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Do Pagan Conventions Matter?

Do Pagan Conventions Matter? February 25, 2016

Like so many, I am currently laid up in bed with the so-called “Con Crud”. Two weekends ago I attended PantheaCon in San Jose, a large gathering of Witches, Druids, Heathens, and Pagans of all sorts. I had a wonderful time, albeit very little sleep. Afterwards I had one day to unpack my bags, do laundry, repack them, and fly to Detroit to attend ConVocation, another Pagan convention much like PantheaCon. My immune system came undone and I have joined the multitudes in sneezing and coughing my way back into post-Con life.

The lobby at ConVocation is fancy. Also, so much water! I am used to California drought and water conservation.
The lobby at ConVocation is fancy. Also, so much water! I am used to California drought and water conservation.

What possessed me to go to two conventions back to back? I was invited to sit on the Patheos writer’s panel at ConVocation along with Melissa Hill, Jenya Beachy, Shauna Aura Knight, and Cara Freyasdaughter, facilitated by Jason Mankey. How could I say no to that? During the panel Jason complained that some of us here at Patheos write about PantheaCon as if it is the center of Paganism that everyone knows about it and attends. Well, I plead guilty as charged.

It’s true that I probably assign to a much more universal importance to PantheaCon than I should. I’ve noticed that for those who attend regularly, the convention is often taken for granted. I’ve heard old timers talk about how they no longer go to any workshops, how it’s always the same, how we assign too much importance to the programming. How some of the classes are the same old 101 material and that we can only go so deep in a public ritual. And then there are those who don’t care about rituals and workshops in the first place, who just want a place to hang out and socialize. And all of that is perfectly understandable and fine.

I do, however, believe that these conventions and the programming really matter. For some, a Pagan convention will be their first time realizing that there are others like them, that they are not alone, that there is a place where they can belong. For some it will be their first time ever at a ritual, revealing what is possible and opening doors for a new spiritual path. For some it will be their first time being seen by others for who they really are. I know firsthand how life changing the experience of a Pagan convention can be. My first PantheaCon met needs I didn’t even know I had. I was broken open, encouraged, loved, and felt like I had finally found a place to be myself.

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Selfie with some of the cool people I met at ConVocation.

Now PantheaCon is like a family reunion for me, where I run into someone I know every few minutes (I always plan at least 30 minutes to get from one place to the next, even if they are only a a couple hundred feet apart). But this year I went to ConVocation for the first time, where I didn’t know anyone. It gave me an opportunity to spend my mornings watching people in the hallway. I had the opportunity to see without being seen, something I don’t get to do much anymore in my hometown Pagan community. What I saw was wild-eyed wonder in a number of faces, reflections of my younger self at my first Con. I was reminded of how incredible and overwhelming the experience can be for first-timers. I enjoyed spotting those who would go home to find that their lives had been turned upside down.

I spent my afternoons visiting workshops and getting a feel for the Michigan and East Coast Pagan crowd. The contrast helped me understand my own community better. Here folks seemed to take their rituals and traditions more seriously, as if they were grateful for the opportunity to practice at all. That was a refreshing reminder to not take the abundance of options in the Bay Area for granted. There was also a stronger sense of people being in the broom closet and being weary of conservative Christianity. Another reminder that the open-mindedness we enjoy in the Bay Area is not the norm in this country. I took home a deep sense of appreciation for the Pagan community outside of the West Coast.

Smiling despite being in bed with Con Crud. Also, cats make everything better. Especially Ronja, because she is an awesome cat.
Smiling despite being in bed with Con Crud. Also, cats make everything better. Especially Ronja, because she is an awesome cat.

My evenings were full of peeks behind the scene of the convention, meeting other presenters and authors. There were many of us who were at both PantheaCon and ConVocation, running on little sleep and lots of passion. It became clear that every presenter I met was working at the convention as a labor of love. They were all either unpaid or underpaid. And there was the common story of multiple small streams of income and the financial support of life partners.

For me, this was a huge contrast to what I experienced in the Christian world. At evangelical Christian conventions most (if not all) presenters are in full time ministry, sponsored by churches or para-church organizations. Many make a comfortable living being a Christian writer, speaker, worship leader, or presenter. Some even support their partners and families through their ministry, rather than the other way around.

It made me reflect on why so many Pagans work so hard to make these conventions happen. Nobody is getting rich and famous. Is it simply because we love doing what we do? It seems clear that many of us believe our work has a greater purpose. That we put in the sweat, the tears, the expense, and even the time healing from Con Crud because we want to grow more sustainable and healthy communities.

Recently Taylor Ellwood started a conversation about transparency and compensation for presenters at conventions. He wrote about this in three open letters (I have linked to the most recent one, which includes link to the previous two). I’m the new kid on the block here, full of energy and supported by my partner, but I am troubled seeing long-time teachers and authors on the verge of burnout. I don’t have the answer, but I hope to draw attention to the conversation.

Do Pagan conventions matter? Absolutely, and I am grateful for the way they have transformed my life and want to see them continue in healthy and sustainable ways. I offer my deep gratitude to the many hard workers, from those with names on book covers to those volunteering behind the scenes. To all of you who continue to believe in our community, who trust that the work you do is of service to others, who may never learn just how much your labor has meant to people like me: thank you. Blessed be your work, blessed be your service.


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