- Category: Magical Places
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.
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.
Asheville, 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."
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."
In-and-Out of the Broom Closet
For folks who are fully "out" about their Pagan beliefs, living in the "Broom Closet" may seem to be an antiquated notion, but for many in the rural South, it's a daily fact of life. Toni Stephenson used to meet with a Dianic Coven in Knoxville, Tennessee. "We eventually stopped meeting," she reports, "because many of the members felt that their careers would be damaged if it was found out they were practicing Wicca.
In addition, many of our members wanted their children to attend, but were afraid to let them because children are not as discrete as adults."
Once her husband retired from his job at Oak Ridge, Toni was less concerned about keeping a low profile. "I have felt like I need to come out of the closet and show what kind of person I am," Toni said, "to show mainstream people that one does not have to be a Christian to be kind and caring. I have an opportunity to show what a Wiccan is, that we're not someone to be afraid of."
Grant Blakeney lives in Jackson, Mississippi and is the public relations representative for the United Metaphysical Sanctuary. Grant has had to deal with not one, but two closets. "Life as a gay Pagan male in Mississippi. My mother used to tell me stories about my grandmother seeing spirits, but I never really thought much about it until I was older and coming to terms with my sexuality — and my religion." Grant searched to find a spiritual home, but only found acceptance when he discovered the Pagan path.
Grant is no longer secretive about who he is and what he believes. "My Christian friends tell me I'm a great Christian," he chuckled. "When they find out I'm a Pagan, they're always surprised. We want to show everyone that just because we're different doesn't mean we're bad."
The Broom Closet may be waning as the current generation of Pagans — some of whom have grown up in the movement — come of age. Young Pagans seem to be more upfront about their beliefs.
Jancine Wersheck, owner of The Oak and The Ivy in Safety Harbor, Florida, has noticed this in her area."The elders are very slow to come out for pub moots and events. The youth are more open," she notes, "and more willing to discuss their belief systems — upfront, but in a non-confrontational way. We're chipping away at the idea that we have to be secretive. The occult is no longer a cult."
Jancine admires the actions of those who have openly declared themselves as Pagans. "I have great respect for those who have paved the way. They laid the foundation for our freedom to practice openly."
Lord Alexian, a music teacher and High Priest of the Coven of the Twisted Oak in Orlando, also has to deal with two closets as a gay Pagan man. "I'm out of the gay closet, but still somewhat in the broom closet," he said. "As a music teacher, I have to be selective about who I tell that I'm Pagan. I have lost students over the fact that I'm a Wiccan."
Alexian also spoke of an incident when he ran into bigotry as a customer of a local art store. "I came to pick up my print and it was beautiful. But then the owner asked, 'Is it true you're a Witch?' I told him 'yes,' and he said, 'I won't be doing any more business with you. Don't go casting any spells on me for it.' I walked right up to him and got in his face and said, 'I forgive you.' He really wasn't expecting that."
Trudy Herring, a clergy member of Summerland Grove Pagan Church in Memphis, explained how someone could be out of the closet — but still be discrete. "I'm out of the broom closet, but I don't run around with a big sign that says, 'I'm Pagan,'" she comments. "Generally, it makes more sense to get to know someone first; then they know you for the person you are, and don't judge you just as a Pagan."
Holli Emore believes the Broom Closet is still a fact of life in her area. "Most of us are pretty firmly in it. I need to take care of my family; I need to make a living. The notion is 'come out when you can, as you can, in your own way,'" she notes.
Holli believes it's not just important to come out, but how you come out really counts. "If I had a bully pulpit, I'd say to all Pagans we owe it to each other to have as much integrity as possible. The goal is not to seek attention to ourselves, but to provide a safe, supportive community for all of us. One carryover from earlier days is secrecy. But secrecy can build a degree of distrust. People ask, 'What are you hiding?'
If people know us as PTA mothers and co-workers, then it's not so scary when they find out we're a Druid or a Witch."
Susan George keeps a low profile in Jackson, Mississippi, but sees hope that people will become more open and accepting. "As Pagans all we can do is be brave, and take that first step out of the dark," she said. "That is a scary thing because groups of people who live to hate others are still vocal here. I have never been attacked or verbally abused, yet I am careful not to give offense. I think it is our responsibility to not only strive to live in harmony with the Earth, but with each other. Sometimes that means taking it slow and easy. To my fellow Pagans I say, 'Do not give up hope. Live your life by example and others will learn.' This is what must be done if we have a hope of growing beyond the Burning Times to take our place in society's light."
Growing a Sense of Community
All across the Bible Belt, people are beginning to stand up and proudly proclaim who they truly are. In some areas, Pagans are building their own sanctuaries and creating formal faith communities that parallel those of the Christian institutions people are used to. David Chadwick is High Priest of the Southern Delta Church of Wicca -ATC in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Both a law enforcement officer and a visible member of the Pagan clergy, David spoke of the challenges he faces. "Being in law enforcement has helped in some circles; however, wearing a badge keeps you in the spotlight, Add 'Pagan clergy' to the mix, and I'm under a microscope."
