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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.

“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.

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©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!

[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.

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!

pageHeaderTitleImageThe Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, has just published a special double-sized edition, catching the publication up after a delay. Quote: “Welcome to a double issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. We regret that our publication has fallen behind schedule, but this 2013 double issue will help bring it more in synch with the calendar. Thanks to guest editors [Manon Hedenborg-White] and Inga Bårdsen Tollefsen, both of the University of Tromsø, Norway, this issue includes a section of interesting papers on gender issues within several varieties of contemporary Paganism and occultism, ranging from Canada to Russia.” Also covered are articles responding to a 2012 critique of Pagan Studies. There are also a number of interesting (and free to download) book reviews. 

The Druid NetworkThe Druid Network performed a global ritual in honor of peace on August 10th. Quote: “Last night, on 10 August 2014 members of the international organisation, The Druid Network, performed a ritual all across the globe in honour of peace. Crises of war are happening all over the globe, and members of TDN gathered together on the member-only social network site to discuss matters. What evolved was the creation of a ritual for peace, that could be enacted by anyone, anywhere, at this August Supermoon. Over 300 people responded to the Facebook event, and even more Pagans from all over the globe performed either this version or their own with the intention of creating peace.” The press release includes the ritual format shared amongst the participants, and they intend to perform the ritual at every following full moon.

Kraemer-Eros-Touch-coverEditors Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow have announced a call for entires in a new anthology concerning Pagan consent culture. Quote: “This collection will define Pagan consent culture; articulate widely-held Pagan theologies of the body; examine theological resources in various Pagan traditions for building consent culture; explore strategies for making seeking consent to touch a normal community practice; give recommendations for safeguarding policies at events for children and adults; provide procedures for communities to use when responding to accusations of sexual abuse; consider the role of unequal power dynamics in relationships in Pagan communities; and examine the ethics of sexual initiation, erotic healing, and other Pagan religious practices involving the ritual use of touch.” The deadline for first full drafts is Feb 1, 2015.

Janie Felix

Janie Felix

We had previously reported on the case of Janie Felix and Buford Coone, members of the Order of the Cauldron of the Sage, who had challenged a 10 Commandments monument being erected on government property in New Mexico. Well, on August 7th, a federal judge ruled that the monument was unconstitutional. We reached out to Janie Felix, who sent us the following statement: “We are delighted (the many people I represented) with the court’s decision.  It feels that the law was upheld and that the court reflected the Founding Father’s plan for our country.  This is an important victory for all the non-Christian folks here in New Mexico and around the country … I, personally, hope that the monument will be removed to a prominent spot on the grounds of the largest local church where it can be admired and not impinge on the lawful rights of the non-Christian community here in Bloomfield.  It saddens me that the local comments in dissent to the ruling reflect the prejudices of the folks in favor of the monument staying where it is rather than understanding the reasons for the suit in the first place. Comments were made, i.e. ‘if she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to look at it’ … ‘she can just move’ … ‘she is ruining our country.’   We, the plaintiffs, have always expressed that this was impinging on our rights as citizens and was not opposition to the commandments per se.  By staying out of all matters of faith and spirituality, the government gives all religions an equal chance to thrive in our country.  Indeed, that was the purpose of the religious liberty causes in the 1st amendment.” 

open_halls_squareLast week we reported on the news of the Air Force adding “Asatru” and “Heathen” to their religious preferences list. For more on the background of this story, check out The Norse Mythology Blog’s interview with Master Sergeant Matt Walters, who worked with the Open Halls Project to make it happen. Quote: “I got a notification that it would be shortly that the approval would go through, and on a whim I decided to check. Apparently only hours before I checked, the personnel office had made the inclusion of the two requested denominations, and I was able to officially be recognized as a heathen. Now any airman can identify themselves as Ásatrú or Heathen in their military records, if they wish.”

