T. Thorn Coyle is a magic worker and Pagan committed to love, liberation, and justice. This started out as an interview, but Thorn was so fascinating to talk to, and such a good listener it turned into a discussion. We talked at Heartland Pagan Festival.
How have you, your community in Oakland and local Pagans responded to the Black Lives Matter movement?
The San Francisco Bay area where I live is pretty racially diverse, though San Francisco itself is growing less and less diverse each year. The more white money that comes in the more people are pushed out and that’s now effecting the East Bay where I live. I do a lot of work in Oakland and Berkeley. Oakland has more traditionally African American and Berkeley is a university town. In the Pagan community, a lot of us have been out on the streets working with various grassroots community groups trying to get local change. I’ve been an activist most of my life, and have been engaged with police violence and brutality issues since 2012.
I first became aware of this issue on a deeper level when Oscar Grant was killed. He was clearly unarmed, and it was caught on videotape. Oscar was handcuffed on the ground and a cop shot him in the back of the head. That really put the issue in my mind. That was in 2010. In 2012 another young man, Alan Buford, was killed by police. Something about that case struck me. I recall distinctly when I heard his family speak. It was my day to volunteer at the soup kitchen and I was heading back home to a spiritual direction client. I had another meeting later on, too, but there was a city council meeting at 6pm and knew Alan’s parents were going to speak. I knew I had to be there. Hearing Alan’s mother Jeralynn speak changed my life. It was one of those moments, and I became committed to the struggle.
I started doing a lot more work locally around issues of police brutality, including organizing around “Urban Shield” which is a conference that ostensibly trains first responders for disaster relief. What it really does is trains first responders in crowd control, and gives them military training. Their big vending show is all military weaponry. Urban Shield is basically about the militarization of our police. That was a lot of work I was doing. The highlight reel that Urban Shield itself puts out is pretty horrifying for me as a citizen. It looks like war games to me.
I’d been doing some of that community work and then Ferguson hit. I thought, “Oh my gosh those young people in Ferguson, they’re not going home.” They started a movement for which I am grateful.
The energy from that is affecting a lot of people. The Black Lives Matter campaign was started by some women local to me, including Alicia Garza. Lately I’ve been working on these issues with the Anti Police–Terror Project in Oakland. We have protested the inauguration of the new mayor of Oakland among other things. She has policies around policing that are very troubling.
One of our latest cases has been working with the family of Yuvette Henderson who was killed by local police. No one heard about her because a citizen didn’t video tape it.
Also, the Solar Cross Temple board has gone on big marches, we’ve done actions together, we have gotten the word out, and other Pagans been showing up. We’ve worked with Golden Gate Kindred, the Coru Cathubodua, Heathens United Against Racism and many other Pagans as well. A lot of people are also doing education and dialogue. Opening dialogue is one thing that anyone can do no matter where they are in their community because there are a lot of misconceptions about race and about what racism is. I just had a conversation five minutes ago where this person said. “Well my dad wasn’t a racist, but he would throw the n-word all around.” We need to talk about systemic racism and we need to talk about the fact that race is a cultural construct. We are enculturated towards that as white people. We can unlearn all of that and we can train ourselves away from that.
What is Solar Cross Temple?
Solar Cross Temple is a Pan-Pagan Temple. It is spiritual group and we do monthly devotionals to deities but also as part of that devotional work, we are called to serve the human community. We do a lot of justice work as a temple, as a church. Most of the work we do is in the San Francisco Bay Area but we also work in coalition groups across the USA and even the world. We have members who are far flung and we’re working on that facet of the temple more and more.
Pagans have a difficult time recognizing that there is a group in our country that is under assault. Actual physical life-threatening assault. How you address that denial?
The work that a lot of people done, it started with the Malcolm X grassroots coalition, but other people are also taking it up. They came up with this statistic that every 28 hours a person of color is killed by police or security forces. That number, every 28 hours, is now down to probably every 21 hours and some days is even more frequent. The number of those people who are unarmed is astonishing for a white person. It is not shocking for a Black or Latino person, they know, they’ve lived with this their whole lives. It is coming into our white awareness more because of social media and video taping. They are really powerful tools. The thing I have been doing is to try to share as much as possible articles, and experiences written by black and brown people. Humans are storytellers, and as Pagans we know the power of story, so the more we can pass on the stories, the more the more deeply we can understand.
To people who say to me, “Well all lives matter, all lives are sacred and as a Pagan need to say all life are sacred,” I say. “Of course all lives are sacred, but right now black and brown lives are in greater danger. They are under assault.” I think we can raise consciousness in a lot of different ways and that’s one of the most important things we can do. Just having that risky conversation, rocking the boat a little bit and seeing that we actually do need to talk about this. Maybe what our community can do is open conversations, or maybe what our community can do is say, “With what’s happening, with civil unrest in the streets, can our community organize to send books or donations to school children in those communities?” There are a lot of ways people can get involved, even if they don’t live in an epicenter.