David's profession has enabled him to educate police and Pagans on how to get along. He also uses his skills to build effective security teams for events such as Pagan Pride Day, festivals, and special gatherings. His ideas come from practical experience. "I have to work hard to educate the public to help clear the air of misconceptions; for example, I instituted wearing clergy uniforms even when I do secular duties. I wear a triquerta as a sacred symbol rather than the pentacle — which causes too much uneasiness in this area — and as this symbol is sacred both to Christians and Pagans it doesn't immediately alarm non-Pagans. The one thing I have learned is lead by example. I find if I respect the beliefs of others, that respect will, most often, be returned in kind."
Respect can also be earned by taking a stand, even an unpopular one. Asheville's Lady Passion and her supporters waged a protracted campaign to prevent a developer from killing two ancient twin-entwined magnolia trees and paving a park in front of Asheville's iconic City Hall. "My mate and I risked death while protecting the trees for three-and-a-half months by living and sleeping beneath them even through Hurricane Fay, riling folks up, and getting 9,000 signatures on a petition for the City Council to save the trees. With the public pressure we brought to bear, the developer spared the trees and acceded to our demand to historically preserve an adjacent building as well.
In Pearl, Mississippi, a dedicated group of Pagans has recently established the United Metaphysical Sanctuary (UMS). Its mission is to provide sanctuary and services for metaphysical seekers while fostering understanding and cooperation among all paths. Lisa Barfield McCarty is the chairman and CEO. She and others in her area share a vision of a place where Pagans can come together. "Many of us have had this same vision," Lisa said. "We're surrounded by places of worship for those of other faiths, now we're coming together to create one of our own."
Bobby Kearan (Graywalker) is a financial officer of UMS. "We would like to provide alternative faith families with the same services and sanctuary normally reserved for Christians,"
Bobby said. "A lot of us were raised in Christian churches, and we long for the sense of community an organized faith provides." Other founding members have similar feelings. Susan George said, "So much of the Pagan community is alone. We're flung far and between.
One of our goals is to let Pagans know 'you're not alone.' It's more than rituals, more than dressing up and celebrating Sabbats. You're Pagan all the time. It's about picnics, going to the bookstore, and fellowship. These things are lacking — specifically for Southern Pagans."
Byron Ballard, Asheville's "Village Witch," organizes community events through Mother Grove Goddess Temple. Mother Grove's website states, "We are building a Temple where we may welcome our babies, marry our lovers, and bury our dead." Byron pointed out how having a physical temple is important. "It's the only way Pagan traditions can grow in a new way — by having a building," Byron observes. "We may be 'nature people,' but we still need a place to come in and get warm and dry when we've been out getting cold and wet." Mother Grove currently sponsors a public ritual for each of the Holy Days.
According to Byron, Pagans are reaching out in a number of ways. "Some people are gravitating towards temples; others are finding new ways to express their spirituality, such as sustainability and local agriculture movements," she notes. "Instead of small insular pods of Pagan groups, we're seeing much more fluid groups that are interacting with the larger community. The smaller spiritual community grows stronger by making these connections."
Mother Grove Goddess Temple is the sponsor of Mother's Cornucopia Project, a growing food pantry helping to feed the hungry in the surrounding community.
A gift of non-perishable food items is encouraged at every Mother Grove event. Mother Grove also participates in Asheville's Earth Religions Awareness Month, which grew from a single week to the entire month of October.
Central Florida Pagan store owner Jancine Versheck sees community outreach as a way to spread the word. "People not involved in our inner circles will notice a community action like adopt-a-highway," she said. "We're not just here to help our own. We're here to help the Earth, the community at large, and people at large."
Lord Morpheus also believes community outreach is important. "Our Coven is very involved with the Wiccan Religious Cooperative of Florida (WRCF)," Morpheus says. "They've been around for years, and are very well-known in the community. We do a lot of community service and outreach, such as donating supplies to the Orlando Coalition for the Homeless."
Morpheus sees the already-large Florida Pagan community growing even more. "Here in Orlando, building community has to do with attending open rituals, gatherings, and events. In Florida, there's more of a trend toward open worship than a more secretive initiatory practice.
"I'd like to see Paganism and the Craft become more unified," he comments. "We need more networking and more community-building. Only through education can we transcend the barriers that separate us from the larger community. Through education, we can accept others' beliefs and be accepted. Oh, and the so-called 'Witch Wars' need to end. It's time for us to stand up together, side by side, and tell people we're here and we're not going away."
Ann Moura, author of the Green Witchcraft books, sees success in community building by recognizing the commonalities of all paths. "Realize that everyone follows their own path," Ann said. "We are all unique people. Everyone translates the energy around them in their own way. It doesn't matter how many are attending a gathering — each person is unique and sees it a different way. Be open to that. You really can't be dogmatic. You must accept the fact that everyone has a different vision, but all paths lead to the Divine."
Cerea, of Summerland Grove in Memphis, Tennessee, believes that the information age has made it easier for Pagans to find one another. "More people are turning to alternate spiritual paths, and we're easier to find due to the Internet," Cerea said. "As a church, all of our meetings and events are open to the public, and they're posted on the Web and event lists in the area."