Victor_WellesleyVictor Kazanjian, the Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative (URI), was hosted at a reception held by the Northern California Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess (COG). Quote: “This was an opportunity for him to meet the Pagan community of the San Francisco Bay Area and for us to meet him.  A reasonable sample of the many groups of the Bay Area attended.  The Fellowship of the Spiral Path graciously donated their monthly time-slot at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists (BFUU) hall as a welcoming space to hold the reception. [...] I have the highest of hopes for Victor, and the URI, and for the growing relationship between the URI and the Pagan community of the Bay Area and the world.  I will give everyone a chance to introduce their groups soon, but first it is both a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Victor Kazanjian.” Be sure to also check out COG Interfaith Reports blog for their summary report on the Global Indigenous Initiative meeting

Book-Fault-Lines-Gus-DizeregaThe results for the 2014 Independent Book Awards have been released, and Gus diZerega’s “Fault Lines: The Sixties, the Cultural War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine” won the Silver prize in the New Age/Mind-Body-Spirit category. DiZerega’s book was tied for Silver with “Garden of Bliss: Cultivating the Inner Landscape for Self-Discovery” by Debra Moffitt, which was published by Llewellyn Worldwide. Quote from the book’s blurb: “The United States is suffering its greatest upheaval since the Civil War—politically, economically, socially and religiously. In Fault Lines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine, author Gus diZerega explores the complex causes leading us to this point, comparing them to giant fault lines that, when they erupt, create enormous disturbance and in time new landscapes.”

Pantheon FoundationWith the Pantheon Foundation’s funding campaign for The Diotima Prize successful, the process to award the prize has begun. A selection committee has been announced, as well as an essay contest to decide the winner. Quote: “The Pantheon Foundation, dedicated to building 21st century infrastructure for Pagans, calls for you to apply to receive the Diotima Prize. By the power of the Pagan community’s generosity $1,000 has been crowd-funded to support your studies this year. Send us a 1,000 word essay on the nature of Paganism and Pagan ministry, and the author of the best, selected by our committee, will be awarded this year’s prize.” Deadline for essays is September 1st. Applicants must be currently in an accredited seminary program.

Patrick McCollum in IndiaA crowd-funding campaign is has been launched to help fund Pagan activist and chaplain Patrick McCollum’s participation in several world peace-oriented Fall events. Quote: “While Patrick’s service and presence at these powerful events is clearly of high value, the organizers of the events do not have the financial means to provide for his airfare. Our desire is not only to get him there, but to insure his safe travels and maximize the outreach of the important messages he has to share. We are aiming to raise $6,000 for this trip. What this would afford us are the round-trip tickets to India for Patrick and to have some money for other travel expenses. It will also be used to support the youth. If we receive more than our funding needs, the extra money will go towards the foundation and to supporting the various work that Patrick is a part of.” McCollum’s efforts were recently mentioned in the LA Times.

10541858_10152353140474755_4646233186467081917_nDebbie Chapnick, owner of Datura Press, has released a new book that melds tarot and food entitled: “The Journey of the Food, Snacking your way through the Tarot.” Quote: “In a deep sleep a voice said to me ‘The eight of swords… that’s a Mississippi mud cake’. The phrase repeated over and over again. When I finally woke up in the morning I was exhausted, but I knew what I had to do… write a cookbook! That’s where it began, ‘The Journey of the Food.’ I cook for my friends all of the time and get hired to do desserts for the occasional party. It was the perfect for me. The two things I love doing the most all together.” You can order yours by emailing Chapnick at: daturapress@gmail.com.

David Oliver Kling

David Oliver Kling

Pagan learning institution Cherry Hill Seminary has announced that that faculty member David Kling, M.Div., will serve as the new Chair of the Department of Ministry, Advocacy & Leadership. Quote: “I started the long journey to become a chaplain after my mother and I made the decision to take my father off life support. During the seven months he was in critical care not once did we see a chaplain. His death was particularly difficult for me and every death I experience since transforms me. It is my intention to be of service to others who are suffering physically, emotionally, or spiritually. It is a wonderful yet often very emotionally painful career path, I cannot imagine doing anything else. I may not have had a chaplain when I needed one, but I hope I can be there for others when they need one. [...] It is my hope that I can assist current and incoming students navigate through their programs successfully and graduate and settle into various ministry and leadership roles that will be as fulfilling for them as mine is for me.”

1980427_666404363420110_559223200_oCamilla Laurentine has issued a call for submissions for a new devotional anthology dedicated to the Beloved Dead. Quote: “Calling for submissions for Crossing the River: A Devotional to Our Beloved Dead, edited by Camilla Laurentine (and possibly others to sign on at a later date). Submissions open August 7th, 2014 and close February 28th, 2015. The intention of this devotional is to build a source book of modern meditations, hymns, prayers, and other resources for death workers working in our greater community. All Pagan and Polytheist traditions are welcome and encouraged to submit to this project. Submissions should fall into one of three categories: Vigil of the Dying, For the Recently Deceased, and Funerary Tools. They may include, but are not limited to meditations, poems, hymns, prayers, original retellings of myths, rituals, and scholarly articles with a focus on historical practices within one’s tradition. Artwork is also welcome and encouraged with a preference for pieces that are easily reproduced in black and white.”

