Flourishing, pagan groups get organized

Mainstreaming of beliefs includes a scouting club


In a quiet room at the back of the Westchester Community Center in Oella, Ostara Hollyoak organizes the half-dozen young children and their mothers into a small circle. The youngsters settle down as she lights a thick green candle at their center. She leads them in a pledge.

"I promise to serve the Wise Ones," say Caleb, Hannah, Holly and the others, "to honor and respect the Earth. To be helpful and understanding to all people, and always keep love in my heart."

The Saturday morning meeting in Baltimore County of Spiral Dance Circle No. 101 has begun. For the next 90 minutes or so, the boys and girls ages 4 to 8 -- joined by a couple of younger siblings not old enough for membership -- will share pictures showing where they feel closest to nature, listen to a Lakota Sioux creation myth and then break for a party.

The children who have gathered in costume two days before Halloween are Maryland's SpiralScouts, local members of an international youth group founded by and primarily for pagans -- Wiccans, Druids and adherents of any of several other nature-revering belief systems that trace their roots to pre-Christian traditions.

The diffuse nature of the community, the lack of a centralized authority and the private character of practice make them difficult to count. But analysts estimate that the number of pagans active in the United States has grown from perhaps a few thousand in the middle of the 20th century to between a few hundred thousand and a few million.

To a phenomenon that has flourished in part as an alternative to institutional religion, such growth is bringing increasing organization. SpiralScouts is one of several examples of mainstreaming within paganism. Segments of the community are training clergy, forming churches, giving school presentations and leading public charity.

The push toward the mainstream, which is not welcomed by all pagans, can be seen at least in part as a protective instinct. Federal courts have recognized Wicca as a religion protected by the Constitution. The military, universities and prisons are catering to the needs of pagans. Individual practitioners are joining interfaith councils and academic conferences.

But in a culture in which their beliefs may be equated with Satanism -- although most pagans say they don't believe in Satan -- some continue to face discrimination. Last year, a county judge in Indiana ordered a divorced couple who practiced Wicca against exposing their son to "non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals." The ruling was overturned this year by a higher court.

In another measure that was reversed, the Board of Supervisors of Chester County, Va., refused in 2002 to allow a Wiccan to join the list of clergy who deliver prayers to open meetings. And former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, campaigned against allowing pagan service members to use a military base for services.

Still, a growing organization is presenting challenges of its own.

"It's going to change them. I think it is changing them," says West Chester University of Pennsylvania sociologist Helen Berger, the author of A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States.

Kirk White calls it "uncharted territory."

White is president of Cherry Hill Seminary -- a school in Bethel, Vt., that by training pagan clergy is part of the trend toward organization.

"The real trick," White says, "because paganism sees itself in a lot of ways as an alternative to mainstream culture, is how do we meet the developing needs and mature without selling out our values?"

At Westchester Community Center, the children have arrived as a witch, a butterfly, a race-car driver. While children of all backgrounds will don costumes and go door to door tonight demanding candy, pagans recognize the holiday as Samhain.

The Celtic festival, which is pronounced "SOW-in," marks the period when it was believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Elements of the pre-Christian holiday have been incorporated into the Christian observance of All Souls' Day and the popular celebration of Halloween.

The children of Spiral Dance Circle No. 101 sing a song about a Halloween pumpkin. Ami Gregor, who leads the circle with her husband, Ferenc Gregor, and their friend Hollyoak , tells them that the first jack-o'-lanterns were made from turnips to scare away evil spirits.

Hollyoak says that they were also used to guide departed ancestors home, and Lillian Henry adds that trick-or-treating came from the tradition of leaving out food for spirits.

Richard Davis, 8, Henry's son, has been coming to meetings since the circle formed over the summer.

"I like learning about lots of stuff," he says.

Elizabeth Porter brought her son Caleb, 4, after a relative urged her to enroll him in a Christian Sunday school.

"I don't have a problem with that," she says. "But I wanted him to have exposure to what I believe, too."

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