Lord Alexian believes Pagan communities will grow as soon as more people are willing to get involved. "Actions speak louder than words," Alexian said. "We need people to volunteer and do something for the community. Wicca is a hands-on religion, and that implies action. People say, 'I'm a Witch,' but they don't even practice in their own homes. Show me a Witch with a clean altar, and I'll show you a Witch who doesn't practice. Be active."
Alexian urged Pagans to keep working, and to keep dreaming about successful community. "I come from a really small town in the Ozarks of Missouri," Alexian said. "When I found Wicca in Boston, I thought there is no way people would ever be open back where I'm from, but today there's a place called Wovenwold fifteen miles from the house I grew up in. And Circle Sanctuary PSG has moved to the Missouri Ozarks. So now I can literally go home, visit family, and go to a Pagan gathering all in one shot. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere."
Cherry Hill Seminary's Holli S. Emore believes interfaith efforts will foster Pagan community building. "It's time to get involved in interfaith, to support things like the Parliament of the World's Religions," she said. On a local level (Columbia, South Carolina) she was invited to be part of a chaplaincy project that helps people with AIDS. "A Christian chaplain pointed out, 'We don't have any Pagans.' This project will ensure that people get the help they need without needless proselytizing. A chaplain should be there to meet the needs of the individual person, not pushing their religion on anyone."
There's No Place Like Home
Why do so many Pagans make their home in the heartland of American Christianity? For some, the South is the place of their ancestors, and it has always been and always will be their home. For others, they find here a unique way of life; a place where old and new meet and greet at the crossroads of change.
"There is some part of me that seems to have bonded with the land," said Holli S. Emore. "The gentle hills and green of the Piedmont region of Western North Carolina and the mystical Blue Ridge Mountains are the places which stir my spirit. Like every part of this country, there are pros and cons to this culture, but it is my own roots, so am I comfortable here. As for the relative Pagan-friendliness of the South, I can say that there is definitely a civility here that I don't find everywhere," she asserts. "I believe this is partly a legacy of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights era. So, while the South has a well-deserved reputation for Bible-thumping, I haven't found it to be much less tolerant than other regions I've worked in. If people get to know you just a little, they are more likely to at least listen and be more accepting."
Byron Ballard, Asheville's "Village Witch," believes many of the Pagans who live in the South choose to do so because they are, in fact, Southerners. "Pagans aren't some exotic breed that migrates — well, not entirely," she said. "My family has been in the South since the early 17th century. They've been in the mountains for only a few decades less. So I'm a Southerner and a Pagan.
I practice traditional Appalachian hoodoo, which came with my family from Britain and Ireland, and became infused with the Native culture and African culture. So Witchcraft has been practiced here for a long, long time."
Bobby Kiernan, of Jackson, Mississippi, believes the South is a wonderful place to live. "I like to call Jackson, the state capital, the City in the Woods," he said. "From the tall buildings of most cities all
you can really see is more city. However, from the tops of the tall Jackson buildings, you see trees with little specks of city peeking out. We have the Natchez Trace Parkway here, which is a great place to find amazing locations for easy-toget-to rituals. There are state parks here that are still mostly untouched natural areas. You never have to go very far at all to find natural areas here in Mississippi."
Lady Passion spoke of how the blending of many different cultures makes the South a very special place. "Puritans persecuted places like Thomas Morton's Merrymount," she said, "causing many would-be free spirits to flee to the South, where the land was more verdant and the climate more temperate than that of New England. As the North coalesced into cities, slavery in the South brought in an influx of African-based Hoodoo and Voudon to Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Buffeted by the U.S. and French conflict, Canadian transplants in Louisiana clung to their folk magic practices as well. Displaced Native Americans spread their magic from Tennessee to the West, while immigrant Hispanics shared their folk magic in Texas and beyond. Folks in the Appalachians, Smokies, and Ozarks developed extensive magical practices based on local plants and mountain needs."
The rural nature of the South affords its inhabitants more access to the nature they revere and magically use to help themselves thrive, according to Lady Passion. "Since I have a 'passion' for the Craft, I go where the magic is, which is the South. I find the folks polite, with a sense of common fairness I find appealing, and with a slower, more healthy pace than the North."
The South may indeed still be the Bible Belt, but Pagans are making great strides towards becoming accepted members of the wider community. Some are recent transplants, while others have been here since the 17th century — as long as any non-Native settler. Fitting in has not always been easy, and there are still plenty of hills to climb, but as the Pagan community continues to learn to work side by side, one thing is certain; there's no place like home in the South to work some powerful magick.
Freelance journalist Hank Eder lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina. He has been a lifelong student of all things mystical. Eclectic by nature, he likens himself to the character in Hesse's Siddhartha, who borrows a little bit from many paths to make his own way. Hank has been a graphics designer, news reporter with the Miami Herald, middle school English teacher, and "busking" street musician. His current projects include a novel about Indigo Children, and co-writing a "dramady" screenplay about bipolar illness and canned religion, to be produced by an Asheville film company. You can catch up with Hank at email@example.com.
Find out more in Witches&Pagans #22 - The Community Issue