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Depending on how you want to crunch the numbers there are around one million modern Pagans in the United States. Some have argued it’s a bit less than that, some have argued that the figure doesn’t even scratch the surface of our true numbers, but for now, I’m going to use “one million” as a reasonable middle ground for the purposes of this essay. It’s an impressive number, it means we are no longer confined to “thousands” or even “hundreds of thousands,” we’re in the religious big leagues. Using estimated affiliation numbers has long been a tool of minority groups to emphasize their strategic importance in reaching consensus on political and cultural matters in our society. For example, when you’re the head of a religious group that boasts over a billion members worldwide, newspapers create whole sections just to cover you.

Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

So it’s little wonder that Pagans are collectively proud to be in the million+ club, but there’s a hitch. These numbers mean very little in terms of ability to organize, fund projects, or influence legislation. It hasn’t even translated into the religious infrastructure (buildings and money) that many Pagans say they want. There are loads of theories as to why this is, but the simple truth is that “Paganism” (however you want to define that) is an umbrella term for a phenomenon, a movement, a religious impulse, that is deeply individualistic, eclectic, decentralized, and hugely diverse. It is like classifying bike-riders as a religious group. Sure, they all ride bikes, but the reasons for doing it, the kinds of bikes they ride, how much they ride, and how much money they’re willing to devote to that pastime varies.

There’s been a lot of public soul-searching recently as to what our religious community is, what its future should be, and what is expected of “big-name” individuals within our community. To give just a quick overview: Ivo Dominguez Jr. wrote about the importance of alliances within modern Paganism, David Oliver Kling wrote about paid clergy, T. Thorn Coyle pulled back the curtain on how much the “big” Pagan authors actually make, and Jason Mankey pondered if the current crop of high-profile writers on the Internet are even reaching anyone aside from a small but dedicated assortment of invested readers.

“How many Pagans really care? This is a trick question because it means thinking outside of the blogosphere for a second, remember there are perhaps two million Pagans in the United States and only a fraction of those people are regular readers of the Pagan Blogosphere. So is monism something the average Pagan wants to spend hours debating? Is a continued debate over monism really essential to their belief structure? Are extended, and often far too personal, debates really accomplishing anything or are they online pissing contests?” 

Mankey gets at something important: How many Pagans really care about what prominent writers, organizers, and activists really do in the name of the community? I’ve heard the old joke about how organizing Pagans is like “herding cats,” but I think a better analogy for the state of our movement is the tail wagging the dog.

“A minor or secondary part of something controlling the whole.”

Think about the biggest explicitly Pagan festivals and gatherings out there right now, your Pagan Spirit Gatherings, or your PantheaCons, you’re talking around 1000 people at one, and pushing 3000 people at the other. While there may have been outdoor Pagan festivals that were once bigger, the median attendance now seems to hover in the middle hundreds, topping out around 1000. Smaller indoor conferences often see registrations in the low hundreds. The point being: these are not huge events, drawing multiple thousands of people. They draw from what one might call the “engaged” class of our movement. The people who want ongoing in-person lessons, who can afford regular interaction with Pagan adherents outside an immediate circle of friends and family, and who may be seeking to become a “name” (or earn a living) within this class.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

This engaged class, and I want to note that “engaged” doesn’t mean “better” or “more religious,” it simply denotes a level of participation in what one might call “meta” or “interfaith” Pagan movement events, is the small tail of a “dog” that consists of a conceptual class of people who many expect to start helping the engaged class realize various dreams of establishment.  You already know how this pitch goes: If only a mere fraction of our million gave x number of dollars we would be able to fund our temple/clergy program/school/event. The answer, it seems, is that if we only reached out to these Pagans and fellow travelers we could wag our dog towards whatever our ambitious goal is. However, I fear that the “dog” isn’t all that interested in being “wagged,” and has even less interest in propping up the ambitions of their would-be thought leaders.

Why do I think this? Because I live in a region (the Pacific Northwest) where modern Pagan theologies and rituals are seen largely as a resource for building a highly personalized belief system, and I have worked for a music and arts festival (Faerieworlds) that draws a number of Pagan and Pagan-friendly people into a space that while not explicitly Pagan, provides bands, workshops, and activities that many Pagans in the engaged class would recognize. I’ve talked to friends of my step-daughter (who is in her mid-20s) who go to politically anarchic Witch-camps led by Reclaiming-trained teachers but would likely never attend a larger pan-Pagan gathering. They have no interest in our debates, or our ambitions, they are only interested in the spiritual technologies that they can learn that will fit into the lives they are leading.

I could go on, and list other examples, like the people who once bought books by Cunningham or Starhawk 20, or 30 years ago (when the Pagan/New Age book market was a lot stronger), and nominally consider themselves Pagan, but have little interest in more books, or engaging with a broader Pagan movement. The travelers who attend “transformational festivals” as a lifestyle, and find their needs entirely met with that context of practice. Our collective movement is full to the brim of people and groups of people who are entirely satisfied with their current level of engagement in however you want to define “Pagan community.” If you talked to them about your temple, or paid clergy, they may nod their head approvingly, they might even donate a few dollars if they had the extra cash to donate, but we must stop pretending they share our priorities.

That leaves us with a largely undetermined population of Pagans who number anywhere from the tens to the (low) hundreds of thousands who are connected at some level to the engaged class. They might read Pagan media and Pagan blogs, they might regularly attend larger events, they may be dedicated book-buyers or academics.  They are not, short of dedicated income tithing from a large percentage of them, going to fiscally support a new more robust Pagan infrastructure. The stuff we have now? The thriving events, the magazines, the websites, the 100% funded crowdfunding campaigns, that’s them. We are, I predict, nearing the limits of how much this group is willing to shell out for in the name of community. There are only so many times you can pass a hat per year before the discretionary income for Pagan stuff is spent.

The Dragon Ritual Drummers, live at Wic-Can Fest 2014 [Photo Credit: D. Graham McKay]

The Dragon Ritual Drummers, live at Wic-Can Fest 2014 [Photo Credit: D. Graham McKay]

Is there a remedy to this problem? Well, some would argue there is no problem. That grass-roots, decentralized, and impossible to pin down is how we thrive, but let’s entertain the notion. I was asked recently at a talk I gave on how “the tail” can appeal to “the dog” to make bigger infrastructure projects happen. How do we engage more of the million? I realize this is a porcupine telling people we should stick them with quills, but my answer was more, and better, Pagan media. Journalism gives people a sense of connectedness to a world outside of themselves. I don’t mean endless editorializing, I mean information. I mean narratives about what is happening the next state, or the next country, over. Actual journalism within the Pagan media sphere is still a tiny percentage of what you find, and without actual journalism, the editorial writers are forced into a cycle of reviving the same 10 or so debates every year.

If we want to engage more people, then the tip of the tail, the big-name movers and shakers should, were I giving advice, robustly fund media that works to reach out to communities, groups, and demographics they have not bothered to reach before. That means local reporting, that means real festival reporting, that means real engagement with the lives of people who really don’t care about the dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussions we sometimes get wrapped up in. We keep spending money on building stuff, when we should be spending money on speech to reach. You raise money by reaching people. That’s fundraising 101 stuff, yet I see a number of very smart people hoping that if they build the fundraising site, the money will simply come. Yes, we can raise five or ten thousand dollars here or there, if the people running the campaign are sufficiently engaged, but we will never get to the big leagues with those kind of budgets.

