Challenges and Transitions for a Pagan Community Center

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 26, 2014 — 24 Comments

Back in the Fall of 2011, the Open Hearth Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 1999, signed a lease for a long-planned Washington DC Pagan Community Center. The goal of this new space was simple, provide an open community space for local Pagans.

OHF logo.

OHF logo.

“The Open Hearth Foundation (OHF) was founded in 1999 with the mission of launching a Pagan community center in the Washington, D.C. region. The organization was granted 501(c)3 tax-exempt status in 2000. “Town hall” meetings were conducted that year to determine what the Pagan community needed and wanted to see in a community center. […] In January of 2011, Pagan leaders from the area were called into a summit to weigh in on what they needed from a Pagan community center. In July of 2011, the Board began exploring rental properties, and signed a lease for a rental property in September. Organizers and members went straight to work on outfitting the space, and the DC Pagan community center opened its doors on December 31, 2011.”

In the Spring of 2012, OHF installed a library as well, and in the years that followed, several public events and private group meetings were held at the space. However, it seems that fiscal hard times have befallen the Pagan community center, and on February 18th local writer and Wiccan Priestess Literata Hurley reported at her blog that OHF’s current space would be closing down.

“For those who were not able to attend the Open Hearth Foundation town hall meeting last weekend, the biggest news is that OHF will no longer have its current location after the end of March. The board is currently working on making decisions about what OHF will do after that. […] During the last year the board went through a period of overhaul in order to keep the center afloat. The work that they did is why OHF has some assets and options at this point rather than having gone bankrupt around October of 2013. The current board deserves a lot of credit for that work.”

Considering the fact that dedicated community space for Pagans is still quite rare, this closure, like the closure of Sacred Paths Center in 2012, has far greater resonance beyond the immediate geographic area. Reaching out to the current leadership of OHF about their future, I received the following public statement.

Evelyn Wright provided professional facilitation services for the OHF 2014 Town Hall Meeting held Sunday, February 16th, 2014 in Takoma Park, DC.

Evelyn Wright provided professional facilitation services for the OHF 2014 Town Hall Meeting held Sunday, February 16th, 2014 in Takoma Park, DC.

During the meeting, OHF explained that it had reduced its footprint in a move to balance income and expenditures. The current business owner wishes to expand its business and will not allow OHF to renew a lease on the Library space. OHF announced that they would be vacating the space they currently occupy when their lease expires on March 31, 2014. Current donor income does not provide the resources to continue operating a full-service community center, a library and an art gallery. In order to maintain current assets (approximately $10,000; furniture, furnishings and equipment; and 3,000 library items) the board is using the move as a pivotal time for reevaluation. Participants in the meeting undertook a SWOT analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to provide a community perspective on the community center.

The board presented three restructuring options and participants discussed each with the following criteria: evaluating facilities, programs, services, timelines and costs in balance with the current community response. The board explained that it would review the Town Hall’s considerable input, the generous level of donor support and a variety of available options. To close out the meeting, each participant was given the opportunity to answer the question “What do you think is the most important resource OHF has to offer to the community?” The responses summarized OHF’s three main resources: A Pagan Community Library; A Resilient Leadership; A Hope for the Future. Town Hall participant and former OHF Governor Sherry Marts noted, “This meeting provided an excellent forum for direct communication between the OHF leadership and the community the OHF serves. I am leaving the meeting feeling assured that the resources and future of the OHF are in good hands. I’m hopeful that the DC Pagan community will step up to meet the needs for increased volunteer involvement as well as financial support for the OHF.”

When asked about her thoughts regarding the meeting, Vette Parker, current OHF Chair, stated, “I felt energized by the number of people willing to venture out on a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon to participate in this important discussion. The OHF Board is facing some very big decisions regarding the future of the organization and the information exchanged allowed us to get thoughtful, productive feedback and suggestions from all of the attendees before undertaking the decision-making process.”

As noted in their 2013 year-in-review, OHF had been working to keep part of the space open, namely the library. However it too will go into storage with the rest of the center’s possessions. OHF librarian Eric Riley, in a statement sent to me, said that whatever plan the board undertakes it will, quote, “require rebuilding our capital fund.”

Views of the OHF collection.

Views of the OHF library collection.

I have no doubt the board and supporters of Open Hearth Foundation will work hard to find a new direction, and hopefully a new space, in the near future. That said, their difficulties, and the difficulties faced by other Pagan infrastructure projects, are something that needs to be addressed on a larger scale. To be blunt, it all comes down to money, and our sense of what, exactly, we want “Pagan community” as a joint movement/construct to do. I have no doubt that questions will be raised by some as to why their funding wasn’t sustainable, but no matter what the reason, it is clear that such endeavors are fragile to the point where no income stream can be easily lost. We simply do not have a pervasive ethos of tithing for such things, and as much as some may love a community center, they do not inspire the same wide-spread devotion as a temple or tradition-specific house (like the Temple of Witchcraft’s new headquarters).

There are ambitious Pagan infrastructure projects underway, like the New Alexandrian Library, but the bulk of our fundraising efforts are still reactive, uniquely pressing in their need or urgency, or (relatively) small in scale. Maybe this will change as initiatives like the Pantheon Foundation mature, but we are still some distance from many of the fiscal safety nets, well-funded events, services, and buildings that many crave. Do our interconnected communities have enough cohesion to rally behind these dreams of infrastructure? The struggles of OHF make this an open question.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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