Archives For Georgia

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On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) rejected the appeal of Ohio science teacher John Freshwater, who was fired for teaching Creationism in the public school system. The case, Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education, first made its way through the Ohio courts, where it was ultimately ruled that “the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education had ‘good and just cause’ to terminate John Freshwater’s teaching contract.” When the appeal reached the Supreme Court, the justices rejected it, thereby, allowing the Ohio court’s opinion to stand.

vernon_logoThis case is a recent example of a public school system becoming the playing field for a tug of war match between secularism and religion. According to Americans United (AU), the teacher not only taught Creationism in the classroom, but he displayed and handed-out religious material, and also performed surveys of students’ religious beliefs. AU also notes that the teacher was “accused of using an electronic device (a Tesla coil) to burn a cross into a student’s arm.”

Although the Ohio courts ruled that it was legal for Freshwater to place his personal Bible on the desk, his actions were otherwise out of line. AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said, “Freshwater was using his position to foist his religious beliefs onto impressionable students. The courts rightfully put a stop to that.”

For Pagan and Heathen parents or others practicing minority religions, there may come a time when religion is “foisted” upon their children within the public school environment. In most cases, the situation is likely an unthinking act, and indicative of a changing culture or shift in demographics. Minor missteps do happen and can often be remedied through conversations, education and awareness. Unfortunately, in some instances, such as the Ohio case above, the acts are blatant attempts at promoting a single religion.

The Satanic Temple's Children's Activity Book

Created by The Satanic Temple

Last year, Florida’s Orange County School Board allowed The World Changers of Florida to distribute Bibles to their students. After being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community, the school board approved the distribution of other religious material, which now includes pamphlets on Atheism and the Satanic Temple’s coloring book called “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

Similarly, the Madison County School Board in Georgia allowed a privately funded religious monument to be erected outside a high school football team’s field house. According to local news, the statue reads, “Romans 8:31: ‘If God be for us who can be against us?’ and Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’ ” Last month, the school board was contacted by both the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and is now facing a potential lawsuit.

In all three of these cases, the intention and, therefore the violation, is very clear. However, not all cases are quite as “cut and dry.” Over the past fifteen years, a national organization called “The Good News Club,” has been establishing after-school enrichment programs within public school buildings. With the growing number of working parents, these in-school extracurricular programs have become increasingly popular, serving a very needed purpose for modern families.

However, The Good News Club is a division of The Child Evangelism Fellowship and has a clear and direct religious initiative. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the club, and others like it, can legally hold after-school meetings within public school buildings. (The Good News Club v. Milford Central High School)  Despite that ruling, the club’s presence continues to spark controversy.

In Portland, Oregon, a large coalition has recently formed with the aim of stopping the Good News Club’s in-school activities. According to The Oregonian, its formation was sparked when Katherine Stewart published her book called The Good News Club: The Religious Right’s stealth assault on American Children.

Due to the SCOTUS ruling, that situation is not easy to legally negotiate. In an interview with The Oregonian, ACLU David Fidanque said, “I don’t know that there is a bright line anymore.” While acknowledging the club’s legal right to be in the school, he expressed real concern saying:

Keeping the government out of religious affairs is the single most important thing we can do to protect religious freedom in this country. If we allow our government institutions to endorse particular religious viewpoints, or even to promote religion in general over non-religion that is a threat to every form of religion.

1969339_231559560385952_2907068694561940975_nEven if The Good News Club is staying within its constitutional rights, Fidanque’s concerns are justified when looking at other similar situations. Growing in popularity in Georgia is another after-school religious club called Rise UP. The organizers make no effort to mask their affiliation with area schools. The website advertises, “Several other local elementary schools expressed interest in starting a similar program. We were excited about the possibility of partnering with these other parents and schools… there are new schools joining the RISE UP! Team as each school year starts – RISE UP! has a total of 9 elementary schools participating!” Did the schools ask to join or did the club ask to use the space?  Does that distinction matter?

Another way school systems intentionally or unintentionally allow religious speak into their public space is through visiting authors. Schools often hold assemblies during which a writer might speak, entertain, and read from his or her latest book. It is a very common occurrence and, in most cases, quite innocuous.

However, when that author writes with a strong religious directive, like popular Christian author Bryan Davis, the assembly could become problematic. Davis’ books reflect a deep connection to his own personal theology. While his work is certainly fitting for church assemblies, is it appropriate for public school children? Is it constitutionally legal for Davis to be speaking about and selling books that openly promote the celebration of one’s “God-given talents” and overtly discuss “faith, prayer and redemption” within the public school system? Interestingly, two of the participating middle schools are in Orange County, Florida, where the Bibles are being distributed.

These are only a few recent examples of cases in which an uncomfortable situation could arise for Pagan, Heathen or other families practicing a minority religion. There are many others situations from the minor missteps by a well-meaning teacher to the blatant promotion of a single religion. On Polytheist.com, parent Niki Whiting described her own encounter:

For a few brief weeks when we sent my son to the neighborhood kindergarten we had to deal with his confusion around the Pledge of Allegiance. I was surprised that this was still said in schools. He came home and asked why the school was trying to make him Christian. Already, in his (then) 5 short years of life, he knew that when people say ‘God’ they are mostly referring to Yahweh. “Don’t they know that the world is full of gods?” he asked. No, no, my son, they do not.

pagans_and_the_law_mainWhile every situation doesn’t need a lawyer, there may be times when a friendly email is just not enough. What should a parent do in such situations?  In her book Pagans and the Law, lawyer Dana Eilers suggests, “A basic understanding of the Constitution, the First Amendment, and their history is essential to grasping the enormity of religious freedom.” Her book lays out the basics as they pertain specifically to Pagans. She writes, “It is highly recommended that everyone read this document, boring as it appears. It is what stands between you and 10 thousand years of discrimination, persecution, and darkness.”

Another resource is Lady Liberty League. Co-founder Rev. Selena Fox has this recommendation:

Documentation is essential. Keep a log with dates and details of what has happened and what has been done to express concerns and get positive resolution. Check into the school’s policies and processes for filing complaints and voicing concerns. Keep a copy of every written communication you make and receive regarding the situation. Share this information with individuals and organizations you contact for help.