I believe that The Wild Hunt has a loyal audience because we have never strayed too far from our simple purpose: give Pagans news. Now, some people don’t like our site, or think we don’t do enough in various areas, but I believe our relative success points to a larger blueprint. Think about if there was an ecosystem of Pagan media that was more dedicated to writing about what’s happening, instead of writing about what they think should be happening. Yes, there’s a place for editorial, and for theological musings, but there must be a balance with authentic engagement outwards. Short of Pagan itinerant preachers hitting the road, shifting to journalism is the best way, in my opinion, to get that dog actually interested in what the tail is doing.

[The following is a guest post from Cat Chapin-Bishop. Cat Chapin-Bishop became a psychotherapist in 1986, and she has had over 20 years of experience as a counselor specializing in work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. She served as the first Chair of Cherry Hill Seminary’s Pastoral Counseling Department, and designed the earliest version of CHS’s Boundaries and Ethics course, which is still central to the program there. Cat has been a Pagan since 1987, and a Quaker as well as a Pagan since 2001. Her writings can be found online at Quaker Pagan Reflections.]

TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with an discusses sexual abuse and suicide, and may be triggering to some people.

The first perpetrator of child sexual abuse I ever reported committed suicide.

I’m aware that there are those who, on hearing that, will say, “Well, good!  One less pervert in the world.”  Unfortunately, the world is not so simple as that.

This was back in the mid-eighties, and I was still an intern in psychotherapy.  My client was a single parent, the mother of two young boys, barely scraping by, in part with the help of a boarder… who, it turned out, had sexually abused both the boys.

“But it was only once!” the mother said.  “And I watch them all the time now.  It has never happened again!”  But, of course, it had happened again, and more than once.  We found that out after I did what the law required and made the phone call to child protective services.  Later that day, CPS called at the family’s home to interview the room-mate.  And later that night, he went into the garage and hung himself.

It was one of the boys who found his body.

To him, this man was not “a perpetrator.”  To him, this was the man who had taken him fishing and helped him with his homework.  Because while the abuse had been awful, it had not been all there was to this man’s presence in the boy’s life.  His feelings, like life itself, were complicated.

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So the mandated counseling to help the boys recover from sexual abuse became counseling to help them cope with sexual abuse and the suicide of a member of their household.  And for a time, everyone in that small family had to struggle with the added burdens of guilt and financial hardship caused by this death.

I do not in any way regret making that report.  I do not believe that taking a young boy fishing wipes out the harm of abusing him, nor that paying part of a family’s living expenses erases the guilt of sexually abusing a child.

But the story points out the trouble with making sweeping generalizations about perpetrators.  Those who prey on children are also friends, family members, wage-earners… And sometimes they are artists, musicians, teachers, or members of a spiritual community whose work is missed when they are removed from those communities.

It is dangerous to caricature offenders as all alike, easily spotted, or wholly monstrous.

The trouble is, if we begin to believe that all perpetrators of child sexual abuse are like comic-book villains, we risk becoming blind to the cases that don’t fit that simple picture.  Our communities may begin to make excuses, to minimize, rationalize, and deny the abuse.  We say to ourselves, “But she was a teenager—she could have stopped it,” or “He’s not like those other perpetrators—it was only because he was drunk (had just lost his job/ had been divorced/ was depressed.)”

And then we may not pick up the phone and make the report—or we may not enforce a community statement that says we have a “zero tolerance policy” around sexual abuse.  Or we may try to “fix” an abuser through compassion and good intentions, without understanding that those are not the tools needed for this particular job.  To prevent that, we need to go beyond rhetoric and slogans, and understand the real world of perpetrators and their victims.

So what we do know about perpetrators?

They are, overwhelmingly, male.  Women can and do sexually abuse children, but it is far less common.

They are no more likely to be gay than straight, despite years of right wing propaganda to the contrary.  However, being gay does not mean that someone is not a perpetrator; there is no relationship between those two things.

They may well be minors themselves; the problem of sexual abuse of children by older children and teens is probably under-reported, and can be difficult to tell from “sexually reactive behavior” in which children act out abuse they may themselves have experienced.  (Effects on the victim may be very similar, though the prognosis for the perpetrator may be very different.  This is one case where seeking help, and not turning away from a perpetrator because he is not what we have been led to expect, can make an enormous difference for everyone.)

Some perpetrators will largely confine their abuse to members of their own family; others will offend primarily against unrelated children.  Some will have only a handful of victims, but many will abuse hundreds of children over the course of their lives.

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Perpetrators are almost always survivors of childhood sexual abuse themselves.  Often, they are sexual offenders in multiple ways.  They may well have ongoing sexual relationships with adult women (or men) at the same time that they are abusing children.  They often (though not always) abuse drugs or alcohol, sometimes as a way of lowering their own inhibitions against committing a crime.

Often they will have a habit of objectifying the targets of their sexual interest; this is associated with an increased likelihood of reoffending.  Generally, they lack empathy for others, and particularly for children, but this is not always obvious.

It can be hard to get good information on recidivism among perpetrators of sexual abuse, because most studies rely on criminal convictions, which self-reports of convicted perpetrators reveal to be far fewer than the number of victims offended against.  What is clear is that sexual abusers of children have a high rate of repeating their crimes.

Treatment does lower that risk… but only if it is specialized offender treatment.  Counseling from sources other than specialists in this field seems to have no effect in lowering the risk of reoffending, and this is one area where no ethical pastoral counselor should even think of offering their “help” as a substitute for reporting abuse officially and having an offender complete a specialized offender treatment program.  Unless you have been trained in this specific area of practice, this one really is over your pay grade.

So who are the victims of child sexual abuse, and what are some of the effects of that abuse?

They’re a lot of different people, it turns out.

About 20% of adult women and 5—10% of adult men recall having been sexually abused as children.  Boys are more at risk of abuse by non-family members, possibly because boy children tend to be more mobile and independent of their parents’ supervision in our society.

Some research shows risk is evenly distributed across age groups, but other studies find that teenagers are especially at risk—an important thing to keep in mind, as there can be a tendency to blame the victim where teens are concerned; it’s important to remember that, though teenagers can engage in consensual sex with other teens, they still lack the knowledge and resources of adults, and there is always a power imbalance between an adult and a child.  Perpetrators take advantage of that power imbalance to manipulate victims of any age.  And there are other vulnerabilities perpetrators look for, to exploit among their victims.  We know that children who have been victimized in other ways, or whose families are affected by poverty, substance abuse, or violence are at higher risk for sexual abuse.

Whatever makes a child more vulnerable, in other words, makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse.

The lingering effects of having been abused as children can include depression, PTSD, and a higher risk of substance abuse, suicide or self-injuring behaviors into adulthood.  Children who have been sexually abused may show prematurely sexualized behavior, and there is an elevated risk of being re-abused or sexually assaulted among children who have experienced sexual abuse.

