(Beyond the Pall is a continuing series following missional engagement with the Neo-Pagan community in Salem, MA and beyond. The story began with the death of a friend who was a prominent Witch in Salem. I was a pall-bearer at his funeral, and so this series carries the title with its not un-purposeful similarity to the term “beyond the pale.” This story comes from our "God for People Who Hate Church Conference back in May. Some of you may have been there for this event.)
Three women sat nervously in the back of our little church in Salem, Massachusetts. Church was not a place they frequented, and a Christian conference was not something they would have ever considered attending, but I had personally invited them, and they agreed to give the event a try.
Could it be that the memory of the Witch trials of 1692 still lingered, and left the smell of death over our city? Or were there more recent memories, which haunted these women's minds, and made church a scary place to these three Witches sitting in the back row.
In the break between the sessions, we discussed issues close to their hearts. John Smulo and I talked, asked questions, and tried to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
The first woman was a Witch in her mid-fifties, and she had been one for over twenty years. She owned a Witchcraft shop, and trained people in the craft, but she had not been raised as a Witch. She was raised in an Irish Catholic home. She remembered threats of Hell, and never quite identified with what seemed to be the cruel God of Catholicism. She knew that some Christians believed she was a baby sacrificing, Satan worshiper, but she assured me that she did not even believe in the existence of Satan, and had raised her own children. She told stories of people asking her what babies tasted like, and how many cats she had sacrificed.
The second woman was in her early thirties, and identified herself as a solitary Witch. This meant that she did not have a coven, and did not gather on any regular basis with other Witches. She did not care to practice spells, and simply performed a daily ritual which sounded like a session of silent prayer. She did not grow up in a Christian home, but she did work for a large Christian Book Company. She was appalled by the hypocrisy, judgmentalism and gossiping of her Christian co-workers, and had wondered for quite some time if this was the typical state of the Evangelical Christian faith.
The third woman was Jewish, and in her mid-thirties. She was not actually a Witch, she was a Druid. She was raised as an Orthodox Jew, and went to Hebrew school when she was young. After a series of spiritual searches beginning in her late teens which included Christianity, and Buddhism, she found herself drawn to Druidism, and now owned a small Celtica store in town. She was strongly polytheistic, and thought that Monism (the belief that everything is one), and its counterparts, which for her includes Monotheism were part of the problem of violence and struggle in our world.
All three women thought that it was preposterous that Christians believed that Witches and other occult practitioners made a regular practice of cursing churches, or Christians. "I don't even have time for that kind of nonsense," the first woman remarked.
The end of the break came, and it was time for the next conference session to begin. John and I were leading the discussion panel, and so I began with a short introduction, "This is what a Witch looks like. Is it what you expected?" The attenders at our Christian conference laughed.
Now it was their turn to tell their stories, and relate their struggles of living as Neo-Pagans in a predominantly Christian world.
Many Christian churches would be afraid to allow a discussion panel with people from other religious beliefs, but we weren't one of those churches. We believe listening and learning are as critical to the Gospel as preaching, and this was our opportunity to show our beliefs in a practical way to our Neo-Pagan friends.
After an hour and a quarter, we were done with the session. The three Pagan ladies thanked us for allowing them to share their lives, and the first woman who had been practicing the craft as a professional in Salem for almost twenty years said this event was the first of its kind she knew of in the city.
The church applauded. The applause rang with appreciation for their courage to sit before us, and tell their stories. I wondered if this had happened in any other evangelical Christian Church anywhere.
Could it be that Christians in Salem had lived side by side with Pagans since the inception of the Neo-Pagan revival (which began in the late 1960's), and never really knew what they believed, and what they were like as people? Apparently, it is possible, and we were wondering how effective it has been in reaching people with the message of God's love.
Does the smell of death from 1692 still linger over our city, and is this what makes dialogue so difficult? I think not, but perhaps the false reports of baby eating, Satan worshiping Pagans does infect the minds of some church goers, and that stench of death just might be enough to keep Pagans from the pews.