Over on the Nature’s Path blog, CUUPS Continental President Rev. Amy Beltaine has a piece titled Right Relationship and Drawing the Circle Wide. She gets right to the point in the second paragraph: “Sometimes Pagans are the marginalized group. And sometimes Pagans are the agents of oppression, colonization, and marginalization.” I encourage you to read her post and to carefully consider the examples she provides – they aren’t isolated incidents.
I’m a Big Tent Pagan – I want Wiccans and Druids, Hellenists and Heathens, kitchen witches and tree huggers and everyone else working together to support each other and build a better world. At the same time, I strongly support self-identification. If you say “I’m not a Pagan” then I’m not going to call you a Pagan, even if I think you belong in the tent. There is no clear unambiguous definition of Paganism. The Four Centers model is my best effort to describe Paganism, but defining it still eludes me (and everyone else as well).
These vague boundaries make it easy for us to assume a person, practice, or tradition is Pagan (and therefore ours) when it isn’t. Amy says what needs to be said and I’ve written on this before:
Presenting culture implies that you understand that culture. If you’ve appropriated it, if you’ve taken the bits that look interesting to you, if you’ve taken the glory and ignored the suffering, then you don’t understand what you’re doing. It’s inaccurate and inauthentic. [And it] ignores the insults such appropriations are to the people the culture is stolen from.
Amy has some ideas that are worth discussing and she asks for further suggestions. As for me, I think part of the solution to this problem is a recommitment to the virtue of hospitality.
Hospitality was a virtue to our ancestors because they lived in a harsh environment where refusing to take in a stranger was tantamount to saying “I don’t care if you live or die.” When we practice good hospitality, our actions tell our guests “you are valued” – not because you may someday join our group or because you may throw $20 in the basket, but because you are a living, breathing, sentient being who possesses inherent dignity and worth.
Some hospitality is pretty basic stuff. Greet your guests as they arrive. Talk to them and listen while they talk to you. Make sure they know what they need to know to participate in the ritual. Accommodate their needs. These are simple matters but they aren’t always easy, and if we don’t make them a priority we may overlook them.
But hospitality goes much deeper than this. In a society where Black people can be massacred in church and are consistently treated more harshly by the police, where unemployment among Native Americans is 50% higher than among whites, and where immigrants are vilified, we have an obligation to be especially hospitable. Not just to embody our own virtues and not just to honor our guests, but to set a good example for our wider society.
Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume the Black person who comes to your circle is interested in Voodoo. Don’t assume the visiting Santero doesn’t share your love of animals. Don’t assume the blind person isn’t going to be able to fully participate in your ritual. Approach everyone with an open mind and a closed mouth – let them tell you who and what they are in their own way and on their own terms.
Respect traditions that aren’t yours. Don’t assume you know enough to lead a ritual in a tradition you have only a passing familiarity with, particularly if that tradition is alive and active. If you’re interested in Native American spirituality, support Native artists and writers. Syncretism is a valid, time-honored religious approach, but remember Sam Webster’s warning: “tech is transferrable – culture is not.”
Don’t run down other traditions. Not every Pagan had a bad experience in Christianity and some of us who did still have Christian friends and relatives. We don’t want to hear their religions insulted for a straw man argument or a cheap joke. Even where we have valid disagreements with other religions, a public ritual isn’t the place to expound on them.
Make your rituals inclusive. Avoid gender essentialism and heteronormativity. Accommodate your members and guests with mobility issues. Make sure your rituals are representative of all your community.
This does not mean every ritual should be least common denominator, vague generic Paganism! Denton CUUPS is far more polytheist than most CUUPS groups, and most of our rituals include offerings to Gods, ancestors, and nature spirits. If I’m leading the ritual (or Cynthia, or Conor, or several other members) you won’t hear an invocation of The Goddess – you’ll hear invocations of Danu, Morrigan, Brighid, or Athena. But this year’s Ostara ritual was led by our New Thought-trained matriarch and it did include invocations of Goddess and God. Yule will led by our Wiccan-trained Education Officer and I imagine it will too.
Do what you do deeply and authentically. Then when you do something different, do it deeply and authentically too.
Make the path to membership clear. What does full inclusion require? At what point can a new member take an active role in ritual? In leadership? When – and under what guidance – can they lead a ritual in their tradition?
When Conor Warren led our first-ever Hellenic ritual (and his first large public ritual) last year, I served as co-coordinator. I gave some basic feedback and made sure there was nothing inappropriate for a CUUPS event (I didn’t expect anything and there wasn’t, but as an officer I had an obligation to make sure). It went very well. Conor is leading another Hellenic ritual this year. I’m available if he wants my help, but it’s all his at this point.
CUUPS is open to all who share our values and support our mission. Our challenge is to be welcoming and hospitable to all we encounter, where ever they fit into – or outside of – the Big Tent of Paganism.