It is worth mentioning that even when there is clear evidence that penetration has been part of sexual abuse, in only a small fraction of cases will there be genital injuries of that penetration.  This is important to understand, so that we do not refuse to accept the testimony of victims that is not corroborated by physical injury.

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Sexual abuse is definitely harmful—but it may not be harmful in the ways we’ve been taught to expect.  And while children are in no way responsible for their own abuse, some responses to having been sexually exploited, such as early sexualization, may be misunderstood by adults in a way that allows us to dismiss their testimony.  We need to be careful to remember that victims of sexual abuse are complicated human beings, and no more likely to fit one mold than any of us.

What do we know about helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse to heal? 

There are a number of things we as a community can do to support survivors in their recovery after sexual abuse.

Research shows that some very simple things can make an enormous difference to how well survivors heal from the most horrific abuse: things like, when a victim reports their abuse to an adult in authority, that adult takes them seriously and acts on the report.

Counseling can be important, of course, but there is definitely a place for just standing by survivors and showing empathy.  Research suggests that other important factors in healing include having at least one non-abusive adult a child can confide in, and having a community that responds with what might be called moral clarity, making it clear immediately that, no matter what, children and teens are not to blame for their own abuse, and that sexual abuse is always the responsibility of the adult.  It turns out that simply being clear that the sexual abuse of children is wrong is of enormous benefit to survivors. We do not need to burn perpetrators in effigy to support survivors.

That’s a good thing for a lot of reasons: threats of violence against perpetrators, for example, may not be reassuring to a victim, but instead, can stir up feelings of guilt or fear—fear for themselves, as survivors of another form of violence, or for other adults in the child’s life, who may have been threatened by the abuser as a way to secure the victim’s silence.

Instead, reporting suspected abuse to the authorities, if that is still possible, and firm, consistent limit setting with those we reasonably believe to have sexually exploited children—regardless of the age of the victim, regardless of whether force was used, or whether the victim confided the abuse in an adult at the time or much later—is likely to be more helpful then vengeful rhetoric or acts of violence.

What else can we, the Pagan community, do to make our gatherings and groups safer for the children and teens who attend them?

In this area, there is a lot that we can do.

  • 1.  We should structure programs for children and teens to minimize the risk of abuse at gatherings.

This one is pretty straightforward.  Many gatherings are now large enough to have children’s programming, and that’s great.  However, we need to think about these programs as potential risks.  Perpetrators are often drawn to positions where they can interact with kids, because access allows opportunities to abuse.

To limit that, we need to do what other religious organizations and reputable child care programs do: make sure that children are never left in the company of just one adult.  All children’s programs need to have more than one adult staff member with kids at all times.  In addition, we need to make sure that kids’ programs happen in locations with lots of visibility and easy access for the parents.  For instance, one of my favorite gatherings features a large rec hall just off the main dining hall.  Both rooms are a hub of constant activity during the event, and the children’s programming happens mainly in that rec room, with parents and other community members constantly passing through.  It adds a note of cheerfulness to everyone’s experience… and it means that the whole community is aware of what is happening with the kids all the time.  Not conducive to abuse!

  • 2.   We should institute mandated reporter training for all gathering staff, along with education on perpetrator behavior and warning signs.

Many Pagan religions feature initiatory oaths of secrecy, and Pagan leaders often need to observe confidentiality around the identities of participants in community events in light of the religious discrimination which many of us still face.

However, there is a difference between protecting initiatory secrets and maintaining the confidence of Pagans in sensitive positions and preserving secrecy around suspected child abuse. Mandated reporter laws in every state require clergy, counselors, and child care workers to report all suspected incidents of child abuse—physical or sexual—and neglect.  Notice, the standard here is suspected abuse—not proven, not confirmed, but suspected abuse.

Staff at a Pagan gathering, Pagan clergy in the performance of their duties, and staff who provide programming for children and teens at community events are required as a matter of law to report when they suspect abuse has occurred to any underaged person.  Everyone whose work will put them in contact with the community’s children needs to be aware of their duty to report suspected abuse and neglect to that state’s child protective services… and the organization’s procedure for doing so.

Not only is this the law, but I believe there’s a moral case for following this law without exception.  I can’t tell you how painful it has been for me, as a counselor, to hear over and over again from adult survivors of child abuse that they had told a trusted adult what was happening to them… only to have that adult ignore their confidence.  The sense of betrayal caused by abuse is only deepened when an entire community seems willing to look the other way.

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I understand that we may be tempted to short-circuit the legal channels for abuse.  We may not want to trust them.  However, we are not trained investigators in this field; we are not in a position to truly protect kids from abuse without help.  We are in no position to evaluate even the most sincere-sounding promises by an abuser that they will seek help.  No matter how counter-cultural our values may be, in this one area, I firmly believe we need to follow the legal process for signaling the state that a child may be in danger.

  • 3.     We should create trained community ombudsmen, to reach out to children and families affected by sexual abuse or sexual violence.

It’s great to have mandated reporter training for staff at events, but Pagan events are large, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes bewildering things.  There can be hundreds of strangers all around, and very few of us, surrounded by strangers, feel comfortable asking for help in a time of crisis.  Newcomers to a community may not even know where to turn for help.

The time has come for all large Pagan events to have clearly identified contact people who make it their job to be welcoming and accessible, and to serve as the first contacts for incidents or individuals that cause concern, whether or not they rise to the level of sexual assault or sexual abuse.

Needless to say, these people should have additional training, probably including in some form of counseling.  They will need to be calm, grounded, and very familiar with the resources of the area where any events are being held, and they will need to have the ear of the gathering’s coordinators and the community’s leaders. Finally, and most importantly, their job will not be to act as finders of fact—no individual is in any position to do that.  Instead, their job is to make sure that problems get noticed, victims get supported, reports get made, and records are kept—confidentially between the gathering’s leaders and any official investigators.

  • 4.     We should not attempt to create a secondary court system to determine the ultimate guilt or innocence of accused perpetrators.

This is a difficult thing.  We need at one and the same time to take seriously allegations by children and teens who report their abuse, and we need not to attempt to act as finders of fact. While false reports of abuse are exceedingly rare—at least as rare as false reports of other serious crimes, according to the FBI—they do occur.  Moreover, it is one thing to believe the testimony of victims themselves, and another to allow rumors and friend-of-a-friend accounts to rush us to judgement.

This is not only for the sake of the accused.  Not only are we, as a community, unable to provide the system of checks and balances that allow defendants their rights to fair trial, we are also unable to provide the level of expertise that properly trained investigators bring to their work with abused children.  Ironically, if we rush to create a parallel system to mete out justice, we may endanger the rights of both victims and the accused at the same time: we can both deprive the accused of a fair process within our communities, and also contaminate the evidence so that even solid grounds for a conviction will be inadmissible in a court of law.

Fact finding just isn’t our role.  When there is reason to suspect child sexual abuse, we need to hand the ultimate finding of fact over to those who have the resources to do the job properly.

  • 5.     We should empower local organizations to respond to suspicion and to concerns, through mandated reporting, banning, and/or watchful waiting for persons of concern. 

While it’s not the role of our communities to be substitutes for the legal system in determining guilt or innocence, neither do we have no role to play in judging what actions we need to make on a local level to protect our kids, and also to be sure that our leaders and teachers are held to a high standard of ethical conduct.  We need to establish clear guidelines in our local communities for removing persons of concern from positions of trust within the community, with or without a criminal conviction, when there have been credible, specific allegations of misconduct made.

