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“Time and again, parents and community leaders have recounted to me how the American conception of camp offers an opportunity for a cultural, religious and, in some cases, linguistic immersion with other American Hindu children. This is understood to be all the more important because within the dominant American and Christian culture, Hindus and Hinduism are often exoticized and maligned.” – Shana Sippy, professor of religion at Carleton College in Minnesota, on the value of Hindu-American summer camps for children.

The above quote comes from the recent New York Times article “Building on U.S. Tradition, Camp for Hindu Children Strengthens Their Identity.” In it we meet Neha Dhawan, a Hindu-American woman who says her life was changed by attending “Hindu camp” when she was eleven.

Like many children growing up in a minority religion, she felt set apart from her more mainstream friends. Her holidays were different; her culture was different and she dreaded questions such as “where do you go to church?”

At first Neha did not look forward to summer camp for Hindu children. But eventually she loved doing morning yoga, her hair still cool and damp from the shower. She discovered a favorite bhajan, a Hindu devotional song. She spoke with her peers and their college-age counselors about dealing with stereotypes and racism. “I realized,” she said, “it’s O.K. to be proud of who you are.” Neha is now the director of the Hindu Heritage Summer Camp.

The US has a long tradition of religious or ethnic summer camps for children. According to Professor Sippy, they help to “strengthen the denominational and ancestral identity of young people in a polyglot nation with an enticingly secular popular culture.” Because they are surrounded by their peers, children learn what living their religion looks like for them. They learn how to be more comfortable with their religion which allows them to be more comfortable in mainstream society. If that’s the case, are summer camps something that would benefit Pagan children?

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit - C. Schulz]

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit – C. Schulz]

“As a family, we are a solitary unit. We attend one Pagan Festival every summer, but that is the only exposure they have to us being part of a larger community. I would love for my children to have another opportunity to make those important connections,” says Kristin, a Pagan mother of two who lives in the Chicago area. She says that she would budget through the year to be able to afford sending her children, ages 5 and 8, to a Pagan summer camp and would spend up to $700 a week for a sleep-over style camp. She says not only would children benefit from knowing they aren’t alone, but Pagan communities would also benefit through a focus on instilling Pagan ethics in children.

Ashley Sears, a Pagan mom living in the Minneapolis area, also welcomes the idea of a Pagan summer camp for her three children, ages 15, 13, and 11.“Having raised my kids Pagan since birth, it’s been a struggle to help them find their own “identity” within our faith. We’ve moved all over the country and have been blessed with many Pagan friends and Pagan Parenting groups, but never a chance to expose them to an immersive experience in our faith.”

We sought opinions from many Pagan parents. Other than questions about affordability, there were no parents who were opposed to the idea. One parent did say that he wouldn’t send his children because he didn’t see a need for summer camp and declined to be interviewed. However, he wasn’t opposed to the idea.

Pagan summer camps – past and present
While there appears to have been a summer day camp for Pagan children in the past, there aren’t any operating now. So what options do Pagan children have for a summer camp experience? Not many.

The closest to a Pagan summer camp currently operating are programs like Indigo Camp. These are summer camps with no specific religious take, but with Pagan-friendly components such as spiritual drumming, yoga, and non-violent communication techniques. These camps welcome people of all, or no, religious background. However, they won’t be able to give a child the benefit of being surrounded by those of their same faith.

For a specifically Pagan camping experience, a family could attend a Pagan or Heathen camping festival. These can last from a weekend to a week or longer. Festivals vary in the programs offered specifically to children.  Some are increasing their offerings as more families with children attend.

One of those festivals with a robust child and teen program is Pagan Spirit Gathering. “Every year, Circle Sanctuary [the organization which produces Pagan Spirit Gathering] creates programs for youth of different ages as part of its Pagan Spirit Gathering,” says Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister of Circle Sanctuary. She says activities include storytelling, craft projects, playtime, and rituals. She adds, “It is a wonderful way for Pagan children and older youth to learn about Pagan spirituality as well as form friendships with peers.” Rev. Fox asks those with skills in youth programming to please contact her at psg@circlesanctuary.org

Yet these festivals aren’t the same as a summer camp just for children. The children camp and take meals with their parents, not with their peers. The environment is friendly towards them, but wasn’t created just for them.

