Fertilizing the Lawn: Paganism in the Bible Belt

“Well, it is the Bible Belt.”

This is a common lamentation uttered by Pagans throughout the Carolinas (and, I know, elsewhere). Nobody showed up to your first open circle? Well, it is the Bible Belt. Can’t find a coven to join? Well, it is the Bible Belt. No Pagan shops or public gatherings? Bible Belt. Failed Pagan book club? Not a big enough turn-out at Pagan Pride Day? No one to accompany you to that out-of-state festival you so want to attend? Bible Belt. Bible Belt. Bible Belt.

This is a cop-out. And a bad one, at that.

You want to know a secret? There is no perfect Pagan community where every group succeeds, every open circle is brimming with amazing people, and multiple Pagan shops stock every book you could possibly want. There is no fabled land in which you can put out a meet-up announcement and fairly expect a dozen attendees on the first go, where all you need do is don your Pagan jewelry in public and magically make friends on the street, where no religious opponent (or whatever) ever says anything to discourage you.

Many years ago I tried to start a Pagan study group in the suburbs or Northern Virginia, well within the bounds of the DC Metro system. Nobody ever showed. And thank goodness for those shops in Occoquan and Alexandria because there were hardly any resources in DC itself at the time (unless you were Reclaiming, which I wasn’t). Talk about not the Bible Belt. So why did I feel so alone there?

The problem wasn’t with DC. The problem was that I didn’t know how to look yet, not really. And I didn’t realize that building something from the ground up requires such enormous patience. I’ve started a lot of groups over the years and tried to instigate a lot of Pagan activities, and it’s gone like this everywhere I’ve ever lived:

1) I advertise in all the usual physical and online space.

2) I get replies from people who are just so thrilled to have found me. I’ve never not gotten replies, no matter how small the town. Oh it’s so great that you’re doing this I desperately want Pagan friends. I’ve been looking for a group forever. I would love to read that book/go on that trip/do that thing. Never fails.

3) Nobody does what they say they’re going to do. You’re probably alone in a coffee shop or a rented space somewhere.

4) Better buy more coffee so you don’t look too awkward.

There are then two choices that present themselves:

Admit defeat and don’t do the thing, or do the thing anyway and trust that other people might do the thing with you once they see how much fun you’re having doing the thing.

I started a successful reading group in Cary, NC this way. For a long time, nobody showed, so I sat there and read by myself. And kept advertising. When they finally did start trickling in, they were unreliable. People tend to only want to do things if they don’t have to actually put in any time or effort. But a few months down the road, I had a small handful of regulars who were genuinely glad to be there and happy to choose books collectively and actually read them. The group grew. Eventually, I had to leave, and someone had the enthusiasm to step up running the thing without me. This group existed for years (and for all I know still does) after I moved.

Communities don’t just arise spontaneously out of the aether; they must be actively constructed by people dedicated to the task. Where people care about community, community exists.

I’ve often been surprised by the kinds of communities (or lack thereof) I’ve found in both large cities and small towns, and, anecdotally, there doesn’t seem to be this inexorable correlation between the population of Pagans and the tenacity of the local Christians that so many describe. Manhattan, for example, is often described like some kind of Pagan Xanadu, but I found it to be surprisingly lacking (given its population and liberal flavor) in explicitly Pagan activities, including, surprisingly, shopping (perhaps related to the closing of Magickal Childe). Chicago was better, and I’m glad to see that there seems to be quite a bit more in DC since I left more than ten years ago.

My strongest experiences of Pagan community have occurred in Norfolk, VA and here in Charlotte, NC. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised in Huntsville, AL. All of these are politically conservative, Southern towns with strong, vocal Christian populations. I also found lots of Pagan happenings in Atlanta, GA (which didn’t surprise me at all, though I’ve heard plenty of complaints to the contrary) and understand that there are strong communities in various parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida.

So I’m sort of left wondering what being in the Bible Belt has to do with anything.

This is coming from someone who, for the sake of research, routinely attends a theologically conservative Baptist-affiliated Church and is otherwise pretty entrenched in assorted Christian communities here in Charlotte, surrounded by people who know I’m not Christian and care about me anyway.

