Archives For Pagan Community

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 Weekend Before

Eric O. Scott —  February 13, 2013 — 7 Comments
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Oh, like you need my phone number.

Friday

Today I bought business cards. This feels more important than it probably is.

Pantheacon starts in one week. I have never been before; for that matter, I have never been to any Pagan event like this except for the Heartland Pagan Festival and St. Louis’s Pagan Pride Day. The last time I went to Heartland, the attendance was, I think, around six or seven hundred. I’m told Pantheacon is about four times that big. That’s a lot of people to meet. Supposedly I should have gotten ribbons, but business cards will have to do for now.

“Take a look at this,” I say to my girlfriend. We live in different cities at the moment, a moment that has lasted nearly the entirety of our relationship, so this conversation happens over Facebook. I send her a picture of a business card design I made up on the Office Depot website. “Is it hideous?”

The card is blue and green, vertically aligned. At the top is a surreal picture, the silhouette of a man standing in the center of a pyramid whose walls are made of a starscape, a sky dotted with clouds, and a field. Below that, my pitch: “Eric O. Scott, Author, Blogger, Memoirist. Contributor to Killing the Buddha, Patheos, Pagan Square, and the Wild Hunt.” Below that, an array of contact info.

“Hideous is way too strong a word,” she says. “Though it’s wordy. What’s the story on that picture, anyway?”

“It was the only thing that popped up when I searched for ‘New Age.'” Office Depot, as expected, had no results at all for “Wiccan” or “Pagan.”

“The graphic doesn’t seem very you,” she says. “You are more of a tree than a mystical triangle thing. You have roots.”

This may well be the sweetest thing she’s ever said to me.

Saturday

Today is the big Mardi Gras parade down in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. I don’t go to the parade – I had to work the night before, so I slept, instead – but in the afternoon I go to my parents’ party. They throw one every year, ever since my mother developed a love for New Orleans after spending a long weekend there with her a friends a decade and a half ago. Sometimes I am struck by the oddity of our fervor for an ostensibly Catholic holiday, the point of Mardi Gras being a final explosion of indulgence before the long austerity of Lent.

Then again, I suspect the majority of people getting drunk at 11 AM down in Soulard don’t plan to give up anything until Easter, either, so perhaps we’re just playing along.

They draw a big crowd this year, dozens of hungry mouths waiting to scoop out bowls of jambalaya and gumbo. People stake out their spots out on the patio, in the living room, or in the kitchen, the last of these being obviously the prime location. My dad’s friends congratulate me on my upcoming book, much to my discomfort. My aunt attempts to play the tambourine and mostly fails. It’s a good party.

A friend of the family shows up later on, once most of the food is gone. She goes to Pantheacon most years, though she won’t be there this time. (I’m secretly grateful she is staying home; I know myself well enough to know that I tend to cling to the people I know when I’m in a crowded room. The best insurance against my own shyness is to simply not know anybody.) She gives me a list of recommendations: bring a cup, keep track of time, don’t get star-struck when Margot Adler passes by. (No promises.)

“And try not to stand in the back of the elevator, if you can help it,” she adds. “There’s a guy there who will try to grab your ass if you aren’t careful.”

Something to look forward to, I guess.

Sunday

Today is a road day. I’m heading east, to Champaign, Illinois, where my girlfriend goes to graduate school. I’m working on three hours of sleep and a Coke. I miss the turn off from Highway 55 and have to circle back around, lest I end up in Bloomington and add to my girlfriend’s ledger of Evidence That I Am Bad At Directions.

It’s going to be a packed week. Four nights in Champaign, followed by another day of driving on Thursday to be home in time for my father’s birthday dinner. (Yes, he was born on Valentine’s Day.) Then a 6 AM flight to San Jose, followed by…

Something. I don’t know what, yet.

As I have noted before, I am a statistical freak. Pagans-and-Heathens-and-Polytheists – look, you know what I’m talking about – we are, by and large, converts from Something Else. My parents were both Low Protestant Christians in their childhoods. I know some ex-Catholics, some ex-Lutherans, some ex-atheists. But I was born into it. It’s all I’ve ever known. And that has non-obvious consequences.

