A Visit to America's Bible Belt

Byron Ballard calls the Quarters, Beltane 2010 at French Broad River Park, Asheville, North Carolina.

Article & Photos by Hank Eder

Southern, Pagan & Proud

A Visit to America's Bible Belt

Hidden in Plain Sight

Crickets chant their cry of ages. Frogs sing their hearts out in a symphony of pulsing rhythm, blending the high soprano squeaks of tiny tree dwellers with the basso profundo of giant bullfrogs. Somewhere in the distance a bobcat screams like the Bean Sidhe. The night is alive with sound and washed in the ethereal light of the full moon, coyly revealing Her face through the willows. Stars and faerie lights — fireflies by the thousands — drift along the hills, flashing their yellow-green vacancy signs. This is a glorious summer night in the heart of the American South, the kind of night only country dwellers ever get to see.

The snap of a twig heralds a rustling in the leaves. A small band of Wiccans wends its way through the dark trees, emerging into a secret glade. Tonight is a night of wonder and power. They will call the Quarters, invoke the God and Goddess, and partake of wine and cakes and soaring visions.

There is deep magick in these woods. A confluence of cultures mixed and mingled, merging their knowledge of Earth and Her ways into a mélange unique to this enigmatic land. Native shamans once roamed these woods; Africans brought here as slaves brought their tears — and their traditions. The Faerie folk followed the Scots and Irish to these lush mountains and valleys and their paths of power remain to this day all across the South, hidden in plain sight among the steeples of the ubiquitous churches.

Another name for this part of America is the "Bible Belt." Its people are rooted in the traditions of their ancestors. Life moves more slowly here than Up North, and religious belief systems are firmly entrenched. The wise women and crones, the healers, the old Southern Witches and Hoodoo Men all share the towns, woods, swamps, hills, and valleys with their Christian neighbors. Some are not shy to share their gifts with their neighbors. Others hide in the "broom closet" for fear of losing their jobs or being victims of deep prejudice. Luckily that is changing, even here where things like to stay the same. Pagans are stepping out into the larger community, showing their neighbors that they are not to be feared, that they are more alike than different. The words "Southern" and "Pagan" are no longer oxymorons.

 

Winding the Maypole at Beltane Ritual, May 1, 2010, Asheville, North Carolina.

 

Overcoming Myths

Much of what the public "knows" about Pagans comes from Hollywood. Movies like The Craft, and TV shows like Buffy and Charmed do little to portray the lifestyles and beliefs of real Pagans; neither does what people "learn" about Paganism in most churches. In the South, where Pagans have traditionally been circumspect about their faith, such sources of "information" form the backdrop against which today's Pagans live their lives.

Lisa Barfield-McCarty, an ordained Pagan minister in Pearl, MS, believes that public perception of the Pagan community is tainted by mistaken semantics."Most folks in our area tend to think a 'Pagan' is either a Satan-worshipper or an atheist. We have churches on nearly every corner, and the Ten Commandments are proudly displayed on government buildings and privately-owned businesses," she notes. "Driving down the road, I can't tell you the number of bumper stickers proclaiming Jesus' love for us. There is not a single area of our daily life which is not in some way affected by being in the spiritual minority. Meanwhile we Pagans live very private lives and go out of our way to not stand out, yet we are still met with ignorance and criticism once our differences are known. It gets a bit frustrating."

Toni Stephenson, of Clinton, Tennessee, has been practicing an "eclectic" form of Dianic Wicca for almost two decades. She remained low-key during the years her husband worked at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Once I invited a friend to a circle," Toni recalls. "She did not understand that it was a Witches' circle, and she became very uncomfortable. Even people who are open to alternative healing, drumming, crystal work, and Reiki can still very closed when they find out you are Pagan or Wiccan. "

Education Leads to Understanding.

Keep Ashville WeirdAsheville, North Carolina, is an oasis of tolerance smack in the middle of the Appalachian mountains. Asheville's reputation for diversity and tolerance is echoed in bumper stickers and in a local joke that states there are more Wiccans in the Asheville woods than rabbits. Dixie Deerman (Lady Passion) is a Third-degree Gardnerian Elder, High Priestess of Coven Oldenwilde in Asheville, and author of The Goodly Spellbook: Olde Spells for Modern Problems. Lady Passion points toward the role of community education in improving the perception of Pagans in her area. "As with the advancements made on behalf of women's and gay rights, the explosion in Witch numbers and collective activism has increased the public's goodly perception of our kind," Lady Passion states. "When we went public in 1994, no one in Asheville knew the difference between a Pagan, a Witch, and a Wiccan. After two years of educating the public via the media, we were accepted by the community."

Dr. Frances Bennett lives in Huntsville, Alabama, where she owns a Pagan store called This & That Metaphysical Supplies. "People here can be quite narrow-minded, but it is becoming more open," she notes, although some people still think of Pagans as devil-worshippers, an accusation she finds bemusing. "Pagans don't even believe in the Devil," she comments wryly, "That's a Christian thing."