While fighting these battles may be difficult, costly and time consuming, not every situation leads to a lengthy court battle. Byron Ballard, who has worked extensively and very successfully with North Carolina’s Buncombe County School Board, found herself in the middle of such a situation in 2011. As reported by The Wild Hunt, the school board allowed Bibles to be distributed to students and a Pagan mother protested. Ballard was an integral part of resolving the tensions and finding workable solutions. Ballard advises looking for allies, adding that some may “come from surprising places.” Some of her allies  have been leaders from mainstream religious institutions. She says:

My best advice is to stay grounded, be persistent and try to really listen to all sides of the issue at hand. This work is about rights and responsibility, about shifting cultures. But it’s actually about making public schools safe places for all children to learn and to grow into caring, compassionate adults.

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

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On Saturday, Sept. 27, a gala was held in Atlanta to kick off the year leading up to the 2015 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. Next year’s event is scheduled to be the largest meeting of Nobel Laureates in history and will be held at Phillips Arena and the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta Nov. 15-19, 2015. Saturday’s pre-event gala, sponsored by the local Summit planning committee, attracted politicians, world dignitaries and Nobel Laureates such as Jimmy Carter and Muhammad Yunus. Among the crowd of 500 sitting under the courtyard tent of the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead was Rev. Patrick McCollum and his World Peace Violin.

World Peace Violin [Photo  Cedit: H.Greene]

World Peace Violin [Photo Cedit: H.Greene]

Over this past year, the violin has reached a new level of prominence in Rev. McCollum’s international peace efforts. Just in the last month, the violin was played at the World Peace Concert in Tahoe, and then in New York City’s Central Park on International Peace Day. It has traveled the world from the Himalayas to the streets of Manhattan.

A few hours before Saturday’s Atlanta gala, we caught up with Rev. McCollum as well as Nell Rose Phillips, executive director of the Patrick McCollum Foundation, and world-renowned violinist Scarlet Rivera. While relaxing together at the hotel, they shared their story and their plans for the violin’s future.

The violin itself was created by Rev. McCollum without the aid of instrument artisans or instructions. As the story goes, McCollum wanted a physical symbol of world peace to carry around with him while doing his work. He had no idea what that symbol could possibly be, so he performed a ritual asking for spiritual guidance. McCollum knew that he wanted it to represent the “diversity of culture and ideas” in the world, while still maintaining a connection “to the sacred universal voice.” The very next day, he received the magazine Scientific American and, on its cover, was the answer – a Stradivarius violin.

Rev. McCollum immediately went to work on making what would become the world peace violin. As he says, it’s spirit was born from “Goddess magic.” But the actual instrument was physically constructed from a variety of ethically-attained, sacred woods from around the world. For example, the front piece was carved from wood native to Africa. The back was created out of sacred woods given to him by a California-based Coalition of Native American tribes. On its base, there is an inlaid carving made from an Irish Willow Tree that grew out of a sacred well. And, the list goes on.

World Peace Violin [Photo Credit: H.Greene]

World Peace Violin [Photo Credit: H.Greene]

The violin’s varnish was also developed in the same manner, through the combining of elements from around the world. Rev. McCollum says that varnish mix includes dust from Hiroshima taken just after the bombs went off in 1945 and shell fragments from the battle of Iwo Jima. The varnish also contains sands from Israel “collected from the baptism site of Jesus during Arab-Israeli peace talks in Jordan;” the ashes of a white buffalo “gifted to him by an Anaswabi Chief;” and sacred oil from Rev. McCollum’s own magical tradition. He says, “This is all symbolism.” He wants the instrument to be the world’s violin, created by the world of the world.

As the story continues, when the violin was was finished, McCollum gave it to someone to play. It sounded awful. Therefore he went back to the drawing board; took it completely apart and put it back together. He did this nine times. When the sound still wasn’t right, McCollum turned back to meditation. In doing so, he says that the Goddess instructed him to dunk the violin in the Ganges River. His friends thought he was crazy, but he did it anyway. The violin soaked in the river for 3-4 minutes. When it finally dried out, the instrument had found its voice.

Scarlet Rivera [Courtesy of the Patrick McCollum Foundation]

Scarlet Rivera [Courtesy of the Patrick McCollum Foundation]

Scarlett Rivera, a world-renowned violinist, first played McCollum’s violin in Tahoe at the World Peace Concert in September. A few months earlier, a mutual friend had connected Rivera with McCollum. When she heard about what he had done, she says that she was not at all concerned about the homegrown instrument’s sound quality. She called the connection “destiny.” Rivera believes that she was “directed to” the violin as it has become a symbol and agent of global efforts for peace.

Rivera described the world peace violin as “a conduit – a special voice – that reaches the higher realms” as it spreads its sound through a room. Having always “followed a path of human rights, spirituality and peace,” she said that playing the world peace violin is one of the “greatest gifts in her life.” In doing so, she blends her beliefs and activism with her music, a possibility that she called “deeply meaningful.”

Rivera added, “This was not coincidence. I move with the hand of fate and I am open to it.” With the passion of both a musician and peace advocate, Rivera describes how the violin’s sound has changed over time. She called it nothing short of spectacular, saying, “As each person blesses the violin, the sound dramatically changes. It sings now in a way it didn’t just three weeks ago.”

Both Nell Rose Phillips and Rev. McCollum agree. They take the violin to every event, whether it is to be played or not. Wherever they go, even at meals between events, they will ask people to bless the violin. To date, many hands have touched the instrument from, as McCollum adds, “the poor and homeless to dignitaries and kings. This is the instrument of the world.”

Patrick McCollum having children bless violin at Phoenix & Dragon [Courtesy of Candace Apple]

Patrick McCollum having children bless violin at Phoenix & Dragon [Courtesy of Candace Apple]

On the Thursday evening prior to the Atlanta gala, Rivera, McCollum and Phillips spoke with a small local crowd at the Phoenix and Dragon bookstore, a metaphysical shop in the northern suburb of Sandy Springs. McCollum gave a talk on peace efforts and the purpose of the violin. Rivera played the instrument, and all attendees were asked to bless it. Owner Candace Apple said:

We were honored at Phoenix & Dragon Bookstore to have Rev. Patrick McCullom, Scarlet Rivera and the World Peace Violin share the “Journey to Peace” and its beautiful healing energy. May all the hearts of the world be touched by its song.

During the gala itself, Rivera performed a piece that she composed specifically for that night called “Journey to Peace.”  As has become a tradition, McCollum also welcomed the attending dignitaries to bless the instrument; thereby adding their own individual energy into its voice.

