“I’m sorry, I’m unavailable to meet on that day.”
A pause, “well, why is that? This is an important meeting.”
“Because it is a major holiday for me, and I am taking a personal day to celebrate it.”
Another, longer pause. “Wait, your holiday is Halloween? That’s not a religious holiday.”
“No, my holiday is Samhain, which is a holiday dedicated to my ancestors. Modern Halloween traditions actually derived from this much older holiday.”
Another pause. “Can’t you celebrate it on another day?”
“No. The timing is critical to the celebration. Would I ask you to meet on Christmas or Easter?”
Another pause. “That’s not the same thing.”
The above interchange is a fairly common interaction fairly typical of my workplace experiences in being a minority religion, a druid, here in the USA. In fact, I had this exchange with someone just last week. Since this kind of thing seems to come up around Samhain, in particular, I thought I’d take some time today to share my perspective on some of the challenges that people like me, walking a minority religious path, face. But most importantly, I’m going to share some ideas for how we can build bridges and build respect (beyond mere tolerance, but actual understanding).
(*I use the word “religion” understanding that this word represents the dominant term for people who have a spiritual path. A lot of druids don’t like it, and I don’t necessarily like it either, but it gives certain credibility and legal standing–so I choose to use it.)
Challenges Druids and other Nature-Based Religions face
Minority religions face a lot of challenges in general in the modern US. Some of the challenges we druids face are shared by other minority paths, and others are unique. Here are some–certainly not all–of some of the typical things that people walking the druid path may face.
Invisibility. The Pew Forum offers some general demographics on Religious life in the US. If we use the numbers from their Religious Landscape Survey, nationwide, the category “pagan or Wiccan” (which is the closest one can likely get to druid) has about 0.03% of the population. In other words, my path isn’t even listed on the survey, and so, we are much lower than 0.03%. Some druids do identify as pagan, others do not, so it is really hard to tell exactly how many of us there are.
But regardless of the specific percentage, because there are so few of us, people have no idea who we are or what we do. This is actually beneficial in some cases, as assumptions are hard to change (ask anyone calling themselves a witch about that!) I’m of the opinion that a blank slate is better than a slate filled with misinformation. A blank slate means that I can educate people who ask me about it in a productive way (at least some times) and define “druid” in ways that actually represent our practices. Recently, for example, I told my employees that I was taking Samhain off. They were supportive, and one of my newer employees asked me, what’s a druid? And I was able to respond in a productive way, and we had a good conversation, and she wished me well on my holiday!
On the other hand, you do have things like RPGS, World of Warcraft, and D&D that paint druids in a certain light. If people find out I’m a druid, I sometimes people get the impression that I run around in robes lobbing globes of green nature energy at villians. Again, not necessarily a bad impression, but also, not quite right.
This invisibility also means that holidays aren’t recognized, and as my opening example discussion shows, that can lead to other kinds of difficulty.
Intolerance. Like any other religion with a “pagan” label, a lot of druids worry about what happens when their conservative Christian neighbors learn about who they are or what they might be doing. Some druids choose to do public ritual to help build tolerance, while others simply want to be left alone to do their own thing. Last year, the Wayist Druids in Tennessee decided to do a public ceremony and had some trouble with the local conservative Christians. But often, these protests are more bark than bite. The Wild Hunt reported on two recent events that were slated to be protested by conservative Christians, and in both cases, the protesters, few in number, showed up briefly and left pretty quickly. And yet, even one or two intolerant people can make doing anything public very uncomfortable. One of the things that I worry about where I live, for example, is that I’m in a rural area that does have a fair share of hate groups. There’s a Moose lodge nearby that is a known hate group hangout, very rural, only about 5 miles north. Their presence so close to where I live certainly gives me pause.