Susan George lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where she is an officer of the newly-formed United Metaphysical Sanctuary. She believes that public perception of Pagans in her area is typical of the Deep South. "When I moved to Mississippi in my twenties, I found that having been raised in a different atmosphere was problematic; the attitude of distrusting that which is different from you is still the rule, rather than the exception. Part of my goal with our new group is for the public to see that I am not out in the woods burning animal parts or having wild orgies, just honoring the Earth and being the healer I was born to be."

Lord Morpheus is High Priest of the Coven of the Goddess Moon in Orlando, Florida. Morpheus claims a deeper understanding of evangelical Christianity than most Wiccans as he spent over a decade in the Church of God Pentecostal, first as a youth pastor and then as an associate minister of a church in Pennsylvania. After becoming disillusioned with fundamentalist Christian teachings, he found his way to Wicca. Morpheus credits Florida's diverse mixture of cultures with creating a more positive public perception of Paganism. "Florida has a deeply-rooted tradition of African and Caribbean religions, so here in Orlando, the perception of Paganism is generally good."

Holli S. Emore, the director of Cherry Hill Seminary, an online college for Pagan ministers, lives in Columbia, South Carolina. "Most people don't know what 'Pagan' means, though if you say 'Witch,' they have an idea," Holli notes. "They're more open here than people realize, but the Far Right dominates public discourse, and as a business consultant, I'm well aware that if I was a lot more public about being Pagan, I might lose some business. But when I speak to people one-onone, or in small groups, people are open to learning more, and often pleasantly surprised when they do."

Byron BallardAsheville's "Village Witch," Byron Ballard, blogs for the Asheville Citizen-Times. An Appalachian family-trad Witch, Ms. Ballard notes that improving public perception has been an ongoing process. "I don't want people to think there was a magical transformation in Asheville. We've worked hard at reaching out and educating the larger community." She told a story about raising her daughter. "She was in preschool at four, and she told one of her classmates 'my Mom's a witch.' The teacher met me to talk about it and said, 'She called you a witch but we corrected her.' I assured them that I was, in fact, a Witch, and that it wasn't a bad name."

Ground Zero for Pagan Civil Rights

Freedom of religion is a cherished American constitutional right, but even though the "equal protection" clause of the 14th Amendment dictates that no person shall be discriminated against in employment, housing, or education because of their religion, Pagans in the South continue to be persecuted for believing differently.

Susan G., a nurse in Jackson, Mississippi, spoke of a double standard in her workplace. "In the hospital, I see a move to understand the needs of our patients and their varied cultures. But sadly, this doesn't extend to us as employees. I have to be careful about how I conduct myself in public; what I say, or even the jewelry that I wear is scrutinized. If I call attention to the fact that I believe differently from the Christians around me, I could lose the job I have worked at for fifteen years," she laments.

Lisa Barfield-McCarty speaks of a woman who used to attend local circles and meetings, but then dropped out of sight. "She lost custody of her children during divorce proceedings, and was restricted to supervised visits only," Lisa said. "She told me that the judge made it very clear this was due to her association with 'Pagans and homosexuals.'"

Cerea is a minister at Summerland Grove Pagan Church in Memphis, but she still finds it necessary to keep her Pagan activities out of the limelight. "When I went through a divorce, I lost custody of my child because of my beliefs. My husband waltzed into court and said, 'She's a Witch.' As a result, the judge granted full custody to my husband." Cerea isn't alone; she tells of one of her parishioners, whose children are open about their family's beliefs."They have been harassed at school for being Pagan, some teachers even suggested they should be home-schooled to keep them away from the other children," she notes.

Lady Passion and her group, Asheville's Coven Oldenwilde, fought to eliminate a state law that made psychic readings and divining illegal. "The 53-year-old statute forbade 'psychism, phrenology, and any divination that wasn't for entertainment only' at schools and church festivals," she said. "It took us six years to rescind, but our success has empowered Witches nationwide."

Coven Oldenwilde also works to support the rights of Pagan inmates nationwide. Among their successes was forcing prisons to allow Pagan tools, ceremonial wine, Sabbat foods, and outdoor rites. "Wiccan inmates had negligible rights when we began prison clergy work in 1995. Now we routinely win such battles and sponsor thousands of Pagan and Wiccan inmates nationwide," notes Lady Passion proudly.

Tish Owen, owner of The Goddess and The Moon in Nashville, Tennessee, recounted a confrontation with law enforcement at a handfasting ceremony in 2002 as an example of the discrimination Pagans face when conducting public rituals in the South.

"As we were bringing down the circle and asking for blessings and protections on the park, six park rangers roared into the area with searchlights on, guns raised, and screamed at us to freeze. The officers demanded to know where 'the other people were,' and when we tried to answer, we were told to answer only when we were asked a question. We were searched, questioned, and verbally abused, all while we had our hands raised and guns pointed at us. Our legal permit was produced within two minutes of the rangers' arrival, but that did not satisfy them.

"The officers searched our belongings, including our ritual gear, confiscated our sword and athame — after driving them both into a picnic table to prove they were sharp — and they were clearly driven by testosterone, adrenalin, fear and hatred." Eventually, after extensive communications with the agency involved, the ritual tools were returned, the rangers wrote a letter of apology and were taught a class (by Tish!) on understanding neo-Pagan culture."We were pretty satisfied with the resolution," Tish comments. "But of course, it would have been better if it had never happened at all."

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