a3269500119_2Sharon Knight and Winter have announced a collaboration with urban fantasy author author Ellie Di Julio, a collection of songs based on the work  “The Transmigration of Cora Riley.” Quote: “Sharon Knight and Winter, have teamed up with author Ellie Di Julio to produce original songs inspired by her urban fantasy novel, “The Transmigration of Cora Riley.” This album tells three different character stories – Cora’s, Jack’s, and the Mistress’ – through their own eyes, echoing the book’s themes of change and desire. The sound ranges from light-hearted pop to driving metal to haunting folksong, giving each character their own flavor and adding new layers of meaning to the original text.”

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

In recent months there have been many discussions and debates about infrastructure in the wider Pagan movement and our collective ability to see Pagan values manifested in the wider culture. In my many years covering our family of faiths I’ve seen many ambitious plans hatched regarding new institutions which have met with varying degrees of success and sustainability. It is easy, especially within a religious movement that often values decentralized grass-roots initiatives, to become skeptical about impressive-sounding plans and announcements. 

However, there’s one campaign I’m not skeptical about, that I think is a good idea. That project is the The New Alexandrian Library. It’s headed by a solid, stable, group of folks who know what they are doing, and are focused on a clear, definable, goal. I believe that initiatives like the New Alexandrian Library will be vital for preserving our past, as university and private collections won’t be sufficient to fully preserve or document our movement’s legacy. Wanting to explore what’s driving this project in a deeper fashion, I was lucky to conduct this interview with Ivo Dominguez Jr., an Elder in the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and one of the driving forces behind this library project.

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

Ivo Dominguez Jr.

For those who haven’t heard about this project, what is the New Alexandrian Library project, and why should Pagans care about its construction?

The New Alexandrian Library, located in southern Delaware, is in its final stages of construction. The physical structure itself is a highly durable concrete dome. It will serve as a research library, a lending library, a museum, an archive, and as a hub for the preservation and the evolution of pagan culture. Books, periodicals, newsletters, music, media, art works, artifacts, photographs, digital media, etc., will all be carefully cataloged and cross-referenced to ease the work of research and study. The Library will work to restore and to preserve rare and damaged documents. The history of our many interrelated spiritual communities will also be collected for the future.

The content of the library will also be made available via internet to the greatest extent possible (respecting copyrights, etc.) to be a resource for the entire esoteric community. The NAL will also serve as the library of record for formal esoteric religion studies at a variety of institutes of higher education including The Cherry Hill Seminary to assist them in meeting accreditation criteria. The New Alexandrian Library will be open to all, and will engage in inter-library loan with similar projects elsewhere. Some extremely rare materials will not leave the library, but will be scanned.

It is being built in a location that has the benefit of a beautiful woodland site while being a reasonable distance to many metropolitan population centers. It is about 2 1/2 hours away from Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. It is about 3 1/2 hours to New York City, 4 hours to Richmond, and 7 hours to Boston. There are also plans for on-site housing in the future.

Plans for the New Alexandrian Library

Why should Pagans care about the New Alexandrian Library? If you’re a student, a teacher, or researcher, then the NAL will be an amazing resource to further your efforts. If you want to be in the presence of art, ritual objects and books that belonged to notable figures in our history, then you will want to make a pilgrimage to the museum component of the NAL. If you care about trying to capture the memories of how our various emerging religions came into being over the last century, then you’ll be happy about all the ephemeral material that we are collecting and preserving. If you want some good news about the power of long-term commitment in our community, then the NAL could inspire you.

Can you talk a bit about the progress you’ve made so far, and how the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel is managing to cover the costs of construction?

This project was announced at the Between The Worlds Conference of 2000. The 30 acres that the library sits upon was bought and paid for by members of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. There is no mortgage on the property. So far about 85% of the funds to date have been either donated by ASW members or raised through fundraising events such as workshops, conferences, the sale of chant CDs and books, etc. the rest has been through donations from individuals, organizations, and crowd-funding. We’re in phase one which is the building of the first part of the library which is a two-story concrete dome with about 3000 square feet of floor space. This is the first in a series of several buildings as it was more financially realistic to plan for adding buildings in the future rather than trying to collect enough money to build one huge structure from the outset.

