Archives For Paganism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Displacement and Divine Intervention

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

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

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

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

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

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

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

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

“The crossroads? Do you mean Flatbush Junction?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flatbush Junction, looking north, Summer 2004.

Flatbush Junction, facing north, Summer 2004.

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

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

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

II. White House, Black Street

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

flatbushstreetcolor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Invisibility, Racism, and Unwanted Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

“Watched? By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Gods, Ghosts, and Ghede

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ceiling as it started to fall

The ceiling as it started to fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. The Green Goddess of Gentrification

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

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

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

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

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

The Starbucks, a few months after it opened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI. Afterword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maetreum of Cybele
3312 Route 23A
Palenville, NY 12463

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

 

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

Here is a timeline of events as they happened:

Outdoor temple at the Maetreum.

Outdoor temple at the Maetreum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1993 – Chicago, USA

1999 – Cape Town, South Africa

2004 – Barcelona, Spain

2007 – Monterrey, Mexico

2009 – Melbourne, Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If the pagan polytheisms have always lost, … it is, among other reasons, because of their exceptional capacity for tolerance…” – Marc Augé

510U4nBPTUL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The books you read can often illuminate patterns within the culture and society that you may not have noticed, or re-contextualize thoughts you’ve already had. Such is the case with “A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism” by Page duBois, a Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego. For the well-read Pagan or polytheist, much of what duBois says regarding the worship of multiple gods and powers won’t be all that new, but the cumulative goal to advocate for a course-correction within academia regarding the concept of polytheism underlines just how pervasive monotheism is within Western culture’s assumptions and thinking, even from the scholars who are supposed to be dispassionate observers and analysts.

DuBois writes with the zeal of someone working to right a wrong, noting that “the attempt to deny its [polytheism's] presence produces intolerant assumptions,” and that when “we naturalize monotheism, or see it as the telos, goal or end of religious development, perhaps a stage on the way to atheism, we accept the homologies that have governed Western modernity.” Monotheism as norm has been so rigidly enforced, notes duBois, that we have a hard time seeing the truth about ancient polytheisms, let alone the fact that “polytheism is always present.”

“Our residence in a predominantly and dominant monotheistic cultural setting, one that has been defensively, even militantly attempting to patrol and police monotheism for millennia, has had its effects on obscuring the nature of ancient societies.”

Seeing an academic stand up and advocate for a re-thinking of polytheism, even if it might be limited to academia, is welcome. As I’ve been reading this work, I couldn’t help but notice how many adherents of the dominant monotheisms constantly engage in the work of boundary maintenance, ever-vigilant in their quest to see polytheism remain outside the bounds of “normal” and “rational” discussions of religion and faith. Or, if polytheism must exist, it must be content to do so from the margins of society, or in distant lands far away from the concerns of Western modernity. For example, this editorial by Bryan Gray at The Davis Clipper on a 10 Commandments monument being erected on government property in New Mexico that was successfully challenged by two Wiccan residents. Gray makes sure to insult the Wiccans, and paint their beliefs as strange.

bloomfield nm

©jorndorf/roughshelter.com

“The New Mexico lawsuit was brought by two people who practice the Wiccan religion. I’m not versed in Wiccan beliefs, but figure the religion’s precepts are somewhere between the Great Mandala and Harry Potter. Frankly, I would have no problem if the Wiccans wanted to pony up money and put their own display outside city hall. The groundskeeper would have less lawn to mow [...]  Yes, we need freedom from government-sponsored religion. We also need freedom from stupidity.”

Further, Gray, seemingly forgetting that the 10 Commandments were handed down by the God of Abraham, argues that they are largely secular, glossing over the many explicitly religious rules laid down. Reinforcing that monotheistic religions are so normal that their removal from a secular public square is suspect, even in the face of non-monotheists speaking up. People like Gray have the luxury of not being bothered by these monuments, because they see monotheism as the acceptable manifestation of religion, and no rebellion (even from within their own theological boundaries) can be tolerated for long in such a system.

“Archbishop Coakley says the Civic Center is a venue where the community can experience a positive form of entertainment. He says this satanic organization has an agenda, that has no place in our society. ‘The Satanic ritual that is scheduled to be performed at our Civic Center is to invoke those dark powers, which I believe are very real and call them into our city, into our community.’ said Archbishop Coakley.”

This endless vigilance against polytheism happens even when it seems like monotheism is winning. Mere adherence to a monotheist identity isn’t enough, they must also be willing to erase any trace of what once was. For instance, Christians love the successes brought about by evangelizing their faith to the “Global South,” until that form of Christianity risks becoming the dominant form of the religion. Then, the hand-wringing over “animism,” syncretism, and polytheism begins.