Here’s a big one: I’ve never gone looking for a Pagan community, because I’ve always had one of my own. While I’ve known of other Pagans in the places I’ve lived – my dad infamously engaged in open warfare with certain St. Louis Pagans in the days of listservs – I’ve never sought them out myself with the hope of making connections or friendships. I considered myself as isolated from the “greater Pagan community” as I was from mainstream religions, an outlier to both, my life holding little in common with anyone else’s. (As a teenager, I would occasionally meet another teen who had just declared themselves a Witch and hear the inevitable conversion narrative. “Sure, my parents made me go to church, but in my heart I know I’ve always been Pagan.” I would smile, but inside, I always thought, “Really? Because my heart never told me that, and I actually -was- always Pagan.”)

I’m told that Pantheacon is a friendly place, that I’ll find the place inviting. I hope so, of course. But still, it’s an awful long way from home.

I make it to Champaign before dark. I kiss my girlfriend hello and say nothing about missing the turn.

Monday

Today my girlfriend spends her time preparing for the oral examination of her qualifying papers, which will be held tomorrow. Late in the evening I watch her rehearsing with her PowerPoint. Slides flash by, full of citations for studies into Russian language acquisition and data points for the relative cultural prestige of languages in Kazakhstan. Though my life revolves around language, it’s over my head; I only took one semester of Linguistics, and that was years ago.

I spend most of the day doing crossword puzzles, writing, and reading anything that comes across the Pantheacon Twitter feed. The CAYA coven posts their packing list, which seems useful, though I have no idea what counts as “necessary” ritual gear; I’ve only done ritual with strangers a handful of times. (Can you stow an athame in a suitcase? What if it’s wrapped in a sock?) The Pantheacon site suggests only picking three “must-see” events a day, as there simply isn’t time to see it all. I glance at the schedule I’d set out, which has only three empty slots throughout the weekend.

I get the feeling that I am not prepared for this, that I have decided to dive into a cenote without first learning how to swim. By nature, I am a solitary person, accustomed to sharing my religious life only with my family. I am all too aware that my experience with the “greater Pagan community” has, for the most part, come only at the safe distance of a computer screen. In a few days I will find myself standing in the middle of a convention full of strangers in California, strangers with whom I may have many more points of divergence than similarity. My vision of that coming throng scares me a little.

And then, I shrug. Oh well. So what if I’m anxious? There’s nothing to do with the unknown but conquer or be killed by it. The flight’s already booked; the business cards have been printed. The dark water glints at the bottom of the pit. The only thing left now is to jump.

Over at Llewellyn Wordlwide’s official blogElysia Gallo, Senior Acquisitions Editor for Witchcraft, Wicca, Pagan, and magickal books, lists seven ways in which you can support Pagan community. I heartily agree with all her recommendations.

“So now, as we pull into the harvest season, let’s start thinking about ways to give back to our vibrant and wide-reaching community. I have a few brilliant ideas (as usual!), some of which will hit you up for cash, others of which only take some time and mindfulness.”

Among her suggestions, Elysia lists supporting the New Alexandrian Library’s fundraising effort (more on that here), helping to send Patrick McCollum to the Awakened World Conference in Italy, and supporting a brand new Pagan Living TV initiative.

Almost all of her suggestions, including volunteering at Pagan Pride, throwing a party for Cherry Hill Seminary, and shopping at Pagan-owned businesses, are about building Pagan infrastructure. It’s about putting our resources back into that which we say we value. Too often our responses to needs within modern Paganism are ad hoc and reactive. This is not to say there aren’t visionaries among us who envision a different way of doing things, but these efforts aren’t well-funded, and are often overwhelmed by the needs they encounter. We are still at a point where simply having physical locations is somewhat novel.

“A Memphis Wiccan group now has a building for worship, becoming one of the first Wiccan groups in the country to do so. The Temple of the Sacred Gift is a local chapter of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, based out of the state of Washington. They have official non-profit status with the IRS, making them just like any church in Memphis. [...] The temple holds worship every other week and often puts on festivals. About 40 people attend each worship, while hundreds can show up at some of the festivals. Participants include local policemen, lawyers, and business owners.”