Another option isn’t a camp experience at all, but an alternative to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts called SpiralScouts. SpiralScouts was created in 1999 by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and is coed and nondiscriminatory. SpiralScouts was created to be specifically Pagan, but can be adapted to work with most any faith. Like other scouting groups, it focuses on woodland lore, camping, and outdoor living skills, but also includes the mythos of the ancient world. As of now, SpiralScouts does not host a summer camp and it can be difficult to find a local group.

Challenges in creating summer camps
If there are Pagan parents who want the traditional summer camp experience for their children, why aren’t there any Pagan kids camps available? There are many challenges that a group or organizer would face in setting up a summer camp.

The first is simply numbers. Although the American Religious Identification Study in 2008 reports that there are more Pagans and Wiccans in the USA than Hindus, [582,000 Hindu vs 682,000 Pagan and Wiccans – ARIS 2008 data], Hindus are more homogeneous than Pagans. Paganism isn’t one faith with denominations; it is many different religions with little in common with one another. The largest religion under Paganism, Wicca, is mostly either coven based or solitary, but it isn’t family based – although that may be changing. While Paganism may have the numbers on paper to host summer camps, in reality the number of Pagans practicing one specific religion is still very small. Yet it’s not impossible. There are an estimated 135 Hindu summer camps. That’s one camp for every 4311 Hindu-Americans.

Another challenge is the cost:  the cost to buy or renting land with the facilities for a summer camp; the high cost of insurance for taking care of minors without their parents on site; the cost of employees and volunteers to staff the camp and the cost to parents.

While parents may say they want a summer camp for their children, do they value the idea enough to pay for it? There’s a common misconception that Pagans are economically lower than the general population. Yet data from Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States shows Pagans are slightly higher than the general population in both education and income. The average cost of a summer camp stay is anywhere from $400 to $2000 per week, depending on whether it is a day camp or an overnight camp. In addition, parents need to transport children to and from the camp and pay for supplies. While other religious and ethnic minorities do find the summer camp experience of value enough to support, it’s unclear if the Pagan communities feel the same.

The last challenge is more nebulous – trust. Pagans generally are less trusting of organizations and less inclined to follow traditional organizational processes. While there are benefits of this, the downside can be poor business practices coupled with lack of support from the community, which is a reinforcing cycle. Recent and past sexual abuse within Pagan groups and gatherings, although similar to what other groups of any type face, may also cause some parents to be more cautious in sending their children away to camp.

Do the benefits outweigh the challenges? That’s a question which can only be answered by potential organizers and parents.

“Our children have met other Pagan children, but normally have to hold their faith close to their vest for fear of social exclusion or not being able to answer questions,” says Ms. Sears. “Having a Pagan camp for kids would be an amazing way for our kids [to] freely celebrate their love and faith in the Gods.”

January 14th in India marked the beginning of the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world. Held in full every 12 years, it is an integral festival within Hinduism, one focused on prayer, purification, and spiritual awakening.

“Kumbh is the confluence of all our cultures. It is the symbol of spiritual awakening. It is the eternal flow of humanity. It is the surge of rivers, forests and the ancient wisdom of the sages. It is the flow of life itself. It is the symbol of the confluence of nature and humanity. Kumbh is the source of all energy. Kumbh makes humankind realize this world and the other, sins and blessings, wisdom and ignorance, darkness and light. Holy rivers are the symbols of the lyrical flow of humanity. Rivers are indicators of the flow of water of life in the human body itself. In the human body that is an embodiment of home, nothing is possible without the five elements. The elements – fire, wind, water, earth and sky – symbolize the human body.”

Patrick McCollum in India

Patrick McCollum in India

Pagan chaplain and activist Patrick McCollum has been invited to the 2013 Kumbh Mela, and will participate in ritual activities at the event’s center. The Patrick McCollum Foundation has been posting updates from Patrick in India, and his first Kumbh Mela-centered post is up now.

“I just had the incredible experience of participating in the first blessing of the Kumbh Mela with a small group of India’s foremost saints. I got to sit right in the very front right behind Puja Swami Saraswati on the water’s edge, at the exact point where the worlds most sacred rivers meet at the Sangam.  I had the exquisite honor to bless the first rose petals offered to the river and then participated in each successive blessing.

To grasp the magnitude of this, one needs to understand that of the millions and millions of pilgrims present and of the thousands of spiritual leaders from across the world attending the Kumbh, only our small group were allowed at the actual Sangam.  The millions of other pilgrims as far as you could see, were held back a mile at the closest.  The press used a miniature television camera on a remote control helicopter hovering above us, to film and transmit the sacred moment.

