Culture and Community: Rebirth of a Bay Area Community Staple

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There are many elements of community that help to build and sustain culture. Local community culture often ebbs and flows with the change of faces around the circle and the opportunities for engagement among the intersecting elements. The Bay Area, like most communities, has events, shops and memories that help to cultivate a local Pagan culture.

10858593_10153030684777552_6867534241222027502_nThe Pagan Festival has been one of the many such events in the Bay Area that has been a staple for the community for the last 14 years. This festival has been running since 2001, when it was previously known as the Interfaith Pagan Pride Parade and Celebration. Its name was later changed to the Pagan Alliance in 2004, and the festival ran annually until 2012. Due to multiple factors, the Pagan Alliance did not host the festival for two years.

The return of this event was a surprise when the Pagan Alliance announced in January the plans for a 2015 festival. People began to talk about the importance of this returning festival, and the need for opportunities to gather throughout the year. After two years, the 2012 “Keeper of the Light” would finally be able to pass the title on to a new nominated person.

T. Thorn Coyle, as the Keeper of the Light for 2012, would pass the torch to me; I had been nominated, and I had accepted the position of Keeper for 2015. Other Keepers of the Light from previous years include Patrick McCollum, M. Macha Nightmare, Anne Hill, Yeshe Mathews, Joi Wolfwoman, and many others.

The May 9 event offered more than a plethora of vendors, conversations and stage performances in the heart of Berkeley. People showed up to celebrate the return of this event, and to re-engage in the building of community relationships. The theme for the festival this year was “Spirituality Through Service” and there were many altars and speakers that engaged in this very topic.

[Photo: Stephanie Kjer]

[Photo: Stephanie Kjer]

The Pagan Alliance has always had a strong commitment to amplifying the discussions of topics that are very important to the local community, and that are crucial to its sustainability. According to its website:

The Pagan Alliance is committed to the education of the general public with the intention of changing public views, opinions and response to the Pagan Community. Through public education, we hope to create an increased acceptance and understanding, and to dispel common misconceptions.  We are committed to justice, and eliminating prejudice and ignorance in all communities, including all ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, age, size, abledness and class affiliations.We are also committed to incorporating sustainable living and “alternative” lifestyles into our events and speaker series.We sponsor activities and events that reflect how our traditions which are supportive and in tune with Nature, and play a positive role in healing human’s relationship with the Earth and with all cultures.

After two years of not having a festival, what motivated the Pagan Alliance to jumpstart it and reignite this mission in action? The Executive Director and President of the Board of Directors for the Pagan Alliance offered these collective thoughts on the matter;

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Arlynne Camire [Courtesy Photo]

The Pagan Alliance was motivated by the needs of the community that expressed itself through phone calls, emails and during the All Witches/All Pagans Meetings that have been happening in Bay Area.The Pagan Festival marks a turning of the wheel in the bay area and provides the community with a chance to come together. Pagans and non-Pagans get a chance to learn about other spiritual paths and enjoy a day together in community and Pagan Pride.
JoHanna Coash-White [Photo: Robin Dolan]

JoHanna Coash-White [Photo: R. Dolan]

All Pagan Paths have a component of service and we wanted to honor not only our Keeper of Light but also all members of our community who work tirelessly to organize events, rituals, provide chaplaincy to the community including Pagans in Captivity. We wanted to foster and teach the children/future leaders a strong sense of the importance of service and how each of them are able to make the world a better place through their actions. – Arlynne Camire, Exec. Director & JoHanna White, President

As the modern Pagan community thrives to understand what it takes to reach sustainability, it can be insightful to look at how we benefit from consistent patterns and engagement within our local Pagan environment. Local areas will have different values but consistent opportunities for connection with other Pagans appear to be a universally appreciated value.

T.Thorn Coyle, the 2012 Keeper of the Light, has been holding the position since it was passed to her by the 2011 Keeper of the Light Yeshe Mathews. As the only Keeper of the Light to hold the position for longer than a year, Coyle spoke to me about her feelings about the importance of the festival returning; how holding this position has impacted her personally; and her intentions in designing the main ritual at the festival.

T. Thorn Coyle and Crystal Blanton(courtesy Stephanie Kjer)

T. Thorn Coyle and Crystal Blanton [Photo Credit: Stephanie Kjer]

I asked, “How do you feel that the return of the festival impacts the local Pagan Community in the Bay Area?” Coyle said:

I think the community has missed the festival. As Pagans, we have personal and community rituals we come to rely upon, and often take for granted until something like financial woes or family illness takes them away from us for a time. Then we realize the impact these rituals have on our lives. The festival put on by the Pagan Alliance is one of these rituals. A few individuals put out a huge amount of work, enabling the community to gather for music, performance, and to listen to one another. Regardless of what traditions we follow, this sort of coming together impacts us all.

The gratitude I offer to the Pagan Alliance for this service is enormous. I felt grateful for the Festival’s return.

I also asked her, “How do you feel being the keeper of the light for 2012 (and the two years after) impacted you spiritually and personally?” She responded:

Being chosen as Keeper of the Light in 2012 was an honor, of course. But at the time, I thought of it as just that: a symbolic office used to honor local Pagans for their contributions to community. By the time I had held that office for three years (because the festival was on hold), I came to realize it is much more.

Keeper of the Light is a real energetic position that gets passed from person to person, imbued with power and responsibility from the community at large. By power and responsibility, I don’t mean authority. What I am talking about is a sense that we truly are holding up a light for others, keeping the larger community in our energetic awareness, paying greater attention, and being available to community members in a variety of ways. By the end of three years, I was starting to need some distance from that, and a diminishment of that power and responsibility. It is no mistake that my path has taken a sideways course into writing fiction right now. My soul needs a break after carrying that public office.