Why do we disbelieve the assault even with white people speaking in solidarity and with people telling their story in media?
This is on one hand unfortunate, and on the other hand it’s human nature. Sometimes we need the entry point to be something that is closer to home. That’s one thing we can do. Keep listening, and keep passing the stories along.
Tell me about your novel, “Like Water“.
Around two years ago in the fall, I was sitting in my living room and a thought entered my head. It was not thought that had come from me. It was a man named Jonah sitting in his living room looking out the window depressed because his best friend had just been killed by police. These characters, Alex and Jonah, came knocking on my door after I hadn’t written fiction in probably fifteen years. I had given up on fiction. I wrote their story in two months. In a white heat I wrote the first draft of my novel “Like Water.” It just came out. Then I thought, “I want to do this novel justice and I am excited about fiction again,” so I started writing short stories and taking some classes to build up my chops. I decide to let the novel rest for a bit. Then a year later Ferguson happened. Mike Brown was killed and the uprising began. My characters started knocking on the door again saying, “What are you doing, why are we sitting on your computer hard drive?”
I wrote the book because the characters came to me. I thought, well maybe it will be educational for some people who don’t know what these families that I march with and stand with on the streets of Sacramento, and Oakland, and Stockton, go through. After the uprising started, I realized I had to get the book out there, because now we are in a new movement for justice in this country. My novel, “Like Water”, is available now and I’m hoping that because it is a story that might be an entry point for some people. It is dedicated to Alan Blueford and I had the pleasure of having my book launch party at the Alan Blueford Center for Justice in Oakland. The woman who runs the center, Molly Costello, videotaped most of the reading. Jeralynn Blueford, Alan’s mother, saw the video and said that her cup runneth over and she was very grateful, which made me feel really good. As an author I feel like if the person I dedicated the book to, if his mother appreciates it, that is all I need.
Is there anything about Pagans that defines them as activists?
I don’t think necessarily that all Pagans are activists. We know that that’s true. I think the thing that pushes many Pagans toward activism of all types is most of us have a core sense of inter-connectedness. The sacred runs through that sense of connection. We are connected to the cosmos. We are connected to the trees. We are connected to our Gods and Goddesses, ancestors and the descendants. If we are connected to all those things, aren’t we at root connected to one another? Whether climate justice or justice for humans. that Pagan sense of connectedness is what drives so much activism. For me it’s a natural fit, Paganism and activism. I know other people disagree, but for me you don’t have to scratch the surface too far to get there.
Working in community with Pagans you see a brief shining moment when Pagans will come out of the woodwork and get fired up to serve. Then something upsetting happens and they dive for cover for maybe 10 years. I see that is the same thing that happens with the labor movement, and with people finding empowerment. That community conflict is a powerful tool to keep people apart. How do we Pagans build a consistent community without damaging each other?
A great question. An answer really would require three weeks! One of the things community needs to be healthy and sustainable, is history keepers who are not gripping the reins. We need people to pass along lore and experience while allowing fresh ideas and fresh energy to enter. I hear to often from younger people that when they show up willing and ready to help and to learn, they are basically told to shut up. That can’t stand if we are going to survive. We need the history keepers, and we need that experience to foster the participation of the new people who have fresh ideas and a different viewpoint. Those two need to meet. Then we can form something that is actually new. It can not always be the new guard overthrowing the old guard or the old guard kicking out the new guard so they just go form something else in a different area.
We are well served when we can develop systems of mutual empowerment, acknowledging that leadership doesn’t have to look one way. What a healthy community needs is a lot of different facets. What is your particular strength? Your strengths are different than my strengths. It doesn’t mean we can not both be in service to community. It just means that we need our skills and talents honored. We need more ways for people to plug in and help. I feel this has been something I have struggled to learn and it’s an ongoing process for me. To keep evaluating, “Am I allowing enough space for other people to bring in and utilize their skills, talents, and their insights?” , along with using my skills, and my clarity of vision, and whatever strengths I bring. What is best about our “Paganism’s” is our diversity and our autonomy. That is also our downfall. We can turn it towards our strength by insisting that leadership be as diverse as possible and that leadership should be shared. If leadership becomes about ego we have to as a community respectfully say, “This is a problem and we need to bring leadership back to service rather than serving oneself. “
How do Pagans separate service from the context of their own needs from serving others?
I also see people who to have the opposite problem, they don’t get enough for themselves and they give until they’re dry, and a husk, and then they are no good to anyone. We have extremes in our communities, and it is the extremism that is the problem. Where’s the middle ground where service to the community feeds me, but it isn’t the reason I’m doing it? I do need to be getting something out of it; satisfaction, or sense of community connection, or sense of a job well done. Service can include all of those things and I think should include all of those things. It can’t be the reason I am doing it. The reason needs to answer the questions; Do I have the ability, do I have the time, and does the community need it?