“When the Church’s center of gravity has completed its transit to the Southern Hemisphere, would any Catholic alive today still recognize it? It is hazardous to predict the full effect of that demographic shift on the historical practices of Christianity. Still, we ought not discount the chance that this tectonic shift could yield a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism. [...] Numerical growth tells us nothing about the blurring of religious distinctions among African congregations or among clergy themselves. A priest might preach Christianity by day and, under cover of the communion of saints, visit an animist divine at night to consult his forefathers.” 

nones_gssHere, we arrive at the deepest fear of the monotheist: That polytheism is actually natural to humanity, and when social controls are lifted, people either leave, or change the faith into something unrecognizable to the purists. As duBois puts it, there is “an inevitability to the persistence of polytheism, an undercurrent that cannot be suppressed, a popular culture that holds to its many gods, a recurrent resurfacing of polytheism within monotheism, or an exhaustion of monotheism that dialectically produces polytheism.” While Christianity still numerically dominates in the United States, the last 20 years have seen the population of those called “nones” (those who claim no formal religion) skyrocket, while non-Christian religions have also continued to grow. This, along with the ragged persistence of secularism, has caused some Christians to adopt language of being in “exile” despite experiencing mild inconveniences at best.

“The harder task is to face the fact of our lingering privilege, tarnished and dimmed though it may be, with an honest and critical heart. Harder still may be the task of reaching out to those whom we managed to drive away from the Kingdom of God all on our own, with no help from music videos or the Supreme Court.”

The invisibility of polytheism in the West is a manufactured invisibility, it didn’t just happen. Western society after the rise of Christianity was built on making sure no competing theologies interfered in the narrative. Dissidents were commodified and defanged, or villainized and mocked. This status quo is maintained in a myriad of ways, such as a mainstream religion news organization increasingly hiring journalists who came up through denominational or evangelical Christian media outlets. Think that doesn’t matter? In their coverage of the current crisis in Iraq, Religion News Service have published one story on the plight of the Yazidis, who practice an ancient pre-Christian religion, and seven on the plight of the Christian minority. Perhaps this imbalance could be waved away as them simply catering to the Christian majority in the United States, but they then also run an editorial lambasting politicians for “ignoring” Iraqi Christians.

“The Yazidis deserve protection and humanitarian aid, but so do the Christians who number in the hundreds of thousands in Iraq. While the Yazidis received air drops of food and water, nothing has been dropped to the Christians who are homeless and in dire need of food and water. Each day that passes is a matter of life and death.”

One could point out that the Yazidis can’t turn to a hugely powerful network of Christian faiths that number in the billions, control huge assets, and walk in the halls of power across the world to advocate for them, thus making the comparison obscene, but let’s simply recognize this for what it is: A reminder that one must not take the focus off the dominant monotheisms for too long. Despite this enforced invisibility, polytheism endures, all we need to do is open our eyes and it is everywhere.

“Polytheism is not primitive, an early stage of human development, to be transcended as people progress toward a more sophisticated understanding of divinity, nor do religions necessarily oscillate between polytheism and monotheism. Rather, I contend that polytheism is always present, officially or unofficially, and that the attempt to deny its presence produces intolerant assumptions among monotheists and even atheists, who claim a moral superiority to polytheists.” - Page duBois, “A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism”

I think that no empire lasts forever, they crumble, or consume themselves, or over-estimate their powers and fail, and such, I think, will be the ultimate fate of the dominant monotheisms. The controls that once worked lose their effectiveness over time, and thus freed, the inevitability of polytheism(s) will reassert itself. I won’t pretend to know what that world will look like, and perhaps the time of transition will be a bleak time, as it often is when oppressive powers finally fall, but I can only think we will better off with an existence that acknowledges our need for interweaving and interconnected relationships as a model. I think a renewed global polytheism will provide that, but for now we need only to push back against the invisibility while we await the inevitability.

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!

Cara Schulz

Cara Schulz

Earlier this month I gave an overview of Cara Schulz’s candidacy for a city council seat in Burnsville, Minnesota. Schulz, a Hellenic Polytheist and staff writer for this publication, has long been active in politics. As a candidate for this non-partisan seat she has endorsed a “Socially Accepting and Fiscally Responsible” platform, and it looks like enough voters in Burnsville liked what they saw. Quote from her Facebook campaign page: “THANK YOU to everyone who volunteered, told their friends about me, and are heading to the polls today to vote. If you think people are selfish, not involved, or lazy … run for office – you will be disabused of those erroneous notions. I’ve been offered help before I could even ask and volunteers helped an insane number of hours. I’ve made some great friends and learned from kind mentors. I’ve met some incredible people from all over Burnsville. [...] The final tally is in! Thank you to everyone who volunteered, sent me messages cheering me on, told others about me, and took the time to vote in the primary.” Schulz will now advance to the general election in November, where the top-two vote getters will fill the two vacant seats on the city council. Our congratulations go out to Cara! 