Infrastructure, physical spaces, institutions, social services, it’s all about taking care of our own. If we are to be able to cross the threshold into being a movement that can support itself, grow into having the land, temples, libraries, and advocacy organizations many of us dream about, we need to re-think how our interconnected communities work. A problem that the late, great, Isaac Bonewits wrestled with in the years before his death.

“Establishing Pagan charities, or even just creating a culture of generosity inside Pagandom, requires us to face all our individual and group attitudes towards money and fund-raising. Being a Pagan shouldn’t be about just taking the goodies that others have to give, but also about returning our gifts to others, thus passing the good karma along. Among the ancient tribal peoples so many of us seek to emulate, “hosting” and “guesting” involved giving and receiving in complex systems of reciprocal relationships. In fact, those words come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, ghosti, which is also the root of the word “ghost,” referring to a family spirit who must be shown proper respect and be fed with offerings.

Yet the Christian Dualism that saturates our mainstream culture, combined with left-over anti-money ideals of the 1960s counterculture, leads many to assume that money is “profane,” that spiritual people “don’t need” money, and that anyone asking for money in a religious context is “just like” the televangelists (whom we view as dishonest and greedy) or whatever mainstream religion we were brought up in. In an “us vs. them” worldview, remember, anyone who has something about them that resembles anything about someone else we consider evil, is of course, just as evil–or at least comfortably ignorable. These attitudes, of course, justify hanging on to our money rather than sharing it with those in need. Indeed, it usually takes a major disaster to shake us out of our complacency.”

These issues seem more present to me now because I believe we are at the threshold of a great shift. I think we are ready to do things differently, to move in directions we didn’t think were possible. I think we are capable of claiming the very things we say we long for, to shed our sub-cultural cocoon and emerge as a religious movement to be reckoned with. Until then, our activists, clergy, and leaders continue to do the work. For example, while Patrick McCollum is trying to raise money to take part in a global interfaith initiative, he’s also meeting with local politicians to end religious discrimination against minority faiths in the California prison system.

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

Patrick McCollum with California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and aide (08/25/12)

“Rev. Patrick McCollum met this week with California State Senator, Mark DeSaulnier to discuss religious discrimination issues and policies directed toward minority faiths within California’s state institutions.  The institutions discussed included the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Developmental Services, the Department of Social Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The meeting went well and Senator DeSaulnier, who is known for government reform, has agreed to investigate further into the policies and issues affecting our community and others.  Reverend McCollum will have follow up meetings with the Senator, and has agreed to provide additional documentation.”

Every day, in ways we don’t see or notice, there are Pagans working to build our future. If we want to see that future become a reality we need to support them in their work, and show that we’re collectively ready to build the movement many of us say we want.  That support doesn’t have to break your bank, but it can mean working to make sure your local community is thriving, to make sure your elders aren’t in danger, to make sure the people who serve you can do so without the wolf at their door. Support is simple, and it allows visionaries the room to help collectively build our Pagan future.

Pagan Community Notes is a companion to my usual Pagan News of Note, a series more focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. I want to reinforce the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

Healing in the Bible Belt: Holli S. Emore, Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, shares a remarkable story of how interfaith involvement can change minds and break barriers. After serving quietly at a local interfaith council in South Carolina, Emore protested at her religion, and only her religion, being listed as “other.” This led to a surprising show of support from Rev. Ed Kosak, Minister at Unity Church of Charleston.

“In the interest of understanding each other…of seeing the good in each other…of Interfaith, I wish to make an amend to the adherents of the Pagan faith. I speak strictly for myself. For years now, I, IN MY HEAD, have understood that Pagans are good people, moral people…that they are a legitimate spirituality. IN MY EMOTIONS, though, I have felt that they are satanists, that they sacrifice animals and people, etc. Also, in my head, I knew they never do such things. But in my emotions, I felt uncomfortable with them. For this judgment and fear, I make amends. After recently having worked this through cognitively and emotionally, I can unequivocally support our Pagan brothers and sisters. My hope is that others with my experience can cut through their issues around paganism after reading this. Or perhaps this can provide the intellectual framework to help people to do so.”

