizers. PEC-NYC has started an Indigogo campaign with the goal of $3,000 by Sept. 18th. The monies will cover supplies for the weekend and hopefully, fund the transportation for Pagans from far-away to get to NYC for the weekend.  “$10 is breakfast for ten people. $100 is a bus ticket for a marcher from the midwest, $250 is a train ticket for a west coast based Marcher.” said Courtney Weber, an organizer with PEC-NYC. “We are at a pivotal point in history, and history has shown that boots in the streets truly can change the world. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show world leaders that the people want serious action to address climate change, now. Marching alongside other faiths is the perfect opportunity to increase our knowledge and understanding of one another, and cross belief-barriers to fight for a common cause.” The link to the campaign can be found, here. If you are interested in attending the march with a Pagan contingent, please see their blog

pic01Pagan organizations and individuals have endorsed a campaign to urge California Governor Jerry Brown to sign California Senate Bill (SB) 1057 into law. The measure, which overwhelmingly passed in both the Assembly and the Senate, would mandate the reform of history and social science materials used in California schools. Supporters of 1057 claim it will “prevent bullying and promote a positive self-image for children” of different religions, backgrounds, and ethnicities. This will be done by requiring “an expert advisory group to create new History-Social Science Content Standards in a fair, open, and transparent manner. The advisory groups will be composed of scholars and educators, and must make a good faith effort to seek the input of representatives from diverse communities.” Pagan organizations that have signed on to this effort include the American Vinland Association/Freya’s Folk, Our Lady of the Wells Church, and The Patrick McCollum Foundation. In addition, Sabina Magliocco, author of “Witching Culture,” has signed on as a supporting academic. SB 1057 has also garnered the support of several religious minorities in California, including Hindu, Jain, and Jewish organizations.

10513320_1519749801581160_4666587913269014328_nThe new resource/website Polytheist.com will be launching this week! In an update to the forthcoming site’s Facebook page, posted last night, the official launch’s imminent arrival was heralded. Quote: “Coming this week, the official launch of Polytheist.com! Please stay tuned for this exciting set of columns, from a talented team of writers, voices, and visionaries from our Polytheist communities!” Polytheist.com, once launched, will be a “an online hub of columnists, contributors and content creators who are dedicated to many gods across many traditions.” The site is spearheaded by Anomalous Thracian (aka Theanos Thrax), who recently explained why this site is important. Quote: “For some time, many Polytheists have been seeking a place for discussing their religions, their divine relations, and their living lineages in such a way that effectively maximizes the vastness of the all-connecting technologies of the internet age to reach out to and commune with other like-minded and like-religioned groups and individuals, without inviting the targeting and resistance often experienced in spaces not dedicated to this specific aim.” Stay tuned, as we will be talking more about this project very soon. In the meantime, be sure to bookmark that link!

Margot Adler

Margot Adler

Earlier last month I reported on an initiative to raise money for a memorial bench in Central Park honoring Margot Adler, author of the landmark book “Drawing Down the Moon,” who passed away recently after a long battle with cancer. Quote: “Many of you have asked about ways to honor Margot’s memory. After discussions with a few of her closest friends, it’s been decided that collecting donations toward buying a memorial bench in her name in Central Park is the best plan. It’s something she spoke of in her final days. As you know, she lived on the edge of the park nearly her entire life and walked through it daily.” I’m happy to report that the month-long fundraiser has managed to raise over $11,000 dollars, enough to pay for the memorial bench, and to also endow a tree in the park. A large number of Pagans and Pagan organizations donated money towards this initiative, including The Sisterhood of Avalon, the Michigan Council of Covens and Solitaries, and The Witches’ Voice. This is a fitting tribute, one that will no doubt become a place of pilgrimage for all who honored her and her work.

In Other Pagan Community News: 

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

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On August 27, a U.S. District Court Judge finalized a ruling stating that Utah’s ban on cohabitation was unconstitutional. This decision is the latest chapter in an on-going legal battle between Utah state officials and the Brown Family, stars of TLC’s reality show “Sister Wives.” 

The Brown family practices the Apostolic United Brethen faith, a type of Fundamentalist Momonism that supports plural marriage. Although polygamy was largely abandoned by the mainstream LDS Church in the 1890s, some Mormon churches have continued to allow the practice. These sects or people are typically referred to as Fundamentalist Mormons. Some are affiliated with churches and some are independents.

sister-wives-season-4Since the TLC show first aired, the Brown family has experienced a great deal of legal trouble due to their unconventional family structure. Police investigations began the day after the first show debuted in 2010.

