Women and Spirituality Conference Mankato – Lisa Spiral Besnett

UofMN Mankato Student Union

UofMN Mankato Student Union

October 12-13, the weekend of the 32nd Annual Women and Spirituality Conference in Mankato, Minnesota.  We walk into a typical registration table, sign in and collect our name tags and conference materials.  The schedule, changes and cancellations, a copy of the October edition of the Minnesota Women’s Press magazine and maps – lots of maps.

Entering the Auditorium

Entering the Auditorium

The doors to the auditorium open and everything changes.  We walk in through banners that read: “I Enter In Perfect Love And Perfect Trust.”  The air is charged as people find seats.  There is much waving and greeting as women find friends they haven’t seen since the year before.  Business announcements are made, the staff and University thanked and then we are told “Welcome to our ritual led by Treewommon and an assortment of witches to honor the Goddess and the Sacred Elements.”  The opening ceremony is begun.

The directions are called, East and Air, South and Fire, West and Water, North and Earth, and Center.  Puppets representing the directions are paraded in and presented in turn, each carried by a woman who is also a representative of woman aging through the stages of life.  The maidens, the mother, the crone, and the hag.  The Goddess Herself, named as Bridget and carrying a banner with symbols of many Goddesses representing Center, Spirit, and Community.  The audience joins in the familiar chant and the Conference is off and running.

Creating Sacred Space

Creating Sacred Space

This conference is sponsored by the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, Mankato.   Cindy Veldhuisen, the Business Manager for the Conference, told me that there were about 540 attendees this year.  This is up from last year.

Some of the reason for the increase in attendance can likely be attributed to this year’s keynote speaker, Starhawk.  This is Starhawk’s third appearance as keynote speaker for the Woman & Spirituality conference.  She draws attendees from across the five state area as well as from the east coast, Colorado and Canada.  Many of the women I spoke with who were familiar with Starhawk were also alumni of the Diana’s Grove Witch Camp.

Starhawk is often mistaken as the public face of Reclaiming, and indeed she was one of the co-founders of the original collective in San Francisco.  But her focus, especially in recent years, has been on Earth Activist Training .  She is teaching permaculture techniques to small communities throughout the world.  She’s just returned from an training in Palestine.

One of the things Starhawk talked about in her keynote address was “frame”.  How we choose to frame things affects how we see them, how we interpret the information.  She told about her first visit to the region as part of a Hebrew Class trip in her teens.  They pointed out that the Israeli side of the Jordan was green and lush and the Palistinian side was all brown and dry.

Starhawk and Spiral

Starhawk and Spiral

Since then Starhawk has come to realize that the Israeli’s control 80-90% of the ground water in the region.  She also knows that the Palestinians have been practicing sustainable agriculture in the area for thousands of years.  They feed their people without using much water at all.  Yes, it’s not as lush or green.  The base systems are fig trees, almonds and olives.  It’s a style of agriculture that sustains the soil and the ecosystem.

Permaculture respects those systems and uses modern tools with historically successful techniques to rejuvenate the soils and sustain the crops.  It is this concept of rejuvenation that Starhawk feels is at the core of the Pagan spirituality.  She suspects it is this philosophy that the consumer culture finds threatening.

There was a slide show about the devolution of the Bird Goddess.  There is strength in those postures of resistance, the stances of the neolithic and paleolithic statues.  Starhawk suggested that the Harpies, the Crones, the Witches as well as the guardian Angels all come to our collective consciousness from those early Bird Goddesses.  She reminded us that Harpies harp.  They point out the things that need fixing, and keep at it until those things get fixed.  She encouraged the conference goers, when they’re in the mood pick a fight, to get on the phone and call their congressmen.  Starhawk blogs about this connection between Paganism and politics at www.starhawksblog.org.

Of course the keynote speaker is not the whole of the conference.  Over the course of the two days there are also four sessions of  hour and a half workshops offered.  With 30-35 workshops offered in any given session there was a lot of variety to chose from.  Many of the presenters actually offered repeats of their workshops in a second session to make it a little easier for attendees to choose.

