[The following is a guest post by Florence Edwards-Miller. She is the Communications Coordinator for Circle Sanctuary, which runs Pagan Spirit Gathering, and she has attended PSG for six years. At PSG Florence presents workshops on nonprofit management and development for the Pagan Leadership Institute. She is also editor of CIRCLE Magazine, a quarterly publication for the Pagan and Nature Spirituality community.]
As each car passes through the Stonehouse Farm gates on the opening day of Pagan Spirit Gathering, those who have already arrived wave and shout, “Welcome home!” Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) is a festival known for a strong sense of community that embraces newcomers and brings others back for years or decades in a row. The intervening year between PSGs is jokingly referred to as the “51-week supply run.” Every year, those attending Pagan Spirit Gathering for the first time are amazed to find such a welcoming and accepting community of like-minded people. They feel like they have come home.
Like Brigadoon appearing from the mists, Pagan Spirit Gathering is essentially a bustling Pagan town that manifests the week of the Summer Solstice every year. This year, PSG broke its own records with well over 1,000 people attending and more than 400 events, including workshops, concerts and rituals. This was, by every measure, the largest PSG ever. Yet despite its size, PSG has been able to maintain that sense of ‘home’ and of community.
That sense of community is deliberately nurtured through all aspects of the festival. Each year’s Pagan Spirit Gathering has a theme, and in 2014 that theme was “Heart and Harmony.” These concepts have always been core to what PSG is about. The very first PSG, 34 years ago, was intended to be a place where Pagans of many different traditions could come together harmoniously. This year, focusing on “Heart and Harmony” helped the PSG community accept a record number of first-time attendees with open arms.
A strong sense of community supports each participant through the festival. It is so much easier to try something new, from dancing freely around the bonfire or singing in front of an audience for the first time, when you know that everyone present is cheering for you. At times of difficulty, when looking into the depths of your soul during an intense spiritual experience, while mourning the loss of a loved one or just coping with a leaky tent during the rain, it helps to know that there are hundreds of new friends ready to offer a hug, a tissue or a dry tarp.
The process of building community starts months before the gates ever open. The creation of a safe, welcoming and cohesive community drives every decision made by Circle Sanctuary staff – the festival’s organizers. PSG has a thriving Facebook group where participants support one another through life transitions during the year; exchange ideas and tips for next year’s PSG; and support newcomers. A week before the festival begins, members of the local Circle Sanctuary community come together to assemble hundreds of ‘spirit bags,’ which contain herbs harvested from Circle Sanctuary’s nature preserve and are charged with energy for a great festival. At the festival site, an amazing team of volunteers works in sweltering temperatures to erect communal tents, post signs and prepare for the instant village that would bloom almost instantaneously on the Sunday before the Solstice.PSG, like every other town, has its municipal services: daily garbage and recycling collection, parents shepherding children to lessons or childcare. EMTs race off to respond to occasional medical situations and even watchful guardians patrol their beats. But, in this town all of the ‘police’ are volunteers, as are the medics who will patch up your blisters or sunburn; the heralds that call out the day’s news all over camp; the smiling gatekeepers who greet each car with clipboard in hand; and the workers at ‘city hall’ (otherwise known as the heavy canvas Info Tent.) PSG is more than just a destination; it is a community that functions because everyone contributes their love, their effort and their energy.
Volunteerism is at the core of what makes PSG work. Every adult member of the ‘tribe’ is asked to contribute four hours of labor during the week toward making the festival run smoothly. Some teens volunteer as well, and some adults even take on more than the required number of two hour ‘work shifts.’ Directing their efforts are a team of volunteer coordinators who oversee services such as the Teen, Tween and childcare centers; sacred sites such as the Ritual Bonfire Circle; the Moon Lodge or the Temple of the Sun God; or events such as the Zodiac Potluck or Magical Gift Exchange. The coordinators’ service to the community starts months before PSG and often continues throughout the year.
Pagan Spirit Gathering strives to feed the heart on so many levels. One ‘heart’ of PSG is the community Sacred Fire. Lit during the opening night’s ritual and, then, fed and carefully maintained by the bonfire coordinators and volunteers through rain and wind, the fire is energized by nightly drumming and dancing, and is the focus of the Solstice morning ritual. The bonfire circle is also the site of the daily morning meetings, when the community comes together to hear both practical announcements about the days’ activities and to get ‘teaser’ performances from musicians who will play later on during the day.
Music is a key part of every PSG. Three or more concerts a day are the norm. This year’s musical guests included Arthur Hinds (of the band Emerald Rose), Celia, Helen Bond and Fode Camara with Diamana Diya, Spiral Rhythm, Tuatha Dea and Picti (David Doersch and Catherine Hauke, formerly of Coyote Run). In addition to performing, these musicians add to the harmony of the gathering by presenting workshops and participating in rituals.A variety of handfastings and weddings happen at PSG. At a time when friends from all over the country come together, many couples choose to recognize their unions surrounded by their spiritual community. While ministers at PSG have been blessing same-sex unions for decades, this year saw the first same-sex marriage that was equal under the law. Other rites of passage throughout the week recognize times of transition, including Coming of Age rites for young men and young women; the Blessingway for mothers; the men’s Personal Rite of Passage; planning for a new women’s rite called Daughters of the Dark Moon; and rites for those recognizing the transition into Crone and Sage years.
PSG also tends to the hearts of those who are in mourning. At the beginning of the 2014 festival, Selena Fox, Moonfeather and Nora Cedarwind Young officiated at a Ceremony of Remembrance that honored members of the PSG community who had passed away in the preceding year, and gave support to community members who had lost loved ones. The Ancestors’ Altar was erected near the bonfire with tokens and pictures of the beloved dead of the community.
In addition to tending to the hearts of individual community members, PSG seeks to help educate and train those who go back and become the ‘hearts’ of their home communities. The Pagan Leadership Institute (PLI) is a special track of programming with workshops that are designed to help those serving as Ministers, Priestesses and Priests. PLI workshops are taught by experts, Circle Sanctuary Ministers and PSG’s featured presenters. Some of this year’s guest presenters were T. Thorn Coyle, Kathryn and Arthur Hinds and Byron Ballard. Over thirty-five workshops were part of the 2014 PLI program, including a five-day minister’s intensive by Selena Fox on Supporting Life Passages.
PSG continues to grow, thrive and change to fit the needs of the community. In 2014, PSG added a new center called EnCHANTment, which hosted nightly singing and chant shares. EnCHANTment started one year as a single night of singing around a bonfire and grew to a nightly informal gathering. This year it not only became an official part of the festival, but the EnCHANTment team also coordinated the beautiful main ritual on the evening of the Summer Solstice.Together everyone processed onto the ritual grounds, carrying a heart made of vine, ribbon, and canvas inscribed with messages from the community. To the throb of drums, we chanted. “I am the Heart.” “We are Harmony.” “I am Home.” This year we promised not to just let it be a 51-week supply run; we pledged to bring that same energy of the heart and spirit of harmony to every aspect of our lives and to widen the circle of community to include all who we touch. I invite you to join us next summer, June 14-22, as we once again welcome our Pagan community home.