Most states, including Utah, have laws governing aspects of marriage, sexual relations and habitation. These laws include the well-known definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Additionally there are limits and restrictions on cohabitation, especially when intimacy and children are involved.

In 2011, the Brown Family decided to challenge Utah’s family laws. Utah Code Title 76, Chapter 7, Section 101 states:

Bigamy: (1) A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person. (2) Bigamy is a felony of the third degree. (3) It shall be a defense to bigamy that the accused reasonably believed he and the other person were legally eligible to remarry.

After several years in the courts, Brown vs. Buhman landed in the U.S. District Court of Utah before Judge Clark Waddoups. In December 2013, Judge Waddoups ruled that the state’s ban on cohabitation was unconstitutional. He said:

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-101 (2013) is facially unconstitutional in that the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and is without a rational basis under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; to preserve the integrity of the Statute, as enacted by the Utah State Legislature, the Court hereby severs the phrase “or cohabits with another person” from Utah Code § 76-7-101(1)

The ruling wasn’t finalized until this past Wednesday when Judge Waddoup added that, in the early investigations, county officials had violated the family’s first amendment rights. As a result the Judge has ordered the state to pay all attorney’s fees and other associated legal costs incurred by the family. In a blog post, the Brown family attorney, Jonathan Turley, wrote:

This [last] count sought to establish that state officials, and particularly Mr. Buhman, acted to deny protected constitutional rights ranging from free speech to free exercise to equal protection….[Judge Waddoup's] decision in this case required a singular act of courage and principle as the first court to strike down the criminalization of polygamy. In doing so, Judge Waddoups reaffirmed the independence of our courts and stood against open prejudice and hostility toward plural families.

While some reports say that Utah has officially legalized polygamy, it actually has not. The December ruling only removed the ban on cohabitation. Bigamy, or more one legal marriage, is still prohibited by Utah code 76-7-101. In his ruling, Judge Waddoup made that distinction very clear.

Regardless, the court’s decision is still considered historic. After Wed, only three states now criminalize cohabitation of any kind. These states include: Michigan, Mississippi, Virginia and Florida. In addition, the final portion of the court’s decision affirms the constitutional right of plural families to exist guided by their own religious principles.

In recent years, there has been an increase in attention and support for non-conventional family structures. This is partly due to the marriage equality movement as well as shows like “Sister Wives.” In an essay published in 2010, Morning Glory Zell predicted, “This whole polyamorous lifestyle is the avante-garde of the 21st century. Expanded families will become a pattern with wider acceptance as the monogamous nuclear family system breaks apart under the impact of serial divorces.”

Rev. Allyson  [Courtesy of White Winds]

Rev. Allyson [Courtesy of White Winds.com]

Rev. Allyson is a Wiccan Priestess and interfaith minister who also practices polyamory. She says, “I see the ruling as good, because it reinforces that which goes on between consenting adults behind closed doors is really no one’s business.” If a spiritual community or faith practice embraces polyamory or polygamy and there are no legal restrictions on cohabitation, than a plural marriage can be recognized spiritually without fear of legal ramifications.

There is a secondary social benefit to Utah’s ruling. As Rev. Allyson points out, “[The decision] also opens up the door to more women who are in abusive poly relationships, allowing them to come forward without the concern that they will end up in jail themselves.”

Michelle Mueller

Michelle Mueller

Michelle Mueller, a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union who is studying polygamy and polyamory, agrees. She says:

The decriminalization of polygamy also helps women who may be in abusive relationships. Women who are consensually polygamous but in an abusive relationship are unlikely to report abuse to police because they would risk prosecution as polygamists. Basically, the de-criminalizing of consensual polygamy between adults enables law enforcement to tend to actual problems like violence.

The removal of the cohabitation laws and the court’s ruling in favor of the Brown family’s religious rights are two small showings of legal support for non-nuclear families who live peacefully according their own private, religious principles. While plural families within Fundamental Mormonism might look or act different from those within a Pagan context, the secular laws create the same barriers and reinforce the same cultural stigmas in all cases. Therefore the Utah ruling helps everyone regardless of religious affiliation.

Rev. Allyson says, “All that said, as a minister, as a pagan, and as a polyamorous person, I feel that the world is slowly become more accepting. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to a place where poly marriage is acceptable, and I’m not overly concerned about it. What I’m most interested in seeing is acceptance of whatever intentional families people create.”

On Thursday, Utah Governor Gary Herbert told local press that he personally believes plural families are “not good policy or practice.” However, he added that the courts ruled as such because cohabitation laws are unenforceable. He advises anyone who dislikes the judge’s decision to make use of the democratic system and try to change it. To date, the Utah Attorney General has not announced whether he will appeal the case. 

