Culture and Community: The Personal Toll of Activism

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In my role as a Witch and a Pagan, I pay attention to the land where injustices and social action occur. I pay attention to the energies at work.“ – Jacki Richardson

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[Courtesy of C. Blanton]

It is an intense time in our society. Images and stories fill our news feeds and television screens, reminding us of communities in crisis all over the world. Many people have been called to spiritual activism during these times, and many Pagans have been more vocal and active about their commitment to justice.

Among activists, there is a common understanding on how emotionally taxing this work can be. I have personally experienced the drive to work harder to sustain the balance of spiritual wellness, the physical forms of activism work and socio-emotional self care. I, like many others, have found myself struggling, within this ever changing battle, to sustain balance and to process the traumatizing experiences that come with the intense reality of the times we are living within. The more things that appear to happen within greater society, the more challenging it can be to manage the amount of trauma that comes through primary and secondary traumatic exposure. It has also become clearer that the more I understand about my place in the world, the more I am aware of just how damaging these situations are on an individual level.

The latest rash of unarmed Black people who have died at the hands of law enforcement; the increase in trans murders and suicide; and staggering statistics about the increase of suicides of Native people within this country have reinforced many people’s personal commitments to working for equity and justice. Many are now supporting change in this country for marginalized populations, and stepping up to support these movements nationwide.

Courtesy of Stephanie Del Kjer

[Courtesy of S. Del Kjer]

After attending the April 12 vigil for Yuvette Henderson, a mother killed by the Emeryville police department, I got a chance to think about the toll these situations put on me as a person, a spiritual warrior and a Pagan. There were eight or nine other Pagans at this particular event, pushing me to question the intersections of community and justice work for some practitioners within the modern Pagan community. Although many people have been fighting for social justices causes for years, there appears to be more movement, recognition and understanding of just how these floating pieces are taking center stage in many communities, including our own.

How do Pagans see the intersection of social action and their own spiritual beliefs? How are Pagans impacted by their experiences of justice work? What things do Pagans do to continue this work and care for themselves in the process? While these are a big questions that will have a myriad of answers, looking at the impact of justice work in our communities is important to explore. For many practitioners that are involved with social action, there are some common threads of inter-sectionality that are explored through devotional work, divine mission, passion, core beliefs, and a sense of personal integrity.

Brennos Agrocunos

Brennos Agrocunos

My involvement in social justice movement is definitely connected to my spirituality. Both my Goddess and my morality call me to stand with the Black community during this struggle against a society that’s systemically racist and brutal towards them. The task of restoring Sovereignty to the land is accomplished through service, service the Gods and the Otherworld, service to the land itself and service to our community and fellow humans. My path of priesthood is defined by these acts of service. I am unable to sit by, comfortably wrapped in the privilege of the color of my skin, gender, and heterosexuality, while others face discrimination, violence, and death for theirs.

I’ve been involved in social justice and environmental movements for most of my life to varying degrees. Sometimes heavily involved and other times burnt out and frustrated. Over the past couple of decades I have watched as the political and social spectrum has turned frighteningly ugly and brutal. Becoming involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, being on the streets providing medical aid and support during the demonstrations in this latest iteration of the civil rights movement, has been transformative and inspirational for me personally and spiritually. Meeting the families of the victims of police violence, following the tweets of the leaders of the movement, and witnessing first hand the aggression of the militarized police force, has inspired me to become more involved and more active in the movement and seeing the power and solidarity of the demonstrators has given me a tremendous amount of hope for my community.

Since I tend to find myself in fairly dangerous situations at the demonstrations, I’m primarily concerned with protection. I have a number of ways of keeping myself safe when I’m out there. Before I leave my house I make offerings to my ancestors, spirit allies, and my Goddess. I also carry a small stuffed fox that my daughter made me that is charmed for my protection and that watches my back.

The Gods, our ancestors and descendants, and the spirits of the land are aware of these struggles and take an interest in our community’s well being. Our community goes beyond the realm of the living and the spirits stand with us in this fight. – Brennos Agrocunos

Beverley Smith

Beverley Smith

Your question gave me pause for thought. I hadn’t thought much about my spirituality in regards to my passion for social justice, not until recently. I had a conversation with someone about the rising anti-black sentiment and how do shaman and other magical/spiritual people address the atrocities. He informed me that he had no comment, as he doesn’t “mix his spirituality with politics”.