I’m not talking about banning individuals based on vague rumors or the notion of guilt by association.  But I am talking about times when there have been repeated reports of troubling behavior made against a person, as reported by the people who were directly involved.

This may seem like a contradiction to my recommendation not to attempt to adjudicate questions of guilt or innocence on our own, but in fact, it is not.  Because, while we really need the standard of innocent until proven guilty where someone has been accused of a crime, whether we grant or refuse the privileges within our own communities is a different matter.

There, our standards will be different from those of a criminal court.  Not only will a different level of proof apply to our own hearings, but a different standard of behavior may be needed, too.  I would suggest that the higher the position of trust granted someone, the higher the standard of behavior we will hold them to.

Among our leaders and teachers, despite the fact that we have no means of our own of establishing guilt or innocence, credible reports of child sexual abuse at a minimum create an appearance that is at odds with our community’s ethics.  And in the case of a leader or a teacher, allowing them the privilege of holding themselves out as representatives of our religious traditions while they are under investigation for sexual abuse is simply inappropriate.

Likewise, given the high rates of recidivism among perpetrators, we may want to think twice about allowing anyone access to gatherings where children will be present, who has either a past conviction of any form of sexual exploitation of children, or who has been the subject of repeated, specific allegations from within the community, with or without any criminal convictions.

  • 6.     On an national and international level, we should encourage full, open disclosure of objective indicators of risk, like arrests for charges related to pedophilia.

We should report allegations as allegations where legal processes have been initiated, but not in the absence of legal action.  On some levels, this is very unsatisfying: how can past victims hope to warn future victims when a perpetrator who has never been arrested or convicted moves from one place to another?

On another, it is a way of recognizing the reality that we will never know every potential source of harm within our communities… while allowing our budding news services to function as they function best—as news services, reporting only what is subject to confirmation, only what is objective.  Trading in rumor may serve justice one day, but it will thwart it the next.  Without the greater knowledge of one another we can only have within local communities, we will have no way to prevent the kinds of abuses that many of the critics of the current wave of coverage fear: vague accusations that make polarize us, without actually making our communities any safer.

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We live in a world of complexity, and as much as we might like to think otherwise, we are not separate from even the most dysfunctional aspects of our society as a whole.  Child sexual abuse is a part of our modern world, and sadly, it will remain part of the Pagan community as long as that continues to be true.

The good news is that we are not helpless.  We can do more to protect victims, and to keep perpetrators from using our communities to find and access victims.  It’s not enough; surely, we all wish we could do more.  But it is a good deal more than nothing.

As we work together to heal the world as a whole, may our efforts within our own communities take root and flourish.

“I’m in a lot of pain right now,” Daisy said to me quietly.

I wasn’t sure exactly what type of pain she was referring to at that moment. For as long as I have known Daisy, which is going on six years now, she has lived a life of constant pain, both physical as well as psychological. She was sober and alert at the moment, which led me to think that she was referring to her arthritis as opposed to her inner trauma and emotional turmoil.

“But I’m still a fighter,” she added with a smile.

The fact that she was a fighter was undisputed in my mind. Daisy has been on the streets of this town for an untold number of years, with a notable portion of that time spent either stumbling through various stages of intoxication or stumbling through various stages of the criminal justice system. Despite the tragedy and trauma of her everyday life, however, her spirit was anything but broken. She is one of many chronically homeless individuals in downtown Eugene who the police refer to as “frequent flyers” due to the frequent amount of times that they are arrested and released for minor offenses directly related to homelessness and/or addiction. Rarely can you find a business owner or resident in the downtown area who isn’t familiar with Daisy, and unfortunately much of that familiarity falls with the context of negative interactions that often result in police intervention. This has resulted in her being banned from entering several local businesses, which further affects her stabilization and well being. For anyone on the street, but especially for someone like Daisy, a lack of access to public establishments means lack of access to quality food and other survival necessities, which triggers stress, which then triggers behavioral issues, which results in another episode, which results in yet another exclusion and/or trip to jail, and so on and so forth. It’s a tragic cycle, one that is seemingly impossible to break under the current conditions and limitations of the system.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

Much like the business owners and residents, the police hold a variety of emotions and attitudes regarding Daisy that range from compassion to frustration to contempt. In my many conversations over the past few years with allies in the police department, it has been made clear to me that they are quite aware that constantly arresting, jailing, and prosecuting Daisy and others like her for the “crime” of being a chronically homeless alcoholic is neither effective nor sensible, not to mention a huge waste of taxpayer money. And yet they stress that they have “no other tools in the toolbox” in terms of methods of dealing with people like Daisy, and I sympathize and agree with them on this point. Their training prepared them to be law enforcement officers, not social workers or crisis intervention counselors, and their duty to uphold the law often requires that they treat Daisy as a criminal in situations that they acknowledge would be much more effectively handled by trained crisis intervention workers as opposed to law enforcement.

I’ve gotten to know Daisy pretty well over the years. I’ve experienced her many moods and phases, and while I understand and sympathize with the frustration and anger that police and businesses often feel towards Daisy, I have quite the soft spot in my heart for her. I’ve gotten to know sides of Daisy that most have never experienced. I’ve interacted with sober Daisy, happy Daisy, worried Daisy. She’s told me jokes that made me laugh until I cried, and she’s told me stories about her life that have simply made me cry. I see Daisy as a person, not a “problem” or “nuisance”, and its impossible for me to every be truly angry with her despite often wanting to scream in hopeless frustration. I refuse to blame or condemn her, and I’ve been known to intervene when others feel they have the right to do so. At the end of the day, I feel nothing but sympathy and love and compassion for Daisy.

Many argue that such an approach and attitude is akin to “enabling”, but I don’t love and accept (and often defend) Daisy as she is because I approve of or condone her behavior. I love and accept and defend Daisy as she is because I recognize her beauty and worth as an individual despite her flaws and I strongly believe that she deserves a better life, even and especially when she does not always believe so herself. Daisy’s behavioral history and current condition is the result of a complex combination of medical, social, psychological, and economic factors, not a personal moral failing on her part as many would believe. It’s been said that a society is judged by how we treat our most vulnerable. In my eyes, Daisy’s situation signifies a society that has failed in this regard, and as a result of that failure so many people are systematically marginalized, condemned, alienated, and stripped of their dignity.

More than anything else, at the very, very least Daisy deserves to be treated with dignity. No matter how intoxicated, how angry, or how unmanageable she can be, she is a human being who has had a tougher life than most of us could possibly imagine, and regardless of her past or present challenges, Daisy is as worthy and sacred and divine as any and all of us are. She may not be able to “work” to earn her keep in her current state, but that does not mean she does not have value as a person and as a member of our community. She deserves respect and dignity, and she deserves a warm, safe place to sleep at night. All human beings need and deserve a place to sleep.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting different results. Under that definition, the city’s approach to handling Daisy over the years is completely insane. It’s recognized on both a local and national level that criminalizing addiction as well as criminalizing life-sustaining behaviors is a dead-end to nowhere in terms of effectiveness, and Daisy’s situation perfectly demonstrates the utter failure of a criminalization-based approach. Police acknowledge that more than anything else, Daisy and others like her need a place to sleep and supportive services, not endless rounds through the criminal justice system. But sadly, the only dry and legal place to sleep that Daisy regularly experiences is a bed inside a jail cell.