The conference spreads over 5 of the campus buildings using classrooms, conference rooms and dance and exercise spaces.  One of these buildings houses the vendor room.  An ample space for several rows of vendors to show their wares.  There were services offered, Reiki and tarot readings, along side the books, jewelry, drums, pottery and garb we often expect.

Red Tent movie

Red Tent movie

Many of the vendors are also presenters, either closing their booths for a workshop session or partnering with a friend.  The filmmaker and distributor of the movie “Things We Don’t Talk About: Women’s Stories from the Red Tent” was one of the women doing double duty.  She actually left her booth to be attended by a neighboring vendor while she screened the movie for conference goers.  This quick and deep friendship, the commonality and trust among women is probably the most common and profound product of this conference.  It’s the reason many women come back year after year.

The closing ritual again presented by Treewommon and friends is bittersweet.  We are introduced to the players.  The maidens have been “attending” this conference all their lives.  Their mother’s met here and have been close kindred for the ten years since.  (“Let that be a warning to you about the friends you make here!” the Priestess teases.)
We sing a powerful chant looking into each others eyes and falling into the arms of friends and strangers around us.  Tears, laughter and hugs are shared.  A spontaneous circle forms so that we can all see and rejoice in the power and beauty of women gathered in harmony and purpose.

The directions thanked and dismissed we are charged to carry this energy, the spirit of the conference home with us.  We are charged to remember what is possible when Women come together.

Dates for next year’s conference have not yet been announced.  To stay up to date on developments or to get on the mailing list go to: http://sbs.mnsu.edu/women/conference or contact the Gender and Women’s Studies Department directly at: 507-389-2077

Lisa Spiral Besnett

Lisa Spiral Besnett is an occasional contributor to PNC.  Her book, Manifest Divinity, is published by Immanion Press and available in paperback or as an ebook at Amazon.com.  Spiral writes a weekly blog where you can read more about her personal experiences living a spiritually aware life.

Pagans and Privilege panel packs them in at PantheaCon

One of the most talked about educational sessions at Pantheacon, a conference for Pagans, Heathens, Indigenous Non-European religions hosted in San Jose, California each President’s Day weekend, wasn’t part of the official programming.  It was the Pagans and Privilege panel which explored the layers and effects of privilege within our religious community.  Panel members included  Elena Rose, Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir, River Higginbotham and past Sacred Harvest Festival guest of honor Crystal Blanton.  Ms. Blanton and her family continued to attend  Sacred Harvest Festival since her first introduction to the festival even though they live in California.  The panel was moderated by T. Thorn Coyle, who has held workshops in the Twin Cities and across the USA.


Panelists from left to right: Elena Rose, Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir, Crystal Blanton, River Higginbotham

The panel would spend an hour exploring how to recognize privilege and entitlement and open up dialogue around what can be a very divisive and contentious issue. Ms. Coyle had the original idea to create the panel and she recruited the four panelists.  Ms. Blanton said being part of the panel was a great opportunity because, “Being a Pagan of Color has it’s unique challenges and slowly we are finding different mediums to share our experiences to others so that we can grow and heal collectively. Yet, I do not think privilege begins or ends with race, I think it is a very layered concept that is often dismissed as a race thing only.”

The Pagans and Privilege proposal was originally submitted to Pantheacon to be part of the official programming, but like many other proposals, didn’t make the cut.  Covenant of the Goddess, New Wiccan Church and  the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn shared the Presidential Suite, a large multi room con suite, and they offered the group space for the workshop.  News of the panel spread through social media.  And spread.

“I didn’t know we would draw as many people as we did,” says Ms. Blanton.  “When the facebook invite started to circulate, I saw the people saying yes and thought maybe half would show. I was very wrong and yet very pleased that  people wanted to come to participate in such a complex discussion.”