Muhummed Yunus blessing World Peace Violin [Courtesy of the Patrick McCollum Foundation]

Muhummed Yunus blessing World Peace Violin [Courtesy of the Patrick McCollum Foundation]

With this increase in visibility, Phillips is building a new website dedicated specifically to the world peace violin. It will contain an appearance schedule, its story as well as photos of people blessing the instrument from around the world. They already have had a number of new requests for violin performances at various, upcoming international peace events. This includes next year’s November World Nobel Peace Laureate Summit in Atlanta.

In the meantime, this coming November the instrument will be heading to Los Angeles for its first-ever, professional recording session. Rivera will be playing a composition written by Yuval Ron specifically for this purpose. The composition is called “Voices of Peace,” composed for a solo violin. While they do not know exactly how the recording will be used in their work, McCollum, Phillips and Rivera do promise that it will be made available to the public in some way to inspire others in the nurturing of world peace.

The immigration of unaccompanied minors is not new to the U.S. border patrol or the country as a whole. However, as reported by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, the number of these children has more than doubled over the past year from 31,491 to 62,998. According to reports, the recent wave is due to an increase in refugees from Central American countries. Many of these children are victims of domestic or civic violence, drug wars and other forms of extreme abuse. Obama has called the problem an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Refugee Teenager [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

In recent months, the immigration story has been all over the news as the American political engine steams ahead in its attempts to grapple with the crisis at its southern borders. Although the number of incoming children has dropped significantly since June, officials expect the number to rise again once the heat of summer wanes. Even if that doesn’t happen, there are still many children living in U.S. or Mexican detention facilities and shelters waiting for something, anything.

Will these young refugees be deported back to the violence and strife of their homelands? Will they ever see their families again? Will they be allowed to stay in the U.S. and, if so, what will become of them once here?

In spite of the “urgent humanitarian situation” and any failings in the immigration system, hope does find some of these children. In recent months, the U.S. Government has sent a large number of unaccompanied minors into communities that already have large, thriving Central American immigrant populations. With the help of a sponsor, these children can start school and a whole new life.

In one such town in Georgia, a public school system is readying itself for another large influx of Central American refugees. The Dalton City Schools of northwest Georgia has created a special program to assist unaccompanied immigrant children adapt to their new life. The “Newcomer Academy,” established within the city’s Morris Innovative High School, was specifically created to cater to children who have fled Central America. School Official, Caroline Woodson told a local news station:

Really the big challenge for our students doesn’t even come with academics. It comes with feeling safe and feeling that they have adults they can trust.

Over the past year, Georgia alone has received over 1,100 immigrant children. Other states, such as Florida and Texas, have also received large groups of these children. With the help of state-funding, private advocacy groups, personal sponsors and extended-family members, the children are acclimated to the classrooms and given a new “lease on life.”

However, not every child can find a sponsor, can reconnect with family, or has the resources needed to open an entry point into U.S. system. For those children left behind or those yet to arrive, there are organizations advocating for their care, raising funds for legal fees, and performing community outreach to raise awareness.

Fence with prayer ribbons [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

Fence with prayer ribbons [Courtesy T. Thorn Coyle]

For example, in Arizona, the Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP) provides “free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Arizona.” Similarly, in Texas, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) “promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families and refugees in Central and South Texas.” In California, an organization called Pangea strives to “stand with immigrant communities and to provide services through direct legal representation, especially in the area of deportation defense.”

To continue the work, these nonprofit advocacy organizations need money. Recently, several Pagan groups have come out in support of these organizations’ efforts to protect the rights of unaccompanied immigrant minors. Using their own voices, these Pagans are attempting to amplify a message of need.

On June 20, Come As You Are Coven (CAYA) launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for FIRRP in Arizona. Priestess Amata Maia writes:

We are looking to create a miracle for the many unaccompanied children who have been crossing the border into Arizona and Texas. These children are fleeing the gang violence in Central America and Mexico.  Many of them have lost their families to this violence and are trying desperately to escape the same fate. Currently there are so many children coming in that they are being warehoused like cattle. 

The fundraising goal was set at $500 and has raised, to date, $815.

T. Thorn Coyle leading prayer [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

T. Thorn Coyle leading prayer [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

On Thursday, T. Thorn Coyle participated in a vigil outside the San Francisco Federal Building with other community religious leaders. The group gathered together to ask Obama to expedite the immigration processes for unrepresented children and to draw attention to the crisis. Coyle read the vigil’s opening prayer. In retrospect, she said:

[I] called upon Demeter to give us strength. I called on she who knows what it is to grieve for a child, and she who perseveres. And I asked Tonantzin, Goddess of the Americas, to bless and protect the children. I then led a chant to these Goddesses and to the children at the border.    

In addition to a diversity of faith leaders, the vigil was attended by several children and adults who had survived the crossing. They also spoke out, sharing their lived horrors and tears of suffering. Thorn recalls:

A young man approached me to thank me for being there. I’d seen him singing along with my chant. He was the child of a deportee … I listened to the testimony of a family only recently escaped from El Salvador. They were all in tears. The father refused to work for the drug gangs and was killed. The women of the family were raped, and threatened. They are staying with a brother and may still be returned. 

Coyle was not the only Pagan at Thursday night’s vigil. Claire “Chuck” Bohman, an Interfaith minister and Reclaiming Witch, was also there to lend an ear and voice. She said:

The truth is that the vast majority of us are immigrants here. One side of my family were German immigrants who first migrated to Canada and walked across the border before they settled on a farm in Ohio. In a different time and place, the children of the border could have been my grandmother. I invite you to take a breath and connect with your ancestors. How is it that they came to live on this land? Who did they displace when they settled? 

Both Bohman and Coyle expressed compassion for the children but also a sense of civic duty. Bohman says:

The problems in these countries are connected with NAFTA and US foreign and economic policy. We have an obligation to these children and it’s time for the U.S. government to act … Obama has the power to intervene and we join together across our differences to call for justice for these children and justice for immigrants.

Coyle agrees, saying “This is our problem. We helped create this situation and we are honor bound to deal with the results. That is what adults do.”