10557341_10203741099061740_6626525900185221594_nAuthor and Dianic Witchcraft Elder Zsuzsanna Budapest sent out a press release last week announcing that she had bestowed a blessing on Claudiney Prieto, part of Brazil’s Nemorensis Dianic Tradition, for his work on behalf of the goddess Isis. Quote: “I was greatly impressed by Claudiney Prieto in Brazil, who has successfully nurtured an Isis revival. I have blessed him to be a Priest of Isis, which he already is. I saw what he has done and I think he serves the Goddess with his personal leadership. Everybody loves the man. He is dynamite in circle. Such a man with ten years of experience richly deserves the blessing. Both sexes are part of the rituals and sacred plays and always have been. This fits us well. I connect with this because I am also a play write. The original Isis plays have all been translated. It will be great fun creating a religious experience within the medium of theater for this community.” Budapest went on to clearly state that this blessing was not a shift in her beliefs concerning gender and her tradition’s Dianic rituals. Quote: “Although there was some initial confusion about the blessing, it was clarified that he was awarded by her as an honoring of his work with the Goddess [...]  Budapest honored Prieto and bound him as a priest to the Goddess within the constructs of Prieto’s own Nemorensis Dianic Tradition and not her own Dianic Tradition, which is women-born only.” The stated “confusion” and subsequent clarification is most likely related to the fact that Budapest’s form of Dianic Witchcraft is open to cisgender women only, and this blessing could have been interpreted as a move away from that ethos. Such a shift would have been dramatic news indeed, as Budapest has received criticism from within the Pagan community in the recent past for holding “genetic women only” rituals that exclude not just men, but also transgender women, at Pagan events that are open to the public.

green-faiths-3atransThe Covenant of the Goddess (COG), one of the largest Wiccan and Witchcraft-focused organizations in the United States, is holding their annual business meeting, the Grand Council, this week in Atlanta, Georgia. Grand Council, which is held in conjunction with an open-to-the-public event called Merry Meet, is where the sprawling consensus-based organization elects its board and decides on policy. I’ve personally held forth on why I think COG could have a vital role in Wicca and religious Witchcraft’s future, and The Wild Hunt has covered these meetings for the past three years. This year, Merry Meet will feature Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary as a special keynote speaker. Quote: “We are very excited to have Selena Fox as our Guest of Honor for Merry Meet 2014 and as our Friday Night Keynote Speaker. Selena has been a leader and mover in Interfaith for many years and has worked, and continues to work, tirelessly within the Interfaith Community. Join us for what is sure to be a lovely evening of good food, camaraderie, and our shared passion for ‘Standing on Common Ground’!” Stay tuned for a report on the event from Managing Editor Heather Greene in the near future.

In Other Pagan Community News:

  • Polytheist and spirit-worker Sarah Kate Istra Winter has announced the publication of a short booklet on working with animal bones. Quote: “Working with Animal Bones introduces the reader to the biological processes which form bone; gives advice on how to find bones in a natural setting, and subsequently identify and thoroughly clean them; discusses the types of crafts that can be made with bones; and explores the history and modern practices involving the sacred use of animal bones, including divination. An annotated bibliography and list of online resources for collectors are also included.” The book can be purchased at Etsy, or on Amazon.com.

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  • Over at the Patheos Pagan channel, The Staff of Asclepius blog has welcomed two new contributors: Nornoriel Lokason and CJ Blackwood. Quote: “Nornoriel Lokason is a thirtysomething Norse pagan and demonolater living in the Portland metropolitan area with spirits and a cat [...] Nornoriel is a disability and LGBT rights advocate and in his spare time he enjoys thrifting, communing with nature, reading, and being an armchair historian. [...] CJ Blackwood graduated from Illinois State University with a Bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in English [...] She’s been a practing witch and Pagan for eight years. Her path began with eclectic Wicca, but has now taken her to dusky realms of warrior goddesses, creative goddesses, and crones.”
  • Hungarian Pagan band The Moon and the Nightspirit have released a new album entitled “Holdrejtek.” Quote: “Just like its predecessor ‘Mohalepte’, ‘Holdrejtek’ is much influenced by a deep veneration for and love of nature as far as its concept is concerned, while this time, mastermind Mihaly Szabo approaches the subject in a less romantic and more intellectual way. The lyrics are rife with the philosophical idea of simultaneous oneness and duality of micro- and macrocosm, which is attributed to Hermes Trismegistos and his screed ‘Tabula Smaragdina’.” You can purchase the album digitally on iTunes and at Amazon.com.

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

Much has already been said about the current crisis in the Middle East. For decades, a violent tragedy has been playing out between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The death toll continues to rise, year after year, as the headlines pile up.

When cutting through all political propaganda, cultural biases and angry rage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at its very simplest, a struggle over land rights and nationhood. It is a battle that has been fueled by hardened mistrust and stubborn resolve.

"Damaged housing gaza strip april 2009" by Marius Arnesen - Flickr/CC lic./Wikimedia

“Damaged housing gaza strip april 2009″ by Marius Arnesen – Flickr/CC lic./Wikimedia

As the bombs drop, most of the world watches the struggle play out through the international media. In recent months, there have been countless reports of mass casualties as Israeli bombs fall on residential areas killing Palestinian families and destroying schools. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that there have been over 1900 Palestinian deaths, most of which were civilian. The United Nations Human Rights Council is readying to take legal action against Israel for war crimes.

Over the last 66 years, Israeli actions have caused significant economic suffering for the Palestinian population, including the 1000s of Palestinian refugees, who now live in camps throughout the region. Yesterday, The New York Times featured an article on Belal Khaled, a Palestinian photojournalist who has turned many of his photographs into expressive works of art. He, and other artists like him, consider themselves to be part of the resistance to the Israeli occupation and aggression.