Minnesota Pagan and author Lisa Spiral Besnett wanted to attend the panel because of the respect she has for the panelists, but also because she has an interest in the topic, “I have a broad exposure to people and cultures and I am very much aware of the privilege I hold as a white woman, even when I’m Pagan identified.  I also experience global discrimination due to my weight and my wheelchair dependent son, and occasionally because of my religion.  Having spoken with Pagans with non-white/Eurocentric racial identities I also am aware that I am not always conscious of how I contribute to furthering my own privilege, even within the pagan community, sometimes at the expense of others.”

Ms. Besnett, like an estimated 25 others, wasn’t able to attend the panel because the room was already packed.  “When people started sitting on the floor to make room, I got the idea that this might be a heavily attended program,’ said Blanton, “then I started wishing we had more  space and  more time.”  Forty two people wedged into the single room.

The panel opened with Coyle talking about what is meant by privilege.  “If you have clean drinking water coming out of your faucet,  that is privilege.”  She emphasized the discussion about privilege would not be about placing blame, guilt, or victimization but about gaining a deeper understanding of one another and exploring differences and common ground.  Privilege is often defined as the advantages a person or group has that are so normal to them they are usually unaware of them.

Panel moderator T Thorn Coyle

Panel moderator T Thorn Coyle

The panelists, who spoke from varied minority perspectives, then shared how each of them were privileged.  Ms. Rose, a transgender woman who was disowned by her family, discussed how her high quality of education gained her advantages not shared by most others.  Not only did she have a stronger academic background, she knew how to find information, which is a skill that confers privilege,  “I would say just look it up.  Just google it.  And they wouldn’t know what I meant.  They didn’t know how to find the information they needed.”

Heather Biedermann, a Mankato Heathen, said she enjoyed how each of the panelists admitted to what privilege they had and how they were lucky to have various kinds of support.  ” These privileges were seen as blessings that made it possible for them to be there speaking to the group. Those who didn’t have the same privilege talked about how they had to deal without having that benefit, and it really opened my eyes to not take anything for granted. After hearing the stories of each on the panel, I felt like I identified even more with each person, even though all of us come from different backgrounds.”

Ms. Odinsdottir had advice for those who sit at the pinnacle of privilege in the United States, “Don’t apologize for things you didn’t do, don’t say you’re sorry for what others have done.”  She told attendees that misplaced guilt is not helpful, but being aware we live in a white supremacist culture is. Some of the attendees leaned back or looked confused or unhappy at her statement.  She explained a white supremacist culture has nothing to do with being a skinhead, it is simply a culture where white culture is supreme and in a position of power.

Mr. Higginbotham joked about his position of privilege saying he’s a white male with a good income.  Like the other panelists he echoed times in his life where he has unthinkingly enjoyed the benefits of privilege and how difficult it is when that privilege is yanked away from him.  He spoke about how, due to his religion, he’s had a deep concern he could lose his job.

One of the most tweeted quotes from the panel came from Blanton, “We are all oppressed and we are all oppressors.”  This drew nods from many of the attendees and panelists as the words sunk in.  Later, Blanton spoke about this moment, “One moment that sticks out to me was the emotion that was evoked within me when speaking about my own privilege, a privilege that the kids I work with do not have. I think people automatically assume that those who talk about privilege are standing in a “victim” mentality role. I recognize that I am often the oppressed and the oppressor. I am humbled by a society that puts people in a position to be on both sides of the fence and awareness becomes the most important tool we can harness.”

Ms. Biedermann said she thought the panel would focus on problems that were prevalent in the community and ways we can work to fix them. “Instead,” she said, “the focus was on the privileges that each of us may have in our lives and how those things may make life easier for ourselves compared to another person.”  She went on to say the panel “really opened my eyes to how all of these things can stack up and make a person have more opportunities than another. The idea here wasn’t that you should feel bad or guilty about these privileges, but instead to understand where other people are coming from, and to be more sensitive to what is going on in the world around you.”