[Correction: The original article stated that there are 3 states that still ban cohabitation: Michigan, Missouri and Florida. This list should have read: Michigan, Mississippi and Florida. Further research also reveals that Virginia belongs on this list.The state's officials are currently discussing removing the ban.]

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#nakedcoffee

Cara Schulz —  August 30, 2014 — 21 Comments

If you’ve ever attended a Pagan festival, you’re familiar with post-festival letdown. You spent a weekend, or a week, at fest being fully yourself; living your ethics with every breath; being emotionally open to others; meeting amazing people who now feel like family to you; relearning to love your body and embracing your unique beauty. You feel glorious and strong and loved.

And then you go home, away from all those people you’ve grown so close to in such a short time, where you cover up your religion and you cover up your skin, to a greater or lesser degree. Insecurities creep in. The world is a bit grayer while you feel blue. You know festival has to end, but you wonder how to keep the positive feelings and lessons and people of festival all year round. Just a slice of it.

Melanie

Melanie

Enter #NakedCoffee. It’s exactly how it sounds. People rolling out of bed and drinking coffee while buck naked and posting a photo of it on Facebook to continue remembering how beautiful you are; to stay emotionally open; and to stay connected.

#NakedCoffee was born at Pagan Spirit Gathering. Melanie Moore and a group of friends met each morning to do makeup and chat over coffee. Since it was a particularly rainy, muddy PSG, they gave up on clothes and just hung out naked.

naked coffee original groupAnd then PSG ended. “The sister hood was so strong,” says Melanie Moore. “When I got home I missed it so much I wept.” So she posted a picture on fb of herself drinking coffee, naked. They reciprocated. “We started doing it more and more, even teasing each other with our cool mugs.”

Tasha Rose didn’t attend PSG, but she had already been taking her morning coffee in the nude, at festivals and at home, for a while. Then she noticed Melanie’s photo and she posted one, too. “It felt like a nice way to connect with dear ones who I don’t see often. I post the pics online for no real reason other than vanity, maybe a little bit of the feeling that we are all in the room together naked and drinking coffee.”

It’s mostly women joining in #NakedCoffee. Their ages vary. They pose Individually and in groups; no makeup; hair messy. Some gaze confidently into the camera lens. Others display exuberant joy. In groups, they stand close, touching, completely comfortable. These are women who own themselves and own their power. They’ve found a way to bring the positive, body image culture of Pagan festivals back home.

Kristin, Judy, Alana

Kristin, Judy, Alana

“It wasn’t a spiritual thing in that it had a religious meaning, but it did have a certain ‘baring of the soul ‘ quality to it,” says Tracie Sage Wood. She says it is very empowering, “This is me. Take me or leave me, I don’t care, but here I am.”

naked coffee tracie

Tracie

For Tasha it has become a necessary part of her spiritual practice. For her, it’s a conscious effort, not mindless routine. “Yesterday was really a rough start. I woke up and had a headache and felt terrible about the load of things I had to do. I yelled at my kids, it was bad.”  Then she realized that she hadn’t done the two things that she usually does first thing every morning – make an offering and drink coffee in the nude. “I made offering and my coffee and the day was better from there,” said Tasha. Her husband now joins her for #NakedCoffee on Saturdays and they’ve posted the photos to prove it.

Posting the photos on social media seems integral to #NakedCoffee. It’s a way for them to connect with one another and to combat the toxic messages that mainstream culture bombards us with every day. “Body image is huge. How we see ourselves. How others see us,” says Tracie. She enjoys posting the photos and seeing others do the same, “It was very freeing. And when I see others I think how carefree and beautiful they look.”

naked coffee tasha and travis

Travis and Tasha

Tasha is taking #NakedCoffee on social media to the next level. She’ll be joining friends for naked coffee on a live webcam on a Google+ Hangout. They’ve been waiting for one of their group to get her webcam set up.

Since #NakedCoffee first appeared on my FB feed, I’ve been watching it spread. First to other Pagan and now to non-Pagans. There’s a big difference in the photos between Pagans and non-Pagans. In non-Pagan photos, there is not as much playfulness, more staging, and more focus on genitals.

Will this continue to spread? Will it help Pagans sustain the positive body image festival culture? And is this something the mainstream can learn from us?

“This was originally about sisterhood,” says Melanie. She notes how powerful and needed sister time is. When asked if she’s hopeful that others feel empowered by doing something like #NakedCoffee she said,”If that’s what folks take from this, that’s awesome! Love your naked body! It’s amazing.”

naked coffee mugs

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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

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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“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:

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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.”

 

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