At the same time, Hamas has recently been accused of stationing itself and its weapons purposefully within residential areas. On Aug. 5, an NDTV Indian news crew reported that Hamas had launched rockets from a field near its hotel in Gaza. NDTV only published the article and corresponding video after its crew was safely out of the area. The article reads, “Just as we reported the devastating consequences of Israel’s offensive on Gaza’s civilians, it is equally important to report on how Hamas places those very civilians at risk by firing rockets deep from the heart of civilian zones.”

Shai Ferraro, an Israeli Ph.D. candidate in history and student of modern Paganism, similarly reported: “Hammas official television is telling families who live near homes of Hammas terrorists in Gaza to stand on the rooftops of the houses … and become martyrs. This is while Hammas leadership itself is safely ensconced in bunkers under Gaza’s main hospital.”

Still classified by the U.N. as a terrorist organization, Hamas is an Islamic extremist group that has a long history of supporting and promoting acts of violence.Since its inception in the 1990s, Hamas has been responsible for countless suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. Recently, the organization released a music video calling for the elimination of the “roaches” – Zionists and Israelis. It was allegedly made to scare Israelis.

In a climate of such disordered violence, the fundamental disagreements between the people themselves – the Israelis and Palestinians – are buried beneath rubble, ashes and blood. The majority of both populations want the comfort and community that comes with nationhood, including dedicated lands on which they can raise their families, govern their lives and enjoy their culture unimpeded by prejudice, restrictions and threats of extermination. However, all the world sees is failed diplomacy, violence, fear and hate.

Unfortunately, the international media has not helped the situation. In an article entitled, “Israel, Gaza, War & Data,” writer Gilad Lotan demonstrates how one single bombing event can have a number of different headlines and, ultimately, story angles. It is sensationalized media propaganda at its best, and the truth is wedged somewhere in between it all.

As such, the opinion-making process has managed to polarize an already volatile situation. The crisis in Gaza is complex and cannot be reduced to a good-versus-evil scenario, despite the efforts of the media. Max Fischer at Vox.com offers the most comprehensive, balanced explanation of the struggles between these two peoples. His article “The 11 Biggest Myths About Israel-Palestine” discusses various common “facts” that punctuate international debates, including both the truths and lies within them. He breaks the myths down into short digestible, well-explained essays. For example, Fischer says:

Myth #2: This is not, despite what your grade school teacher may have suggested, a clash between Judaism and Islam over religious differences. It’s a clash between nationalities — Israeli and Palestinian — over secular issues of land and nationhood.

Myth #9: Things are basically peaceful during periods of relative calm …. Periodically the situation will escalate so rapidly, with such relatively slight provocation, and to such a level of severity, that the rest of us can’t ignore what every Palestinian and many Israelis already know: the conflict may be quieter some days than it is on others, but it is still active, still destroying lives and communities, and still scarring these two societies every day.

To take a closer look at the realities of living within the walls of this crisis, we turned to several Pagans and Heathens living in Israel. Neferasta, a 26-year-old Kemetic Pagan Priestess, suffers from PTSD caused by previous conflicts. She says, “PTSD is not talked about but dealing with difficult memories from events that create trauma get worse in wartime. When I hear alarms, I feel lost, detached, confused. It brings me back in time to the war zone.”

Neferast, who currently lives in Haifa, was in the army during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and served as a police officer with the Israeli Defense Forces. She says, “It’s really hard for me to talk about it, I’ve seen people die in front of my eye, those horrible images haunt my dreams.”

Moon Daughter

Moon Daughter

Moon Daughter, an eclectic Pagan from Moshav and co-organizer of the country’s yearly Mabon Festival, says,

For most Pagans in the west, war is a theoretic notion. They have never experienced it. As I took my sleeping 2-year-old in my arms and tried to walk calmly to the closest bomb shelter, my earliest memory came to life, being with my mother and neighbors in a bomb shelter when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur on 1973. I was four.

Moon Daughter calls upon her spiritual beliefs in attempt to understand what is happening within her country. She says:

For a pagan and a champion for peace, war in confusing and its outcomes are heartbreaking. It is a violation of the Goddess’ gifts of love and life. I keep remembering that ancient peaceful Goddess civilizations were ruined by warlike religions and either had to resort to violence as well, or perish.  Where does that leave me when I have rockets raining down on my home? I think of all the women and children on the other side and wish for all peace loving people everywhere would unite against this patriarchal culture of war.

Illy Ra, a Kemetic Pagan living in the small town of Kadima in central Israel, has become frustrated with the polarizing of opinions caused by the sensationalized international reporting. She says:

Many are not aware that by posting propaganda, they are promoting war and violence on both of the sides by using blame discourse. What is blame discourse and how does it promote war? This discourse focuses on each side blaming the other, and searches for faults as a method to win or cause damage to the other. Here comes the bystanders’ role in this war. By participating in blame discourse, through the posting of propaganda that breeds hate, the international community causes people from these countries to cling to extreme views and believe peace is unachievable.

As Illy Ra sent her response, bomb sirens and blasts were heard. All of that happening during a supposed cease-fire.

Shai Feraro, has also been experiencing the violence firsthand and recently reported on Facebook:

Woke up in 3:28 a.m. to a rocket siren here in the northern city of Haifa. No boom tonight, but the concentration of petrochimical/oil industries in the Bay of Haifa makes it a desirable target for the terrorists. Still that is nothing compared to the daily nightmare citizens of southern Israel experience, with countless attacks a day.

