Phil Wyman's Experience
A 21st Century Witch Trial
My name is Phil Wyman. I live in the city infamous for the Witch Trials of 1692-1693. It is as equally famous for housing thousands of Witches, and Neo-Pagans today. It is also the destination for half a million people each October, and home to the event called Haunted Happenings - a month long Halloween celebration. I live in Salem, Massachusetts. I love it here, and that has probably landed me in the trouble I've had over the last year.
My trouble started with an innocent photo. It ended with a certified letter which coldly stated, "This letter serves as a notice that both your ministry credentials, and your ministry's non-profit status with (insert denomination here) have concluded." The point of contention was this: I had made friends with Witches - real live spell casting, polytheistic (sometimes agnostic), Tarot reading, communicating with the dead Witches.
I have friends who are Witches, Druids, Shaman, and occultists of varying Neo-Pagan traditions. I pastor a church called The Gathering in Salem, MA, and as a church we have made a decision to love Neo-Pagans and treat them like anyone else. Because our city is famous for Witches, I have Pagan friends across the country, and in other nations as well.
October in Salem, MA is a parade of visitors, vendors, and Witches. These are not only costume witches, but the Neo-Pagan occultists who live here trade their wares and skills, or come from afar to celebrate their Samhain in our infamous little city.
October 2004 I was preparing the music stage which our little church sponsors for the city. Some of my Witch friends passed by dressed in the full garb of the season looking as witchy as possible. With them was a Vampire actress they brought into town for the festivities. I hopped off the stage, ran to meet them, and greeted the 'Countess' dressed in her darkly Victorian voluptuous costume. Halloween brings out the silliness in everyone in Salem, and so she held out her hand in typical Victorian formality. I took her hand, bowed, pretending to kiss her hand, and told the Countess it was a pleasure to meet her. Someone snapped a couple photos. I laughed, said, "Don't get me in any trouble with those," and ran back up to the stage.
A year later, a local Pentecostal pastor saw my picture on a Pagan website greeting the Vampiress - photos I had forgotten. He gathered a small group of local pastors to inquire of the issue. No one told me why I was invited to talk with them, they just gathered around me and began to ask insinuating questions such as, "Have you heard the phrase 'fellowshipping with darkness' before?"
One of the local ministers put the prayer gossip chain into action, and word made it to my District Supervisor.
So it was that on October 12, 2005 I received an e-mail from my District Supervisor. It was a letter addressed to me. It came without warning. He did not speak to me individually. He did not come with another brother. He simply sent an e-mail. 27 false, and exaggerated accusations later, I got to the bottom of the letter, and I realized that this was sent to all the District leadership, and up the ladder to higher denominational leadership. In a single keystroke I was tagged as "aberrant" among the denomination's leaders.
The letter summoned me to a meeting. Six days later, with no sleep, we met with the District council. We brought 55 pages of refutation of the absurd claims made by a man who had never seen our outreach, never visited our church, and had only weeks previous lauded me before a District Conference as having the most "cutting edge evangelism" in America today.
My wife Bev, our assistant pastor with his wife, and I sat before a meeting of our peers. The letter had done irreparable harm. For three hours we were grilled like heretics before the Grand Inquisitor. 45 minutes was devoted to answering the question, "How could you be friends with Witches?" The four of us from The Gathering wondered among ourselves, "How could we not be friends with Witches?" Our documentation was rejected, and set to the side only to be viewed by District leaders at their pleasure later. The meeting ended with personal attacks challenging me on issues such as how many times I used the name Jesus during the meeting, how high I lifted my hands for worship during the District conference, and suggesting that I was learning to speak Welsh because it was the language of the Druids.
It was March 24th, 2006, after two appeals which received no representation, and yielded no opportunity to defend ourselves - we were tossed from the denomination. Not even knowing they were deciding our fate at the National Board meeting, I was ousted on March 8th, and sent a certified letter 16 days afterwards.
Apparently being a friend of Witches is a topic just too hot to handle.
Strangely enough, as all this was happening, a foundation connected to our denomination gave us a grant to expand our work in Salem among Neo-Pagans.
I wish I could say that this is an isolated tale, but it is not. Prejudice among evangelicals concerning Neo-Pagans is deep, and wide with exaggerated stories fed to us by lying evangelists who have spun hairy tales of evil Satan worshiping Witches to feed their greed, and passion for fame.
I have come to discover that many Neo-Pagans are honest pursuers of spirituality who have been disenfranchised by Christianity, and have found a place of refuge in a wildly alternative spiritual community. They are my friends still, and after having spent a year battling the superstition of our own denomination, our small local church has experienced the persecution directed toward Neo-Pagans by today's Christians, and we have discovered that some of those Pagans have been truer friends than the Christian friends we thought we knew.
Is this the state of Pentecostal, and Evangelical Christianity today? I hope not, but my experience tells me otherwise. Are we really all that distant from the superstitions which fed the Witch trials of 1692-1693? Our experience says no, but there is hope. A group is gathering around us who understand the mission to reach the furthest edges of our society, and they are found in small pockets all around the globe.
This article ran in Next-Wave e-magazine January 2007. Our story about being removed from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel was told on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this last Halloween, as well as in a number of community newspapers across the US. The stories can be accessed at these locations:
Befriending witches is a problem in Salem, Mass.
Church severs tie with Salem branch: The Gathering chastised for getting too close to witches
Pastor Wyman's web site for the church in Salem may be found by clicking here.
Posted February 15, 2007