What?? For me, the two are inseparable. How can I, as a divine being of the cosmos, venerate my Ancestors, heal the Land, honor my Deities, and hold myself up as an example, a priestess, a teacher, or a leader if my spirituality doesn’t extend to the practical needs of my fellow humans on this earthly plane? How is the fight for civil rights incompatible with one’s spiritual life?

I’ve seen too many people define themselves as elders, as spiritual leaders, yet they seem reluctant to stand in solidarity with their marginalized sisters and brothers. I would feel like a phony, a spiritual fraud if my spiritual life and practices didn’t include justice work. How does one call oneself a priestess or teacher, and not give a damn about your oppressed fellow citizens? Who are you fooling when you participate in rituals but your heart remains hard and apathetic toward others?

So for me, social justice work is the root of my spirituality. It’s at the core, the very root. My love and empathy for humankind calls me to this work. And my ancestors demand that I fight the good fight.

Sometimes, I fail to be as gentle with myself, especially during times of heightened emotions, which happens frequently in justice work, at least for me. I need reminders to take care of myself. I’m still trying to find that balance between involvement and self-care.

I find that my yoga practice is crucial to my emotional and mental health. And as an energy healer, using Reiki and chakra-balancing lodestones, I still have to be reminded to turn some of that healing energy inward. – Beverley Smith

Autumn Crow

Autumn Crow

Most definitely, my spirituality and activism are connected and each flows from the other. As a Reclaiming Witch, I see the divine as immanent within all beings, meaning each human life is sacred. Structural racism and other systems of oppression have always undermined this by creating stories that people of certain colors, nationalities, genders, or levels of nominal wealth have lives worth more than that of others. The existence and the defense of these ideas is a desecration I can feel in my heart every time these systems of oppression abuse, imprison, maim, or kill someone. Part of my service to the Goddess is to participate in the dismantling of these harmful stories and their associated systems so we can build a more just world.

I personally feel intentional magic and ritual gives me experience of the mysteries of the divine in ways reading a book can seldom approach. And likewise, participating in social actions led primarily by those directly impacted by systems of oppression teaches me what needs to be done in a way more grounded and authentic than if I were limited to reading websites or clicking on petitions. This is especially important to me as I have both white and (transgender) passing privilege. With those privileges, our culture will happily insulate me unless I make an effort to hear the oppressed and try my best to support them in the quest for justice.

Taking action on social justice issues, especially where directly facing those representing the status quo in a protest or similar situation, is a magical act that can take a lot of my energy. Even if nothing happens in terms of physical violence, the police’s tendency to escalate rather than de-escalate conflict means that people tend to be on edge even in the most peaceful of protests. Keeping myself healthy and in shape to respond to changing situations is a priority. I make sure I have water and first-aid gear in a backpack and continuously reground myself during the action. Afterwards, I am fortunate in that I have a place of refuge in the intentional community I live in to be heard and held, so that my frustrations, my tears, and my hopes can be shared. Without my community and my beloved ones, I could not put myself out there as I do. – Autumn Crow

Jacki Richardson

Jacki Richardson

YES! My primary social action is around the deaths of unarmed Black people. Every single life on this planet is a precious gift, a star, a God/dess that has come to bless the Earth with their presence. Each and every fallen star is worthy of respect, remembering and honor.

I remember vividly the day Michael Brown was shot. I wanted so much to be able to reach through and touch him and let his last recollection of this world be in the presence of those who would honor and respect and cherish him. It wasn’t until later that I learned his mother was at the scene, which of course makes sense. So she was there wanting to be with her son with the desperate heart’s cry of a mother whose son has died and was treated with terrible indifference. Being energetically present to Mike Brown and his parents, holding them in Sacred Space, has left a deep mark on me.