The hour long discussion was paced by Coyle who asked the audience and panel to stop and take a deep, slow breath.  These breath breaks were designed to allow participants and attendees to maintain control over powerful emotions and to let meaning sink in.  Towards the end of the discussion, Coyle invited attendees to continue the discussion at the Pagans Of Color hospitality suite, as their allotted time was almost up.

Blanton says she plans to do more Pagans of Color programming next year at Pantheacon and said a second Shades of Faith book may be released by then.  That news is welcome to both Besnett and Beidermann.  “I would absolutely be interested in continuing this discussion in a larger venue,” said Ms. Besnett, “It’s not the kind of issue that can be resolved by a single event.”  Ms. Biedermann concurs, “As the panel talked, I knew that there was so much to say, and an hour or two wasn’t even enough time to touch the tip of the iceberg. Next year, I hope to see more sessions talking about privilege and diversity in Paganism. It’s so important that we explore these topics even more.”

Author interview: Manifest Divinity is spiritual, not religious

Earlier this week Immanion Press released Manifest Divinity, a book by area author Lisa Spiral Besnett.  PNC-Minnesota interviewed Ms. Besnett at Sacred Harvest Festival about this book, which is aimed at “open[ing] up the readers understanding of the wide variety of Divine presence while respecting their personal religious framework.”

  Book:  Manifest Divinity
Author:  Lisa Spiral Besnett
Publisher: Megalithica Books
Price:  $18.99
Pages:  116, paperback
ISBN: 978-1-905713-80-6
Genres:  Religion & Spirituality
Available at Amazon.com

PNC:  Thank you for taking time during the festival to chat with me about your new book.  When did you first get the idea for this book?

Lisa:  I have been working on this material for a really long time and in some ways since I was first introduced to the concept of Drawing down the moon.  But framing this in the context of writing a book?  That was something that took a lot of people telling me I needed to write it before I finally accepted that.

PNC:  So how long have you been developing this material?

Lisa:  I would say I have been actively developing this material for over 20 years.  I’ve been interested in this material for thirty.

PNC:  You wrote this book not for a Pagan specific audience, so when you originally developed this material, was that developed for a Pagan audience or not?

Continue reading

Guest Editorial: Pagans and Christians

by Lisa Spiral Besnett

As I look over the American Neo-Pagan population, at least those that attend large public events, I am struck by a number of interesting observations. Most Pagans acknowledge that any spiritual practice that works for an individual is valid. Many Pagans with Jewish families of origin identify as ‘Jewitches’. Pagans with Christian families of origin tend to consider themselves as ‘recovering’ from their Christian roots.  Pagan of course being defined by Christians as anything that isn’t Christian does not help this dilemma.

This deep seated resentment of Christianity in the Pagan culture rears it’s ugly head in many unproductive ways. The most common theme of resentment appears in the form of Christian bashing. Christianity is a multifaceted and varied religious practice.  Pagans can often be found lumping all of Christianity into a group represented only by the narrowest, most evangelical, most anti-anything that isn’t them form of Christian practice. It’s almost as though Christians were represented by the Klu Klux Klan or more accurately as if the newest, loudest, popular, rich, televangelist was speaking for all of Christianity. We know this isn’t true intellectually, but our language does not always reflect this as we generalize about the “horrors” of Christianity.

Even Christians are not all in agreement about who is or isn’t “really” a Christian.  Mormans, Catholics, and Jahovah’s Witnesses all fall into the questionable category for some other sects of Christianity. Unitarian Universalists are sort of considered Christian and many of their members are Christian identified but their charter does not restrict their members to Christian study. In fact not all UU members consider themselves to be Christians. Other than the Christian identifying language there is very little philosophical difference between many new age thinkers (look at Matthew Fox the ecumenical minister) and many Pagans.