Now, both you and I do this work in a variety of ways, but in my experience, being Keeper of the Light amplified the work I was already doing. I suspect it may have a similar effect on you, Crystal.

This is why when it came time to pass the office, I designed the ritual so that the gathered community members would raise energy that would specifically support your ability to hold this power. As I wrote in the ritual description: “The magical intention of the passing of the staff and gifting of the lantern is to lend strength and support to Priestess Crystal Blanton to enable her to continue her work –not only for our Pagan community, but all of the communities she serves throughout the Bay Area– and to do this work in good health, integrity, prosperity, and love.”

During ritual, everyone gathered in that circle pumped health, integrity, prosperity, and love into that staff, which I then blessed you with. I also gave you a smaller lantern than the one I was gifted with in hopes that carrying the light this year can be done with ease!

I give thanks to you, to the Pagan Alliance, and to the Bay Area Pagan Community for their service, and for giving me the chance to serve. And I bless you, one thousand times over.

Walking around the grounds of the park, in the middle of Berkeley, I caught glimpses of people hugging, laughing, shopping, talking and spending time in the sun. Alongside the park was the busy Farmer’s Market, bringing a very publicly visible Pagan event to those in the local area. The stage show consisted of musical artists, belly dancers, chanting and speeches. The Author’s Circle hosted a list of author talks and book signings of local Bay Area writers.

I have always held positive memories of this festivals from years past. This year was the same. This one day event appeared to have a lot of impact on those who attended the festivities as well.

Heaven Walker

Heaven Walker

The pagan festival builds solidarity in the pagan community. Being pagan, especially if you are a solitary practitioner, can be a very lonely experience. People come to church seeking spiritual connection and community. Pagan circles are often closed circles or very intimate affairs. The pagan festival gives pagans who have not found community the ability to connect with other pagans and feel pride and agency in their spirituality and /or religion. This festival was particularly poignant because of  the theme of “serving our community.” For me social justice and service are the work of a High Priestess. It was good to be reminded as a community that to be in service to the Goddess is also, to be in service to one another. – Heaven Walker

Yeshe Mathews

Yeshe Mathews

I really missed the Pagan Festival in Berkeley when it was on hiatus, and I am glad it’s back.The Pagan Fest gives us “locals” a chance to mingle, support one another’s projects, and enjoy a beautiful day in the park together…right alongside the wider Berkeley community who shop at the adjacent Farmer’s Market. It’s one of the most publicly-accessible, visible Pagan events I have attended, and it’s a great opportunity to show one another and the wider community what we are about. – Yeshe Mathews, 2011 Keeper of the Light

Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey

I moved to the Bay Area five years ago with dreams.  There are SO MANY Pagans here, but there are also SO MANY other people here that it often takes up to 90 minutes to drive 30 miles.  And while public transit is a nice option for some, it would take me 3 hours to get from my home to a place like Berkeley.  There are some great Pagan scenes in the Bay Area, but the different communities don’t see each other very much.  Some of that is because our traditions don’t allow for a lot of crossover, but a lot of it is simply because it’s too hard to get one another.

The return of the Pagan Festival, changes all of that, at least for a few hours.  Suddenly I’m seeing my friends in the North Bay (two and a half hours away), and seeing my friends in Reclaiming, and even running into people from far away locales like Sacramento.  The Pagan Festival was a nice way to meet up with a lot of people, people I generally only see at PantheaCon.

It wasn’t perfect by any means.  I’ve heard that a lot of newcomers to the Bay Area Pagan scene were kind of lost, but it was a good re-start.  We are all very good at doing “our things” but we aren’t always very good at doing “everyone things. – Jason Mankey

Nathania Apple

Nathania Apple

We are very fortunate in the Bay Area to have practitioners from many and varied traditions and it was thrilling to see them come together for a public Pagan celebration. A festival in the center of a bustling city like Berkeley raises our profile in the broader community and draws attendance from families and other individuals for whom the commitment of time and finances for a weekend away at a hotel or out of town are prohibitive. It was also an opportunity for the community to witness the depth of the work that local Pagans are doing in social justice, and to invite them to take part.

As I walked through the crowd with my daughter and smiled at familiar faces and stopped to chat with friends and acquaintances, I felt that warm glow in the center of my chest, the one that says, “These are your people. This is a place where you belong.  – Nathania Apple

Community organizing allows for important moments of socializing, collaboration and the building of new memories. It was a fun filled day in the sun with friends both old and new, laughter, excitement and opportunity. I had a great time with fellow practitioners in the Bay.  I took the time to remember what a thriving local community looks and feels like. I was reminded of why it can be very important for people to be in same space with others in order to engage in meaningful community, and not just regulated to online spaces. The power of presence can support a lot of coalition building and supportive activism.

The return of this festival in the Bay Area will hopefully continue to inspire collaborative spaces among the factions of the area and promote healthy engagement, as well as show the importance of cultivating those things that will help to empower the local groups. I am personally honored to hold the position of Keeper of the Light for 2015, and to promote the important work of spirituality through service.

The Pagan Alliance has quickly transitioned from months of planning and preparation for this festival, to the planning and preparation for the memorial of one of the founding board members. James Bianchi passed away on May 11, two days after the return of the festival. The Pagan Alliance, the Spark Collective, the House of Danu, and his family are planning the memorial currently to honor his life and contributions within the Pagan Community.