LAS CRUCES In an effort to dispel myths, eliminate prejudice and promote understanding in the community, hundreds gathered for Pagan Pride Day on Saturday at Young Park.
The annual event, designed to celebrate freedom of religion and religious diversity, featured a variety of educational and fun activities, merchants, live entertainment, food and children's games.
"It's an opportunity for pagans to come out of the broom closet and promote acceptance of paganism and, really, all religions," said Sarah Heartsong, Las Cruces Pagan Pride Day councilwoman, of the event. "We want the community to understand that being pagan is not scary or crazy or something to fear."
About 750 attended last year's Pagan Pride Day, with about 450 visiting the year before that. Hosting the 4th annual event Saturday, organizers hoped for an even larger turnout this year, noting that those in attendance come from Las Cruces, Deming, Alamogordo, Silver City, El Paso and even Albuquerque.
Attracting people of a variety of interests, Heartsong noted that for Pagan Pride Day, "We see a lot of people who are not pagan they may be Christian or Islamic but they're pagan-friendly and come out to support us, not unlike gay pride (events)."
Throughout the world, Pagan Pride celebrations are hosted in August, September and October, according to the event's website.with the community and to promote understanding."
"It's designed to be a harvest festival," said Victor Gibbs, the event's co-chairman. "It's a time for people to share crops, network
Pagan Pride is a nonprofit group founded in the 1990s and their celebrations now attract thousands throughout the world. The group's mission statement lists the elements of "Air: Education, Fire: Activism, Water: Charity and Earth: Community" as vital, noting that, "We know that what we do returns to us. We need to demonstrate this by offering compassion to our communities where it is needed."
"It's important for us to give back to our community and to those who may not have as much as us," Heartsong added.
While all Pagan Pride Day events are free, organizers asked that visitors to the Las Cruces celebration help the hungry by donating nonperishable food items to benefit Casa de Peregrinos, an emergency food bank that assists families and individuals in Las Cruces and surrounding areas.
"Service to our Earth is also important," she said. "Here, for example, our aim is to leave the park better than how we found it."
During the event, visitors were able to peruse a variety of merchant booths for art, decorations and crafts, as well as information tables, including many representing area Unitarian Universalist churches and other organizations, to network and learn about various aspects of paganism.
Throughout the day, children enjoyed participating in broomstick races, coloring, a necklace workshop and other family-friendly activities, while others had their palms or tarot cards read and listened to live entertainment.
Palm readings and tarot card readings were given by members of the Pagan Student Union of New Mexico State University during the celebration.
"We concentrate on community education," said Cole Forrest, co-president of PSU, who performed tarot card readings Saturday. "There are a lot of negative connotations. People think that pagans are evil or devil worshipers and we really want to break those stereotypes."
The small, but diverse group of PSU members have made an effort to "be more out in the open" in recent years by hosting educational lectures and participating in other community events, Forrest said.
"Although (Pagan Pride Day) is attended mostly by pagans, there are still non-pagan people who have come up to us, looking to learn more," he said. "One woman approached us and wanted to learn more about paganism because one of her children is pagan."
One of the largest Pagan Pride event's in the area, Forrest added of the Las Cruces celebration, "I've heard it's even bigger than Albuquerque's."
Celia Farran, a nationally known pagan singer, songwriter and storyteller, headlined the entertainment roster, which also included pagan standup comedienne Gail Wheeler.
Live music, dancing, poetry readings and lectures were also held throughout the day.
Pagan Pride Day also honored veterans who fought for religious freedom as well as those who died for their beliefs in an educational altar walk for healing and remembrance.
"It's important to honor those who fought for our right to freedom of religion." Heartsong said, pointing out those dressed in uniform who attended Saturday's event. "We're very proud to live here and have these rights."
With Halloween approaching, when many pagans celebrate the Celtic New Year, Heartsong said, "You see people dressed up as these grotesque, evil witches, and it's really a proliferation of the stereotype."
Although many may think only of the witch trials in the late 1600s when the topic of pagan martyrdom is brought up, Heartsong explained that this "holocaust against women" extended beyond Salem, Mass.
"Even the way we treated our indigenous people, the Native Americans," she said. "Their beliefs also fall under the umbrella of paganism."
In today's society, Heartsong pointed out that there are still pagans "who are victims of hate crimes or have lost their jobs (because of their beliefs)."
Because of the stereotypes associated with paganism, "... there are people who are afraid to come out of the broom closet to let their employers know that they're Wiccan or Shaman," she said. "There's definitely still that fear."
Despite the stereotypes, organizers reported that there have never been any serious problems with protestors at the annual event.
When a protestor appeared at a previous event, Gibbs said, "We gave him food and took care of him. We're accepting of other religions. We take care of one another."
He explained, "We don't go out and seek to convert other people to our religion."
Gibbs said he hopes Pagan Pride Day in Las Cruces and in other areas of the nation will help eradicate stereotypes about paganism and show communities that pagans are " ... everyday, ordinary people."
"We're soccer moms, soldiers, civilians, professionals; we're educated people," added Dee Proctor, the event's silent auction coordinator, who traveled from Alamogordo for the celebration. "We don't only come out on Halloween, we're here all year long."
For more information, visit www.lascrucespaganpride.org.