I recommend reading the entire letter, here. It is moments like these that reinforce the importance of Pagan involvement in the interfaith movement, both locally and on a global scale with groups like the Parliament of the World’s Religions and URI. Congratulations to Holli on being a catalyst for this breakthrough. For my part, I am currently making plans that will hopefully expose more non-Pagans to Pagan media, and help build bridges while making sure important dialog on issues that affect us happens.

Singing the Praises of Paganistan: Over at PNC-Minnesota, JRob Zetelumen writes an editorial ode to his local community, the Twin Cities of Minnesota, colloquially known by many as “Paganistan” due to its large and vibrant Pagan population.

“When Ken Ra had kidney failure, the community came together with a fund raiser to help in a difficult time, and a community member donated a kidney. When the local Pagan community center had financial problems, the community came together to raise money, and supplied the volunteers and leadership to keep the center going. Yes, a local Pagan community center; let’s not gloss over that. Paganistan has its own community center. It’s not a back room of a metaphysical shop, or part of someone’s home, or a Pagan-friendly organization which allows local Pagans to also meet there, but a space dedicated full time as a non-profit community center for the Pagan community. At this point, no other Pagan community in the United States (and possibly the world) can make such a claim. Other communities talk about it, and plan for it, but the Twin Cities has it. Paganistanis are the innovators.

The Twin Cities Pagan community has a name; Paganistan. Its residents are therefore Paganistanis. This name actually originated at Pagan Spirit Gathering. A group of Twin Cities Pagans was camped on top of a hill and local linguist Steven Posch referred to it as Paganistan. He then took the name home and used it as a reference to the area around Powderhorn Park, where many Pagans live. In time, it came to mean the city of Minneapolis, then the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Today it is used to refer to the entire metropolitan area. There are even people well outside the metropolitan area who identify as Paganistanis.”

This editorial comes in the wake of an effort to save the “Paganistan” listing in Wikipedia, an initiative that was recently editorialized at PNC-Minnesota. Whatever the context, this is a well-written paean to one’s local community, an exercise that might be healthy to repeat in other areas with large or thriving Pagan populations.

Witches Education League: A Salem correspondent for the Boston Globe spotlights a press release announcing the formation of a new Witch-oriented organization, the Witches Education League (WEL).

“The new league comes as two active organizations, the Witches Education Bureau and Pagan Witches Protection, merge, [Teri] Kalgren [W.E.L.'s vice president] said. “There are many untruths about Witches and the craft, born out of hate, fear, or other issues causing these untruths to flourish and grow through the centuries,” the W.E.L. release said. “W.E.L. encourages all to ask their questions and to learn about one of Earth’s oldest religions.” The organization, which recently received nonprofit status, intends to continue with community services such as the annual W.E.B.-founded “ask a witch, make a wand,”  where children are invited to make magic wands with area witches near Halloween, Kalgren said.”

The organization does not yet have a web site, though they do have a Facebook page. It is unclear what initiatives they plan to take regarding outreach and education, but I wish them well in this new venture.

An Interview with Thorn: Speaking of Paganistan, author and teacher T. Thorn Coyle will be there this weekend for a book signing and intensive. PNC-Minnesota has an interview up with Thorn about her visit.

“Workshops are always a mixture of experience and theory. I try to get people singing, dancing, and moving when possible, mostly because I find that I learn best if my body is engaged, and most other people do as well. But intellectual engagement offers context for the work at hand, so there is always time for questions, writing, and sometimes I end up expounding a bit, particularly when I feel that there is a question several layers beneath the one that actually got asked! Guided meditation, energy work, and some kick-ass ritual are usually also involved.”

For more on Thorn’s teachings and thoughts, do check out her always-insightful and thought-provoking blog (and podcast).

Unsung Pagans: In a final note, I’d like to point to Star Foster’s post reminding us which Pagans keep our communities thriving and surviving.