Claire "Chuck" Bohman With Rev. Israel Alvaran [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

Claire “Chuck” Bohman With Rev. Israel Alvaran [Courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle]

Solar Cross Temple has begun raising money to help RAICES fund the mandated legal processes that enable unaccompanied minors to leave detention centers and enter U.S communities. Coyle also emphasizes that there are other ways to get involved. The California Endowment is digitally collecting letters of support for the “border children.” Vigils continued to be held across the country, like the one in San Francisco or the one held last night by Humanity is Borderless. Coyle also recommends contacting local governments about “offering homes to children locally” or finding ways of supporting those communities already open, such as Dalton, Georgia.

Coyle has hope saying, “In my heart, I know that we can learn to treat one another better. We can act from our true strength and offer one another compassion.”

 

On June 30 Phil Kent, an appointee to Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, concluded a televised roundtable discussion on same-sex marriage by saying that he hoped “the pagans’ and the left’s values do not prevail because that’s not the Judeo-Christian culture that made this country great.” In uttering those words, Kent has joined several prominent figures who have, in recent months, used the term “pagan” as a slur, or as means of labeling an amorphous “other” in seeming opposition to their interpretation of Christian values.

Christian organizer David Lane, who is doing outreach work on behalf of Senator Rand Paul, recently inveighed against a “pagan onslaught” that includes “pagan public schools, pagan higher learning and pagan media.” Meanwhile, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput says that “many self-described Christians” are “in fact pagan,” spurring other Catholics to try and spin his comments in a way that won’t offend other Christians. Joining the Archbishop, Irish Catholic clergy believe their countrymen “have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan,”  and so on, and so on, and so on it goes.

David Lane

David Lane

“Where are the champions of Christ to save the nation from the pagan onslaught imposing homosexual marriage, homosexual scouts, 60 million babies done to death by abortion and red ink as far as the eye can see on America? Who will wage war for the Soul of America and trust the living God to deliver the pagan gods into our hands and restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establish a Christian culture?”David Lane, 2013

For the most part, these people aren’t explicitly talking about us capital-P modern Pagans (except when they are), they’re invoking an idea, a giant egregore that encapsulates all that is “other” than Christianity, or to be more precise, anything that is outside the boundaries of a very narrow and particular kind of Christianity.  It’s a slur of disgust, one that frames the target in complete opposition to all that Christians hold dear. It doesn’t matter if it’s Earth Day celebrations, or same-sex unions. This dualistic ‘Christians versus the “pagan” Other’ paradigm has done more to erode interfaith relations, and the social standing of Christianity in the West, than many of that faith’s real problems or opponents could have ever done.

“Christians have alienated gays and lesbians and their families, friends, and sympathetic allies, driving many away from the love of Jesus Christ and contributing to the secularization of American culture. They have done a great deal to create hostility to the church and closed ears to the Gospel. The saddest cases are the church’s own rejected gay and lesbian adolescents and twentysomethings. They are legion. Christians have contributed to the fear in society that millions of Americans are unable to tell the difference between the church and the state, or between the demands of their faith on themselves vs. the demands of their faith on those who do not share it. This contributes to secularization and weakens respect for legitimate concerns about protecting a zone of religious liberty for religious dissenters.”

The use of the word “pagan” as a slur, as a tool to label enemies, has a corrosive effect, particularly when it comes to those religious groups that claim Pagan (or Heathen) as a descriptor. Would Christian clergy in Florida have reacted so strongly to the reality of a Pagan festival near them, necessitating some quick outreach to prevent a protest, if the term didn’t immediately summon up images of depravity and evil within their minds? This existential dread, sourced in the Christian narrative of battle against false gods and idols, of persecution that turns to triumph, is pushed like a button by ideologues and conspiracy theorists to get their audience engaged, scared, and ready to do what’s necessary to “win.” The actual human lives of the Pagans (or “pagans”) are rarely considered in these contexts, or if they are, only in terms of pity or imperious judgment. Pagan author and commentator Gus diZerega, who has done a considerable amount of outreach to Christians, once wisely noted that the figure of the “pagan” strikes to the heart of a religious peril that was supposed to have been vanquished long ago.

“We have arisen within a Christian culture, a very self confident one, and we explicitly reject its Abrahamic spiritual tradition as being good for us. Not only that, we look to the pre-Christian past for inspiration and grounding. We represent the rise of something Christian leaders thought they had vanquished long ago, and we should never forget that initial vanquishing involved the sword far more than persuasion. Add religious liberty and the outcome would have been far different. For the most rabid of our attackers, our reappearance also seems evidence that we are in the end times, a time of religious war, at least for the likes of Dispenastionalists.”

Our very existence brings this often-uttered metaphor to life, and touches something ugly in the process. It is imperative that Christians and modern Pagans collectively move beyond what Paul Louis Metzger calls “lampoon tract propaganda” if we are to share a civil society together. An important first step in this process is to realize that words have power, and that constantly invoking the “pagan” as symbol for that which you oppose has real-world consequences.

In this modern, transient, and digitally-driven world, we find ourselves frequently discussing the meaning, development, make-up or even the apparent death of “community.”  For Pagans, this can be a particularly profound discussion due to the incredible diversity in our faith and practice.  How do we develop and nurture a positive and lasting Pagan solidarity across differences in belief and tradition?

Community Wreath

In Atlanta, the answer has come in the form of a wreath. In the spring of 2012, Lady Charissa, senior priestess of North Georgia Solitaries (NGS), began a community wreath project that has now been going for over nine months. She explains:

The idea behind [the wreath] is for people, groups, or covens to add a ribbon to the wreath symbolizing how connected we all are. We are connected to the people we like and work with; connected to the people we’ve never met, connected to the people that we don’t care for. All of these people, friends… make a community. By connecting to this wreath we are bringing …[manifesting] cohesiveness for the Pagan community. (From the NGS Website)

Several years ago, Lady Charissa and a fellow Atlanta Pagan, Kieran Nightstar successfully incorporated a unity wreath into an NGS Samhain ritual. The work proved beneficial and inspirational to all attending. In 2012, Lady Charissa decided to resurrect this idea when she was asked to lead an Ostara ritual at the Atlanta Pagan Marketplace of Ideas, an annual festival celebrating Pagan life. Lady Charissa remarked:

I had not considered making the wreath a long term project.  But, when I was leading the ritual and passing the wreath around, the words just came to me. “We will pass the wreath around the community during the coming year.”

Lady Charissa

Lady Charissa
North Georgia Solitaries

She started getting calls the very next week. Pagans from all over the Atlanta-area wanted to participate in her community wreath project. A few short months later, that simple grapevine circular form was covered with a menagerie of ribbons representing both solitary Pagans and covens throughout the north Georgia community.