Lack of Basic First Amendment Rights and legal protections. I am a legally ordained clergy member through the Ancient Order of Druids in America, a federally recognized religious organization in the US. Despite this federal legal recognition, I am not permitted to perform religious ceremonies in my home state (Pennsylvania) because PA state law says that in order to be recognized at the state level, my “church” must have a building and meet regularly. With the 15 or so practicing druids in my region, this is simply an impossibility. Technically, we do have a building (our home) and meet regularly (about 3-4x a year for grove events). But this doesn’t “count” from the state’s perspective–they only want organized religions that look and act like Christianity to be legally performing ceremonies. You find a lot of these kinds of things–assumptions that “religion” equals things that look and act like Christianity. Many states have laws that are really designed only to allow traditional religions to be recognized, and that’s a sad thing. But things are changing if the battle over veterans’ tombstones is any indication.
Lack of Places to Celebrate. Especially in urban and suburban areas, it’s surprisingly hard to find quiet places to celebrate your path and to do outdoor public ritual. I can’t tell you how many rituals were disrupted over the years because I thought I had chosen a quiet space to celebrate a druid holiday or just do some of my own ritual work, but it turned out, I did not. Hiking deep into wild public areas is a generally safe approach. Renting private places for a weekend is a safe approach. Doing things on your land or someone else’s land is a safe approach. But doing outdoor public ritual otherwise is a gamble: it might go fine, or it might draw the ire of someone who is not supportive and will cause a scene (in the middle of your Samhain ceremony!) Lots of groves and individuals find workarounds, like designating 1-2 people who are there to keep outsiders from disrupting a ceremony.
Part of this is because we are druids. It’s so nice just to be outside, at some amazing place, and be able to celebrate there. Or even just have a quiet moment. I think if druidry and other nature-based paths were more well known, there would be more opportunity to have ceremonies in public places and a lot more tolerance of those ceremonies.
Lack of family / friend / loved one support. Probably the most difficult of anything is the intolerance and lack of support that one gets for choosing a different path, particularly if you have strongly religious famliy members. I’ve struggled with this in my own life; my Christian family largely still doesn’t support my path and its better not to say anything than try to push the issue. I’ve made good inroads with my parents, but that was a very long and hard fight spanning over a decade. My extended family, I don’t even bother with. I let them think what they want because there is not really a way forward in that particular area. I’ve had relationships (including some long-term ones) end because of my religious identity, and I’ve also had friendships end when someone found out what I was. When I mentor other druids, I often find this is one of the most challenging things–its not the random strangers that you have to worry about but rather, the people that you love and that are closest to you.
Bridges to build
So now that I’ve outlined some of the major challenges druids face, I want to talk about strategies for building understanding and compassion. Note that I’m not using the word “tolerance” for a very specific reason. The concept of “tolerance” gets a lot of airplay here in the US. We want to “build tolerance” between different faiths. Dictionary definitions from Merriam Webster about the word “tolerance” say things like, “the capacity to endure continued subjection to something” or “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with”. I think tolerance is the first step in what hopefully becomes a deeper understanding, respect, and mutual support of diverse paths. That’s my ultimate goal and what I’m working towards. Tolerance to me isn’t enough–what that basically means is that someone “tolerates” my existence. What I’d like to see is someone going well beyond tolerance and into invitations to share, mutuality, collaboration, and respect.
Bridge building is a really important step, and I find that this is best done individually. I gave the example above about simple conversations, such as the one recently between my employees. Part of why that conversation worked was that I’ve been working with these folks for a while, they trust me, and I have a good reputation in my workplace and in my field. A good reputation, being well respected, makes something “weird” like druidry go down easier. This is why timing really matters–I don’t want to open with “I’m a druid” to new people, necessarily. I prefer to build relationships first, and then, over time, they can get to know this side of me after they’ve already formed a basic opinion of me. Those conversations will have much more impact this way.
