There’s a lot of talk in pagan communities (or maybe it’s not enough talk?) about working with deities and practices of cultures that do not belong to you. This is very common among pagans. One might have an altar to the Hindu Lakshmi and use Native American smudge sticks. Or make offerings to the African Orisha while praying to the Celtic Brigid during spell work. Marking Dia de los Muertos is increasingly popular among non-Mexicans. Modern paganism is often a smorgasbord or mishmash of beliefs and practices and global deities. That’s what is appealing to many practitioners.

Pagans have different views about whether or not this is appropriate. Some believe it’s stealing culture, that no one has any business honoring or praying to deities from cultures that one does not belong to or intimately understand. Other pagans support the idea of following your own spiritual road, even if it takes you to cultures and gods that are not your own.

This is an important, albeit tricky, question. What belongs to me, spiritually? I was raised Catholic, although we were not very religious, and I’ve totally rejected that tradition. My ethnic heritage is Italian, German, and Polish. If I step off of the path offered in my childhood into a non-traditional practice, one that tends to be much more fluid, where do I end up? How do I create that spiritual identity? Should it only be influenced by European culture?

All spiritual work should be done with honor and integrity – but what exactly does that mean?

Activist Layla Saad is leading an important conversation in the community around issues of race, gender, power, and the ways in which spiritual white women avoid taking responsibility for racial supremacy. She and others have questioned white use of cultural symbols and practices originating among historically oppressed communities. Saad has suggested that there is a crucial difference between working with the deities of a “dead” religion, such as the ancient Egyptian Sekmet, and those of a thriving, living religion like the Hindu Kali.

In addition to being a goddess-oriented pagan, I’m also a history professor, and much of my teaching focuses on issues of gender, race, and white supremacy. I’m constantly engaging issues of power and appropriation in an academic, political, and personal sense. So intellectually, I totally get those who decry the cultural taking/borrowing/sharing/stealing that makes up so much pagan practice. But spiritually….that’s another story.

While I’ve been working with deities of various cultures for years, I was always hesitant to reach out to the African Orisha due to the very fact of white supremacy and the historical theft of African lives, property, and culture (not that this is the only culture to experience colonial violence). As a white person, I felt it was not my place. I know white people who worship the Orisha, but politically, it seemed inappropriate to petition deities originating in communities of color. At the same time, it didn’t feel right to put a special box around them, as if they were outside of the spiritual world of influence I had constructed for myself.

All this changed though, when the Vodou Loa, Papa Legba, claimed me quite unexpectedly during a visit to New Orleans. I can’t really explain what happened or what has followed or why, but I can say that I feel very connected to him and there is a way in which he feels like home. Maybe it’s a past life thing. I don’t know. But I do know that I cannot ignore such a strong spiritual resonance. I believe that he invited me into his world, for whatever cosmic reason, and it would be wildly inappropriate and disrespectful – maybe even damaging – to deny that. I’ve been doing my best to learn about Vodou so that I may treat him with respect, but I don’t anticipate seeking initiation into the religion (there are some white practitioners). But Legba has become an important part of my hodgepodge practice.

I’ve also connected with the Greek Artemis, the Hindu Lakshmi, and the Egyptian Isis. Usually, they seem to have reached out to me. How can I ignore their call?

I’ve come to think of this in terms articulated by Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker, as a universal mysticism. This is the idea that as human (and earth) spiritual consciousness evolves, we are moving closer to a unity of understanding and can see aspects of truth in various world religions. This explains the appeal of pagan cross-cultural sharing.

I don’t know if that is the right answer. At a minimum, I do know that all work, whatever it is, must be done with sincerity, humility, and love. From the perspective of the spirits, I suspect that is enough. But I certainly agree that this is an issue worth exploring further, as we pagans confront the problems of racism and power in our spiritual community and the wider world.

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