The Pagan community I dreamed has become a reality at Sacred Harvest Festival.
In my Pagan youth my friends and I put on festivals. We rented outdoor conference centers and staged elaborate rituals based on the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries. We dreamed of a day when we could look back and say, we did it! We built a real community! The gatherings and conferences I’ve attended in my maturity have been held in hotels and haven’t generated as much of a sense of belonging. I’ve thought the ideal of a larger Pagan community was impossible in the fragmented internet age.
Sacred Harvest Festival showed me how it can be done. Here’s what Harmony Tribe is doing to make Pagan community work.
Making room for kids means more than just arranging for child care while the adults do magic. Sacred Harvest Festival has an entire infrastructure to actively include children.
My third day at the Festival I sat for a while and watched the playground. I counted twenty kids from toddlers to teens, climbing on the swing set, bouncing balloons, waving glow sticks. The site is a former hay field ringed with trees, forming a giant meadow the kids could run around in all week.
I had the time to sit and watch the kids play because the event allows for this. People come in on Monday and set up for a week of camping. There are classes and rituals but the schedule also builds in large swatches of time to just talk to your friends and watch the kids play. Harmony Tribe organizers said the idea was to make the festival a place where you can have your family vacation every year.
Programming for kids
The kids aren’t just welcomed, they’re built into the structure of the festival. At least three people managed a robust youth program. Kids earned beads by doing chores like picking up trash and carrying water. They also earned beads by attending classes. One young historian actually showed up to two of my presentations, a lecture on theurgy and a ritual to Hermes and Athena, and earned two beads for it. I am sure I was more thrilled than he was! He was the youngest person to ever show up to one of my classes.
Children are incorporated into community rituals. There were rituals specifically for kids, including a fairy tea and stories by Grandmother Elspeth. The kids held their own ritual which was partially structured by the adults running the youth program. It’s tough to balance giving the kids enough space to work out their own ideas while still providing enough support to make it happen. I can’t speak for the young ritualists, but as an adult I can report I had a kid-energy experience.
What makes an ongoing event work? Here are some of the things Harmony Tribe is doing to keep the festival sturdy.
The children at Sacred Harvest Festival came from a dozen families, many of whom have come for multiple years. Harmony Tribe held their first full event in 1998. Running an event year after year takes a lot of volunteer work and dedication. My hosts, Judy Olsen-Linde and Nels Linde, shared decades worth of organizing stories. To keep an event going need people who remember what worked and what didn’t.
It also takes an infrastructure. I got to see Harmony Tribe at work at the morning meeting held every day of the festival. Almost every group on site had at least a representative at the meeting. The agenda covered a preview of classes and workshops, chore reminders, vendor notes, and all the general administrivia of running an event. Over time this built a sense of belonging and even a sense of ownership.
The festival is not just a regional campout but a national event. Harmony Tribe consciously incorporates best practices from other events organizers attend. That’s why they bring in out-of-region presenters, to knit the local community into the fabric of the national one.
Just as children are included, elders are honored too. This is a big step forward in community maturity. So often I have seen “elder” used to mean “leader”, or “writer”, or “Big Name Pagan”. When your elders aren’t old there’s a danger that unearned authority can be exploited; I’ve heard Pagans say “we don’t need elders” to try to avoid any more #metoo scandals. At Sacred Harvest Festival “elder” refers to people of some age whose memories, knowledge, and experience are valued by the community and put to work to benefit the community.
One example of this was the keynote speaker, Grandmother Elspeth. She’s 89 and promises to make it to 103! She made herself available all weekend long, holding several classes each day, and sitting in her vending booth for one to one conversations. She’s an activist promoting peace and equity. She’s gone to numerous festivals for decades and has a huge well of knowledge and experience. She is especially kind to children. I frankly fell in love with her. I want to be just like her when I’m her age (if I make it to 89)!
Every community needs guidelines. Harmony Tribe consciously maintains a set of values, and members hold each other to them.
Social justice training
When I asked Harmony Tribe members what makes the community work, they said, “Restorative justice. Crystal Blanton taught us.” The festival had Crystal out twice in a row to set up systems that are still present and functioning today. They’re visible in the daily meetings, and also in the generosity and compassion members show to each other and to their guests. I hope Crystal is proud!
This was also apparent in discussions around cultural sensitivity. There are several rituals on site passed on to Harmony Tribe from other cultures. One example is the ritual of the rota adapted by a Roma woman for Pagan use. The people who do the ritual carefully note the lineage of the rite; it was passed to them with the requirement that the lineage is always spoken at the fire.
All of this sounds pretty serious for a weeklong campout, but the inclusion and accountability structures make it possible to relax and really enjoy the event.
Sacred Harvest Festival started out at another site but moved to Atchington Learning Center when it became available. It’s hard to imagine the event in any other location. It’s a camping retreat center with the best porta-potties I’ve ever used, outdoor showers with hot water, electricity and decent cell phone reception. People used RVs with hook-ups. Some set up elaborate outdoor living rooms. The outdoor stage had concerts every night.
There’s a no-kill policy on site that protects the free range chickens and rabbits. Atchington has a pollinator program and hosts permaculture classes. They have connections with the Audobon Society and the local university. Sacred Harvest Festival is just one of the events hosted there. It’s a fantastic site for outdoor events and not all that far a drive from Minneapolis (if you’re looking for a site!)
The night sky
Northern Minnesota turns out to be lovely. The event was held during the Perseid meteor shower and Atchington is one of the few places in the country dark enough to reliably see them. It’s dark enough that you can see the Milky Way. I did a ritual to Nuit one night. I had planned to do Soror Asherah’s lovely Vespers of Nuit ritual (as yet unpublished) but I threw that away and wrote an invocation. People laid on their backs and watched the sky chanting softly to her, “To Nuit”.
That experience captures the heart of the event: be in nature, be with each other, reach for the divine. Over the week I could feel myself soften and relax as I built up trust in the experience. At my last morning meeting I told Harmony Tribe that I had been able to be my authentic self.
Also at the last meeting the next chair of the tribe was announced: a second generation Pagan who had been coming to the event most of her young life. This is a significant sign of success – what I’ve always hoped Pagan community could be.