I've been reading a lot of "coming out" stories this past month, and over the years as both a priest and a shaman, I've counseled more people than I can count as they struggled to find their footing through what can certainly be a very traumatic process. I've seen the sometimes terrible price that people pay for following the call of conscience; and I've seen how deeply this process can transform every aspect of a person's life. I've seen how tremendously difficult it can be.
I have no particularly compelling conversion story of my own. I had already left my birth religion as a teen and my transition into polytheism and later on to Heathenry was fairly straightforward and organic. It helped that I was already living on my own and wasn't dependent on the good graces of my biological family. Shortly before I converted, I had also picked up and moved nearly 400 miles away from the town of my birth, so I also had few friends in my new city; thus, when I later began to make friends and contacts, I was already polytheistic and that was the "Galina" that people got to know. There was no transition to confuse or startle my new friends. Not everyone is so lucky.
That being the case, I want to say this right now: converting to a polytheistic faith, returning to the ways of one's ancestors, taking up again that ancient contract and those ancient threads so terribly sundered is a tremendously courageous and even radical act for our time. It takes remarkable courage to engage with oneself in this manner, not to mention the potential criticism and backlash that one can face from friends, colleagues, and family. Through conscious, committed conversion, a person is willfully stripping away the lens of monotheism, of cultural and social conditioning, of religious, community, and family expectations. That's huge. Done well, it is a deprogramming of sorts, a rooting out—usually over the process of years and years—of all those ways that we have been molded by monotheism and its self-serving, world- and body-hating, unhealthy Weltanschauung. It is a re-education that begins with a stripping down and often stripping away of everything that we once held dear, and every way by which we once defined ourselves. That's a terribly frightening and vulnerable place to be.
Moreover, those converting to polytheistic religions often find themselves in that place without support, without even another co-religionist in their town, city, or county to whom they can turn. They may have limited access to a support network of any kind and no access at all to a community. Even today, when one would think that we as a society would know better, there are people who have lost their jobs because they are Pagan, Heathen, or Wiccan. There are those who have lost custody of their children. There are even those who have been assaulted and attacked or who have had their homes and workplaces vandalized. We are still the butt of media jokes and libel in a way that no monotheistic religion would ever be, and what communities we do find can seem frighteningly fragile and divided.
There are recognized psychological effects of the process of conversion and those effects can be very difficult to cope with, especially without the lifeline of an external support network. And yet, so many persevere. For whatever reasons, despite all sorts of odds and opposition, and in a myriad of ways, more and more people are heeding the call of their Gods and ancestors. That, to my mind, is a miracle.
I think we have a responsibility to these brave souls. We who are active in our various communities should encourage those communities to welcome new converts well. We should extend ourselves warmly to these courageous folks, even if sometimes their questions seem silly or annoying to our oh-so-experienced eyes, even if we've forgotten what those initial experiences of trying to find one's place are like.
These people are the future of our religions. Each person who takes up the mantle of this responsibility again, the responsibility of returning to the modern restoration of indigenous ways, is doing something worthy of honor: for themselves, their ancestors, for the earth, and for the Gods too. They are the soil from which our traditions will flourish. They are the hope for our very unbalanced world. They are where we were once ourselves. We owe it to ourselves and to the very traditions that we are attempting to craft to greet newcomers with a modicum of hospitality, courtesy, and warmth.
At the very least we should try not to be asses. I've seen too many people pushed away from a community because their initial reception was so hostile and so unhelpful. We should be better than that. Egotism has no place in this process. It is not for us to determine a newcomer's path. It is for us to hold out a welcoming hand as they strive to leap across the chasm of ideology and belief that separates the monotheistic culture of their origin from the sometimes rocky road of their ancestral traditions. The Gods and the dead will see to them from there. In the meantime, it won't hurt us to be gracious while they find their footing.