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Last Friday when I was on the blog radio “The Priestess Show” (the topic was talking to spirits)( I was asked if I was going to write something about the Women and Spirituality Conference.  I realized that what I wrote last week was less about the conference itself and more about my misery so I’m giving it another go.

Mankato State University Women’s Department decided 31 years ago to start a conference exploring the experiences of women in spiritual practice.  The Sisters of Notre Dame at Good Counsel got involved in supporting this conference as did the local Jewish women.  Their mission statement from their current brochure:

The Women and Spirituality Conference was born in 1981 and the purpose was to provide a supportive and nurturing setting for a dialogue of caring and mutual respect between and among women and men from many spiritual and religious traditions. The conference does not advocate or exclude any view and continues to foster an understanding and celebration of similarities and differences. May we continue to aid one another on our individual and communal spiritual journeys.

Mankato State Centennial Student Union photo pulled from the university website.

I don’t remember when I first went to the conference except that it was in the early 1980’s.  The conference then was entirely held within the Student Union building. There were a few vendors at tables in the basement and the workshops were tucked away in the various meeting rooms within the facility.    I was impressed with the openness and variety of women (variety based on a Minnesotan’s perspective which means out of 100 women maybe 2 black, 5 native American and the rest white, though if you chose to notice probably 20-30 ethnically Jewish).  The world has changed and now there are attendees of all ethnicities, and often the Keynote speakers are specifically chosen to encourage attendance by women of color.

Starhawk was the keynote speaker at the first conference I attended, and so there was an opening and a closing ritual to the conference.  I can’t say if this was true from the start, but it has become  a conference tradition.  The opening and closing rituals tend to be very women empowering and an acknowledgment of unity in diversity.  There is often song or chanting and over the years the artistic representations have been remarkable.  There have been weavings, and puppetry and sacred hoops.   There have been multipart songs and singing bowls.  You never know what to expect when the conference opens, except that you will be embraced as a sacred being simply for being willing to join in.

This year I was helping with set up in the vendors area so I was late to the opening ritual.  The conference has expanded out of the student union and is now housed in the Union building as well as the next three attached with additional workshops in the performing arts building.  Some of this is due to the remodeling of the Student Union, but much of it is to meet the needs of the conference.  What I did catch was a beautiful chant about the power of women as the organizers paraded through the audience with ribbons and bells.  Later I heard several women describe the opening ritual as breathtaking.

Andrea Smith   Photo from South End Press author page

The keynote speaker this year was Andrea Smith.  I was not familiar with her before attending the conference but I was impressed with her talk.  She is an activist, teacher and an author who has done work directly regarding violence against women of color.

She spoke about the problems with the way non-profits are structured in this country.  How instead of changing the system they are looking to the system (the top 3%) for recognition in the form of money and grants.  That they color reality to get the grants and so perpetuate tactics that don’t work among all the non-profits in competition for the same funds.  The power to bestow or remove “worthiness or recognition” remains in the hands of the elite.  She encouraged us instead in small ways and in our relationships to become the change we sought.  I suspect this promotes her contribution to the upcoming anthologies The Revolution Starts at Home and Sovereign Acts both from South Bend Press.

There are so many choices for workshops at this conference some of which are based in specific religious practices and other which apply to many.  (pdfs of past programs are available if you google Mankato Women and Spirituality Conference.)  Often people assume based on the bios of the presenters that the workshops are for people who practice the same religion the presenters practice but I have never found this to be true.  The conference organizers are very clear in their requests for workshop proposals that even if the topic is specific to a religious practice the workshops should be accessible to the attendees regardless of their beliefs.

Because I identify as a Pagan or a Wiccan I often find people who come to my workshops looking to talk with a Wiccan High Priestess.  Still I have found that the people who attend my workshops from other religious traditions also often stop to talk and thank me for a meaningful workshop.  There is nothing more rewarding than hearing that what you have to say makes a difference for somebody.

Over the years I have attended (and presented) workshops that were lectures, rituals, discussions and meditations.  I have dropped in on a few yoga or dance based workshops.  This year I attended a workshop where we all played a board game, “What Would Goddess Do?” ( which was really fun.  It’s always amusing to me how even with the vast amount of choices often you see the same faces from workshop to workshop.  I sat to play the game with 3 people who had attended my workshop earlier.

For a woman just beginning to explore or to question their relationship with spirituality this conference is remarkable.  For someone like me who’s been doing this for years there is still always something new to try, someone new to meet, and something to learn.  There are old friends and new in an environment that encourages openness and sharing.  If you get the chance the 2013 conference is scheduled for October 12 & 13th.  Mark your calendars now.

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