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At the time of this interview the interior walls are being painted, and shortly the floors and the fixtures will be installed. Progress has been slower than we would have liked, but we have been paying as we go. Since there will be no debt to pay off, it will be easier for the project to continue in the future.

The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel is a Wiccan organization. Will NAL focus primarily on Wicca, or will it have a broader focus? Will it include material from other Pagan, Polytheist, Heathen, or Magickal groups?

We are building a library focused on the mystical and esoteric teachings of all religions with an emphasis on Pagan, Polytheist, Heathen, or Magickal paths in all their forms, but our mission is broader than that. We are also collecting the esoteric teachings of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Once the NAL is open and running we will also be creating an Advisory Board of people from a broad range of backgrounds and interests.

I know NAL recently received books and papers from Judy Harrow’s estate. What are some other notable elements in NAL’s collection at this stage? How can individuals reach out to NAL if they feel they have important papers or publications to share with your institution?

In addition to Judy Harrow’s legacy, we have received donations from Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Macha Nightmare, Katherine Kurtz, Shakmah Winddrum, and many other notables in the broader esoteric community. We also received the entire library of the Theosophical Society of Washington DC when they closed down their library. Not all of the donations are books. We have received original artwork, ritual robes, magical tools, old photographs, correspondence, newsletters, ancient Egyptian artifacts with proven provenance, jewelry, and much more.

Dolores Ashcroft Nowicki with donated Dion Fortune paintings.

Dolores Ashcroft Nowicki with donated Dion Fortune paintings.

I am particularly delighted by Dolores & Michael Ashcroft-Nowicki’s donation of four paintings of the Archangels that were created by Dion Fortune, and that once hung in her temple space. We also have many other collections promised to us in people’s wills. In the case of a death, we will always take donations now, but we have so many things in storage right now that if you can hold off a bit longer we would be grateful. As soon as we are up and running we will be very interested in receiving further donations of books and materials. Please consider naming the new Alexandrian library in your will so that your collection can serve the community when you no longer need it. Also it is often hard to predict what will be important in the future, so the ephemera, newsletters, flyers, posters, photographs, and recordings from smaller groups or lesser known individuals also need to be preserved as all these things make up the culture of our many communities.

Many Pagans are skeptical about movement towards institutions and infrastructure, could you talk a little about why they shouldn’t be skeptical of NAL? What is it that makes NAL essential?

If you have no personal need for institutions and/or infrastructure, then don’t participate in their creation. If over time you find that you are deriving benefit from the resources provided by Pagan institutions and/or infrastructure, then consider giving to them to balance the exchange. If they have no appeal for you, live and let live.

You’ve probably seen some variation of the internet meme:

Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get one. Don’t like abortions? Don’t get one. Don’t like drugs? Don’t do them. Don’t like sex? Don’t have it. Don’t like your rights taken away? Don’t take away anyone else’s.

I would add: Don’t want Pagan institutions and/or infrastructure? Don’t block the way of those that do.

The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, the sponsor of this project, celebrated its 30th year as an organization in February 2014. This is a good long run for any kind of organization, and is quite exceptional for a Pagan organization. Community service is an important part of our group’s culture, and we fully expect and intend to be continuing our work 100 years from now. Many similar projects have failed, not for a lack of vision or need, but from a lack of organization and practicality. We were in existence as a group for 15 years before we decided to take on this project. If the skepticism about the NAL project is about continuing the funding once it’s open, then I’ll point out that we intend to continue fundraising in perpetuity, and that several individuals have already named the NAL as the beneficiary of their life insurance or their entire estates in some cases.

10156015_10152359299887410_458860695135604823_nWhat is your long term vision for this project?

Like the original Great Library of Alexandria, the schools of Qabala in medieval Spain, and the flourishing of esotericism that occurred in renaissance Italy, the diverse confluence of minds and resources would result in great leaps forward in theory and practice. There will be many conversations between people of different traditions that will result in greater intellectual vitality and new awarenesses for all. No doubt people will gather in the meditation garden, go out to lunch together, etc. The benefits of these face to face encounters are incredible. In a way, it is like an esoteric conference that never ends. The NAL will be one of the cornerstones of a new magickal renaissance. We hope that many other similar sorts of Pagan infrastructure will be created by various groups across the globe. The benefits of this growing network of resources for future generations is incalculable.