Over the past 9 months, the wreath has been passed around the local community attending private sabbat rituals and open festivals. In September, the wreath traveled to Alabama to attend the first annual Auburn Pagan Pride Day.  As leader of the open ritual, Lady Charissa incorporated the wreath project into the evening’s work. Then, late in October, the wreath was displayed at both Atlanta’s and Savannah’s Pagan Pride events.

To date, more than eight covens and organizations, representing different Pagan traditions and faiths, as well as countless solitaries have participated in building Pagan solidarity through this community wreath.

I have been pleasantly surprised at how many people have wanted to bring the wreath into their circles and to be a part of this project. It has grown far past my original idea.

On Yule, my own group had the wreath. We tied our ribbons into its tapestry.  It was indeed transformative as we looked over the rainbow of interwoven ribbons – some from friends and others from strangers, but all a part of the community.  Through our shared experience, we were immediately connected.

In the upcoming months, the community wreath will continue to makes its way through Georgia’s Pagan world. Lady Charissa hasn’t firmly decided on its final destination. She said, “At this point, I will just see where [the project] wants to go, doing my best to facilitate the journey.”  Right now, she plans to circle the project back to its starting place at the 2013 Ostara ritual for Atlanta Pagan Marketplace of Ideas. From there, the wreath will grow in new ways, as Lady Charissa notes, just as “the community energy grows.”

Wreath building is one symbolic way that we can nurture Pagan solidarity within our diverse world. Have your local communities used any methods, magickal or otherwise, to bridge gaps, to build and maintain community in an effort to foster Pagan solidarity?  What ways have you used?

In the growing darkness of November, the sacred fires are lit by the wisdom keepers of our age!

Thanksgiving TurkeyIt’s Sunday again. Last week, I wrote about the growing popularity of one U.S. holiday – Halloween. Now, a week has passed and, collectively speaking, America has turned its attention to yet another holiday – Thanksgiving. With that shift come new decorations, sacred family traditions, and most importantly, a squeaky-clean mythos involving a big ship, a bunch of Pilgrims, and of course, the “Indians.”

With that in mind let’s consider reversing the thread from last week’s post in which I examined a spiritual holiday going secular. What if we ushered in a secular holiday, Thanksgiving, with a definitively spiritual experience? What if we could reach into that modern American mythos to find a deeper meaning through a connection to the very spirit that resides within these lands? What if we could celebrate that spirit in a traditional way with the elders of the indigenous populations?

Creek Elder Sam Proctor

Sam Proctor
Muskogee (Creek)

This past weekend, the Sacred Fire Foundation made this a real possibility. In Atlanta, Georgia, the Foundation hosted its annual Ancient Wisdom Rising retreat. The annual event is a gathering of community elders from a across the globe who guard that ancient spirit – the one that emanates from deep within the Earth. Each year, these wisdom keepers come together to share their stories, offer counsel, and demonstrate the ancient traditions that have survived for centuries.

Over the years the retreat has been held in a variety of locations including California, Washington State and New York. This year the event was back on the East Coast. Coming to Georgia, specifically, was a powerful choice for the Foundation because it paved the way for a spiritual and ancestral reunion for one of the visiting elders: Sam Proctor. As written by their Board of directors:

“Almost two centuries since the removal of his People from Georgia, Mr. Sam Proctor, respected Muscogee (Creek) spiritual leader from Oklahoma, returns to the shores of the Chattahoochee River to share his message of peace and time-tested wisdom about a heart-centered way of living.”  (From Ancient Wisdom Rising, September Newsletter)

Marie Junaluska

Marie Junaluska
Cherokee Elder

After visiting the retreat site near the banks of the Chattahoochee, Mr. Proctor said, “The Ancestors are still here.” During the weekend, he shared Muskogee traditions and, with other members of the Muskogee Nation, led a traditional Social Fire Dance welcoming the attendees to the land of his ancestors.

Joining him was Marie Junaluska, a Cherokee elder living in Western North Carolina and Kevin Welch, Cherokee Master Gardener. Their people’s ancestral heritage can be traced to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, Western North Carolina, and Eastern Tennessee. Like the Creek, the Cherokee were forcibly removed from Georgia and made to walk the infamous, “Trail of Tears.” Despite this painful history, the Cherokee spirit lives on.  Ms. Junaluska has been sharing, teaching and passing on the Cherokee culture and traditions for over thirty years.  And, Kevin Welch speaks out for the preservation of heirloom plants and growing techniques native to this Southern landscape and the Cherokee people.

Grandmother Walking Thunder

Grandma Walking Thunder
Navajo Medicine Woman

In addition, Ancient Wisdom Rising welcomed two other elders from North American indigenous cultures. Grandmother Walking Thunder, a healer and sand painter, shared the spirit of the Dine’ Medicine People (Navajo) and her experiences as a medicine woman. Coming from Alaska, Larry Merculieff of the Aleut Peoples shared the Aleutian teachings on the Oneness with Nature and the Great Womb of life. He is a one of the last Aleuts to be fully raised in the traditional way.

Larry Merculieff Speaks:

The Sacred Fire Foundation also invited wisdom keepers from cultures originating outside of the U.S. Sobonfu Some’ of the Dagara Peoples of West Africa’s Brukina Faso shared the traditions of her people.

From Southern Asian traditions, Marcy Vaughn, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, led a visualization and a talk on compassion. And, Ustad Ghulam Farid Nizami, a Sufi from Pakistan and a 17th generation musician, shared the healing powers of sound and music.

 

Marcy Vaughn

Marcy Vaughn
Tibetan Buddhism and Bon

Not everyone has the opportunity to attend a comprehensive inter-spiritual event like this. However, in reading the stories and watching the videos, it is possible to understand why these elders are reaching out to help humanity through their ancient traditions. More importantly, it is possible to understand how their teachings can help us rediscover our own connection to the Earth and benefit our journey, no matter what the path.

Once again, my thoughts return to the secular Thanksgiving – a holiday that focuses on community, compassion, tradition, and natural abundance. Can we re-sculpt the mythos to breathe a new spiritual life into that holiday? The story centers on an indigenous population, the “Indians,” teaching the new inhabitants, the Pilgrims, about the land and its creatures. It ends in a peaceful shared community feast that we now replicate every November.

