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L.A. at Large

Memo From Pagans: Relax, Will Ya?

The nature-loving faithful who gathered at the pride festival say they're nothing to be afraid of.

September 19, 2000|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

It's Pagan Pride Day, and hundreds of witches are out of the broom closet, flying high.

In a meeting room at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Long Beach, a priestess of the Yoruban goddess Yemaya is teaching an enraptured group of four men and four women how to read Tarot cards. The priestess, June Gerron from Orange, is telling her class that the woman-with-a-lion card is often interpreted as "power over your animal self--grrrrr!"

Near the entrance, Jon Elder is selling his services as a pagan psychotherapist--which means if you're into it, he can offer you magic spells to work wonders in your life. Say you're looking for a lover. Elder might suggest a nightly ritual and meditation, using a candle to represent yourself and objects to represent your ideal partner. As you move the objects closer to the candle, he says, you focus your subconscious on your heart's desires and work toward attracting them.

"Usual psychotherapy would probably recommend something like journaling, but that's left forebrain activity," says Elder, a pleasant man with a bushy beard. "If you do something with symbols, you're taking action."

At the gathering Saturday, all manner of witches, priestesses and pagans turned up to celebrate the autumnal equinox, assert their religious rights and promote accurate images of their faith. Let it be known: This is not a religion of green-faced hags, evil warlocks, black magic and satanic sex orgies. Those are Hollywood fantasies, pagans say or deliberate smears by Christian zealots who have mischaracterized their nature-loving religion since the days of the Inquisition.

"I feel misunderstood," says Peg Greenfield, who has rejected organized faith in favor of the ancient goddess tradition of Isis of Egypt. "People ask: Aren't witches bad people with nasty laughs and pointy hats who hurt people? No, we're not: We're peaceful and harm no one."

The Long Beach event was part of a growing pagan pride movement, with celebrations scheduled in 67 cities across the nation this month, according to Brian Ewing, an organizer. He and two others started the Pagan Pride Project of Los Angeles last year, after a Christian congressman from Georgia, Rep. Bob Barr, attacked pagans in the military who were trying to hold rituals at an Army base in Texas. The project is modeled after the gay pride movement, says Ewing, a 28-year-old Web site designer who says he was drawn to the pagan path after searching several years for a spirituality that would reflect his love of nature.

While the number of pagans in America is unknown, their visibility is increasing with growing numbers of books, Web sites and events. Nowadays, witches are seen as more trendy than terrifying, with positive portrayals in such films and TV shows as "Practical Magic," "Charmed" and "Sabrina the Teenage Witch."

And particularly in polyglot California, pagans say, most people are generally accepting: Ewing says his boss at a former restaurant job used to ask him to twitch his nose--a la Samantha in the old "Bewitched" TV show--to bring customers in on a slow day.

But pagans say they still face discrimination. Michael Gennitti, a Long Beach network engineer, says he had to stamp out false rumors that he was a Satanist after a colleague at work saw him wear a pentagram, the ancient pagan symbol that is a five-pointed star. His friend, Stephanie Baham, an Orange County insurance administrator, says she once was accused by a Christian of evil practices for using Tarot cards. Elder says a friend was fired from a job at a Christian school in Riverside when it became known she was a pagan, and others say witches have been disowned, rejected for housing and even assaulted because of their faith.

"There have been a lot of gains," Elder says, "but people are still losing jobs and having their children taken away from them."

The eclectic religious movement, which has been afforded legal protections by federal and state courts, has no central dogma except the rule, "If it harm none, do what you will." Pagans revere female as well as male deities and center much of their spirituality around nature--celebrating the seasonal changes as expressions of the endless cycle of birth, death and resurrection.

The Long Beach event, for instance, featured a ritual celebrating the autumnal equinox. In traditional times, the fall festival was used to thank the gods for the bountiful harvest; festival attendees gave that a modern twist by bringing a canned food donation for a Long Beach program for AIDS sufferers.

The crowd called out to the four directions, sang of death and rebirth and invoked the wisdom of Mother Earth and Lord of the Harvest. Then they ate "cakes and ale" (actually bread and apple juice) to commemorate their wishes to never hunger or thirst.

"Merry meet and merry part, and merry meet again!" they called out in their boisterous closing.

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