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption.

The city’s approach regarding Daisy and the other “frequent flyers” is not only logically insane, but it’s a prime example of financial insanity as well. Estimates can vary widely, and such costs are deliberately not itemized, but its been whispered in many corners of city government and the social service sector that some of the frequent flyers cost the taxpayers upwards of $100,000 per person, per year. The majority of these costs, which usually consist of numerous trips to the police station, the jail, the emergency room, the psych ward, and the detox facility, are directly related to living on the street without shelter options, and most of these costs could be greatly reduced by adopting the “Housing First” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_First) model for chronically homeless individuals like Daisy as opposed to criminalizing their existence. In states and cities that have implemented Housing First, the cost-savings has been significant, one example being a stunning 2/3 reduction in costs per-person in Colorado. And while city officials are open and eager to adopting such practices in Eugene, the funding is currently not available on either a local or state level. In the meantime, for over a decade now Daisy and so many others have had no other option than to live on the streets.

For the past few months, however, Daisy has been living at an unsanctioned tent city at the edge of the downtown district known as Whoville. The Whoville camp is a self-governed, community-funded project that has been providing sanctuary for as many as 50 people at a time on a 4,000 square foot public lot since late September. Whoville functions as a collaborative effort between those who were living on the streets and members of the community who are able and willing to provide support: activists, non-profits, church groups, and concerned citizens alike. Whoville currently provides a safe place to sleep, regular access to bathrooms and handwashing stations, access to healthy food and a place to cook it, and a strong network of community support from and for a wide range of people from all walks of life. In many ways, the Whoville population is a perfect microcosm of the homeless population as a whole. Whoville residents range from the recently unemployed to the permanently disabled, from those simply down on their luck to those who suffer from addictions or severe mental illnesses. There are people at Whoville who have only been homeless for a few months, and others who have been homeless for a significant portion of their lives.

The Whoville camp as seen from the street

The Whoville camp as seen from the street.

To be fair, the formation of Whoville in itself arguably falls under the above-referenced definition of insanity. For over thirty years, camping laws have been regularly enforced throughout the City of Eugene, with little to no tolerance of tent communities of any kind. Both history and common sense suggest that any tent community that is formed on public land in Eugene would be disbanded by police, without exception. And yet, in the midst of an immediate crisis in which some of the most vulnerable members of our community had nowhere to go, a public tent city seemed to be the only option. Desperation often leads to insane thinking, and granted we were desperate. But we also knew from past experience, street folks and activists alike, that even though camp would certainly be shut down, that it was what happens within such a camp while it exists that often holds more power than the inevitability fate of the camp itself, which provided the motivation to go forth despite what seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

And so Whoville was formed, and it grew, and it was supported. It grew some more, and it gained more support. The camp moved around from parcel to parcel for five weeks, then strategically decided to stand their ground at a vacant public lot just outside of downtown. And over the course of four months, Whoville relationship with both the police and the community at large went from adversarial to cooperative. Local opposition morphed into wary but gradual and steady public acceptance. As Whoville grew, downtown business owners noticed that less people were sleeping in doorways, in parks, in alleyways. There were fewer behavioral issues downtown, fewer incidents related to disorderly conduct, fewer calls to the police department. Some of the frequent flyers had all but vanished from downtown.

For years, activists and advocates as well as the homeless population itself has consistently approached the city with a very simple and sensible message: If you don’t want downtown full of frequent flyers and other subpopulations that are experiencing the realities and effects of homelessness, give them somewhere else to go. If you’re going to tell people where they can’t be, you need to tell them where they can be. People exist, they are made of matter, they do not have the ability to disappear or vanish at will, they have bodily needs and survival needs that cannot be ignored, and they need a place where they can legally exist.

This concept has seemingly fallen on deaf ears for years, as the city continued its policies of criminalizing their existence with the insane hope that one day the homeless will just disappear or go somewhere else. But Whoville, acting on the belief that survival and dignity are more important than ordinances and citations and therefore worth fighting for, has demonstrated and proved that having a place to be not only results in the relocation of those who formerly had nowhere to be other than downtown street corners, but it has also demonstrated to the community that by providing such a place, even the most challenging members of the street population can stabilize to an extent. Not only have behavioral issues reduced, but the corresponding costs to the public of dealing with such issues have been reduced as well. Echoing the results of the Housing First model, the “frequent flyers” at Whoville have needed far fewer law enforcement interventions or emergency services than they had while living on the streets, a fact which has been noted by both police and social service providers. It’s a testament to the fact that while sheltering individuals indoors is obviously preferable, even an outdoor space where they have a place to exist and stabilize within a community results in both instant as well as long-term benefits as opposed to leaving people on the street with nowhere to go.

Even more important than the economic benefits, however, is the transformation and healing that has occurred for many in the Whoville community through the course of its existence. In the time since she has been at Whoville, the improvements in Daisy that myself and others have witnessed has been nothing short of remarkable. The day she whispered to me about her pain, I had stopped by Whoville early in the evening, and it was obvious that she had been sober all day. She was alert, she had a healthy skin tone, and other than her pain issues, Daisy was more upbeat and even-tempered than I had ever witnessed in all the years that I’ve known her. She was functioning within a community, as part of a family, being taken care of, and trying to take care of herself as well. When she reminded me that she was a fighter, it literally brought me to tears. For so long, I had dreamed for something better, anything better for Daisy than what I had been witnessing for years. And finally, she had somewhere to be, was a part of a community, and was taking steps on the road to healing. For Daisy and many others, the community brings a sense of acceptance and belonging that is an essential component of anyone’s well being. I can point to many individual factors that have been an improvement in Daisy’s life as a result of Whoville, but the most powerful factor that I’ve witnessed in the improvement of many here is the power of community itself, both the internal community of Whoville residents and the outer community that supports them.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Ironically, I was walking past an area near my building a few weeks ago and had paused at a spot where I would often find Daisy in the past when I received a text message from my primary contact at the police department, requesting a meeting later in the afternoon. I knew immediately that I was about to be informed of the City’s intent to evict Whoville. Despite everything the community had provided and demonstrated over a period of four months, the City’s response would be no different: send them packing with nowhere legal for them to go and act as if they’ll just disappear. The meeting confirmed my expectations down to the smallest details. No alternate campsites would be opened. No emergency shelter of any kind would be provided. The camp would be evicted sometime in the immediate future with no alternate arrangements made and no real consideration given to the fact that some of the Whoville residents desperately needed supportive services and were not able to adequately care for themselves on their own.

I’ve often observed that the primary narrative concerning the issue of homelessness in this community is dominated by two vocal minorities: the homeless themselves and those who advocate for and support them, and those who believe that the homeless people are all “lazy bums” who are only looking for a “handout”. Often lost in this polarized atmosphere are the sentiments and feelings of the general public as a whole. Both sides of the debate will often claim “public support” for their position, but both sides are arguably equally speculative in those assertions. There is a lot of compassion in this community, but there is also a lot of ignorance.