Can we bring the spiritual into the secular? Can we transform this myth to focus on the teachings of the wisdom keepers who strive to bring humanity back into balance with Nature? Can we rededicate Thanksgiving to that ever sacred and shared wisdom that passes effortlessly from hand-to-hand, from drum beat to drum beat, from the heart to the heart through the eternal spirit fires of this wonderful Earth? And what if we did….

 

Earth

Courtesy: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center

 

An Aside: I realize that there may be some readers who are not well-versed in Native American history, specifically that of the South East, or know much about Thanksgiving. Click on the following links for quick background reads:

About Thanksgiving from The History Channel
Native Americans in Georgia: Link Page with lots of Information. Or, go directly to the Cherokee‘s or Muscogee‘s site.

Heck Yea!

As a whole, we, Americans, live in a Christian-based culture. Our calendar alone demonstrates that fact. If this were a Jewish culture, we could shop at Wal-Mart on Dec 25th. If this were a Pagan culture, the 12,000 lb Times Square crystal ball would drop on Oct 31st – not Dec 31st. And the festivities would end with a mass scrying led by Ryan Seacrest himself. However, for better or worse, the framework of our culture is, at its very core, Christian.

While this Christian cultural-bias manifests differently in varying regions, it is most definitely pronounced in the South Eastern U.S. – the area studied in the Jews on First article that prompted the original question. It ain’t called the Bible Belt for nothing. Many of the most memorable evangelical icons are from the Southern U.S. such as Jerry Falwell, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Bible Man. But, if you need statistical proof, look no further than the Pew Forum demographics maps.

Until moving South, I had never felt the “otherness” that comes with being a religious minority – not Jewish or Pagan. I was raised in the relative comfort of New York’s cultural heterogeneity in which religion is a private family matter isolated from secular life. Even when God was mentioned in public school, nobody noticed. We could have been saying, “One Nation under Goats” and it would have had the same spiritual impact.

Tour BusHowever, Southern culture is very different. The South has been marinating in evangelical Christianity for so long that it permeates all aspects of southern life, even the secular. As expressed by native Georgian, Amy Ray, of the Indigo Girls, “…once you get raised on Jesus, it is kind of always a part of you even if you are a pagan.” (WNYC, 2012) In other words, in the South, goats are never confused with Gods.

Why? Historically-speaking, the South was an agrarian-based society that was founded on small towns, city squares and Friday night football. At its very center was the Church acting as both the town’s religious and social foundation. This idea is summed up in the Southern Baptist Convention’s “faith and message” statement:

“All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society.”

And, this is how religious doctrine seeped into secular Christian culture. These small towns were, and still are, a living Venn diagram in which religion, culture and government merge at the walls of the Church.

If everyone in town is Christian, nobody minds – a scenario common to these rural areas. For example, in Alabama, the Jackson County School Board openly supported the on-campus preaching of Horace Turner, a.k.a Bible Man. Local State Senator Shradack McQuill remarked, “We need God in the public schools” adding that unhappy parents should just home-school. Clearly, this educational program is unconstitutional. However, when the Board voted, there was nobody to object. Therefore, today, Jackson County’s Bible Man continues to …do whatever a Bible Man does.

Even in the larger cities, this Church-centered mentality remains ingrained within the collective culture. In the South, you are not asked, “What is your religion?” You are asked, “What Church do you attend?” That alone speaks volumes. So, taking this Christian-infused secular tradition and adding it to the aggressive “outreach” policy of the dominant Southern Baptist church, you have a society in which Jesus sits on every street and attends every event.

One World Spiritual CenterTo better illustrate, let me refer back to the Jews on First article that focused on children living in two adjacent suburbs of Atlanta: East Cobb and Roswell. Roughly, within a 5 mile radius, there are four synagogues and a Jewish Community Center. Within that area, you will also find a large representation of Christian sects, including Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Korean, Chinese, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Coptic, and more. There’s an Islamic Center and a New Age store. Moreover, East Cobb boasts the One World Spiritual Center – a Church that embraces alternative faiths such as New Thought Christians, Pagans, Hindus, and Baha’i.

Without a doubt, East Cobb is one of the most religiously diverse suburbs of Atlanta. The interfaith love is so strong there that the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and Temple Etz Chaim, who share a parking lot, periodically use their marquis’ to offer holiday blessings to each other. “Shana Tova,” reads the Lutheran marquis. “Happy Easter,” reads the Temple’s. In December, it’s like a tennis match of marquis well-wishes.

Despite all of that diversity, local students’ are still faced with the frustrating experiences illustrated by Jews on First. Yes, Cobb County did put “creationism” stickers in the science texts. Yes, the student-run Fellowship of Christian Athletes is allowed to paper school walls with advertising. Yes, the Sojourn Church uses a public middle school for Sunday worship. And, yes, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a so-called megachurch, dominates East Cobb’s landscape, aggressively seeking to convert the “unchurched” with its youth and school outreach programs.

(An aside: I will omit my comments on the Boy Scouts’ and Girl Scouts’ presence within the elementary school classrooms. That particular subject would require a soap box, a microphone and sedative.)

Cobb County Creationism Disclaimer

Setting aside blatant proselytizing, the Southern tradition of a Church-based culture persists even within the diversity-rich suburbs of East Cobb and Roswell. The local churches run many of the community programs such as sports leagues, music conservatories, gymnastics programs, art classes, day-care centers and summer camps. Every church has a pumpkin patch in October and an evergreen forest in December.

“Why don’t you join the Church’s league? It’s just basketball. There isn’t any religious teaching.” But, it’s not just basketball. It means something more. Why? Because it means something here in this Southern environment. Because in that Church, even without a pre-game prayer, we, the non-Christians, are the aliens.

Fortunately, in the Southern cities, religious minorities do have the benefit of secular entertainment options. However, that’s not the case everywhere. Having worked on several Lady Liberty League cases, I have witnessed the pressures placed on Pagan families living in rural areas. There, in that small town, that Venn diagram, boundaries are still blurred. And, while problems often arise from direct attacks, they also flare up simply due to the town’s tradition, a.k.a. “the way it’s done.” In these rural battles, the stakes can be very high and the damage can be devastating.

With that said, the U.S. Constitution still reigns supreme. The First Amendment states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..”

This includes public schools. If a government school supports the presence of one religion, it must do the same for every religion. If it disallows the presence of one religion, it must disallow all.

