|A high priest lights sage for the Samhain (Halloween) ritual.|
No, this is not an adult Sunday-school class. These are members of Summerland Grove, Memphis' only pagan church, at their monthly Sunday-night meeting, and they're listening to the words of a woman named Tammy, who has traveled from another pagan church out of town to deliver a speech.
The group is made up of Wiccans, "druids," and members of other pagan religions. They worship a number of deities that represent two parts of one whole: a Goddess and a God.
These witches are not the old green-faced hags of lore, with pointy black hats and riding rickety broomsticks past the full moon. Nor do they sacrifice babies or virgins or have wild orgies at the stroke of midnight. They're simply people who happen to have an intense love for Mother Earth. Some might even call them tree-huggers.
The members of Summerland Grove come together to worship their deities and share in common rituals, the same reasons members of most other religions congregate. Only, paganism is a little different from most other religions.
"All right, everybody! Line up according to your astrological sign. I need Fire signs over here, Air signs here, Earth there, and Water over there," says the High Priestess Gaia as she directs participants in the Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) ancestor ritual.
Witches in ceremonial robes of varying color and texture hustle around the crowded dining hall in a cabin at Meeman-Shelby Forest as they attempt to follow Gaia's instructions. They're attending Summerland Grove's annual Festival of Souls, the celebration of Samhain (Halloween), the pagan new year.
Once they're lined up, they're given some instruction regarding the ritual they are about to take part in. There's no goofing around, and anyone who arrives late is not allowed inside the circle. Gaia makes sure no one's allergic to sage or pomegranates, which will be used in the ritual, and then goes over the order in which things will happen.
After a quick bathroom break, they are led outside to the ritual circle, which is lined with candles and torches. Once everyone's in formation, the high priestess and high priest begin to call upon the Lord and Lady, and the ritual -- which involves individuals calling upon their ancestors for guidance in the coming year -- commences.
Explaining the specifics of the ritual could take up a book, but, in short, it's a set of practices witches perform to clear their minds of secular thoughts and connect them with their deity. It's sort of like prayer, only it involves tools such as incense, wands, candles, and athames (ritual knives -- not used for actual cutting). Some witches may also wear cloaks during ritual, but they're not required.
"Ritual takes me out of the mundane. I lived in the mundane for a damn long time, and I still do. Now I have breaks, and these breaks provide me with sanity. By totally getting out of myself, even if it's only for an hour a month, I come back refreshed," says Trudy Herring, a jovial church elder, who serves as Summerland Grove's council president.
To understand ritual, you must first have a general understanding of the pagan belief system. It may come as a surprise to many, but pagans or witches do not worship the devil. In fact, they don't even believe in the devil.
"Pagan" is an umbrella term that refers to a number of different faiths: Wicca, druidism, even Native American faiths. Basically, a pagan is someone who practices a polytheistic religion. Instead of paying homage to only one god, as in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, pagans honor any number of deities, all of which are considered parts of one larger deity, who is separated into feminine and masculine aspects: the God and the Goddess, also known as the Lord and the Lady.
"It's a revival of the pre-Christian religions, the time when Earth was revered as a Goddess or a deity and when natural phenomena were given deity status," explains church elder Scott Sumers, a tall, lanky fellow wearing a safari hat and a blue-jean shirt.
Many believe Wicca stemmed from druidism, but its exact origins are unknown. Wiccans are pagans who share the basic belief that one can do whatever one wishes so long as it doesn't bring harm to anyone else, an idea known as the Wiccan Rede ("And if it harms none, do as ye will"). The Rede is the heart of the Wiccan religion and is the one concept that most witches embrace. The rest is up to the individual. The practice and belief systems of witchcraft tend to be eclectic.
If there's one thing that automatically comes to mind when most people think of witches, it's "magick" and spells. But these witches cannot move books with their minds or cast spells to make you win the lottery.
"Magick is not the Harry Potter type of magick, although I really want to know how to blow on a candle and make it light," says Herring, laughing. "Basically, it mixes the three parts of the human together: heart, mind, and spirit. It doesn't change the physical world around you, but it reprograms my mind to get what I need or what I want."
For example, if a witch wanted to bring more love into her life, she could perform a love spell. But this doesn't mean that she actually believes the next Brad Pitt look-alike that comes along will swoon at first glimpse. She believes the spell will simply give her more confidence, making it easier for her to find love. Magick "works" on the principle that it's easier to get what you want if you truly believe in yourself, and it's generally performed through a ritual of some sort.
Most pagans use ritual on a daily basis, but there are eight major holidays, or Sabbats, on which witches meet to perform ritual. The witches of Summerland Grove join together on these special days of the year to feast and honor their deities, as they do each year at the Festival of Souls. Other pagan holidays include Ostara (the Christian Easter), which is celebrated with colored eggs and all the usual Easter fare minus images of the risen Jesus, and Yule (Christmas), which involves an exchange of gifts and a large feast.
After death, pagans believe they go to a place called Summerland (hence the church's name), the pagan version of heaven. In Summerland, the spirit rests as it reflects on its past lives while waiting to go into the next one. Pagans generally believe in reincarnation, and with each new body they inhabit, they believe they gain new knowledge.