One of the great triumphs of the original Alexandrian Library was the creation of the first card catalog (actually clay and wood tablets). I hope that one of the New Alexandrian Library’s great triumphs will be a systematization of esoteric knowledge in a comparable manner. It is now a clichéd complaint that most of the esoteric books available are basic and aimed at the mass-market. That is the nature of the publishing industry, and we should expect little more. More advanced materials are usually published by university presses and by publishing houses owned by charitable or religious institutions where profit is not the primary motive. I hope that The New Alexandrian Library will in time either directly publish such works or facilitate the bringing together of the people and groups to engage in such activities.

Finally, in a broader sense, what is your vision for Pagan institutions and infrastructure? Obviously you’d like to see NAL thrive, but in what kind of Pagan community? What are your hopes?

Self-determination and self-reliance require having your own resources. I would like to see more ritual space, workshop space, performance space, schools, gardens, and woodlands, etc. that are owned by us. There many times when it is convenient and appropriate to rent or to borrow space from friends such as the Unitarians, but it is always on their terms and within their comfort zones. I’ve also seen Pagan businesses and organizations that are doing well suddenly find themselves homeless because the owner of a facility raises the rent or simply tells them to leave. There have also been pagan library projects that have closed because they were unable to keep up with the rent, and in some cases valuable materials were pitched into the dumpster by landlord.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary with Assembly Elders at NAL's foundation.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary with Assembly Elders at NAL’s foundation.

I also think we have to get over the connotations that words like institution and infrastructure have developed in the Pagan community. A food co-op is an institution. A community garden is an institution. A campground for festivals and gatherings is infrastructure. Institutions and infrastructure need not call forth images of huge battleship gray buildings with people scurrying about like drones in a hive.

An institution is a resource designed to survive past the life or the commitment of a handful of people. When we speak of infrastructure, what we’re really talking about is solid, tangible, resources that enable and facilitate our dreams and endeavors. If fear of what something might become is reason enough to prevent its coming into being, then we might as well settle our affairs and exit planet. From my perspective, the challenge we have right now is to decide that we will take the challenge of becoming truly present in the world. Will there be corruption, abuses, errors, and failures? Yes, there will be, and that is part of the cost of the work of mending and evolving. Will there be reforms, progress, and new horizons? Yes, and we will get those by also cleaning out the inevitable muck that arises by doing the work.

Recently there were a flurry of blog posts and discussions about how successful or unsuccessful Pagans have been in having an impact on environmentalism. What I’d like to add to those discussions, is that our impact on the matters of the world are reduced if we do not have power that is grounded in tangible resources. Ideas, will, and passion can fuel individual activism, and this is a good thing. However if we do not have the resources to buy land to preserve it, to pay lobbyists, to have staffed organizations that monitor legislation, public opinion, etc., then we are missing part of what is needed to have power and presence in the world.

Let me give you another example. I was extremely involved with AIDS/HIV work in the 80s and 90s. I started as an activist, helped found an organization, and served for several years as the executive director of Delaware’s primary AIDS organization. Institutions and infrastructure were necessary to make progress, and to push back against circumstances that would take away the steps forward that had been made. There are probably a hundred and one worthy tasks and goals that can never progress past a certain point without our own institutions and infrastructure.

I hope the New Alexandrian Library will be one of the many solid institutions that encourage others to dream big and to work hard.

Contact and donation information for the New Alexandrian Library project can be found here. 

[The following is a guest post from Star Bustamonte. Star Bustamonte is a certified Aromatherapist and co-coordinator of the Pagan Unity Festival in Burns, Tennessee. She serves as council member for the Mother Grove Goddess Temple, and is a resident of Asheville, North Carolina.] 

This past Monday [August 4th] featured a rally in downtown Asheville to demonstrate how fed up a good portion of North Carolinians are with our state government. These rallies have grown out of protests held in Raleigh, our state capitol, and organized by a coalition of mostly Christian clergy, the NAACP, and a few other activist groups. They started out small, over a year ago, after the Republican held legislature began passing some of the most restrictive and oppressive laws in the country—affecting everything from healthcare, women’s rights, voting rights, huge education cuts, anti-environmental laws, and a lot of other things.

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Over time the protests grew from a few hundred attending to thousands of people showing up. Over a thousand people have been arrested for civil disobedience at these protests to date. The legislature even passed new laws to attempt to prevent people from protesting and making it easier to arrest the people who did protest. Once the legislature went on break, the protesters starting having rallies in other cities. The one in Asheville last year had anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people attend (depending on who you ask). I was there and 10K is a very believable number.