One of the strategies that I find helpful is looking for similarities. When I talked to my mother about druidry for the first time, I took her for a walk in the woods where she prays. Then, I talked about my path of druidry and how it shared many things with her path of Christianity–she seeks messages in nature, she goes to the woods to commune and pray, and she recognizes nature as God’s creation. I seek messages in nature, I got to the woods for reverence, and I recognize nature as a sacred place. When you frame it in this way, what seems foreign becomes familiar.
Go-to-Responses. Let’s say you decide to be fairly open about who you are as a druid. If you are, people will ask questions from time to time. I prefer to be prepared and know what I’m going to say rather than flounder. Thus, I have developed some “go to” statements that help me talk about druidry. I usually practice these from time to time. I like to remind myself that hat the first impression is possibly the only impression you can make. Here are a few common ones and how I frame it:
What is a druid? Druidry is a spiritual tradition rooted in connecting with nature. For druids, nature is our sacred text and our church, in the sense that we derive deep spiritual meaning from nature. One of the things we do, for example, is work to attune our own lives with the seasonal changes that are happening around us. Especially with some of the challenges we face in the 21st century, we see reconnecting with nature critical to our own lives.
What do druids believe? Druidry is a set of spiritual practices, and we honor belief as an individual’s choice. That means that different druids have a differing understanding of deity, the afterlife, and other such questions. I am an animist druid, which means that I do not work with the concept of deity, but rather, understand all living beings and natural features (such as forests, rivers, or stones) as having spirits. I work closely with those spirits as part of my own druid path.
What is X holiday about? I generally will explain the wheel of the year and how we look to nature for guidance; then I shift to talking about where we are at this point in the year and the closest holiday. Most of the time, I get asked about Samhain, and I would share something like this: Samhain to many druids is really about two things: honoring various kinds of ancestors and letting go Ancestors to druids include blood ancestors, but may also include ancestors of the land, ancestors of our druid tradition, ancestors of our profession, and others. We remember them, honor them, and commune with them. If you look on the landscape right now, we’ve just had the first frost, the leaves are falling from the trees, and winter is setting in. This season is over, and a new one is beginning. We work with that energy at this time of year.
Public druidry. The final strategy I use is some public outreach and public druidry. For example, in the last few months, I’ve been asked to come and speak about druidry at the local UU church and offer a lesson in druidry for some of the middle school kids that go to the church. Soon, I will also be giving a talk for a pan-spiritual group on campus who wants to know about druids. I think that once you’ve been walking this path a while and you feel ready, this is good work to do. Every person who hears about you now knows something new. That person in the future is more likely to build bridges with you and others.
Subversive druidry. Finally, I like to get the ideas of druidry out there sometimes without even attaching the label. For example, I have been giving medicinal and edible plant walks for many years. As part of my plant walks, I talk about reciprocation, repair, regeneration–concepts that I understand because I am a druid. These are concepts that lead people to deeply connect with nature and begin to see nature as not only a physical thing, but a metaphysical thing. To be clear: I’m not trying to create new druids. But I am trying to expose people to some druid thinking so that perhaps later, when they hear the label, it doesn’t seem as weird.
The Work of Peace. I want to close with what I consider to be the most important part of all of this work–the work of peace. In the druid revival tradition, peace is a central part of what we do. At the beginning of our rituals, we declare peace in the four quarters. Really think about that–we magically and powerfully proclaim peace in the four directions. We have druid’s peace prayers and an emphasis on aspects of peace in the druid’s prayer (understanding, wisdom, knowledge, justice, the love of all existences, the love of earth our mother). Each time we say one of these prayers or declare peace in the quarters, we are sending that prayer into the world. Everything I’m saying here, is another way to pray for peace. Even if we can’t do anything else, or aren’t comfortable doing anything else, we can always offer that prayer for peace.
I have a lot more I could write on this topic, but I think this is a good start to talking about these issues. Readers, I want to encourage you to post with your own experiences and suggestions–things that worked well for you, things that did not, experiences you have had. Thank you and blessings!