As I moved in closer to what was going on in Ferguson, I noticed how much disconnect there was between what “the general public” was being told and what I saw with my own eyes.  It became deeply important to me to be able to bear witness and say, “I saw this myself.”  In response to my turmoil around how to make my spiritual practice relevant to my experiences, a mentor encouraged me to set aside a dedicated altar space for social action. Around that time, too, a lot of clergy were showing up at protests so I began wearing my pentacle outside my clothes with other “Witchy” items as a way to say, “I am here as a Pagan, too.”I don’t know if I would have developed a sense of alliance or interconnected community without social action as I know it now.  

I keep insisting and my wife can concur: my preference would have been to remain a below-the-radar hermit content staying home and building my own little temple. Being “out there” so much pushed me to building relationships with people of like minds – both in social action and Pagan communities. That, in itself, is a gift on a daily basis for refuge, support, and camaraderie – things I greatly undervalued before.I have come to deeply appreciate the capacity some Pagans have for being able to travel this harsh terrain. It is a terrible Gift to be able to witness the unending chain of brutality and remain soft hearted but unbroken. My primary goal is to increase and maintain my ability to “hold” this space of witnessing and compassionate Presence.  A big lesson for me was the realization that acting as a Witch/Pagan will kick the stuffing out of me differently than acting as a social worker operating from a primarily “middle world” perspective.” – Jacki Richardson

Michaela Spangenburg

Michaela Spangenburg

I think spirituality is foundational to the way that we experience ourselves in the world we live in, and the place we are occupy within that world.

I often hear others make the connection between social justice activism in human spirituality in the more unidirectional way that I’ve experienced it. Often I have seen other Heathens were engaged in social justice work cite the eddas to demonstrate that our faith is one deeply rooted in social justice. This seems to speak to the experience of social justice work as growing out of our spirituality.

For me the relationship between the two is more complex, largely bidirectional. Social justice has taught me just as much about being Heathen as Heathenism has informed my social justice work. And this process is dynamic and perpetual. My daily lived experiences as a multiracial, working class, 2 spirit, female-embodied person is what first taught me the necessity of social justice, out of a place initially of basic survival. I see this ongoing experience as pivotal to my identity as a Heathen, to being called by the Gods to traditions that originate in a time before the mass, systemic oppression of the modern world.

Parallel to our own development as human beings who are initially born free and whole before being quickly tempered by a world rife with injustice and oppression, the Heathen faith is one that has had to struggle against the global shift toward empire and the ensuing onslaught of oppression to survive. Heathenism is a faith that speaks to the experience of continuous, just struggle and simultaneously of restoring and maintaining balance. It’s no surprise that the Gods would call someone like myself, or any of the other countless Heathens of color, working class Heathens, Heathens struggling against ableism, or against gender oppression, or homophobia, or transphobia, or the myriad of other oppressions we struggle against now in this world. We are called not just to the Gods and their larger struggle for balance and justice, but our own struggles against oppression as well. And they help strengthen us in those struggles and guide us. The reality of our souls and the life we are born to is one. As much as I was born to the struggle of black liberation, I was born to the struggle and service of the Allfather, the gods of Yggdrasil and Irminsul, and our Heathen community. – Michaela Spangenburg

The Pagan community has always worked to understand the roles of the allyship, social activism, spirituality and manifestation. The last year we have seen another shift in the needs of our intersecting communities and, as the call for social action intensifies, we are seeing the face of Pagan activism transforming once again.

The emotionally, physically, and spiritually demanding effects of social activism often mean an increased toll on the body and the spirit. I have personally experienced this work as emotionally draining, and know this to be true of most who are present in the consistency of the struggle. The interconnectedness of our experiences puts stress on the delicate balance of holding space for social change, fulfilling our commitments to our deities, spiritual practice, personal growth and allowing one to take care of the self simultaneously.

The ritual of social activism work is a deep and practiced discipline for those who are performing magic through the tools of social resistance, information sharing, coalition building, and community tactics. Holding space for change and equity is a magical act that is not just done within a traditional circle or religious format, but is also being done at protests and vigils.

This is hard work. It is meaningful work. It is visionary work. It is a work of love.


Note from the Author: A special thank you to all of those who are fighting for justice in the myriad of ways that promote health and change for all people.