But this time, while voices obviously rose loudly from within and around Whoville in opposition to the city’s plans, an entire separate chorus of voices also rose up against the plan – the voices of the general public. After four months, people in all corners of the community had recognized the value of Whoville, and many made their opposition to the closure known through social media, letters to the editor, as well as statements sent directly to the City Council. Other influential parties also chimed in, notably Occupy Medical and the city’s Human Rights Commission, speaking out in opposition to dispersing 40 people with nowhere safe for them to go. For the first time, public sentiment seemed to be truly understanding of the idea that if we force people to leave, we must give them somewhere else to be.

And under pressure from many directions, public officials responded, and last Wednesday the City Council granted Whoville a 30-day reprieve while viable alternatives can be explored. While the decision does not guarantee that there will be a place for Whoville to relocate a month from now, it is a decision based on the recognition that pushing people out with nowhere for them to go is neither humane nor sensible, nor does serve any legitimate purpose. Its also a recognition of the fact that Whoville is meeting a vital community need that has gone unmet due to holes in the social safety net, and that the stabilization and healing that people are experiencing at Whoville is a benefit to the community as a whole. Many are starting to recognize that the segment of the street population that the city has deemed ‘unmanageable’ can often function quite well with the right kind of community support. The decision gives the community an opportunity to face this issue for what it truly is and to come forward with actual solutions. For once, an attempt at a common-sense approach is being attempted as a resolution, as opposed to the usual bureaucratic insanity that has been the status quo for years.

It’s a simple idea, really, the idea that someone who has been systematically marginalized and abandoned will show consistent improvement if and when someone shows them a little love and kindness. For someone like Daisy, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. We speak of “community” often, but I find that the word is so often used in a hollow sense, devoid of any real substance, and the true meaning and of community has either been forgotten or has never understood by so many. Whoville is a testament to the potential power and effectiveness of solidarity and horizontal collaboration as practiced in a community setting. United in the belief that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, Whoville offers stability and sanctuary to those who have been all but forgotten, and their ability to self-govern and support each other is an example to us all.

Each of us is sacred and worthy, and we all deserve support and safety. And while its long-term future is still up in the air, if a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, let Whoville be a beacon of light that guides others towards the right path.

(*Author’s Note: Daisy’s name and a few minor details have been changed for privacy reasons.)

On a few different occasions now, I have been the face of modern Paganism in a world religions course at an evangelical Christian Bible seminary in Portland, Oregon. The class, at Multnomah University, is filled with individuals who are hoping to go into leadership and missionary roles within their respective church communities. I know that they want to convert me, and all like me, but I agreed to be there because I felt that humanizing Pagans was important, especially to those who might have heavily distorted or antagonistic ideas about what my beliefs were. It’s (relatively) easy to sit down with a liberal Episcopalian, peaceful Light-loving Quaker, or questioning Unitarian-Universalist, it’s quite another thing to engage with folks who might adhere to a spiritual warfare theology regarding non-Christian faiths.

Selena Fox (with Shauna Aura Knight) at Chicago Pagan Pride.

Selena Fox (with Shauna Aura Knight) at Chicago Pagan Pride.

When I step in front of that class, one of the first things I do is point out that modern Paganism is not a monolith. That we are a religious movement made up of distinct groups, traditions, and belief systems. That “Paganism” as a classification does not mean the same thing as the label “Christianity” might mean to them. If you speak to a Christian, they might have widely diverse views on a number of subjects, but there’s a central text (The Bible) and figure (Jesus) that makes them recognizable as a group. However, if you talk to a Pagan, you might be speaking to a Wiccan, a Druid, a Heathen, or one of a growing number of polytheist reconstructionists and revivalists. Of course, statistically speaking, they might also very well end up talking to an eclectic, solitary, practitioner who mixes and matches from the many definable communities that exist underneath our umbrella.

“The problem with big tents is, well, they’re big. Try to embrace the whole tent and you can find yourself bouncing back and forth between pouring libations to Zeus, protesting fracking, organizing the Beltane picnic and meditating on The Fool.  Those are all worthwhile things to do, but they can lead to a personal religion that is the proverbial mile wide and an inch deep.”John Beckett

As I move forward with my talk, I notice that I steer away from my personal beliefs as much as possible. Not to protect myself, I care little if a group of evangelical students know my views on divinity, but because I realize that I’m a filter for something incredibly vast. How do I do justice to both P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and Cat Chapin-Bishop? To Don Frew and Cara Schulz? The more I personalize, the more they’ll equate my views with the entire movement, so I try to avoid making it about me. Instead I draw diagrams explaining hard and soft polytheism, explain how there can be humanist Wiccans, and even note that there are groups who increasingly want nothing to do with the term or community that has formed around the word “Paganism” for a variety of reasons. In the end, I point out that religious discourse with a Pagan can’t be about a list of preconceived ideas about what we believe, or do, it has to start simply, as an organic attempt at friendship, or else it will ultimately fail.

“While it has been building for the last few years more and more, I wonder if we have not, at last, reached a kind of definitive “breaking point,” so to speak, where polytheism and general paganism can no longer realistically say that they’re at all related.”P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

Paganism is often explained as a collection of “nature-based” faiths, and while that sweeping classification is both limiting and alienating to some groups and individuals within our movement, it does make for a handy metaphor. Like nature, Paganism can be, and is, endlessly diverse. It can be both embracingly populist and extremely individualistic, focused on the esoteric and concerned with the dirt beneath our feet. Pin-point local or hugely universal in its scope. The mere notion of unity can be a difficult prospect, and one that is often mired in politics. There have been times, even recently, where I felt somewhat intimidated to enter into dialog with my fellow Pagans because I wasn’t sure if my own theological views would be seen as safely within our boundaries, or hopelessly heterodox. Not in the same fashion as some of my outspoken polytheist friends, but I too have questioned the utility and usefulness of the term Paganism as an umbrella. I have even entertained the thought that perhaps we’d all get along better if the term, if not the movement, went away. Because I’ve been to the big intrafaith events, and I know that despite our immense theological and cultural diversity we can share fellowship, discuss common problems, and even mobilize around things that we know to affect us all.

Don Frew (center) at the Parliament of the World's Religions (2009).

Don Frew (center) at the Parliament of the World’s Religions (2009).

“I like to say that as religions seeing the Divine manifest in and as the material world, we have to expect that the Divine is both as unified and at the same time at least as diverse as is the natural world. There is one Earth, but innumerable climates and geographies, flora and fauna. It should be no surprise that our spiritualities reflect this.”Don Frew

All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s). We worked very hard at simple acceptance, and have gained a lot of ground in the last 30 years. Even in the ten years of doing The Wild Hunt, I have seen amazing progress, stuff that would have seemed remarkable to our founders from the 50s and 60s. With these advances comes a branching out from that place of huddled safety, where thousands now work at evaluating what they want from a modern Paganism, and if it still suits them. Margot Adler, famous author of “Drawing Down the Moon,” has publicly said on more than one occasion that had she the option back in the 1970s, she would have become a Hellenic polytheist instead of a Wiccan, but Wicca was all she could find at the time. The Margot Adler’s of tomorrow don’t have to worry about those limitations. Thanks to our ascendancy, growth, and technologies, our choices are more expansive, and at least in most Western nations, relatively safe to explore.

