Finding room for religious freedom

Pagans seek, find room for religious freedom

Pagans: After protesters drove them from one meeting spot, a Carroll church offered sanctuary.

Childs Walker

Sun Staff

April 01, 2003

Gathered in the cramped but comfortable basement of a Finksburg church on a recent Friday night, the pagans joked about the difficulties of raising children and staying married. They riffed on contradictions they've found in the Christian Bible. They shared frustrations about growing up overweight, gay and apostate.

Some wore inverted silver stars around their necks and displayed elaborate tattoos. One pony-tailed man, a first-timer, described himself as a dragon lover. The group enthusiastically passed a book by a Wiccan priestess named Silver RavenWolf.

But most of the time, the 10 men and women sounded like any batch of people reaching out for support.

"We don't seem that scary, do we?" asked Jennifer Harvilak, a perpetually smiling mother and preschool teacher from Westminster who leads the weekly discussions.

Outside, not a single protester walked the dark, wooded lot where the church stands, a few hundred feet off a commercial strip of storefronts and restaurants on Route 140. For the pagans, that was a happy change. In Taneytown, demonstrators routinely paced outside the group's Friday night meetings at the Irish Moon coffee house, reciting biblical passages.

Worn down by the protests and a corresponding loss of business, the owner of the coffee shop, Carl Oulton, asked the pagans to stop meeting there in January, they said. Letters to local newspapers followed, with some people decrying them as enemies of Christianity and others saying they were symbols of religious freedom who should be left to practice in peace.

The pagans, who call themselves the Carroll Adult Pagan Community, were bewildered that they had become the center of a debate about religious tolerance. But even under such scrutiny and with no place to meet, they remained resolute.

"I knew nobody wanted to let the turmoil break us up," Harvilak said.

Paganism is not guided by a single text such as the Bible or Quran. Members of the Carroll group like to say paganism can mean 100 things to 100 different people. But generally, pagans seem to believe in both a god and a goddess, embrace the natural world over the man-made one and associate spirituality with delivery of good and bad energy to those around them.

They hold celebrations that correspond roughly with Christian holidays, including one marking rebirth in the spring and another at the winter solstice in December.

Most in the Carroll group said they were raised in Christian households but found that they were not comfortable with traditional religion.

Harvilak grew up Catholic in Pasadena. She said she loved nature and believed femininity should have a greater place in religion, but she could not find a name or organized context for her beliefs. Her notion of pagans consisted of nose-wiggling, broom-riding and little else. So she called herself an agnostic.

In her early 20s, her quest for a religion brought her in touch with pagan readings, which seemed to match her beliefs. She made her new creed clear to all her friends and family when she chose to marry her husband, Kurt, in a pagan hand-fasting ceremony rather than a standard Christian wedding ceremony. The couple bound their hands together with a piece of rope and hopped over a broom to symbolize their transition into a new spiritual life.

Some of Harvilak's family remained skeptical - her father still calls paganism "a phase," she said - but she met a few other Carroll pagans online and they started dining together. Then, Harvilak said, Oulton contacted the pagans via e-mail and said they might want to check out his Celtic-themed coffee shop, which opened in 2001.

Oulton didn't identify himself as a pagan, but demonstrated an interest in New Age ideas, Harvilak said, so the shop seemed a comfortable fit. Thus began the Friday night tradition of gathering at Irish Moon for food, coffee and religious discussion.

Taneytown officials had hailed the coffee shop opening as a sign of new sophistication on the town's main drag. But once word of the pagan meetings got out, Christian protesters began holding Friday night vigils outside.

The pagans say they're not sure where the protesters came from, but they weren't particularly bothered by them. The pagan group, which could range from five to 40 people on a given night, had a good laugh when Oulton serenaded the Bible readers with a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace."

But the friction grew more serious, Harvilak said, when business tailed off at the coffee shop, especially on Friday nights. She said Oulton told them they would have to move out or he would risk losing his business.

Reached at the shop recently, Oulton said he did not want to talk about the pagans.

But people have spent the last month writing back and forth about his action.

"So glad that the owners of the coffee shop were able to see the Light of the nature behind certain instigators of this group," wrote Beth Runkles of New Windsor on the Carroll County Times Web site.

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