The thing about being of service is in the long term, it always serves us. Then we have a strong healthy communities, or we have more justice in the world, or they are not fracking in our town. Service is never a waste of effort, and it is never selfless. The primacy of myself can’t be the motivating force. I go back to the connectivity I talked about. If I feel a connection towards something that feels sacred to me, and I want to increase that sense of connection to my gods, the goddesses, the earth, the ancestors–whatever it is for me– I have to know being of service links into that. Maybe what I’m doing is being of service to the community because it’s one way I honor the deity I most closely work with. That takes it away from, “I get something out of it directly personally.” and it puts it into a larger web of connectivity and sacred activity.
Pagans try to have a spiritual life. When we lose the spiritual connection, our thought and behavior seems to return to the default values of the over-culture, capitalist society, measuring our worth in that system?
That is the problem. The over-culture twists us all, and we’re all imprinted with it. Part of what we’re doing in building Pagan culture is trying to counter that over-culture, and yet it is really easy to just throw a different coat of paint on the same structures, because they are the structures we know. We need a more radical critique of the structures and we need to question, why are we doing this? Capitalism as a system set us up for a quid pro quo. Everything becomes commerce, rather than sharing, and that is a problem. It is a different mindset. It is dis-integration. We are compartmentalizing our lives. We are saying that who I am at the Pagan festival is different than who I am at work, or with my family. This does us all a disservice and it supports these toxic systems that continue to destroy the earth, destroy whole communities, and fracture ourselves. My impulse is to always move toward: how do I better integrate myself, my life? How do I better comprehend that my spiritual precepts and practices? Also, the way I honor that which is sacred has to be infused into the rest of my life. Even if it’s really difficult to take it into work, I have to find a way to take it into work. What that looks like for me will look very different from what that looks like for someone else.
Can people that are involved in the corporate world integrate their spiritual selves?
The integration has to start with the self, and it ripples out. I often say that right livelihood begins where we are. It’s not looking for the perfect job for a Pagan. If you work in the garden center, you talk to the boss about not carrying toxic pesticides. If you work for the big corporation you might say, “Here are three steps we can take to ramp up into the cleaner manufacturing process over the next five years.” Or if you are a security guard checking people into a high-rise, maybe what you do is smile and look people in the eye so they know there is a human connection.
We can transform any situation, all it takes is a little attention and remembering the sacred is always with us. Our Gods and Goddesses walk with us.
I work in a non-profit that went through turmoil, and I think we faced it really well. We did three things that made big difference. As a group we sat down and hashed out what our values were and formalized that into a statement. We developed a board structure based on member contributions, not just mimicking the typical corporate board. We modified our bylaws so we start each meeting with a spiritually based opening activity. These made a world of difference in how people work together and how problems are solved. It created a whole different mindset.
I find that usually when there’s ego clashes and jockeying for position it’s usually because people misunderstand what power is. As Pagans I think we can re-examine our definitions of power. We need to not use the over-culture’s definitions of power. They usually mean who has the most force, or who has the most money or toys. We end up living in a oligarchy or plutocracy with a big military budget, which is not what I want. So why do I want to recreate that on a small scale? What I want instead is to first say power is power from within. Too many people don’t develop their inner power first, they seek external power first, because that is the only thing they understand. The more we can help each other cultivate our inner power the easier it becomes for us to actually share power, and build systems that are healthier, and include joy and service.
If it doesn’t bring me joy, why am I doing it? I see Pagans living in a society that specifically dis-empowers them. When they get in a community organization, and they do truly want to help, it’s hard not to grasp for power when living a dis-empowered life. We need to help people find empowerment in their daily lives first, then they don’t have to look for it elsewhere.
I agree with that. Another thing we can do in community is be aware of that tendency. Dis-empowered people might grasp for power. We can talk about that in community and say transparently that we want to set up systems that are helping people to cultivate their sense of power, and their sense of autonomy, talents, and their skills, rather than prestige. The reputation I want is that I do my best to live in integrity and to is honor my commitments, and to show up when I say I will show up. I don’t need to always be the center of the circle. I admit though for myself, because we were all trained in these systems, that I had grow into that. Part of it was I had to grow into actually having personal power, part of it was I had to examine my behavior and ask “Why am I doing this?” Why do I want that main role in ritual? Is it because it is the best use of my talents, or because I want to be in the center? I had to examine myself and say you know what, some of the time it was because I just wanted to be in the center. That is not serving myself, or the ritual, or the community. How can I be of service and use my skills and talents wisely?
I worked with a person in our community who had not yet established a history of getting jobs done. They did a task where they did something for the group. I publicly acknowledged and thanked them for completing it. They were really grateful I said something, and it really made a difference in their behavior. I was amazed at how that little thing can be so important.
That is a great example of using compassion to support people and the work.
People get pigeonholed into a reputation and sometimes all it takes is someone acknowledging that they can be different for them to change.
I agree, I think it’s really compassionate and so it fits right into the cycle of leadership I was talking about in my workshop: Commitment, Honor, Truth, Strength, and Compassion. We need all of these.