This year I attended with several people who are friends and members of the same Goddess temple and I viewed the event more through the Pagan lens than I did the year before. Needless to say, me and mine were not represented. All the clergy who spoke were Christian. Granted there were women who spoke, some quite eloquently, and a female minister who has been on the front lines fighting for LGBT rights, but no Rabbis, Imams, or any other minority faith was represented. Certainly no Pagan clergy.

I’m pretty civically minded, as are my friends who attended. We all believe in some manner that in order to be counted as productive members of the community, participation is required. Sometimes, all that means is you show up and are merely attentive to what is going on. Sometimes, you get to carry cool props, like my friend, Byron Ballard, who brought a pitchfork.

In a twist of irony that only seems somehow oddly appropriate, Byron was the only participant the local paper quoted who was not a speaker for the rally, “We all know they only way you get the monsters out of the castle is with a flaming torch and a pitchfork.”

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Indeed, Byron provided a fair amount of amusement for the rest of us. She invented new verses for the protest song, “We Will Not Be Moved” that involved flames, our elected officials, and a place only Christians believe in. Others around us in the crowd gave us dubious looks as we tried to control our chortlings since they could not hear what Byron was singing. Every time a Jesus reference was made or scripture quoted, Byron would turn around at look at us over the edge of glasses like the way a librarian does when you make too much noise. We all, of course, giggled like naughty children.

It seemed that pretty much everyone in attendance had a particular issue they were championing. Some were obviously old hands at community activism while others, like many of the teachers present, were there due to recent shifts in government that would most certainly impact them directly. I wondered how many of the people present were of minority belief systems and if the overtly Christian overtones bothered them.

2014-08-04_16-59-43_784The more I thought about this in the days following the rally, the more it became clear to me that if any of us who are part of a minority religion want to part of events like this, we have to demand to be included. If we are waiting for a seat at the table to be offered to us, we will likely be waiting a long time. On the other hand, do we even want a seat at the table? I’m a pretty big advocate for separation of church and state, and there is a part of me that cringes at the idea of clergy banding together to bring about legislative changes.

Never mind that I agree with their assessment regarding how the majority of the legislation passed has eroded our rights as citizens and made life that much more difficult for folks just trying to make ends meet. As a society, we need to stand up, together, and say no. But should it be clergy that is leading this fight? Oh sure, at this point there are labour unions, educators, medical professionals and a whole host of other would-be and long time activists involved. But that still does not answer my question of whether Pagans should be demanding to be included.

 

I also must confess that the many references to Jesus and scripture rub my fur the wrong way. I tried to imagine what it would be like if a Pagan had been speaking and referenced a Pagan deity. I honestly think it would bother me almost as much. Can we not come together as a group/society/community and leave our collective deities at the door? Is that too much to ask? I do not really know the answer to any of these questions that have risen up in my twisty brain. The one thing I do know is that I’m very unhappy with the way our state is being run. So even if I have to suffer through speeches laced with references to a belief system that is not my own, I will likely still attend. At least as Pagans we have better props to choose from!

Njord

Eric O. Scott —  August 8, 2014 — 23 Comments
Njord

Idol of Njord in the assembly hall of Ásatrúarfélagið, Reykjavík, Iceland.
Photo by the author.

“Did you know that this idol once received a blood sacrifice?”

The Icelander and I were standing in the assembly hall of Ásatrúarfélagið1, the Icelandic Ásatrú church, waiting for our companion, Tandri, to finish putting some supplies away in the back room. We were standing in front of a carved wooden idol, six feet tall, made of pale, honey-colored wood. Dozens of runic inscriptions had been carved into the idol and marked with red paint; I might have been able to work out their meanings, assuming I had an Icelandic dictionary and about twelve hours of spare time. I only knew that the idol represented Njord2, the sea-god, because the Icelander told me so.

The Icelander looked to be around my father’s age, mid-fifties; he was short, gray, and scruffy, and his English had a heavy Nordic tinge. We had been at Ásatrúarfélagið´s blót in Thingvellir3 earlier that day, and on the car ride back to Reykjavík, the Icelander had only spoken Icelandic, of which I understood just a little. He seemed to be the only man in the country who didn’t understand English, which pleased me – it’s disheartening to hear everyone in the country speak your language flawlessly when you are incapable of even ordering coffee in theirs. But then he realized I was a foreigner and switched to English. (His advice for learning Icelandic? “Read comics.”)

I shook my head; obviously I had never heard about any “blood sacrifice,” since this was the first time I had ever visited the assembly hall.