As I entered the river, the swirling waters reflected the light of candles and lanterns residing both on boats and on the ancient Red Fort built by Achabar on the opposite distant shore.

The water was cool but not cold, and the sense of the auspicious moment shot through me as I shared blessings for all humanity and asked for peace between all the peoples of the earth.  And I also shared a blessing for our tired planet itself, praying for rejuvenation and a rebalancing of its resources.”

The 2013 Kumbh Mela will last for 55 days, and is highlighted by a series of ritual baths. That a modern Pagan has been so honored at this event, and is participating directly, is exciting. A moment that will hopefully lead to ever-greater interactions and solidarity between Hindus and modern Pagans in years ahead. You can read all of Patrick McCollum’s updates from India, here. You may also follow the Patrick McCollum Foundation on Facebook. For more background on the Kumbh Mela, the documentary film “Short Cut to Nirvana” gives a sense of the scope and importance of this festival.

We’ll keep you posted with further developments from Patrick McCollum’s trip.

In addition to the ongoing dialog over gender that has defined PantheaCon 2012 for many, there were several other amazing talks, presentations, rituals, and panels that were important to our community, and deserve wider reporting. One of those was a panel discussion between modern Pagans and members of the Hindu American Foundation entitled “Pagans and Hindus Together: One Billion Strong.”

“This panel will discuss ideals held in common by Pagans and Hindus. Panelists will include Patrick McCollum, T. Thorn Coyle, Mihir Meghani and Raman Khanna. Moderated by Amadea. Topics will include: The Sacredness of Nature, The Divine Mother, Advancing Pluralism, and Shared Social Action.”

Author, teacher, and activist T. Thorn Coyle has posted audio of the entire panel at her Elemental Castings podcast page, and I encourage everyone to head over there and download the show. Due to the fact that Patrick McCollum was in India, he couldn’t attend the panel, so I was honored to step in and contribute, weighing in on shared social action between Pagans and Hindus.

Pagans and Hindus Panel. Photo: PNC Bay Area

Pagans and Hindus Panel. Photo: PNC Bay Area

During the panel, I noted several instances where the interests of Hindus and Pagans have coincided, spoke briefly about the 20+ year history of Hindu-Pagan interfaith interactions, and made recommendations as to where our relationship could go in the future. I proposed that perhaps the time had come for our dialog and alliance to take the next step into working directly together in a organization that focused on the rights and concerns of minority religions in the United States. I think that Hindu and Pagans, working with other pluralistic, like-minded, faiths, can create a unique synergy that would enrich both of our communities.

Panelist Mihir Meghani, M.D.; Board Member & Co-Founder of the Hindu American Foundation, touched on our shared commitment to pluralism during the panel, and I think it would be appropriate to quote from some of the guest-post he wrote for The Wild Hunt last year.

“Most importantly, we need to work together more closely. Tremendous challenges loom – the decline in pluralism over thousands of years will take decades if not hundreds of years to reverse. However, challenges present opportunities. The Hindu American Foundation has made pluralism part of its motto “promoting understanding, tolerance and pluralism,” and pluralism is one of the defining characteristics of Hindu and Pagan traditions. Hindus and Pagans can make a lasting contribution to the world by once again promoting pluralism as a core value of society and its individuals – something evidently lacking in the world today in which intolerance is so prominent. We need to challenge ourselves to make pluralism a value similar in respect to values such as honesty and charity. People should be proud to proclaim that they are pluralist – that they revel in and respect the diversity around them. Children should be raised with this value. For the survival of not only our traditions but humanity altogether, we must move from the motto of, “I will tolerate you though you are wrong,” to a true commitment to pluralism.”

These Hindu-Pagan panels at PantheaCon are an important part of building a lasting alliance. I hope that next year we will see even more discussion on concrete moves forward, shared initiatives to make the Hindu voice, and the Pagan voice, heard. I’d like to thank Amadea for inviting to fill Patrick McCollum’s shoes, and my fellow panelists, Thorn, Mihir, and Raman, for an engaging and productive panel. Again, I encourage everyone to download audio of the panel from the Elemental Castings podcast page. There’s so much more there than what I’ve briefly talked about, and it deserves to be heard by any Pagan interested in the future of Hindu-Pagan relations.