What keeps Paganism thriving is not authors. It’s not bloggers, or journalists. It’s not those giving workshops or appearing in television specials or writing academic papers. It’s teachers and community organizers. People who don’t publish, or receive much recognition from the larger community. These are the people who organize your Pagan Pride days, who show up to meet and greets rain or shine. These are people who patiently teach meditation 101 and basic protocol over and over, year in and year out, to seekers without compensation. People who open their homes so that Pagans have places to celebrate their rites, or who run shops catering to all Pagans while staying out of all the politics and drama. Clergy who say “Call me anytime, that’s what I’m here for.”

Why not take the time to thank the unsung Pagan heroes/heras in your community?

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

Note: This is a guest essay by author, artist, and harried graduate student Lupa, who is helping out with content while Jason’s doing his cross-country move.

In the United States, we have achieved what is possibly the most hyperindividualized culture in the history of our species. Some of the effects of this have benefited people, particularly minorities of various sorts who, while still facing oppression, are able to find more footholds for asserting their unique identities amid the masses. However, we’ve taken the archetype of the Rugged Individualist to such an extent that most of us no longer really know how to function as a cohesive community. More and more of us no longer live in the same state, let alone city or neighborhood, as our extended or even nuclear families. The average American moves over a dozen times in their lifetime.

Culturally, we feel rootless as well. Dissatisfied with mainstream (generally white) American culture, more people, neopagans included, are seeking connection with other cultures as a substitute for strip malls, reality television, and the aggressive competition associated with hyperindividualism. Unfortunately, this often results in varying degrees of cultural appropriation, in which an individual draws whatever isolated elements of a culture’s practices they prefer, while ignoring the context provided by what they’ve left behind.

I can personally speak only from an American perspective. However, while we’re not in a situation where “As goes the United States, so goes the world”, neopaganism has developed largely in individual-based Western cultures, and neopagan religions retain that influence to some degree, even when practiced in more communal settings.

I’ve run into countless pagans who want to form “tribes”, “families”, or other sorts of communities. Some may want to create intentional communities on land that no one yet owns; others just want some connection in their city or region. Many are inspired by the Temporary Autonomous Zones created in the context of pagan festivals, and wish they could extend that permanently. Unfortunately, community doesn’t just happen overnight. Nor can it be forced or even necessarily planned neatly. It’s an organic thing that happens at its own pace. Wanting to have a community doesn’t automatically confer the social and practical skills necessary to make it happen.

We aren’t used to being part of a community because our culture has slid so far into individualism. We’re used to being in groups of people, we’re used to making friends and other relationships, but we have a tendency to isolate ourselves outside of our preferred social circles. Many Americans today, pagan and otherwise, couldn’t tell you who most of the people who live on their street are—something that was very different even a couple of generations ago. Some of the pie-in-the-sky plans for intentional communities I’ve heard cooked up over the years have included “pagan communes”, self-sufficient and detached from “Christian America”.

Community requires interdependence with a variety of people, not just the ones we like. Yes, often communities are formed out of reaction to a lack of safe space due to being a minority of some sort. However, what keeps us from being able to create that safe space in the form of pagan-centric community is the intense focus on the self. We can see this in the common sabotage of attempts to create covens and other small groups, as well as other organization efforts. One or more people, miffed that the project isn’t going their way, will instead turn their actions towards destroying it out of spite—putting their own needs over that of the group as a whole. Personal disagreements take precedence over the greater goal. It’s not just isolation from non-pagans that is problematic—it’s the fact that we’ve been conditioned to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others to an unhealthy degree, even to the point of damaging one-on-one relationships.

These one-on-one relationships are the building-blocks of community, which also requires starting small. Relationships have to be established and built up over time if the people involved are going to survive the stressors of being in close proximity on a long-term basis. The most naïve daydreams I’ve seen often include a bunch of people who have little, if any, connection with each other, other than perhaps being friends with the ringleader(s). If your biggest concern is making sure that your needs get met, and you aren’t all that invested in the needs of most of the other people in your “community”, are you really going to be willing to temporarily set aside your needs in order to listen to everyone else’s as a way of facilitating group communication?