Unfortunately for religious minorities living in the Southern rural landscape, the battle is on-going; especially if the town is controlled by the evangelical Southern Baptist Church. This organization has a different interpretation of the First Amendment:

Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends.……. and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power. (The Baptist Faith & Message: Religious Liberty)

Must Ministries Collection BinThere are profound questions left open, only to be answered privately by every Southerner practicing a minority faith. When do you stay quiet and blend in? When do you re-locate? When do you fight back? The answers should be considered carefully. Just this morning, I saw a Must Ministries collection bin in a school lobby. Should I say something? Should I let it go? Or, should I ask to put a Pagan Assistance Fund bucket alongside it? Legally, the school would have to accept my collection bin or reject both.

Of course, I let the collection bin issue go. Must Ministries does positive community work. And, frankly, I don’t mind Christianity’s presence provided it is kept within the private sector where I have the choice to reject or absorb what is offered. For example, I can avoid the local karate school where a child, quite literally, earns a “Bible Belt.” And, I can choose to only visit the doctors who don’t hang Bible verses in their examination rooms. Just as private businesses have a right to promote, within their walls, their religious beliefs, I have a right not to purchase their products. As Pagans, we must choose our battles wisely because the fight for liberty, while worth it, can be very ugly.

Karate School in Georgia

In the end, the South is what it is – a place of phenomenal beauty and vibrant, unique cultural traditions. But with that comes its historical religious baggage. If you want to live here, you must get used to it. Just like in marriage, you enjoy the good, tolerate the bad… and laugh about the rest.

[The following is a guest interview with John Matthews, author of "The Sidhe: Wisdom from the Celtic Otherworld" and 90 other books, co-creator of The Wildwood Tarot.  Matthews and fellow Wildwood Tarot co-creator Mark Ryan, who played "Nasir" on Robin of Sherwood, will be appearing in Atlanta, Georgia this November to conduct a workshop. The interview was conducted by Virginia Chandler, with an introduction written by John Matthews.]

For many people today, the woodlands are the last vestiges of the mystical world in which we had our beginning. Such places are full of classic archetypes from Robin Hood to the shadowy figures of the Green Man and Woman. To walk in the wild wood is to take a journey back in time to a place where we, ourselves, are different; a place where deep ancestral wisdom still resides; a place where a partnership with the denizens of the wild wood is as natural as breathing.

Based on the seasonal rhythms and festivals of the ancient year, The Wildwood Tarot is filled with the rich mythology and shamanic mysteries of the ancient Celts. Deep within the Wildwood system lies the mystical archetypes of The Green Man, The Blasted Oak, the Archer and the Hooded Man and many others of forest lore.

The archetypal forces of the pack act as both guides and interpreters, taking the user on a spiritual, mystical and psychological journey deep into the labyrinth of primal Earth mysteries. Used as a meditation system, divinatory Oracle, or as a reference work for the seeker of profound knowledge, The Wildwood Tarot will draw you into the heart of the ancient forest and allow you to open up to its mysteries.

Will Worthington, Mark Ryan, and John Matthews

Will Worthington, Mark Ryan, and John Matthews (Wildwood Tarot launch party)

Virginia Chandler: What was your personal inspiration for creating The Wildwood Tarot?

John Matthews: I think the inspiration is really Mark Ryan, because he was the only begetter of The Greenwood Tarot, on which Wildwood is very firmly based. I came along 10 years later. I’d hoped that the original deck would be reprinted, but when it became evident that the original artist, Chesca Potter, was not around to do this, I suggested that Mark should look for another artist and redo it that way. As we talked about this I made a few suggestions of ways that the original concept seemed incomplete and Mark responded by suggesting that he and I collaborate on a new version. The result was The Wildwood Tarot, but I find Mark a very inspiring person to work with. We’ve been friends for 20 odd years and share a lot of interests in common. And of course we were fortunate to secure the services of one of the premier artists of our time, Will Worthington, who understands the nature of the Wildwood and the Robin Hood mythos which is part of it, better than almost anyone else I know of.

VC: What can we find within the Wildwood?

JM: All kinds of wildness and wonder. The medieval ideas of the “wild wood” was like a cupboard into which they stuffed everything they were afraid of – Wodwose, Green Men, demons, strange creatures – and of course the most fearful thing of all- wild women and their sexuality!

VC: As journeymen, what would be the one item that we must take with us into the Wildwood?

JM: Courage.

VC: Where should we seek the Wildwood?

JM: The wildwood is everywhere. It’s inside us. It’s outside us. And, of course, if you happen to be near any of the more ancient forests, not just in Europe; then, you are in touch with the source itself. But for me, it’s about journeying into an inner landscape that is deeply embedded within us. We have a wild nature that most of us have forgotten, but it’s there. And it’s both light and dark. There are ancient atavistic things that need to be approached with care. But even these, if faced up to, can bring blessings.

VC: What is the archetype that you most closely identity with from the Wildwood Tarot?

JM: I have to say I think it’s the Archer. There is something about this powerful image and the sense of direction, of one pointedness and determination. Although we portray the Archer as female in the pock, it can be of either gender.

VC: The Wildwood Tarot is in its third printing; why do you think that this deck resonates with so many people?

JM: Precisely because it touches into a very deep level to the primal energy that still drives us. We may think of ourselves as civilized, but there is always a wildness within.

VC: Why “Wildwood “? What’ so “wild” about it?

JM: I think it’s the freedom, the undisciplined energy that’s within us all – exactly what you feel when you enter the wild anywhere, or if you let your garden grow wild. Even if most of us don’t want to admit it, there’s a memory latent that grabs people in a profound way.

VC: What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

JM: (laugh) Twice what you think it is.

VC: Do you have a favorite card or piece of artwork from the deck?

JM: Either The Archer or The Great Bear. Both, it seems to me, really captures the energy of the Wildwood. But to be honest I love them all.

VC: Other than your upcoming visit to Atlanta in November, what other Wild events do you have planned for 2012?

JM: Well, we hope to continue circling the globe with as many workshops and seminars and book signings as possible – until our global empire is greater than any other and we can take over the world. At the moment, Caitlín and I are contemplating a special event here, in the UK, around Christmas next year at the amazing and legendary Hawkwood College. This will bring together all the many decks we have worked on over the years – one of which will, of course, be The Wildwood Tarot.

More Information on The Wild Wood Tarot.

More Information on the The Atlanta Wildwood Weekend and Signing.