While we all watch from our seats across the oceans or continents, we can only know the truth from what is reported to us by the international media or by friends and family in the region. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach any Pagans within the Palestinian territories. However, as is the case with many of the Islamic regions, Pagans are very well hidden. As one person told us, “it would be dangerous for a Pagan to come out of the broom closet in that culture.” This was corroborated by our contacts in Cairo.

Photo from the Vision Camp Facebook Public Album

Over a six-day period in late July, peace workers from both Israel and the Palestinian territories attended a “vision camp.” During that time, over 50 people gathered in the West Bank to hold vigils and discussions about the crisis. The camp was called “We refuse to be Enemies” and eventually inspired the social media activist tag #werefustobeenemies. During the 6 day retreat, the group developed a vision statement which reads, in part:

As peaceworkers from Israel, Palestine and various other parts of the world, we have been holding a peace vigil in the middle of a war in the West Bank over the last several days. We are gathering here under very simple conditions, creating community life, sharing from our hearts, in silence and in tears, in the midst of shootings and bombings. We are bearing witness and trying to stay in Grace. We have been faced with this senseless killing every day….

What we all agree on is: Enough! Stop this killing. No solution can come from war! Each innocent victim of this war is one too many! We refuse to be enemies. We are calling out to all parties: Stop this war! Our feelings are beyond words, but we can no longer be silent. The civil population is being lied to on both sides, and the world is mostly silent and misled by the media…

We have decided to step out of our personal identification and look beyond all the different worldviews toward the fundamental healing of trauma. Compassion is not a question of worldview! Compassion is the emergency call of planet earth and the heart of humanity… 

During our interview, Illy Ra had the same message. “When will this war end?” she wondered aloud. She asks everyone to “avoid blame discourse” and only “promote human solidarity and peace.” She says, “How can this be done? By doing anything else, from global meditation, prayer and candle vigils for hope, anything positive that causes human hope and not human despair.”

While the civilian peace efforts continue, the current cease fire is nearing its expiration. Unfortunately, the two governments have yet to figure out how to put aside their pride, mistrust and weapons to find a compromise that would peaceably enact their people’s wishes in a workable form. As Max Fischer wrote, “Myth #11: Everyone knows what a peace deal would look like.”  Until that can happen, the coldest and, possibly, only knowable truth in this crisis is that generations of people, in two richly diverse world cultures, continue to suffer at the hands of unending conflict.

 

[Walking the World is a monthly weekend column. It features different Pagan and Heathen writers from outside the U.S.A. bringing varied perspectives to The Wild Hunt. Today we introduce Cosette Paneque, a blogger and Priestess in the Georgian Wicca Tradition, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.]

Greetings from Down Under!

I’m an immigrant twice. The first time, I emigrated from Cuba to Miami in 1980. In 2012, I moved to Melbourne, Australia to be with my Aussie partner. I left behind an incredible spiritual community. I belonged to Beachfyre Coven and to the Everglades Moon Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess through which I held ministerial credentials. I was involved with Cherry Hill Seminary and the Pagan Newswire Collective. I belonged to an ilé. I went to Florida Pagan Gathering and PantheaCon. I am Wiccan and I counted Santeros, Druids, Heathens, Hellenists, and various other kinds of polytheists as friends and acquaintances. I expected that Australia would have the same kind of vibrant community, but, if it does, I haven’t found it.

Australia has a smaller population than California spread across a vast and diverse country roughly the size of the United States. The Pagan pool is much smaller here. In the 2011 census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 32,083 Australians identified their religion as a Pagan. Pagans are also widely dispersed, but no one is ever too far when you have the Internet. I made contacts and met some people and, eventually, made some friends.

Great Ocean Road [by C. Paneque]

Great Ocean Road [Photo taken by C. Paneque]

My experience with Aussie Pagans has been delightful. They are intelligent, talented, caring people with a hunger for knowledge and community. But many of them – in fact almost every Pagan I’ve met – have had extremely negative experiences with other Pagans, which has left them deeply wounded and suspicious of each other.

The negative experiences fall within a few categories. There are those who know very little and place themselves in positions of leadership, the responsibilities of which they are unable to handle. They are quickly challenged by others or they burn out. There are those out to make a quick buck and manage to succeed for a while before they acquire a terrible reputation. Some groups are little more than cliques. The worst are the stories of abuse – of initiates coerced into getting tattoos as a sign of membership and allegiance; of priests who accept only young women as students; and of priestesses who make sex a requirement for participation and twist sacred rituals into something sordid.

Even organizing a casual lunch can be challenging because Pagans are afraid of running into someone who has hurt them. There are a few well-regarded groups such as Reclaiming and ADF, but covens remain largely hidden. Most Pagans that I’ve talked to prefer to remain solitary.

Many, however, express a longing for community and access to teachers. They seek information and a sense of kinship on Facebook and other online sites. I’m primarily speaking of Wiccans, Witches, Druids and other kinds of eclectic Pagans. I haven’t met other kinds of polytheists and, if there is a community of African diasporic religions such as Vodou or Lucumi, it is deeply hidden.