Conversely, “community” doesn’t always have to include every single member of the community all the time. Some of the strongest moments of a community are when one person with a problem simply knows that they can go to another person and get a solution. An example is the practice of borrowing a cup of sugar; we’ve so lost track of interconnectedness that very few of us feel we have an option in that instance beyond going out to the store, or doing without. While one’s pagan community may be scattered far enough apart across an area that borrowing that sugar may be difficult, there are other small but significant interactions that can still happen.

And it’s these small interactions involving trust and communication that are the building blocks for making community happen on a larger scale. I’ve been privileged enough to be able to go to festivals at permanent pagan sites, and observe the interactions among long-term residents, volunteers, and other staff. They get to be human beings, with errors and problems, but there’s a cohesion that’s impressive to behold. It took a lot of time, and weathering a lot of challenges to temper those relationships. But it can happen.

Admittedly I can only speak so much in practice at this point. I don’t live in an intentional community, and much of my time is taken up with personal pursuits (the Master’s Degree That Ate My Life being a primary one). However, that Master’s degree will be in counseling psychology, from a program with an emphasis on community involvement—not just taking on the clients who are most like me. And in my personal life, I’m attempting to make the first steps in creating an environment in which community can hopefully develop; last month, for example, my husband Taylor and I hosted a pot luck and swap meet in our home where people not only shared food but excess resources. Granted, our collection of “resources” looked more like the fodder for a yard sale, but it was a start. And while I’m not yet the greatest gardener in the world, I’ve planted some extra onion sets in anticipation of a barter with a friend of mine who raises quail. It just so happens that a large portion of my social circle happens to be pagan—but my goal isn’t necessarily a specifically pagan community.

That’s where I’m at right now, and I’m fine with that. I have a lot of individualistic tendencies to move past, and I have a lot of practical and relational skills I need to develop. But I can also learn from those who have made community—whether pagan or otherwise—so successful, and I can put those lessons into practice. And that’s what I’d suggest to those who want to build community: learn from those who have made it happen. There’s work to be done, but it can be done—it is being done.

The Marshall University student paper The Parthenon lets us know that Marshall University’s Pagan Association has ceased meeting. Why is this small bit of news relevant? Because this was the group that made national headlines for prompting the university back in 2007 to allow excused absences for Pagan holidays (I even got interviewed by the AP about it).

“Marshall University’s Pagan Association, which once received national media attention, no longer meets on campus. Marty Laubach, professor of sociology at Marshall and faculty advisor for the Marshall Pagan Association, said no one from the association has contacted him this semester and the members may no longer be together as a group. He said the association most likely did not drift apart due to conflict within the group, but because members have become more involved with their studies. George Fain, former president of the Pagan Association, worked to establish the pagan group at Marshall in spring of 2007, Laubach said. A September 2008 story in The Parthenon reported that Marshall received national media attention for recognizing Paganism as a religion.”

While some would still question if this is development was truly “newsworthy”, I think it does convey an important truth about modern Paganism: that small Pagan groups often disband or drift apart, and that this is a normal thing. It is an important fact to know, because journalists used to the congregational model of worship might think a group disbanding might be sign of ill health within the faith itself. Instead, it is just a side-effect of our strong individuality. Indeed, according to the Pagan group’s former faculty advisor, we’re “notoriously” ephemeral when it comes to working together.

“Pagan groups are notoriously unstable,” Laubach said. “Smaller groups come and go very quickly. Groups will last as long as the people can get along together.”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t Pagan groups and organizations that have managed to exists for decades, to the contrary, just that the typical expectations for what constitutes a “healthy” Pagan community varies widely from what might be considered healthy within a Christian or Jewish community. A “typical” Pagan community might see a few groups that have survived the years, as well as an ever-rotating and shifting assortment of ad-hoc groups and short-term alliances that change as the needs of the particpants change. So the Marshall University Pagan Association ending might not be news, but it’s the kind of “not-news” that may trigger some better reporting on Pagan communities in the future.