Christians, Pagans Compete (Gently) For Salem's Souls

By G. Jeffery MacDonald
Religion News Service

SALEM, Mass. (RNS) Paying customers were lined up outside witch houses and psychic parlors when 20-year-old Casey Sholes of Willimantic, Conn., finally stumbled across a place offering dream interpretations for free.

Inside, two interpreters at "The Vault" assured the aspiring nurse that despite her weird dream, the Creator has blessed her with special talents and a heart for the elderly.

It wasn't until she got up to leave that she learned she had just gotten a spiritual reading from Christian evangelists inside a church.

"I didn't even notice that this is a church," Stoles said, leaving the former bank building that's now home to a congregation called "The Gathering." "I'm just here for the spirit thing ... But (the interpreters) were pretty accurate. I love old people. So they're pretty good."

Every October, an estimated half-million visitors flock to this city that hanged witches in 1692 and wholeheartedly accepts them in 2010. Amidst the costumed revelry, pagans and Christians say they sense genuine hunger for spiritual depth and strive to help tourists embrace their respective traditions.

And in this festival atmosphere, both sides make a point not to vilify the other.

Founded 12 years ago, "The Gathering" has become so friendly with local witches that the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel cut its ties and funding, according to Pastor Phil Wyman.

But Wyman, whose church brings free personalized readings to about 3,000 people each October, has no regrets. He trains counselors not to fear witches and to disavow an "aggressive, warfare" mentality.

"That would ruin what we would do," Wyman said. "A dialogue is the only way that we're really going to find out what people think, what they really believe and where they stand. We have to be willing to hear what they believe as well as say what we believe. There's a give and take."

Salem's spiritual antenna is all abuzz during the Halloween season. Local Spiritualists, who regard Jesus as "a great medium," tell fortunes at their Angels Landing store, and invite the seriously curious to attend weekly circles for communicating with the dead.

But in this city best known for images of broomsticks and bubbling cauldrons, most people want to engage the witches, who worship both gods and goddesses in pagan rites that include casting spells and connecting with ancestral spirits.

"People come to Salem because of witches," said Rosemary Ellen Guiley, author of "The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca."

"It's been a flashpoint, a focal point and a Mecca for reclaiming witchcraft and for teaching it."

All throughout October, costumed partiers mix with ghost tour operators and vendors peddling wands, magic stones and other witchy paraphernalia. Visitors from near and far ask for disciplined direction in matters of love, health and money.

Laurie "Lorelei" Stathopoulos, who describes herself as a high priestess of witchcraft, called advice-seeking Catholics "my best clients" at her store, Crowe Haven Corner.

"They come in, they get readings, and they still stay Catholic," she said. "Their religion has had its ups and downs, so they're quite confused. They're not looking for a new religion, but they're looking for a little more hope and stability ... They don't want to go the church (for advice), but they'll come to me."

Pamela Lambert, a 46-year-old practicing Catholic from Dartmouth, Mass., said she makes a pilgrimage to Stathopoulos' shop every October.

"I'm a Christian, but I still have that spiritual side, too," Lambert said. "I believe in God, but I also believe in spirits. I'm fascinated by the whole season of witches, the October season. ...
People always look for answers."

Salem's witches tout their lifestyle as a peaceful one that honors humanity, animals and Earth alike. Lori Bruno, a local witch in her 70s, says witchcraft is the only religion whose practitioners never killed in the name of God.

"We hope more people will embrace the craft," Bruno said, "because it is for peace. It's not a religion that espouses war. We want mankind to shine -- like they were meant to. If you sat down with Jesus Christ, I'm sure he would say the same thing."

Witches here equip the curious to read books on witchcraft and to adopt individual practices, but they say no one -- not even Christians -- needs to renounce another religion in order to practice witchcraft.

"I'm not trying to convert anybody," said Kyri Spencer, a Salem witch with 30 years experience. "I encourage people to embrace witchcraft and their own belief system."

Both camps readily acknowledge that the other side sometimes wins converts. April, 29, grew up nearby and often visited local witchcraft museums as a teenager. One October, she accepted a free reading from The Gathering, and the conversation inspired her to learn more about Jesus.

"It was not Christianity as I was used to it, which was someone with a sign on the street, yelling at you," said Alario, who is now a Christian and attends The Gathering. "I went in to argue with them, but they were basically just very relaxed. They were asking me what I thought and believed. As I shared, I got to thinking: What do I believe?"

There are also moments of conflict. Wyman said some merchants who charge for readings -- from $35 to $150 -- have occasionally complained about his group's no-cost sessions. But occasional setbacks haven't kept Christians from getting involved in what they call a promising alternative to "classroom-style" Christianity.

Danette Strandell of St. Joseph, Mo., has tactfully brought the Christian message to various spiritual events, from London's Mind, Body, Spirit Festival to Burning Man in Nevada, where she met Wyman. This year, she added Salem to her list.

"What's happening here is part of a festival spirituality," said Strandell, who was one of Sholes' dream interpreters. "I came to get anything I can to help tear down walls of separation between people."