"By gaining as much knowledge as I can, I am brought closer to godlike status. Eventually, I think we will be absorbed by the whole: the Akasha, the Spirit, or the Chi," explains Sumers. The idea is similar to the Hindu system of reincarnation, in which the ultimate goal is to become the godlike Brahman.
So if they're just reincarnated nature-lovers, where do all these crazy stories of sacrifice and devil worship come from? Herring and Sumers believe many of the misconceptions about paganism stem from ignorance and old beliefs dating back to the days of the Inquisition.
"The Catholic Church spent a great deal of time eradicating paganism from Europe, and a lot of the stories that came back were about pagans sacrificing humans. Did they do that? Probably so, but only in extreme cases," says Herring.
Another of Herring's theories about how pagans are misunderstood concerns their worship of a horned god associated with preparation of the harvest and protection of wildlife. She believes early Christians may have mistaken this god for the devil.
"I think a lot of fear and misunderstanding about paganism comes from not being exposed to it. A lot of people have been brought up to believe that anything non-Christian is satanic or evil. They don't wish to learn about it, because by learning about it, they believe they too become evil," says Sumers.
Church was supposed to start at 7 o'clock, but most of the cars began pulling in around 7:30 p.m. They call this Pagan Standard Time, meaning that things get started when they get started and end when they end. As people arrive, they're greeted and then take a seat in the circle of chairs arranged on a church member's brick patio. While they wait for church to begin, members talk. Cigarette smoke and myriad conversations fill the air.
Finally, Herring rises and announces that the meeting will begin. After several announcements are made, all eyes turn to the guest speaker. Tammy captivates her listeners for nearly an hour as she discusses her personal belief system, using anecdotes from significant spiritual moments in her life -- like the time when a grandaddy longlegs, perched on her drinking glass, helped her to understand the vast web created by the human search for spirituality.
And although her path may have been different from that of other church members, she is embraced and accepted. "Celebrating Diversity in the Pagan Community" is Summerland's motto. Other than sharing the central pagan belief of honoring the earth, the elders decided that the only requirement for church membership was that members be themselves and respect others for who they are.
"The basic goal we want for any member is to find themselves and become the best person they can possibly be. That will benefit the community as a whole, even the mundane community. Being the best person you can be is the closest thing to divinity," says Sumers.
Although the original coven was Wiccan, the group decided the church should be considered pagan, opening it up to more people. The church began as a small coven of witches in 1994. Covens usually have a leader, and the rules are strict. But these members wanted a different kind of coven.
"Someone suggested starting a leaderless coven where we were all on the same level. I was very frustrated with the whole leadership of covens, so we decided that, no matter what, we'd always be on the same level," says Sumers.
And so a leaderless coven was formed. But after a member claimed to be having trouble with the Department of Human Services due to her religious beliefs, the group decided that they should go a step further and become a legal church in hopes of curtailing future problems. After drafting bylaws, filling out paperwork, and paying a registration fee, the group became a legal church.
Summerland claims 220 members, 84 of whom are active and have paid a yearly membership fee of $15. The fee pays for the quarterly newsletter, the mailing of membership certificates and cards, and Summerland Grove bumper stickers.
"Before, we didn't charge for membership; it usually just came out of our pockets. When membership was free, we had over 2,000 members. That got costly real quick," says Sumers.
The group has council meetings once a month, at which elected officers plan church events. And the church also hosts special ceremonies such as weddings, known as "handfastings," because during the ceremony the couple's hands are fastened with a cord.
Members interested in leadership positions within the church are given the opportunity to advance by using the church's Realm System. It's divided into five levels, each named after an element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit).
With each level, members read certain texts. Some other requirements: "spend a lot of time with Mother Nature" or "write, lead, and perform two rituals." Members who have passed the Fourth Realm (Water) are considered high priests or priestesses. Those who've passed the Fifth Realm (Spirit) become church clergy.
"I've often said one of the hardest parts about paganism is that the book of paganism is written on your heart. It's not published by anybody. So you really have to trust yourself. The [Realm] System is an excellent way to go through that process," says Herring, a member of the clergy.
Summerland Grove has generally been well accepted by the community at large. They regularly participate in charity events and volunteer work, such as cleaning up the Chucalissa Indian Village in South Memphis and collecting canned foods for MIFA each year.
"I think it has an awful lot to do with the fact that we really have striven not to be the scary people. You wouldn't pick me out for a witch walking down the road," says Herring, jokingly. "Grandma, yeah, but not one of them witch people."
Summerland Grove, like other national pagan organizations, strives to get rid of the old, negative ideas about witches. They're trying to create a more positive image -- that they're simply worshipers of nature and revivers of the ancient Goddess-worshiping religions, not devil-worshiping freaks.
"We have different beliefs, but we try not to go around and 'boogie-boogie, hocus-pocus' people. That's not helping our image any, and that's honestly not what we believe," says Sumers. "We don't believe we're different from anybody else."
For more information about Summerland, visit the Web site at Summerland.org.