Word has come to us that John Monogue, better known to many modern Pagans as Lord Athanor, passed into the Summerlands on February 13th. Athanor co-founded the Unicorn Tradition of Wicca with Lady Galadriel after receiving initiations in a Family Tradition from Lady Rhea. The Unicorn Tradition went on to become a successful and multi-generational tradition that still thrives today, its initiates spreading far beyond its Southern origins, with many serving important roles within organizations like the Covenant of the Goddess (COG) and the Lady Liberty League. Athanor was beloved as a wise, kind, and generous man, who helped many through his years of service.

Lord Athanor with Lady Galadriel.

Lord Athanor with Lady Galadriel.

“While it is a sad time for those who knew and loved him, is with joy, love, and light that we celebrate the wonder and magick filled life. It is with gratitude that we remember one who touched the lives of many, many people through his storytelling, kindness, humor, wisdom, and bountiful spirit.” – Lady Arden

“He had an excellent sense of humor and had the wonderful gift of making people smile. He was the best hugger I have ever met. He will be sorely missed by the Atlanta Pagan Community at large, as he contribued a great deal to the education of all who sought knowledge.” – LunaW

Adrian Hawkins (aka Ash), the son of Lord Athanor and Lady Galadriel, who has become a thoughtful voice within the larger Pagan community in his own right, is cataloging his parent’s large collection of occult, Pagan, and metaphysical books to ultimately serve as a lasting legacy of their collective contributions to modern Paganism.

“Over the years,  many valiant attempts were made to record the contents  the library. My dad liked to joke that we broke several librarians in attempts to do so We do not even exactly how many books the library contains.  The library grew over the years, and grew, and grew to the size it is today.  Our best guess is that the library contains around a few thousand books on the occult with the main focus of the library being on subjects relevant to Paganism and Wicca in particular. Now that my father has passed into the Summerlands, stewardship of this library has past to the next generation. Another individual and myself  have taken on the responsibility to take care of the Library that my parents spent their lives collecting.

I have begun the task of cataloging the contents of the library. So far I have made it through three bookshelves, with about seventeen left to go.  However, our dreams do not stop there.  Once we have cataloged all of the books in the library we will be opening a by mail pagan lending library (Due to the nature of some of the books they will only be available in person). We hope to have a physical location where Pagans may come and study the various subjects of the craft for a weekend or longer  in person as well. We hope to continue to expand (and READ!) the collection as our lifetimes go on, and one day leave this legacy and resource for the next generation.  Our hope and dream is to build this into the largest Pagan lending library in the South East or even North America.”

Tentative plans for a public memorial service are currently underway, scheduled for Sunday, February 19th, from 2-5pm at Angora Hall in the Clarkston Community Center, Georgia. Any changes to this plan should be posted at PNC-Georgia.

“Very sad to hear of the passing of Lord Athanor, founding HP of the Unicorn Tradition. With his passing, all the founding elders of what could arguably be the two most influential traditions in Atlanta have passed. The originators are headed for rest, reunion and rebirth, and the tradition’s destinies are firmly in the grasp of the next generation. While each passing is sad, the loss of Lord Athanor seems to place a mantle of responsibility not only on the current leaders, but also little peons like myself. I never met Lord Athanor, but through the stories I have heard and interactions with his students and family, I am aware he was an incredible man and a great asset to our community. My thoughts are with his family and tradition.”Star Foster

On a personal note, while I’ve never met Lord Athanor, I have met members of the Unicorn Tradition, and they have each impressed me with their intelligence, dedication, and sense of purpose. It is to the credit of Lord Athanor that the tradition he helped co-found is so healthy and vibrant today. May he take his rest in the Summerlands, and return to us again.

Local and national news outlets are reporting on the case of a 4-year-old girl whose parents are being investigated by police after a daycare employee found lacerations on the girl’s chest. The parents, and a neighbor who witnessed the event, claim it is a Santeria ritual of health and protection for the child, not abuse.

Neighbor Nadeshda Ramirez.

Neighbor Nadeshda Ramirez. Who witnessed and underwent the ritual in question.

“The girl’s parents told police that the cuts were part of a religious ritual. Channel 2’s Mike Petchenik went to the girl’s apartment off Greenhouse Drive and talked to a woman who said she actually witnessed the ritual that she contends is part of the Santeria religion. “This religion is to help people, to help people get better, to protect people,” said Nadeshda Ramirez.”

Avoiding the question of if this action constitutes child abuse, a matter for the authorities to decide, I’d like to instead focus on what this story doesn’t tell us. For example, is this a normative and routine part of an upbringing within Santeria, or was this ritual unusual and brought on by a crisis of some sort? Why didn’t ABC News use its contacts to speak with an academic who studies Santeria, or a prominent figure within the faith? In the local video report, but not the written report, neighbor Nadeshda Ramirez claims the ritual is normal, and underwent it when she was seven years old.

“I had it done when I was seven.” Reporter: Did it hurt? “It did hurt, just a little bit.”

This brings to mind a case somewhat similar to this, involving a 7-year-old girl, which made the news back in 2009. In that case it wasn’t Santeria, but Palo Mayombe, and the mother ended up pleading guilty to neglect and cruelty charges.

“A mother who exposed her 7-year-old daughter to bloody religious initiation rituals in Paterson that included making her watch a chicken being sacrificed and feeding the girl its heart pleaded guilty in state court Monday to cruelty and neglect of a child. [...] In addition to being fed the chicken’s heart, the rituals included making the girl witness the decapitation of a goat, and the scratching of a religious symbol into her skin.”

The mother’s attorney argued that the “initiation ritual at issue is as necessary to the faith as a Catholic baptism,” an argument the judge rejected.  Which brings me back to the original questions: was this really Santeria? Is this a normative ritual for children within that faith? How was it conducted?

Media coverage, for better of for worse, shapes opinion and narrative. We live in an age where the secrecy of such rituals is difficult at best, especially when they involve children. Prominent figures within Santeria, and those who study the faith within academia, need to make their voices heard so that a nuanced portrait of Santeria, and related faiths, is presented. Certainly, journalists need to ask more questions, and dig deeper when reporting on a minority faith they don’t understand, but it is also incumbent on practitioners to organize, and become more vocal in presenting their beliefs to a world that is increasingly learning to fear and resent them. If these instances aren’t contextualized by experts and practitioners, then they will be contextualized by reporters and readers instead.