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Hearing the Interfaith Voices Least Often Heard

Finding Each Other – Hearing Each Other

Hearing the Interfaith Voices Least Often Heard

by Don Frew

As I have pointed out elsewhere, I occupy a strange position in the interfaith movement. On the one hand, I am a Witch, and even though the modern Neopagan movement is – at roughly three million followers – possibly the third largest religion in the United States, we are still considered the outer edge of interfaith tolerance and acceptance. We are typically the last group invited to join an interfaith organization, if we are invited at all and don’t have to (gently, but firmly) push our way in. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone in a group say “We even have a Witch” and point to me to emphasize how inclusive they are. So, in terms of diversity, I occupy a place at one extreme end of the interfaith spectrum.

On the other hand, I have been involved in the administration of local, regional, national, and international interfaith organizations for over 35 years, placing me at the center of the movement. Paul Chaffee once wrote, to my surprise, “Few in the world have been more deeply connected with the interfaith world than Don Frew.” And as a practitioner of an Earth-centered, nature-based, indigenous spirituality, this places me at an extreme end in the indigenous community, who by-and-large feel marginalized by the interfaith movement.

Clasping these hands together often results in certain insights or realizations, a few of which I’d like to address here.

Witches have been the most active Neopagan religious group in the interfaith movement. While this has been a wonderful opportunity that we appreciate and cherish, we have always stressed that we are just opening the door for others. There are many kinds of Pagans! Yes, the fluid terminology can make it hard to track us. It complicates things for us, too. A bit of background.

The Neopagan movement has been around for over a century and includes everyone who is in some way reviving a religious or spiritual path from pre-Christian antiquity and adapting it to the modern age. This adaptation is what makes it NEO-pagan. Even so, most folks just go by “Pagan” (unless they reject “Pagan” to go by “Heathen,” but I’ll get to that). For a long time, the vast majority of Pagans were Witches, followed by Druids (with the numbers being reversed in the UK). At one early URI meeting, I noticed that my nametag had been filled out with “Druid” as my affiliation. I asked the nice young person behind the table about it and she replied, “Well, you’re a man, so you’re a Druid, right?”

There are many kinds of Witches, typically who are in what we call “traditions,” which would be akin to Christian denominations. In a gross oversimplification, there are Witch traditions more like the Jesuits and those more like Jesus People, with everything in-between. With the advent of the Satanic Hysteria in the 1990s, many Witches started using “Wicca” (n.) instead of Neopagan Witchcraft, and “Wiccan” (adj.) instead of Witch.

The next large group after Witches and Druids are the folks reconstructing the religions of Scandinavian Europe. They prefer to be called “Heathens, first because “Pagan” is a Mediterranean name (from the Latin paganus, “person of the countryside”); and second, because “Pagan” has become so much equated with “Witch,” largely through the interfaith movement, that they feel the need to clearly distinguish themselves.

Paganism is a nature religion. So it should be no surprise that we resemble nature insofar as certain over-arching principles and approaches to the Divine make us similar all over the world; and because we will be different everywhere, to reflect the way that Divinity manifests through, in, and as the nature around us where we are.

Pagan diversity continues to develop. After the growth of the Heathens, “Reconstructionism” grew. Many groups started trying their best to study and recreate the practices associated with particular pantheons – Egyptian, Hellenic, Celtic, and more. Some of these hesitated to be called “Pagans,” for the same reasons as the Heathens.

While I’ve always done my best to explain our diversity – often compressed into an “elevator speech” – I always knew that most of the people with whom I interact come away assuming that all Witches, and probably all Pagans, were just like me. When I am the only person in a meeting who is neither Abrahamic nor Dharmic, I end up having to speak for everyone else – from Shinto to Taoist to Native American to Witch to Heathen – to make sure their interests were represented; or at least to ensure that we do not move forward until their voices are mentioned.

Emerging Traditions

More recently, five new movements – most hesitating to call themselves Pagans – have started growing by leaps and bounds. I suppose it might be ironic that nature religions are growing at ever-faster rates due to the increasing networking possibilities afforded by technology. Christian writer Brooks Alexander once said to me that the problem with writing about Wicca is that it has gone through more religious change in the last 50 years than Christianity did in its first 250! If Wicca has changed at an accelerated pace, then these groups are developing even faster.

  • Traditional Witchcraft – For them, it’s all about the magic, especially the kind of hedge magic that would have been shared by folk practitioners, person to person. Spirituality seems secondary.

  • Secular Paganism – For them, it’s all about humanity. I have trouble understanding the idea of atheist Paganism, but it works for them.

  • Devotional Polytheism – For them, it’s all about the Gods. These groups developed out of the early Celtic and Egyptian (now called “Kemetic”) Reconstructionists. They focus on the ritual practices unique to each deity.