“Would you like to hear the story?” he asked.

,” I said. Although I had only been studying Icelandic for a month, “” had completely overwritten my vocabulary; even in English, I never said “yes” or “yeah” anymore, but instead “,” with its curving diphthong like the sound in the English “hour.”

He smiled and started to tell a story I could tell he had told many times before. “Oh yes,” he said, “The god picked the sacrifice himself. She was a beautiful young girl. Only seven years old, too.” He grew wistful and turned away from the idol. “That is the short version of the story. Would you like to hear the long version?”

,” I replied.

“Bah,” said the Icelander, who grimaced and waved me off. “You just say to whatever anybody says to you.”

No other Icelander ever called me out for this, but he was absolutely right.

Tandri finally came out of the back room. I marveled at the clash of expectations when I saw him. Usually, when I tell people that I am a Heathen, and especially when I mention that I went to Iceland in large part to meet members of the Icelandic Heathen community, their minds rush to visions of viking raids and valkyries, blood-soaked battlefields and mead-drowned nights in some dank drinking hall. In reality, Ásatrúarfélagið´s offices are modest and clean, located in an unassuming part of Reykjavík. There are tables and chairs set up for meetings, along with a bookcase and a table with toys for children. In the back room, they store two iron firepits, some flagpoles, and a coffee pot. Hand-knit sweaters hang on the walls with prices marked next to them, with the proceeds going to support the church. The only obvious signs of Heathenry are the two large wooden statues, namely the idol of Njord and a seated Thor next to the entrance. The setup reminded me of nothing so much as a typical Lutheran Church basement.

And yet there was Tandri, standing just outside the men´s room in full viking drag. (He had missed the blót because he had a gig pretending to be a viking for the benefit of tourists.) His chainmail rustled in time to his footsteps. “I think we’re all good to go here,” he said – in English, for my benefit.

The Icelander nodded, and the three of us headed out to Tandri’s car, a brick-red Honda that I’m certain has been on Earth longer than Nirvana’s In Utero. My phone’s clock read midnight, but the summer sky was only a dusky indigo. I would not see true night again until I returned to Minnesota.

The Icelander climbed into the backseat. He and Tandri exchanged a few words in Icelandic – directions to the Icelander’s house, I suspected. Tandri started the Honda and began driving west, towards the part of Reykjavík I knew. As we drove, the Icelander spoke up again.

“So,” he said, “do you want really want to hear about the child sacrifice?”

“Yes,” I said, trying not to offend his sensibilities.

He chuckled. “The statue fell over on her. She broke her arm in the accident. But you see? There was a child! There was blood! And Njord did pick her – she was the one he fell on!” He leaned forward in his seat. “This was many years ago, you know. She is grown now. I love to tell people that story when she is in the room. I say that there had been a child sacrifice, and everyone – especially foreigners – their faces get so pale and they go quiet. Oh, how awful! How barbaric! The sacrifice of a child!” As though Heathens really were living up to all of the worst fantasies of Viking degeneracy – the stained altars and babes giving over to flesh-craving gods. “And all the while, she is sitting there, not saying a word!”

The Icelander continued to talk, uninterrupted by either Tandri or me, for the rest of the drive, mostly about his distaste for the American Heathens he had met online. (“I see this on Facebook – click ‘like’ if you want a visit from Odin. Odin! You might as well say, click ‘like’ if you want a visit from Satan!”) He talked about the expectations Americans seemed to have regarding Ásatrúarfélagið, and how frequently they were disappointed by the truth – that, as Tandri told me earlier in the day, the church was “basically a big hippie organization.” As the Icelander talked, I noticed that Tandri, who was closer to my age, seemed embarrassed; he had evidently not expected the Icelander to go on such an extended rant about American Heathens in the presence of, well, an American Heathen.

I hadn’t come to Iceland hoping for blood and viking glory, as I am by nature both a pacifist and a coward. But I understood the subtext in the Icelander’s words: that people like me came to Iceland in the same way that some people go to Bangladesh or Tibet, expecting to find some kind of “authentic” encounter with the divine that they can take home and brag about. Enlightenment tourism – as though enlightenment were something that could be advertised in a tourbook next to the Golden Circle and the National Gallery. Of course, that was exactly what I had been expecting myself. I called this trip as a pilgrimage; I had never considered what it might mean for the Icelanders themselves – for their practices, their landscape, and to some degree their entire lives to be viewed as a tourist attraction for the Heathen seeker. I could tell myself that my journey was different somehow – that I was genuine in my aspirations and had the academic and literary credentials to support my project – but everyone else could make similar arguments. I wasn’t special. I began to see my visit in an altogether less pleasant light.