Blue Mountains National Park [By freeaussiestock.com / CC lic.]

Blue Mountains National Park [By freeaussiestock.com / CC lic.]

Contemporary Paganism has been in Australia for a long time. By the 1970s, Alexandria Wicca was established and came to be the most popular initiate tradition in Australia.* And yet Australia has since developed very little infrastructure to support and connect Pagans. The most well-known organization may be the Pagan Awareness Network, but it’s difficult to say how active the group is or what its impact has been. The media release on the website’s home page is dated 2012, and my attempts to get an interview with a representative have gone nowhere. There are few festivals, but most of these suffer from organizational problems. The most well-known festival may be the Mt. Franklin Pagan Gathering, a casual weekend camping event that has been taking place for over 30 years.

Legally, Aussie Pagans don’t fare very well. The 1901 Constitution of Australia prohibits the Commonwealth government from establishing a church or interfering with the freedom of religion. However, none of the Pagan religions are legally recognized. Here in Melbourne, I’ve met three Pagans who are marriage celebrants (marriage is a civil act) and none who are clergy. Although I do know of at least one Pagan church, the Community Church of Inclusive Wicca Incorporated (CCIWI)in South Australia. Strict weapon laws generally mean that athames are illegal and difficult to purchase even from abroad.

When it comes to rituals and magick, a major struggle is that much of the Pagan material comes from the Northern Hemisphere, primarily the U.S., and it doesn’t easily apply here. Our seasonal cycle is opposite; some of us just observed Imbolc while our friends in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated Lughnassadh.

That one is easy, but others things are sources of conflict. For example, the sun travels from the east to the west through the north, as opposed to through the south. There are countless arguments among circle-casting Pagans about the direction in which to cast the circle and whether the elements should be associated with different directional points. It’s the old debate on whether to use what we inherited from the symbolism in the Western Mystery Tradition or to apply a geographical interpretation. When it comes to correspondences, there has been little work done with Australia’s unique flora and fauna, and many Australians have simply been working with material developed in the U.S. and England.

There’s a great divide among the Pagans that I’ve talked to regarding what they want. Some just want to be alone. Some want community, but they don’t think it’s possible to achieve it due to previous negative experiences.  Therefore, they don’t support efforts to develop it. Many others want to develop friendships and networks, build infrastructure, and establish festivals that could create access to teachers. Many Aussie Pagans are familiar with well-known American Pagans, especially authors, and bemoan the fact that they have neither the means to bring them to Australia, nor the funds to travel to the U.S. to see them at events such as PantheaCon or Pagan Spirit Gathering.

I am thrilled to know some wonderful Pagans doing great work here in the Lucky Country. More groups, publications, and festivals are popping up every day. I know Aussie Pagans who are podcasting, writing, facilitating public workshops and rituals, and doing research on Australia’s unique plant and animal life. Many are interested in exploring Aboriginal culture, but that presents its own special challenges.

[Photo by C. Paneque]

[Photo taken by C. Paneque]

As for me, I’m in the curious position of being well-versed in a particular form of Wicca from the Northern Hemisphere and being a complete beginner Down Under. Everything is different here – the land, the spirits, the wildlife, and plants. I have a lot to learn. After being unable to find my niche, I decided to create it. After two years of networking and five months of teaching an introductory course on Wicca, I have formed a coven. I am excited and privileged to be working with such bright and talented people, to re-introduce the Georgian Wicca tradition to Australia, and I look forward to learning as much from them as they might from me.

* Reference: Douglas Ezzy’s essay “Australian Paganisms”, Handbook of Contemporary Paganism edited by Murphy Pizza, James R. Lewis

[The following is a guest post from Erick DuPree. Erick DuPree is author of the popular blog Alone In Her Presence, and the book Alone In Her Presence: Meditations on the Goddess, as well as co-founder of Dharma Pagan, an online resource for dharma practitioners. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.]

They came by the blazing fire, circling and singing, invoking the Goddesses and Gods of old. There was dancing, merriment, deep reflection; even a few tears, all from the men of Coph Nia.

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Coph Nia is a mystical gathering of gay and bisexual men organized and sponsored by the Ordo Aeternus Vovin, a Thelemic, ceremonial magickal order for gay and bisexual men that was held August 6-10.

Founder of the event, Julian Hill explains,

“The organizers of Coph Nia started the festival with a simple vision based upon a verse from Crowley’s Book of the Law — “Every Man and Every Woman is a Star”.  Many of us had come out into a queer community that was far more united, compassionate, loving and respectful than what is typically experienced in today’s queer community.  We knew that if there was to be any hope of reclaiming a queer community that nurtured and supported one another, the process must start with those that feel a connection to spirit.  This year’s event definitely gives us hope that not only are there other spiritually minded men who feel as we do, but that they will be the vanguards for a new type of queer community that focuses on building each other up rather than tearing us down.” 

Open to long-time practitioners and new seekers, the event started with lighting an eternal fire at the drum circle, which burned the entire event. Here stories were told with master storyteller, Quill, dynamic drumming with Ben, as men raised voices in chant and song. With registration the festival includes a commemorative t-shirt, glow bracelet, and artfully designed program guide with poems and inspirational writing.