  • Fundamentalist Paganism – For them, it’s all about the mythic history. I never would have believed that these words would go together, but if you wait long enough, everything happens. These people focus on believing the myth that we are practicing a tradition that goes back to a matriarchal period.

  • Gaia-focused Spirituality – For them, it’s all about the Earth. If the environment is not at the center of all you do, then you are woefully misguided.

Five Wiccan Elements – Photo:    Wikimedia

Five Wiccan Elements – Photo: Wikimedia

My own practice of Wicca, I believe, incorporates elements of all these to some extent – Magic, Humanity, the Gods, mythic history, and the Earth – and tries to find a balance. (I’m sure there’s some clever way to relate each of these to the five elements and the points of a pentacle.)

At any rate, there’s more than just Witchcraft out there, and it’s growing and diversifying at an amazing rate. A few of these voices have stepped forward… Druids and Heathens have been involved in interfaith for decades, just in small numbers. The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City saw many different kinds of Pagans come forth. I hope that the many voices that I have been hearing, whispering in my ear for many years, will increasingly become voices at the circle.

URI’s Indigenous Inclusivity

And speaking of voices at the circle…

Like many modern interfaith organizations, the United Religions Initiative (URI) has always gone out of its way to make sure that there has been indigenous representation at all levels of the organization. For most of URI’s history – until the recent inclusion of Chief Phil Lane Jr. on URI’s Global Council – participation at the global level was by indigenous people from Latin America: Rosalia Gutierrez & Raul Mamani of Argentina, Fany E. Avila of Panama, Alejandrino Quispe Mejia of Peru, and Sofia Painiqueo of Chile. I and others from my Wiccan organization, Covenant of the Goddess, most notably Rachael Watcher, have been privileged to be welcomed into URI’s Latin American indigenous community. We have worked closely together for years.

Photo:    URI

Photo: URI

At the founding of the URI in 2000, I started a URI cooperation circle called the Spirituality & the Earth CC (S&ECC). Our purpose is to foster and facilitate communication and cooperation among all those who feel a spiritual connection with the Earth. Our mission includes reaching out to spiritual traditions and groups (especially indigenous and tribal) who have not been involved in the process before. Dealing with language issues is a major challenge. To this end, we have paid for English lessons, arranged for computers and internet connections, and provided instruction in their use.

More recently, S&ECC joined with several other cooperation circles to form a Multiregional group called Earth Wisdom, bringing together indigenous groups from Latin America, Asia, and the U.S. The dream is a bit grander… to foster and facilitate communication and cooperation between all those who live a life of ceremony in honor of Mother Earth. Its goals are:

  • to bring together those who follow Indigenous, Tribal, Pagan, Nature-based, and Earth-centered spiritualities,

  • to reach out to spiritual traditions and groups (especially indigenous and tribal) who have not been involved in the process before,

  • to share information and resources,

  • to promote communication and participation among all people who are reclaiming and living lives in harmony with all of Nature,

  • to assist in the preservation and (where necessary) recovery of daily practices and ceremonies that honor our Mother Earth,

  • to work together in search of sponsors and other sources of the funding that is needed to accomplish our goals, and

  • to bring our combined wisdom to bear on the needs of the Earth and all living beings.

In our many conversations, I have noticed a critical thing about the Latin American indigenous voice in global meetings: it hasn’t been heard yet. There has almost always been an indigenous person present, but even with a provided translator, for them the conversation is always a couple of sentences behind.

On top of that, indigenous ways of organizing are often very different from the Western, basically corporate structures adopted by most interfaith groups. So the indigenous person is also having to “translate” these concepts. Then they take time to formulate a meaningful, thoughtful response that will add to the conversation. Typically, by the time their translator is called on to speak, the meeting has moved on to another topic. As a result, what they have to say becomes a “nugget of indigenous wisdom” that is appreciated, but quickly forgotten. To be blunt, a Hallmark moment.

I have found it humbling to attend meetings in Latin America that have been entirely in Spanish, where I am the one struggling with a translator. Everyone appreciates my efforts to say something cogent with my half-remembered middle-school Spanish. But I know I am missing most of what is going on and that I can only really contribute by speaking to someone privately and hoping they will voice my thoughts to the others.

Photo:    pixabay

Photo: pixabay

All of the people I know in global interfaith work want to hear what indigenous people have to say and know that they have much to offer. But I don’t think we are ready to listen. To really hear these voices, we will need to slow down, make a greater effort to understand the differences between us, and put more effort into integrating other ways organizing who we are and what we do.

There will always be more voices out there. While modern interfaith has focused on the individuals in front of us – their truth, their voices, and their stories – we cannot lose sight of the many, many more versions of these faith traditions that are out their waiting to be heard.