We arrived at the Icelander’s home, which I recall as one of the innumerable concrete and tin structures that make up Reykjavík. He got out and said goodbye by reminding me about comic books. “Andrés Önd – Donald Duck,” he said. “Best way to learn.”

Once the Icelander had shut his door, Tandri turned to me. “He can talk, can’t he?”

“Já,” I said. Then I wondered if I should have said something else.

1. It’s spelled the way it sounds! And vice versa, I suppose.
2. The Old Icelandic name for the god is Njörðr, but Njord is such a common Anglicization that I have used it throughout this essay. Same for Thor and Þorr.
3. Þingvellir.

Cara Schulz is a resident of Burnsville, Minnesota, and has decided to run for one of the two open seats on the Burnsville City Council. Like many small city councils across America, the election is non-partisan, meaning the primaries coming up later this month will simply winnow the field down to four candidates from the current seven, regardless of each candidate’s personal party affiliation. The public will then vote two candidates into office this November.

Oh, and did we mention that Cara Schulz is also a Hellenic Polytheist?

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Longtime readers of The Wild Hunt won’t be surprised at this news, after all, Cara is a staff reporter here now, and has been an active part of the larger Pagan community for several years. Here’s a brief excerpt from a piece she wrote about her faith for Patheos.com back in 2011.

“I ‘toss the barley’ and am humbly grateful to do so. I pour wine as a libation, the same as my ancestors did. I feel sacred Hestia in the flame that burns in my hearth and in my heart and I reap the benefits of my careful tending to the flame. I pray before my home altar, make offerings to the Agathos Diamons, and ask Hermes to guard me as I venture out of the protections of my home. There is a spiritual rhythm to my life that gives me great personal strength. My household worship practices, such as cleaning out the entire house and getting rid of all broken or wanted things each month on the Deipnon, improve the quality of life for all my family members. These ancient rituals have profound meaning that I would have missed if I had dismissed them as old and pointless.”

Schulz has also been active in politics for a long time, most notably, she was an active volunteer for Libertarian Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson in 2012. Like Gov. Johnson, Schulz is liberal on social issues, and conservative on fiscal policy, or as she puts it “Socially Accepting and Fiscally Responsible.”

“Although Cara wants citizens more involved in local government, she feels government has become too involved in peoples’ personal lives and businesses. Her general rule is, ‘If you aren’t hurting or cheating anyone, and you’re doing it on your property, it’s none of the government’s business.’”

In a local paper’s candidate questionnaire, Schulz expanded on her political philosophy, and how it would affect locals in Burnsville.

“The townhome I live in had a pool rule of No Food Allowed, which residents ignored. There are two possible approaches. What city councils normally do — assume the problem lays with you and force compliance. Or what our association did — realize there’s no damage or injury so the problem was with the rule and eliminate it. I’ll bring the second, common-sense approach to the City Council because residents aren’t the problem, but the solution.”

Not backed by the Democratic or Republican parties in this race, Schulz faces an uphill battle to get her message out to voters, though she has received an endorsement from the Liberty Minnesota PAC, a libertarian-minded group that hopes to steer the Republican party toward their ideals.

“Cara is a dedicated liberty activist involved with a variety of causes in and around her city. Cara is an Air Force veteran who does a wonderful job covering a variety of policy topics on Youtube videos [...] According to Cara’s responses on Liberty Minnesota’s candidate questionnaire, Cara is focused on removing or replacing: Building codes, nuisance laws and blue laws in Burnsville.”

As their endorsement points out, Schulz has been posting videos to Youtube where she discusses various issues as they relate to her political philosophy.

The primary election will be held on August 12th, and if she makes it to the final four, no doubt more endorsements, money, and scrutiny, will flow towards her campaign (such is the way with elections). We will keep you posted as things develop.

[Editorial note: The Wild Hunt is dedicated to documenting instances of Pagans, Polytheists, and other members of our broad religious movement engaging themselves in the political process. Coverage of a candidate should not be confused with endorsement, and The Wild Hunt will not make official endorsements in any political race. Here are some instances of us covering Pagan political candidates: Rev. Kathryn Jones, Lonnie MurrayDeirdre Wadding, Erin Lale, and Jessica Orsini, among others.]