Before I continue, I must divulge my affiliation with the organization and event. I have been a CoG member for years, and I am currently serving as its National Public Information Officer (NPIO) – a position that I will hold until Samhain 2014. Often when I speak publicly about CoG, it is in an official capacity as NPIO. What I share below is my own personal reflections. Additionally, I happened to also be one the event planners.
This year, the bulk of the MerryMeet conference was held at the Crowne Plaza Ravinia, selected partly for its exceptional green space. The 2014 theme was “Standing on Common Ground,” which reflects both the organization’s attention to interfaith or intrafaith work, as well as its spiritual and practical focus on the Earth – our literal “Common Ground.”
The four day conference opened, as it typically does, with a daylong leadership institute. This year’s topic was the expanding interfaith movement. Over 40 attendees met at the beautiful Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC) in Roswell to participate in discussions led by leaders in interfaith work.The morning Pagan-only panel consisted of CoG inferfaith representatives Don Frew, Rachael Watcher, M. Macha Nightmare (Aline O’Brien) as well as special guest Rev. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary. In the afternoon, they were joined by Garth Young (Buddhist), Cliff Trammel (Jewish), Carl McCollum (Catholic), Syndey Linquist (New Thought Christian), and Iraj khodadoost (Baha’i).
Both panel discussions began with introductions, relevant stories and questions on general interfaith work. However, the conversations slowly gravitated to the intersection of the interfaith and environmental movements. What role does or should faith play in protecting our ecosystem and how can the interfaith movement support that role? *
Several of the panelists lamented that their interfaith work is frequently kept separate from their environmental concerns. However, Frew relayed a story on how the 1990s global focus on the environment led to a greater interest or support for Nature-centered religions within the international interfaith world. Unfortunately, that interest waned after 9/11. However, Frew added that now the attention appears to be shifting back once again.
In the afternoon, Garth Young, a Buddhist, brought the discussion down to a personal level and said, “Caring for myself is caring for the Earth. Caring for the Earth is caring for myself.” In the end, the panelists all agreed that Earth care is and should be at the forefront of the interfaith movement because, as the theme states, the Earth is our common ground.Outside of Earth stewardship, the panel spent a longtime discussing the obstacles of interfaith work. What are the walls that prevent “bridge building” toward interfaith understanding? Cliff Trammel, representing Judaism, noted that his biggest obstacle is fear. “Will I be accepted or represent my faith well?” He added that, in letting go of expectations and personal anxiety, he is able to bring down those walls and listen to others. All the speakers agreed and shared their own experiences with confronting personal fear.
Before and after the panel discussions, attendees had the opportunity to go out into nature and explore the literal “common ground.” For those guests that didn’t want to brave the 90 degree temperatures, the CNC treated them to an animal encounter. The wildlife rehabilitation manager brought a Merlin falcon into the meeting room and answered questions about raptors and other native species of Georgia.
The very next morning, Grand Council began. Working by consensus, CoG representatives from around the country convened to discuss all manners of business from internal organization, external works, policies and the voting of next year’s officers.
This year’s meeting resulted in two landmark decisions. First, CoG adopted an official environmental policy statement. Spearheaded by CoG interfaith representative M. Macha NightMare (Aline O’Brien), the statement was the result of a year’s worth of collaborative work. She says, “It gives me a great sense of accomplishment that we, the Witches of the Covenant of the Goddess, have crafted a statement about our beloved Mother Earth that reflects our shared values and expresses our mutual concern for our planet, as well as our responsibilities for its current state and our hope for the future.”
Second, CoG approved the creation of an internal Abuse Advisory Committee to “advise, educate, and support the Covenant on issues of physical and sexual violence.” The committee will be made up of CoG members who are professionally trained in this field and those who “remain current on information pertinent to the issue.”
The CoG Abuse Advisory Committee was proposed and presented by Lady Aradia and Lady Emrys, two licensed social workers from Pennsylvania. Lady Aradia, also psychotherapist, said:
Sexual offenses and family violence happen in every community including the Wiccan and larger Pagan community. Although we pride ourselves in not being a religion with a large institution, this places us at a disadvantage when issues of abuse arise.
During the two-day meeting, Lady Aradia also presented a well-attended workshop called “Boundaries,” and another member presented a workshop on “Mandatory Reporting.” Aradia says:
By COG agreeing that a committee be formed to address and help the community navigate this issue, they/we take an active stance in both reducing these offenses but also providing safe ways for everyone to engage in their religions communities … We know we may not have all the answers but it’s a beginning, a way to keep talking about the issue from an educated and knowledgeable perspective.
In addition to these two landmark decisions, CoG held three important ceremonies honoring various Pagans for service and dedication. Just after the meeting opened, National First Officer Kathy Lezon called for a moment of silence to honor those members and others who had passed over the year. Names were read aloud.
After lunch Friday, CoG was joined by Circle Sanctuary for the first-ever joint presentation to honor Pagan military servicemen and women. Lezon presented CoG’s Military Service Award Medal while Rev. Selena Fox and Rev. Dawnwalker presented Circle’s Pagan Military Service Ribbon. Jack Prewett, a Vietnam Veteran and former Sergeant United States Air Force, said:
As a Vietnam veteran, I didn’t get much of a homecoming. So I felt both honored and humbled to be recognized by both Circle Sanctuary and Covenant of the Goddess for my service to my country. To have both these organizations recognize servicemen both past and present is truly a gift from the Gods and I know from personal experience how much it means those that do and have served.
In the third and final ceremony, CoG presented its newly-established Award of Honor for outstanding service to community. The membership had only just approved the new award Friday morning. Spearheaded by Ardantane director and longtime CoG member, Amber K, the CoG Award of Honor recognizes people for “outstanding service to the greater Pagan and Heathen communities in areas such as religious rights, international peace, environmental protection, interfaith leadership and education, the creation of lasting institutions, and the promotion of social justice and civil rights.”
After its approval, the membership awarded the honor to eight people including, Margot Adler, Alison Harlow, Sparky T Rabbit, Deborah Ann Light, Kathryn Fuller, Don Frew, Selena Fox and Judy Harrow. After receiving the award, Rev. Fox said, “I was deeply moved to be among the 8 selected by Covenant of the Goddess at this year’s Grand Council to receive the newly created Service Award. It means a lot to receive recognition and appreciation by peers.” Also present at the ceremony was member Kathryn Fuller. She said, “I was taken aback by the nomination, and both honored by the award and humbled to be in the company of such giants in the Pagan community.”
Outside of the landmark decisions and moving ceremonies, there was an overwhelming sense of presence at the meeting. During those four days the membership looked back at those who had passed or had contributed to our cultural progress.Their efforts were exemplified strongly in the group’s ability to safely meet in a openly accessible hotel deep within the conservative Southeast. Because of those people and that work, “we are here now.”
At the same time, the membership looked toward its future – one that looms ahead driving all of us to continue. “Here we are. But what next?” In considering this unknowable future, the delegates discussed the results of the CoG Vision Survey and how to apply its data to the organization’s direction going forward. How can we affect positive, lasting change in a fluid, evolving world filled with so many unknowns? This discussion will continue as delegates return home and digest their MerryMeet 2014 experience.
Next year, CoG’s Merry Meet and Grand Council will be hosted by Touchstone Local Council and held in Ontario, California, Aug 13-16. The organization will be celebrating its 40th anniversary.
*Dogwood Local Council has made the MerryMeet Leadership Institute Prayer Book to the Earth available for download. The book contains prayers, chants, songs and other writings dedicated to the Earth.