A handful of people showing up to quietly protest at Pagan Pride Day with a couple of signs and a few Bibles—outside of the grounds—does not equate to being persecuted. Consider groups who actually experience marginalization in the forms of routine violence and systematic oppression and it becomes hard to feel too sorry for white Neo-Pagans, who mostly just have to deal with the occasional proselytizer and asshole coworker.

But I digress.

I’ve often found myself in positions where I’ve lamented the state of The Pagan Community™ (as though that’s even monolithic). I fantasize about living outside of the South. I fantasize about England and Ireland. I wish for book clubs with the capacity for graduate-level analysis. I wish for Pagan zines left at coffee shops. I wish for drum circles and a shop that specializes in titles from small British presses and independent American publishers.   I wish to finally start that Pagan rock band. I wish to say things like, “Hey! Let’s start an archery club/martial arts group/other thing-with-weapons devoted to our own Pagan gods!” and have those within earshot enthusiastically go FUCK YES and call me about it once we’re all sober.

But those things are only going to happen if I make them happen.

Summer is wonderful because summer means Free Spirit Gathering and Starwood. The amount of work that goes into putting on a Pagan festival looks to be so enormous that I actually feel guilty for just paying to show up and enjoy the awesome. I always leave thinking, “Does living a few hundred miles away and being scared of the Internet mean that I can’t shoulder some of this enormous burden? What can I do to aid the awesome?”

Usually all I can do is throw money where I have it and cajole everyone I encounter to come with me and do likewise (I’m sort of like an FSG evangelist). If I lived closer and weren’t scared of the Internet, I’d probably do more.

But that leaves me free to work on the community in my own city.

Whatever the circumstances, I’ve committed to staying in Charlotte. Charlotte is my city, now. Foxfire territory. It doesn’t matter where I came from or what my expectations were. If Charlotte’s community sucks, it’s because I’m failing at my mission. At the end of Free Spirit my friend Scott said to me, “If the grass is greener, the solution isn’t to leave or complain. The solution is to fertilize your own lawn.”

And I’m certainly not going to let something as nebulous as the “Bible Belt” stop me.

So what can you do to make your own community stronger?

And who’s up for that rock band?

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2 thoughts on “Fertilizing the Lawn: Paganism in the Bible Belt

  1. Paul

    What a great article! I enjoy reading articles of those that know how to write so well. I live 10 minutes south of Charlotte, in Indian Trail. I personally have experienced some of the same bumps in the road as you have. A friend and I founded a small group about 10 years ago that gathered in New Salem, NC. The group thrived for six years and was a learning experience like no other. To make a long story short, our code or creed had holes in it. Holes that nearly turned over leadership that tried to exile main figures of the group. I can totally relate when talking about everybody loves the idea of being apart of a Pagan group but don’t want to put in any ‘work’ or help with the ever growing cost of food, craft supplies, party favors…etc. I am currently working on another group that I am in no hurry to open. I tell you this just to let you know you’re not alone in your quest to spread Paganism. It is high time for Pagans to rise up, and turn the ‘Bible Belt’ into the ‘Golden Girdle.’

    Reply
  2. Úlfdís Járnviðar

    Seriously, I love you.

    I find that so few people want to actually DO THE THING. They want the thing to already exist so they can partake of the thing. Last year, I was lamenting to myself and my Lady about wanting a Kindred – and I then I actually started looking for pagans in Philadelphia.

    I had found ASW through friends, I found a decent number of other groups, including a Norse-flavoured Wiccan coven (awesome, though not my bag!) AND a monthly Pagan meet up group after finding few local Heathens I meshed with….well, I found other people who I DID mesh with and we’re making our own shit happen. And damned if I don’t drive my ass there and do what I can to make shit happen.

    I think its a human nature thing – I have seen this in many of my communities; I had started a much for an event I used to support back in NYC; everyone wanted one, no one wanted to make it happen. When it happened….it was many months of sitting in a diner with 30 RSVPs and 3 other people!

    Reply

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