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Why My Aunt Judy Isn't A Pagan (Or How Far We Still Have To Go)

A few years ago, my Aunt Judy had a faithquake. Raised by one Baptist and one Methodist parent, she decided that her church wasn't doing enough for her and cycled quickly, in a period of a few years, through several different religions. She'd call up periodically and tell me about her perambulations, since I was the member of the family with the strangest religion yet.

I'm a hardline, polytheistic, pantheistic, animistic, died-and-born-again-the-shamanic-way pagan. Of course, I was perfectly willing to help when she decided to check out paganism as a potential faith - having already investigated and tossed Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, Hinduism, and Native American beliefs. I gave her a list of reading materials in books on and the Net, and sent her to investigate practicing groups in her area. After about eight months, however, she came back to me to talk about this final leg of her search, and to apologize, regretfully.

It seemed that she hadn't found what she wanted here, either, All right, I understand that religion is an intensely personal and intensely individual journey. There is no one path that's right for everyone, and sometimes a search is necessary. However, I have to admit that I foolishly assumed her issues would be with the theology and beliefs of my faith, or perhaps its politics. Of course, I had to ask where paganism had fallen short for her....and I got a surprise.

First, let me point out that Aunt Judy, although raised Christian, is by no means a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. Like most of the rest of my family, she's an environmentally aware liberal Democrat, a self-proclaimed feminist since I was in diapers, raised in a white-bread liberal church that politely tolerates queers and would never be so rude as to suggest that anyone short of a mass murderer is destined for Hell. She admitted to finding a surprising resonance with many pagan beliefs and values, admitted to being touched by its aesthetics and rituals, and will always carry with the skills of Tarot and astrology that she picked up on this leg of her search.

However, for her at least, a big part of religion is community of belief, and community action under that flag of belief. She pointed out that she could believe anything she wanted in the privacy of her bedroom, and intended to, but the point of her search was to find others of like mind with which to band together, worship, and serve. And, she felt, paganism fell down severely in that category.

But there are a lot of pagan groups! I protested, but soon discovered that what she really wanted was not a coven but a congregation - something with a built-in structure where she could step in and out without having to start over each time. She enumerated the things she'd liked about her church upbringing - the seeming effortlessness with which service projects were initiated and carried out, the willingness and enthusiasm of church members to pitch in and help, the regular schedule with some worship-oriented thing happening every week and sometimes twice. The child care and potluck suppers.

I remembered how hard I'd had to work the last time I tried to get a bunch of pagans to do a service project, First of all, just agreeing on something politically correct enough for all the members took months, and then, when we actually went to do the work at a local soup kitchen, half the people didn't show up. I was almost ashamed of us. Leading pagans is like herding cats, they say. I noticed the fundamentalist church had more people there than we did, and after asking I discovered that this wasn't a regular gig for them either, but just something they'd decided to do a week ago. A week ago! I tried to bring it up with my fellow pagans, to no avail. They're all just brainwashed, the tossed-off opinion seemed to be, and we're individualists. Creative. Not clones. Of course it's easier to get them to show up and work. Maybe that's the case, but I still felt bad about it, especially when I heard some of my fellow pagan workers trumpet proudly for months afterwards how they had actually done real service work, as if it was something terribly special for which they deserved extra praise.

If I'm a Baptist or a Mormon or even a Buddhist, Aunt Judy pointed out, "I can go anywhere in the country and get in trouble, and make a few phone calls and find someone who will come out and talk to me, even if I'm in jail. If I die anywhere in the country, my friends can find a clergyperson to speak at my funeral on a day's notice. I can be buried in a graveyard of my faith. I can get marital counseling on a day's notice. If I need food, I can call a church and they'll have a list of local food banks and help agencies. If I want to help with something, I can walk in, offer myself, and be sent to do something useful for the community in short order. If I'm pagan, I can't do any of those things.

She also missed, quite frankly, having a building. She agreed that one didn't have to have a building in order to worship, but she argued that buildings become community centers, and thus serve to bring people together, and that they also serve as places that members can give the gift of devotional art, long a satisfying spiritual experience. Gardens! she said. Even the Shinto priests have gardens. And there's no place for monasticism in paganism, so there are no retreat places. She feels that our rejection of monasticism, in whatever form, is a mistake.

She also pointed out the lack of older people in the pagan community - my Aunt Judy is no spring chicken - and suggested that part of this lack is our faith's serious lack of a service structure. Older people get a lot of their needs met through churches, she said, whether it's a community, company, delivered meals, or even a minister to show up every week and pay attention to them. That's why a lot of them stay in churches even when they might not necessarily believe the dogma. Paganism has a lot less to offer them than, say, the Catholic Church.

Of course, I had to bring up how many folks came to paganism after being somewhat religiously abused by harsh doctrines; they may see the concept of structure and buildings and Meals on Wheels as far too intertwined with harmful dogma to ever be separated. Her brow furrowed. Do you mean that most pagans are just reacting against their upbringings? she asked. Religions structured on rebellion against something, rather than being open to whatever is good, generally don't last very long. Then she grinned. With the possible exception of the Satanists, that is. But eventually you have to get over it.

Aunt Judy has joined a Quaker church now, and is happy. She still practices Tarot and astrology, and keeps a little goddess altar in her room. She's casually tossed off that she might look into the pagan community again someday....when we've grown up a little, she implies. I wish her well, and I hope she's found her place. Her cogent points did not shake my faith in my religion, but they did spotlight a number of big holes in its practice. Of all the people I know who call themselves pagan high priests or high priestesses, perhaps five percent do anything near the amount of religious scut-work performed by the average English Anglican vicar, or Brooklyn rabbi, or even the cheery old Methodist minister who served our family while I was growing up. And even with the question of stealth, I know more out pagans than I do in the closet ones.

Sometimes I feel like our religion is going through an extended adolescence, and it doesn't want to grow up. Part of this may be the all-too-young demographics of most pagans....I'm old enough now to remember the battles over child care at pagan festivals two decades ago, back when it seemed most pagans were college-age, and a few had just started to have families. Part of it may be that we've embraced, as a group, the archetype of the Youth, and are still warily coming to terms with what a community with as many Elders as Youths would look like. Would all those Elders start telling those Youths what to do, I can almost hear people thinking as a knee-jerk reaction. Would they start trying to Curb Our Freedoms? Would they try to Make Us Work? Would they start, God/dess help us, passing a Collection Plate for Maintenance on the Temple Roof? Or talking about Pagan Nursing Homes? What a Major Bummer!

Every day, though, my teenage daughter gleefully tells me how many new grey hairs I've grown. People who look like I once did have started to show up on my doorstep and treat me like I was....an Elder. I'm not sure what I think of this, or what's the best way to handle it. I'm beginning to think that it will be up to those of us with the grey hairs to build the buildings and set up the service projects, among ourselves. And maybe, somewhere along the line, the Youths will start to nose around, hungry for the satisfaction of Meaningful Work, drawn by the sound of people Making A Difference In The World.

And maybe I'll let you carry some boxes. Because my back is aching, and I cannot shoulder the work of dragging this community kicking and screaming into adulthood alone.

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