Much of the resentment/recovery issue many Pagans face is because we have been rejected by our Christian families and church communities because of our beliefs. It is interesting to note that a large number of Pagans studied Christianity deeply looking for ways to make what was in their hearts fit in with what their families professed. Part of the weaponry of Christian bashing comes from experiencing rejection by a Christian who does not know enough about their own religion to justify their position. Many of us have found that we can expound on Christian belief, philosophy and Biblical text more fluently than the average Christian we meet.

We talk about finding Paganism and feeling as though we’ve come home. We’ve always had the beliefs and feelings in our hearts that define our spirituality. We have been repeatedly rejected by the spiritual systems we were raised in, in spite of our efforts to frame our personal beliefs within those systems. Then we find a group of Pagans and Christians people with similar experiences who accepts that we are spiritual beings regardless.

Of course it feels like we have come home. We probably have this experience more in common than any actual spirituality or practice. (Ask 3 Pagans what they think about something and they’ll give you 4 different answers.) That shared experience of Christian rejection binds us.  The Native American spiritual movement seems to have finally come to terms with this issue. They as a community have found a way to identify as Christian in the larger culture while practicing a “cultural spirituality” that is derived from their pagan roots.

This is also the basis for the ‘Jewitch’, a cultural identity with a spiritual component that can not be denied. Unfortunately, most white American Pagans only have the Christianity they were raised in to define their cultural identity. I believe the rise in Celtic Paganism and Heathenism is due to a desire to reach for, or build up, a foundational cultural spirituality acceptable in the mainstream world.

This issue is exaggerated when the accepted cultural spiritual identity is not an accurate expression of the Paganism being practiced. We are beginning to see Black Pagans writing about this experience. (www.patheos.com/blogs/daughtersofeve/) Black Pagans find great acceptance in practicing Vodun, or Youruba but are looked at askance when they identify more strongly with the Greek or Celtic or Norse Pantheons.  We as a culture are still in denial of the European heritage of most American Blacks.  Slave owners got around, and the European Culture is a strong part of the American identity.

Pagans carry their own prejudices. Often Black Pagans attending events are avoided on the assumption that they are Christian infiltrators. Most Pagans will agree that the Bible is a valid mythological text. Yet, heaven help the Pagan who wants to work with Jesus and Lilith in their circles. We even avoid the word God because it so strongly evokes the Christian ‘One God’ authority. We will clarify, ‘the God Pan’; we will broaden the scope ‘Gods’; and we will unite ‘God and Goddess’. Rarely in our dialog does the word God stand alone, and usually when it does we are Christian bashing again.

As Spiritual practitioners we have an obligation to call upon compassion rather than judgement. This includes expressing compassion for ourselves. In order to heal our own hearts we must find a way to embrace the whole of our Spiritual selves regardless of how others choose to define us. I was baptized in the Catholic Church, that’s for life. I was born again upon the altar of Jesus Christ, and continue to admire His compassionate teachings.

I am a Witch, a Pagan, a Mystic an Occult practitioner, Spiritual Mentor, Teacher and Pagans and Christians Healer. Unless I’m trying to join your church community why is this a problem? Unless you are trying to make me join your church community why is this a problem? If we as Pagans believe in the sacredness of all things and the presence of the Divine within each being what do we have to ‘recover’ from?

I would very much like to see our community open their hearts on this issue. I believe it is only through compassionate spiritual practice that we will find our way to wholeness. As frustrating as interactions with Christians may be, I will endeavor not to generalize the practices of a few across the scope of an entire religion. I hope I have convinced you to do the same.

Lisa Spiral Besnett has been Pagan identified for over 35 years. She has been active in the Twin Cities Pagan community and in the Blue Star tradition. Over the years she has presented workshops at PSG, Avalon, Heartland, Sacred Harvest Fest, Pagan Pride and the Women and Spirituality Conference. She has served on the board of Northern Dawn COG, Earth Conclave, WicCoM and The New Alexandria Library. She writes a weekly blog on spirituality in daily life at lisaspiral.wordpress.com.