Margot Adler, Michael Lloyd, at Anniversary Pagan Way Lecture Series; photo by Brian Brewer

Margot Adler, Michael Lloyd, at Anniversary Pagan Way Lecture Series; photo by Brian Brewer

Going forward, our leaders and elders need to take seriously the need not only for interfaith outreach to religions like Christianity, Hinduism, indigenous traditions, and Buddhism, but a renewed intrafaith discussion among the many faiths that operate within our movement, who still stand (for now) under the Pagan umbrella. We can no longer assume that everyone is going to simply go along, or that criticisms are coming from an ignorable minority. A not-often discussed fact, is that Paganism is largely solitary and eclectic in its makeup. The “large” Pagan organizations have membership rolls that number hundreds, not thousands, and there’s no group that can truly claim to speak for our movement in any unified way. This means that constant engagement and re-engagement within is critical towards achieving the many movement goals we might have (infrastructure, legal rights, pan-movement activism), and a failure to see the importance of such engagement will ultimately lead to our shopworn umbrella truly shredding apart in the decades to come.

If we want a full and rich “Paganism” moving forward, we’ll have to work for it anew. We will have to respect our increasing diversity, and the changing mores of the individuals willing to stand with our movement. Alternately, we can redefine Paganism to mean a smaller number of faiths, and accept that a growing number of religious communities are going to exist apart from us. Whatever “we” want, we should act on it, otherwise time and inaction will make the choice for us.

The Pagan Bubble

Teo Bishop —  March 26, 2013 — 133 Comments
Boy In A Bubble

Photo by Charles Strebor

We live in a Pagan bubble.

Mostly, we seem unaware that the bubble exists.

We talk a lot to ourselves, Pagans do. We talk to ourselves about who we are and who we are not. We talk to ourselves about what we believe, what we do not believe, and sometimes we even argue about whether or not belief is that meaningful.

We argue, Pagans do, within the Pagan bubble.

We also, at times, dive deep into meaningful conversations that look nothing like argument. Some of us sit in contemplation with the difficult stuff of community building, and we do so with grace and compassion. We are complicated, for certain.

But the Pagan bubble is real. And so long as we continue to live inside of it, we remain ghettoized.

At least, we are ghettoized online. The Pagan and polytheist corners of the internet foster conversations that require so much context as to be nearly unintelligible to outsiders. I suppose to a degree this is the nature of any walled-off community. It’s what religious people do: they talk within their walls about who they are.

But this talking to ourselves about ourselves is debilitating. We become steeped in our own lore, influenced by our own memetic waves, and stuck within a vocabulary and symbol system that could really benefit from a Universal Translator. We are well versed at talking about who we are to each other, but I’m beginning to think that we are (or, at least, I am) unpracticed at talking about who we are to people who do not share our vernacular.

This all came into focus for me as I was sitting at my parents dining room table this past weekend. My stepfather, a man who has loved me as his own for nearly thirty years, a man who has never been religious but who has been tolerant of my religiosity in its various incarnations, looked at me and said, gently,

“I read your blog, but I don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about.”

*pause*

I was speechless.

I didn’t know I’d been that cryptic. I didn’t realize that my writing was so narrowly focused. I’d thought that within the realm of Pagan writers I’d managed to do a pretty good job thinking and writing outside of the box. I’ve worked to consider the diversity of belief and religious practice in the Pagan world, and I often reach for something more universal — more purely human — that might unite us in a shared understanding.

But that’s just it. I’ve been doing this work from within the realm of PaganismI have been writing in a Pagan bubble.

Even this blog post I’m writing now is written on a site create by a Pagan for Pagans. It offers a “modern Pagan perspective,” primarily for the benefit of other Pagans.

The bubble is big, and there’s a lot of great work going on within the bubble. But it is still a bubble.

Reeling from this realization, I ran through the list of places that house my writing:

  • My work at Bishop In The Grove is geared toward an audience of mostly Pagans and polytheists. There is the occasional Buddhist reader/commenter, and once in a while a Progressive Christian shows up with a kind word. But mostly, it’s a Pagan blog.
  • The Solitary Druid Fellowship blog is even more specific to a Pagan tradition (ADF Druidry). It’s more universal in its language and approach than many ADF groves, being that it seeks to serve solitaries of a wide variety of hearth cultures and traditions. But, you’ve still got to get a basic education in Paganism or Druidry to benefit from all of what the Fellowship offers.
  • I write for HuffPost Religion primarily on the High Days; and while I try to include a little descriptive information in each post about the relevance of the day for the benefit of non-Pagans, the posts are mostly directed toward people for whom these days already have relevance. I write posts that serve as reflections on days that are sacred to Pagans.
  • When I wrote at Patheos, an interfaith blogging site, it would have appeared that I was working outside of the Pagan bubble. But I was writing on the “Pagan channel.” Even within this mini-verse of religious blogs, there are clearly drawn religious lines. The Pagan bubble exists there, too.
  • I have a column coming out in the next edition of Witches and Pagans, and… well… can you get much more Pagan than that?

In a few seconds I realized that the majority, if not all of the writing I’ve done in the past few years — a couple hundred posts worth — has been Pagan-specific, Pagan-centered, and Pagan-directed.

Here in my parent’s kitchen, I found myself unpracticed at talking about Paganism (or more specifically, my paganism) with someone outside of my relatively small, insular world.

Photo by Jason Mrachina

Photo by Jason Mrachina

I’m not unfamiliar with operating within a cultural ghetto. Growing up gay, I immersed myself in an ad-hoc study of gay history, gay culture, and gay tradition. I sought out resources on gay spirituality, visited gay bookstores, and sewed a gay patch on my backpack. I bought gay political rags, gauged my support of politicians based on their stances on gay issues, and checked the language of newspaper and online articles with precision to search out “gay friendly” or “anti-gay” language.

Everything was, for a time, filtered through a gay lens. And by creating a gay bubble for myself (or, rather, by gleefully recognizing my place within the gay bubble created by my gay forebears), I was able to affirm my gay identity, my gay tastes and preferences, and my sense of gay-self. I knew where I stood within the gay bubble, and I knew very clearly what stood on the outside.

The gay community first organized in response to cultural oppression and subjugation. Gays organized because they were being treated poorly, and through organization we were able to forge change within culture. We continue to do so to this day. But should we achieve all of our political goals and forge the cultural change we have sought out for so long, we may find ourselves in a position where we are no longer in need of protection against the over-culture. The cultural forces whose othering allowed for us to shore up our sense of individual and collective identities may become benign.

I suspect a similar fate for Pagans should we step outside of our bubble, and I think this may be one reason why the bubble stays in place.

As my husband (my gay husband), Sean Michael Morris, told me while discussing this matter,

“In today’s world, many ghettos, which were created by people who othered us, are maintained because we cherish our otherness.”

We perpetuate our otherness because it’s safer than being out. We perpetuate our otherness, I think, because if we allow the walls to come down from around our encampment, our stronghold against those on the outside, we run the risk of losing our sense of identity in the world.

