In this recent post, the always-thoughtful John Beckett pointed out a recent blog post by a young Polytheist blogger Conor Davis. Conor asked the very good question as to what we can do to support one another as Pagans and Polytheists, how to create community and specifically how to help the young and vulnerable to negotiate the world with their religious and spiritual identity intact. These are all excellent questions. John Beckett has a shot at addressing them, with some history of his own journey.
Conor states that young people have a five-year life span in Pagan and Polytheist traditions. There’s no citation with that, and I don’t know the source. Although I haven’t encountered that statistic in the past, it’s not surprising to me.
I have talked before about my own path in this blog. For a number of years during my teens and into my college years, I had a process of discovery that was focused on Wicca and Feminist Spirituality traditions. I read and loved Starhawk and Margot Adler. I knew that I was not a Christian and that my encounters with the Divine were likely to be with a feminine presence and not a Father God. Later, I went through a long phase of not paying much attention to my spirituality, being a Pantheist and even a brief “angry atheist” phase before coming back to Polytheistic Paganism.
In the past few years, I have been involved with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, a Pagan group for men who love men. It is the first spiritual organization that I have been involved with since rejecting the Catholicism of my youth. It has really changed my outlook, and made me more comfortable with the idea of religious organizations. It represents a community and support network (in other words, a Brotherhood).
We host 7 public rituals open to all men who love men and 2-3 open rituals that welcome everyone over 18. There is a novitiate training and initiation process that binds together those who become Brothers in a common experience. There are other activities – business meetings, small group workshops, outreach and activist projects, etc. but the public rituals are the key to building and engaging the community of the Brotherhood.
One of the things I love about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix rituals is that there is a potluck after the public rituals. We have been through the ritual together and now there’s a time to sit together and get to know one another. The conversation can be about the ritual, about the group, about the food in front of us, about politics, about the latest blockbuster movie – whatever the topic, it helps build the community. Someone new gets to answer the usual questions – How did you hear about us? What did you think of the ritual? And the visitor asks themselves – Did this meet my expectation? Was this meaningful to me? Do I like these guys? And (let’s be honest) the Brothers ask themselves – Is this person sincerely interested in our group? Does he seem reliable, helpful, good company? Is he just here to stir up interpersonal drama?
One interesting feature of religious groups in our society, that it missing from many of our other organizations, is intergenerational interaction. The Brotherhood in particular has only people 18 and older, so we don’t have children, but there is a great generational span between men from 18 years old to men in their 70’s. The mood is about friendship and support across the differences. Many of these men are rather odd by the standards of regular society, and there’s an acceptance and even embrace of those differences.
This is a valuable support network for those involved, not just as Pagans, but also as men who love men – as doubly “outsiders” in the eyes of society.
But not every young Pagan or Polytheist has access to this kind of organization. Indeed, most don’t. Conor’s question still stands. What can we do to help support people in our pagan community, especially the young and those who may struggle with the identity?
When I was coming out as a gay man in the 1980’s, I was very involved with my college LGB group (we weren’t too aware of Trans* issues back then and Queer as self-chosen identifier didn’t really become common until the 1990’s). We spent a lot of time on Coming Out stories and narratives. There were books on how to come out to family members, we talked through people’s journeys coming out to family (which ran the gamut of being disowned to positive acceptance, with most being somewhere in between, with initial confusion, a learning process and gradual acceptance). I wonder if there’s a value in a modern equivalent of that for Pagans. Some within the Pagan community already embrace the “Coming Out” model based on the LGBTQ model, including the creation of Pagan Coming Out Day.
Pagan Pride Days have sprung up around the country, and there are still some of the occult book shops around that used to function as a kind of Pagan community center in many places. These are both comforts to those in need and hopefully resources to connect with other Pagans. There are a lot of online communities, too, which can be helpful, particularly if there’s no Pagan community in the local area. Sometimes the specificity of online communities can be something of a hindrance, though. The web allows people from across the world connect around specific pagan interests, but there may be a flesh-and-blood community not too far away that is nearly invisible because the young seeker didn’t know the exact terminology to search for online.
I don’t know if I have offered much here that is helpful, but I’m glad to have the question. I will have to keep thinking about this question, though. It’s an important one. How to we support and engage our community members? How do we help others become comfortable with their identity and their spiritual path?