I had the pleasure of being invited as a featured presenter along with my colleagues Mel Mystery and Steve Kenson. Of the event, Steve offered this reflection:

“The element that rises most prominently for me at this moment is the connection we mentioned so often over the course of the gathering: the common threads that run between us, the experiences both shared and created, the back-and-forth and swirling dances of conversation, movement, thought, and interaction, the simple expressions of love and affection, and those unexpected moments of deep connection, where your soul says “Oh, there you are – I’ve been looking for you.”

The theme for Coph Nia: 2014 was Periculum, and focused on the risks or dangers of initiation. Each of the featured presenters, as well as the OAV presented workshops and rituals that explored initiation and/or enlightenment, empowering participants to bring their own risks and rewards and the process of conquering one’s fears.

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Mel Mystery and the men of Coph Nia explored the power creating Rites of Passage in three information packed workshops. Steve Kenson brought workshops on the intersection of magic and gaming, creating sustainable communities in the Aquarian Age, as well as his very popular Fires of the Queer Spirit. It was here that we saw some of the deepest and most heart opening sharing between men. For my part, I offered workshops in Tantric intuition and breathwork, as well as an exploration of Men in Goddess Community. From that workshop, the men of Coph Nia have developed a reflection for inclusion in the forthcoming anthology, Finding the Masculine in Goddess’ Spiral; Men in Ritual, Service and Community to the Goddess, being published by Immanion Press.

Travis offered this reflection on his experience.

“There was such a deep sense of inner connectedness which allowed my spirit to see beyond the veil of the mundane, that this is where I belong.”

10517544_10203235580664495_3779651843741708883_nRituals were offered nightly. Glen Velez opened the first night with a beautiful midnight Hekate ritual aspecting the Queen of Magick and serving as oracle. Supporting the theme of Periculum, OAV dedicants offered Tempting the Da’ath as a gateway into ecstatic practices in ritual with participants scrying, aspecting, and delving deep into mysteries, and Stealing the Me, a journey as Innana through her myths. The opening ritual invited the God Gugalanna who stayed present throughout the event. Gugalanna was also the focus of the main ritual, which breathtakingly invited participants to witness High Ceremonial Magick in true splendor. With drums and chanting, men came together united under Julian’s stellar priesting.

Of the ritual experience Monte shares, “The main ritual held on Saturday night is extremely powerful for those who have witnessed it at prior Coph Nia’s as well as equally powerful for those viewing it for the first time.  Even though we all experience the same happenings, each individual’s experience is unique and that is what makes it difficult to put into words.  What I experience will be completely different from what anyone else experiences.  However, three generalizations seems to come out of everyone’s mouths…a unique and positive brotherhood, a deep sense of connection, and an overwhelming sense of community.”

Radical Fairy, Eldritch lead a Heart Circle, Monte guided Tantric massage, and Queer Archivist, Rich Wandel reminded us of where we as gay men have been with an eye to the future.  But it was not all workshops and ritual, for we feasted sensuously and danced the night away, sang Queer-oke, and raised money for future Coph Nia festivals with a silent auction. The highlight of the silent auction was a limited edition RuPaul doll, needless to say, the bidding was fierce! (She went home with Glen Velez, naturally!)

From a logistic standpoint, Coph Nia is held at the beautiful 4 Quarters interfaith community in Artemas, PA. Camping with hot showers and flush toilets, 4 Quarters fed us like kings with food, both omnivore and vegetarian that was unbelievably delicious. The land was spacious, magical, and truly other worldly at times. Many rounded out the event activities with swimming at Hemlock Hole and nature walks.

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Each night brought us closer in community. One beat and one breath, culminating in a concert with enchanting harpist, Gaffer That Harp Guy, his songs and harp a serenade to Goddess herself.  “I feel like I found my tribe. I felt such resonance with the group.” said Mel Mystery.

“The experience of Coph Nia is more than can just be put into words.  It’s a feeling that comes form the connections you make with the people you meet, the people you reunite with, and/or the people you came with.  The energy created by throwing away the normal cliques and masks we hide behind creates an experience that provides a true sense of brotherhood.” said Monte. In the safety and love of brotherhood, the men of Coph Nia discovered that love is always stronger than fear. Love after all is still the law, unwavering.  Coph Nia was everything it advertised to be and more. “The common threads, stories and shared experiences of Coph Nia 2014 reminded each of us just how much we are alike.” said Julian Hill.

Coph Nia‘s dates are set for next year, August 5-9th 2015. For more information visit: www.cophnia.org.

Harmony Tribe, the group that produces Sacred Harvest Festival (SHF), a Pagan camping festival held in SE Minnesota, celebrated its 17th year last week. While the festival has experienced ups and downs over the years, most recently a new campground zoning restriction limiting night time drumming, it now faces the challenge of finding a new location.

The Harmony Tribe stewards announced at this year’s festival that it was the last time the event would be held at Harmony Park. They also said that they had not yet secured a place to hold the festival next year.*

The campground, which has hosted the festival for all 17 years, is a favorite with attendees. It’s small, private layout combined with a full grove of Burr oak trees gave the festival an intimate feeling and helped attendees connect with nature and one another. “I’ve loved the serenity and privacy of Harmony Park,” says festival attendee Traci Amberbride, “the way the weather seems to be held somewhat at bay, the shade of the trees, the dappled sunlight coming through. Watching the sunrise of the lake and set beyond the parking field. I love the flow of the park and the ability to determine how in the middle of things you want to be.”

