When I connected with a retreat center that seemed both spiritually open to many paths and progressive-humanitarian, I felt blessed. In the first days, sharing backgrounds, the Christian owner spoke of former events and future longings to showcase indigenous ways from Native American, to African, and Hawaiian. Then the caveat: the one thing this owner was loud and clear about was…no Witches and Pagans allowed! There was to be no association for the Center with these spiritual pathways.

Since there was already a practitioner there who leaned pagan, I discovered this person had clued in the owner that Neo-Pagans were a bonafide Earth Religion, and that most likely the Wiccans or Witches of yore were the earth-spiritual wise women and men who were the leaders, healers, counselors and midwives of their rural communities in the lands white people hail from. Native European nature religion, if you will.

Thirty years ago I had dived into Paganism—feminist nature religion–with my whole heart, but gradually soured on the egomaniacal and party-animal aspects of the community. I’d also finished graduate school in Religious Studies and moved; living isolated in the country with small children I found so much to love in Buddhism and in deep intimacy with my land.

While meditating and studying the Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, and more Buddhist ethics, I continued to hold close a felt sense of the Earth as Divine Feminine, to thrill to the old holy days such as solstices, equinoxes, and the Native European points in between. But I dropped the words Witch and Pagan as self-identifiers. Not only because with Buddhist-leanings now they didn’t quite fit, but as a rejection of what I had experienced among Neo-Pagans. I wasn’t aware of it, but I suppose there was relief that I no longer had to be forever explaining these red-flag words–”Witch” and “Pagan”—to other people. Floundering for a label I decided that “eco-spiritual/earth-based/nature religion” served my journey best.

I shared all of this with the center’s owner.

Informed that Pagans and Witches would not be welcome at my new spiritual home, I tried to make it okay since I’d been disconnected from that community for decades anyway. And as in any new relationship…I thought I could change the other person in time. Once the owner could but see Native European ways had as much validity as any  indigenous ones, all would be well. Not to mention that when you run a business, you can’t practice the First Amendment (freedom of religion) selectively.

The owner and others seemed ignited by an idea to craft Earth-based interfaith gatherings for the community, and we forged ahead into exciting new territory. But the owner and one other declined to jump in from their Christian faith, instead increasingly eyeing the ceremonies with distaste—alluded to, but never detailed. We on the more Earth-ecstatic side kept reaching out for dialogue, to no avail.

One day I was told over the phone that my presence at the place was no longer welcome, beginning immediately. This was followed up by a text telling me I’d fit in more at Camp Gaia, a local and well-known Pagan gathering spot. There was padding in the owner’s rationale about interpersonal difficulties—in most discrimination cases you see that kind of smokescreen when the heart of the matter is discrimination. Though we had one difficult conversation behind us, the owner and I were on an even keel at the time and she had even expressed positive gratitude for the most recent gathering, a spiritual celebration of Spring. I’d just called her new photo on Facebook “gorgeous”…I’m not one to suck up, I simply had no indication that things were less than fine for forging ahead. So wrong I was.

I took two weeks to reflect deeply on this, but then filed a Kansas Human Rights Commission complaint against the place. I needed to make sure I was not coming from a soul-space of a hurt need for revenge. I was fully within my rights to cite the lost income from future workshops and seeing clients there when with no warning I was given the boot, but it wasn’t money that would bring justice in this case.

Instead there was the opportunity for education. I could see the owner taking one of the seminars that educates law enforcement about the gentle ways of the new Pagans, as distinct from chaotic and violence-laced “Satanism,” or perhaps a college course in New Religious Movements to accomplish the same light on the subject. If our society’s military, prisons, and other public institutions must serve Wiccans and Neo-Pagans under the law, so must our local businesses. Someone said the owner’s position was like a bakery that refuses to make a wedding cake for gay couples but points out they would be happy to make that cake for (heterosexual) African-Americans!

I then came full circle in my own mind. By my silence I’d colluded in keeping “Witches and Pagans” outside the boundaries, discriminated against. I learned also that it’s not a point of maturity or normalcy to join the public fear about the European indigenous past of so many of our ancestors. Pagan, after all, comes from the Latin “paganus,” meaning country dweller. I lived on the land for over twenty years with my family, in love with hill and creek and seasons changing. So…“Buddhist-pagan” it is these days for me.

This has become our shadow, the folk medicine and ecstatic Earth-celebrations that lasted into medieval times. But it is not a dark and evil past—if anything, the Holy Roman Inquisition that tortured and burned it out of us embodies ugliness and tragedy. It is no surprise that since the 1970’s nature-religion of all stripes has been emerging, for on some level, we remember what the ancestors knew.

But today, how exciting it could be to gather with persons of diverse religious labels and backgrounds who hold the same awe and lust for the beauty and power of the natural world. Luckily, others of an eco-spiritual mind are coming together locally. We’ve held our first meet and greet on private land, far from the New Age businesses of lovable LFK.* I shared all of the above to begin this series of reports on how it’s going by taking a look at what NOT to do.

In retrospect, there should have been so much more discussion  at the beginning with the Center’s owner and all facilitators about our differences—could we really come together in an interfaith fashion? Of course, if you’re looking to start an eco-spiritual group, you probably won’t have one person holding the keys, literally, to whether the group continues or folds. I shouldn’t have overlooked this imbalance, but sadly, to this day the owner will not dialogue or mediate, even with the Commission.

So craft with care your structure for being together, which can be hard in the beginning when many people don’t know each other. Keeping it democratic, consensual, egalitarian and real takes attention in order to develop over time–even if differences are heartily applauded from the get-go. In the next post I’d like to take a look at how a handful of folks answered the call to go deeper with our feelings for planet Mom, and what we did one muggy June evening.

For my readers who are mental-health advocates and consumers: what we’re building on here fuses two trends in alternative practices–spirituality (very broadly defined, even atheism) as healing for the mind, and the well-documented effects of green space on mental health (Ecotherapy). So please stay tuned.