Do these boundaries continue to be necessary? Do they serve a purpose, other than for protection?

How, I wonder, might we be better served by the deconstruction of our ghettos? What would happen if we no longer lived in this Pagan bubble?

Meeting my Palo family

Stacey Lawless —  January 26, 2013 — 7 Comments

Nsala malekum! I thought I’d tell you a little about my initiation into Palo Mayombe. I can’t describe the rayamiento itself, because that would break my oath, but a lot of things that happened that weekend were part of my initiatory experience, and I can talk about the exciting stuff that happened the day before. I hope that by doing so, I can give you something of the sense of community and religion that I encountered. Palo initiations, like those of other ATRs (‘African Traditional Religions’), take place in two interrelated but distinct aspects of life: the spiritual and the social. You undergo the rituals, and assuming they’re worked well by people who know what they’re doing, you get connected to the spirits of the tradition and they start affecting your life. At the same time, by undergoing the rituals, you’re accepted into what is essentially an adoptive family.

My boyfriend came up with a great allegory for ATR initiations, which I have shamelessly stolen: they’re like becoming a citizen of a country. You’re connected to the other citizens, and come under the rule of the laws of the land. That is, ATRs are what they are because of pacts and arrangements with specific spiritual forces. (This is the basis for the rituals, sacrifices, oracles, taboos, and so forth that practitioners of ATRs live by.) Those forces – the muertos, Lwa, Orishas, or Whomever – are part of the community too. When you’re brought into the spiritual lineage of your house, the ancestors of the lineage become your ancestors, alongside your own blood relations. The other spirits, the Whomever your house serves, accept you and start interacting with you as a member of the house, with all the privileges and responsibilities that apply.

So part of my rayamiento weekend involved another ritual called the presentación. I can’t go into a lot of detail about it, either, but I can say it involves taking the candidate for rayamiento out to be shown to the spirits of nature, especially the spirits of the mountain. Palo is inextricably bound up with these, so it was basically Tata Eric taking me to meet the allies. (Or rather, I should say, “taking us,” because I got a new godbrother that weekend: mi hermano Chris B., who was scratched along with me. He’s a great guy, and it was very cool to have someone going through these experiences right along with me.)

Me and mi hermano Chris before rayamiento.

Me and mi hermano Chris before rayamiento.

We headed out in the morning, picked Chris up, and he and I introduced ourselves to each other while we ran around a supermarket, gathering supplies. It was an hour’s drive from town to the place in the mountains Eric wanted to use for the presentación, and we spent the trip talking and joking around. (I had never been in the desert before, and spent part of the drive going, “Hey, are those tumbleweeds? Are those Joshua trees? Will I see any roadrunners?”) When we got to the right place, we carried our supplies down to a secluded grove by the bank of a shallow, stony river, and set up a ritual space around the foot of the tallest tree. The river is important to our lineage of Palo, so Eric presented us to its spirits as well

as to the mountain, and Chris and I took offerings to the stream and each brought something back. We cleaned up the site when we were done, and drove back into town. I felt clear and light, and very, very good — like I had finally stepped all the way into my place in the world.

That day was a busy one. We got takeout for lunch, and only had an hour or two to eat and relax before it was time to jump back into the car to drive down into Los Angeles. Tata Eric’s partner, Gloria, is a Palera and Santera, and she has a young goddaughter who was on the verge of making Ocha (now she’s crowned and into her year in white). There was a misa espiritual scheduled for the goddaughter and we were all taking part. There I would meet more of the people in the community, and more of the spirits, although this ritual didn’t have anything to do with Palo.

A misa is a rite for communicating with the enlightened dead who serve as spirit guides. It’s neither a Palo working nor a Santería one, but comes from a third Afro-Caribbean tradition called Espiritismo. I’ve heard of people doing Espiritismo by itself, but everyone I’ve met who practices it is also involved with Ocha. The use of the misa to communicate with muertos seems to be fairly common among Santeros. I’m told that it’s replaced lost Yoruba rites for working with the dead, but I wonder if the appeal has more to do with the fact that misas are a heck of lot of fun. (Also, you don’t have to be initiated into anything to take part in one. We all have ancestors, and we all have muertos who walk with us through life.)

A 'white table' or Espiritismo altar.

A ‘white table’ or Espiritismo altar.

Anyway, Chris, Gloria, and I piled into Eric’s car and he drove us to L.A. When we got to the house, I felt like the awkward friend of friends from out of town, but reminded myself that I was actually meeting more people in my community. Tata Eric was heading up the ceremony, and once things got underway, I forgot about being shy. We were sitting around in a circle, praying Catholic prayers in rapid-fire Spanish (well, English for me, but at least I could fall back on my Catholic school education). We had all taken turns cleaning ourselves with white flowers and Florida water, and the praying raised and refined the energies in the room. I started to feel open and emotionally connected to the other people there. The goddaughter’s mother passed around cigars, so I took one and started puffing on it. (Tobacco helps open doors for the spirit communications.) Suddenly I began to ‘see’ people coming into the room, and some of them ‘told’ me they had messages they wanted me to pass on to other participants (though it was less like I heard or even imagined I heard anything, and more like I simply knew what I was supposed to say). I began to relay the messages as they came up, which was quite an intense experience, because even though they didn’t make sense to me, the people I gave them to confirmed them. The goddaughter’s grandmother told me, after I described a spirit who was reaching out to her, that she didn’t know who he was yet — but somebody else had told her about him, with exactly the same details, at a misa the week before. It was a tremendously cool experience.

Gloria’s young goddaughter seemed entirely pleased with the messages that came through for her, and so was her family. Afterwards, they served Mexican pastries and coffee, and Gloria talked about details of the forthcoming Ocha ceremony with the other Santeras there.

Tata Eric & Yayi Gloria

Tata Eric and Yayi Gloria.

I mentioned that initiation into an ATR is also joining an adoptive family. One of the things that really struck me about my particular adoptive family was just how familial it is. The misa was multigenerational, with the young goddaughter, her father and mother, and her grandmother all present and taking part. (Her brothers were off in another part of the house, playing video games.) The next day, the day of the rayamiento itself, I met Gloria’s brother Miguel, who came over to help with the ritual. Like many of the people in this house, he’s a Santero as well as a Palero; and he and Gloria were raised in a family that practiced Ocha. One of the other Paleros who came to help with the rayamiento brought his wife and their toddler son along, and they hung out in the living room and watched kid’s shows on TV while the ritual was underway. It was fascinating, because I had never encountered anything like it before. My experiences with Pagans mostly featured twenty- and thirty-somethings coming together as first-generation practitioners. Some of my Pagan friends have children, but I only know one adult with Pagan parents. I came back from California with a strong sense of the living, rooted nature of Palo and Ocha.

I hope I’ve been able to convey some of the excitement of the day before my rayamiento. It was a splendid prelude to being scratched in Palo, and played a significant role in my overall experience of initiation. The ways I encountered community that weekend, with spirits and with humans, shaped how I encounter both Palo and Ocha now; and the misa gave a needed boost to my self-confidence about doing spirit-work.

My one regret from that weekend is that I didn’t get to see any roadrunners. Hopefully I’ll spot one next time. Malekum nsala!