Pagan Coalition Builds Community Through Action
Today, it is a large task force in Washington, DC with 23 group supporters, five different programs, two listserves, and a substantial multi-page website, but Mystic District Planning Coalition began a year ago as little more than an idle observation during a subway ride.
Shea Thomas was making his daily commute to school. Looking up at the Metro system map, he noticed that in addition to the red, blue, orange, green, and yellow of the DC subway lines, there was also a thick grey lasso at the edge of the map representing the Capital Beltway.
"It occurred to me," said Thomas, "That [the Beltway] 495 looked just like a circle that we would use in ritual . . . except, of course, that this one was really huge."
For Thomas, it wasn't a hard observation to make. He had only discovered Paganism a short time ago, and the circular elements of ritual was something his coven's "101" class had just recently discussed.
The idea of a giant circle used as part of a city-wide ritual intrigued Thomas. He suggested the idea to his coven. They thought it was interesting, but weren't sure how it could be made to work. Someone else in the group suggested that this might be a good idea that other groups in the area could get involved with.
"That was very providential," says Thomas. "DAWN was in an outreach phase as the time, and the circle-the-city idea was something that fit well with that goal. It also meant that I had the coven's support, which turned out to be incredibly important to getting the project started."
DAWN stands for "Dance Again With Nature," and is an eclectic Maryland coven based in outside Baltimore.
"Before starting, we spent a lot of time thinking about how the group was going to be organized," says Thomas. "I had tremendous help from Sonya Weidner, the DAWN High Priestess, who was able to tell me a lot about the current community, as well as the things that often worked against it. Because of her, I think we were able to avoid a lot of potential mistakes."
For example, it quickly became apparent that the event could not be sponsored by just one coven. "If it had been solely a DAWN event," says Thomas, "It would have failed immediately. We had to get away from a message of 'come join-us' and instead create the message of 'let's work together!' It's was an incredibly important distinction to make when describing who 'owned' the event. We wanted to make clear that absolutely everyone owned it."
With that understanding, other design elements started to fall into place. "The Coalition," says Thomas, "could have no membership. Instead, we had to have an open invitation to participate. We had to do it that way because a membership would instantly creates a situation of 'ins' and 'outs.' We couldn't associate ourselves with any one Pagan tradition. There could be no dues. The rules had to be simple and few. We couldn't use a hierarchical structure, but instead had to allow people to take ownership in the events they plan."
"But I think the most unique thing we did," said Thomas, "is to use an email list-service as a virtual board-room. It made huge sense for us at the time because we were scattered over such a wide geography, and few of us had the time or inclination to travel to yet another collection of meetings. It also let solitaires and group members work together, and email let those with privacy-issues take direct part without being dragged out of the broomcloset."
"The biggest advantage," Thomas said. "is that an email list-service allows the decision-making-body to be in session 24 hours a day and seven days a week. This lets us get a tremendous amount done in a fairly short period of time."
"Email has its drawbacks, too," Thomas says. "While most are, not all Pagans are necessarily 'wired' and able to get email. On a list-service, it's often easier to comment on an current idea than propose a new one, and it is sometimes a challenge to get everyone to chime in. Email's immediacy and cloaking-nature also makes it easier for people to dash-off careless messages, and email is a lousy vehicle for conveying emotions, which in turn can lead to misunderstandings. We understand these limitations and try our best to work around them."
And the event planning itself was not always a smooth process. "Some people were very uncomfortable with the idea of using gas-burning cars in a ritual," says Thomas. "Others who lived inside the District thought that the Coalition might be 'bashing' the city by saying that it needed a blessing in the first place. Many were wary of the Coalition because it was so new. Others remained unconvinced that Pagan community was necessary a good thing."
Thomas says he had to stay extremely open to other people's ideas and suggestions. In the end, he thinks the ability of people to contribute and change the shape of the event made the difference in turning something that began as idle thought on the subway into a true community-wide event.
"And they always surprise me," says Thomas. "Issues I thought extremely controversial sail right through, and things that never would have occurred to me in a million years become primary points of debate. For instance, there was a fairly big debate just on whether or not people could bring their dogs." (For safety reasons, they eventually decided not to).
In its final form, the idea of circling-of-the-city became only a small part of a much larger event. The first Mystic District event had not one, but three different rituals blessing the city. There was also camping, drumming, storytelling, and a potluck dinner. One couple even decided to hold their handfasting at the event.
Thomas says that he continues to learn from the experience, and he is more committed than ever to the idea of Pagan community. Thomas interprets Mystic District's success as a sign that there is a deep need for effective connections.
"The image I try to work with now when talking about community," Thomas says, "Is similar to a tree planting. When you plant a tree, you don't tell the tree how fast to grow, where to put its branches, or when to bear fruit. In fact, if you tried, you would look pretty silly. Instead, when you plant a tree, you prepare the ground, water it, and do your best to keep away the critters that would try to eat it. I think that's all we are trying to do with Mystic District."
In addition to creating an event in which over 30 people attended, the first Mystic District event also proved that a Pagan email-based organization could effectively and quickly plan real-world events.
In the 12 months since the first email, Mystic District has continued to work together and has created a comprehensive calendar of activities. In addition to its now annual regional gathering, Mystic District also sponsors monthly gatherings at area restaurants, a unique collection of field trips, an eight-part lecture series, and an ongoing project to donate Pagan books to local libraries.
Mystic District has also created a big impact in cyberspace.
"Counting on and off-list emails," said Thomas, "Mystic District has easily processed over 6,000 emails this year. The website continues to get over a 100 hits a week, and we add new content and programs every month."
Future plans for Mystic District, according to Thomas, might include scheduled visits with the other covens, groves, and circles in the area, an expanded camping series, a regional Pagan survey, and a joint potluck celebration with other organizations to celebrate Pagan Pride Day on September 19th. Although, as Thomas is quick to point out, no idea is official until its approved by participants in the Coalition.
Mystic District functions as an informal democracy. The list is open to anyone, and anyone can make a proposal. Debate is heard for at least four days, after which the Moderator can call the issued resolved if a majority decision is apparent.
Mystic District events usually draw between 15 and 30 people, and the number of subscribers on the Planning List usually ranges between 45 and 65.
"And the number of people who have visited us is even larger," says Thomas. "We are constantly seeing new faces at our events who aren't necessarily part of a permanent crowd."
Thomas thinks that is wonderful. "We aren't trying to create yet another Pagan group. Instead, we're trying to create a resource that allows people to build connections. As long as people are taking part, working together, and meeting each other, we're doing our job as a community-building resource."
"When you get right down to it, I also don't think 'community' is really that difficult," says Thomas. "It's not much more than having a sense of connection. If there was a hard part, it is in finding the impetus to build those connections. We focus so much on our differences, we automatically assume that we won't be able to work together. Yet, when you get a bunch of Pagans from different backgrounds in the same room at the same time, they almost inevitable get along great. I know this is true because I've seen that exact thing happen over a dozen times. I think all community building needs is a solid understanding of this 'same room' dynamic. It is not the doctrine keeping us apart, it's the fact that we aren't participating in common actions. All we need to do is create more situations where we can be in the same room."
Mystic District will be celebrating its one year anniversary this new moon, Sunday June 13th, at its Pagan's Night Out (PNO) event in Washington, DC. Mystic District's next regional event, "Mystic District 1999: A Celebration of Community," will be held the weekend of September 17, 18, and 19 at the Greenbelt National Park in Greenbelt, MD.