The announcement was met with a range of emotions. Heather Biedermann, who has attended the festival since 2007, said she was heartbroken at hearing the festival would no longer be at Harmony Park, “The oak trees have always felt like home to me. However, I understand that with the changes that were happening at Harmony Park, it just wouldn’t be right to stay either.”

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Sacred Harvest Festival 2013 [Photo credit: Teo Bishop]

Some of the changes included the noise restrictions which took effect in 2011. This meant drumming ended at 10pm on weekdays and 1am on weeknights. This year, attendees could no longer drive vehicles into the park to load and unload their camp gear while campers and RVs had to park in the treeline just outside the park.

Harmony Tribe member Tasha Rose says Sacred Harvest Festival was treated differently by the campground owner than the camp’s larger music festivals. She says,”I honestly saw it coming. It sort of felt like a slow pushing out by [the owner] Jay. We have such a positive impact on the land there and have had one obstacle after another thrown at us for the past few years, while large events that disrupt the environment are allowed to continue doing their thing.”

Rachael, one of the Harmony Tribe Stewards responsible for helping produce SHF, says, “The decision to move was a series of factors including the limits placed on us by the sound curfew, the limited access to the park, and the camping restrictions for RVs. We have many who attend our fest who are mobility impaired or have small children, so limiting where we could go and how we get our things into our space was difficult to work within those confines.” She noted they are a community who drums into the night as part of their spiritual experience and said the drumming curfew has detracted from the festival experience.

Moving a festival location is not without risks. Author and SHF presenter Crystal Blanton says changing venues is challenging for any festival, “I anticipate that SHF might lose some of it’s regular festival goers but will gain some more in other area. I think it is a chance to shake things up and grow in the process, but it is always sad to see people leave the community after large change. It is to be expected though.”

There is an additional layer of risk in announcing a festival is changing location before securing the next venue. “Being an event planner, I know that not having a secured place to host even a year out is not ideal in the least,” says Tasha. She says her family doesn’t have plans to return to SHF with the move.

[Festival Theme Art 2014 by Judith Olson]

[Festival Theme Art 2014 by Judith Olson]

Heather says her major concern is that the festival will take a year off while they search for a new location, “What that usually means to me is that the festival won’t happen again. I sincerely hope that wherever Harmony Tribe decides to go, it will be a positive, growing change for the better.” She says she plans to attend the festival next year, although location and dates may affect that decision.

Traci is more optimistic about the venue search, but knows it won’t be an easy task. “As sad as leaving the Oaks is, I think this is a change for the better. Everything has a cycle, and there have been many changes in the last several years within Harmony Tribe. It’s time for a new birth and beginning. To reestablish what this community is and to whom it is important. I’m excited about the possibilities a new beginning brings.”

Moving a Pagan festival is more challenging than moving other types of camping festivals. In addition to a venue which allows late night drumming, there are other needs and wants particular to Pagan festivals, such as privacy and nudity. Rachael says the Harmony Tribe board is weighing all the criteria and asking for community input, “We put it out into the community to tell us what they need and got a lot of responses. The most popular responses to that question were showers, communal campfires, RV parking, shade, and privacy. The responses that were given as wants were a swimming place and a playground. The places that we’ve seen have great amenities, but where you get a little more, you have to give a little more.” She says attendees are encouraged to fill out the festival feedback form located here.

There are non-tangible criteria as well. Crystal Blanton isn’t just a presenter, she’s also an attendee. She has flown from California with her family multiple times to attend SHF because of its importance to her spiritual and emotional well-being, “The supportive, loving and family atmosphere is very important to me personally, and my desire to expose my children to other Pagan families. This particular festival has something very special it offers to my family – the ability to come and be a part of a community that embraces our diversity and supports our collective needs.”

Tasha, who has attended the festival for ten years and whose husband has attended all 17 years agrees that SHF plays a large role in her spiritual life, “The grove and the people who live in it for the week of SHF are all a part of who I am.” She says the festival is also important for her children to experience Pagan culture, “I go because my children get to have time with other children in their own culture. They don’t really have that in our day to day aside from their siblings. Without this festival in that Grove, we won’t have what we have come to need in our spiritual family life, and I am sad about that.” But she says it feels like it’s time to move on and create that culture with new people in new places.

“This Festival is very important to my spiritual health and my family’s,” says Traci. “We have grown, experienced, and learned so much from both the Tribe and the presenters. My children have made lasting bonds, as have Jackie and I. We live in a small, rural community and aren’t always able to find time to commune with our spiritual/religious community. This is a big chunk for us.”

The search continues to find a new home for the Sacred Harvest Festival. Only time will tell if this is the end or the rebirth of a much loved part of upper Midwest Pagans’ spiritual lives.

“We will do our best to continue to meet the needs of the community,” Rachael says. “There is no place like the grove, but we are going to find some place that gives us a new home with the same or better festival experience.”

* [Harmony Tribe and Harmony Park have no formal relationship and were named independently of one another]