Raising Pagans 

When Daddy is Catholic and Mommy is a Witch, what's a couple to teach their children?

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Sue McCollough based her decision to bring nine-year-old Alec (fourteen-year-old Kenton was sick) on the fact that the Boy Scouts discriminate against gays, and this group doesn't discriminate against anyone. "One of the nice things is we can be open about our Paganism," she says. "In traditional Boy Scouts, we might have run into parents who are not open to Paganism." She would like the group to go camping and hiking, do crafts, garden, and learn to sew. Alec wants to take camping and field trips, and help grow a Faerie Garden.

"These are all Pagans in training," notes James Bianchi, a Druid and legal adviser for the Pagan Alliance, which sponsors the local scouts circle and organizes Berkeley's annual Pagan Festival and Parade each May. This year's parade focuses on children and young adults, and the SpiralScouts will lead the community ritual that accompanies it.

Bianchi trained as a tracker and wants to be able to pass along his survival skills. He sees Paganism as a way to combat environmental problems such as global warming and overconsumption. "One person at a time, we want to teach people how to live with the natural order," he says in a later interview. "Over time, they influence other children who influence other children, and then it becomes critical mass."

As the circle drags on, the kids get impatient. They start to trickle outside, even though it's cold and drizzling, to play tag in the backyard. Coash joins them later, striking up a conversation with one of the moms, as they watch the children with delight. "This is just tag, but these kids are coming from the same background," Coash says. "They're already pairing off. Isn't that great?"

The scout leader stand a petite five-foot-one, with multicolored dreadlocks and a warm presence. She calls herself an eclectic Pagan and the epitome of a Faerie. Coash is a devotee of Eris Dischordia, the Greek goddess of Chaos. She also "works with" Dionysus, and Egyptian God Horus and Goddess Ma'at. Her long-term goal is to open a private K-12 school that combines Pagan spirituality with rigorous academics. "I really want to be able to give positive influence in order to provide a safe space for Pagan kids to be themselves," she says. "Because most of them don't have one."

Coash was one such kid. Raised in Vacaville by a Lakota father and a white Protestant mother, she took an early interest in world religions, and by age eleven began self-identifying as a Witch. Her beliefs made her an easy target. "This is all about Faeries and Faerie meditation and shamanism and using animal totems," she says. "I had no idea that would lead to people saying that I worship Satan and that I killed animals."

At one point a rumor surfaced among the kids that she had murdered her parents and that they were buried in her backyard. "People were really scared of me," she recalls. "I used to come home crying so much."

Such experiences are not uncommon. It's one reason the Pagan Alliance aims to educate the public. "When we remain hidden, other people define who you are," Bianchi says.

Pottermania and the Bible

Pagan parents have reason to be concerned. The words are right there in Exodus: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. The verse has many translations, but the King James version is the one Pagans usually hear quoted.

While the mainstream has become more accepting, Pagans still face discrimination, especially from some Christians who justify their attacks with Bible passages such as the Exodus verse. Another often-cited passage in Deuteronomy states: There shall not be found among you any one ... that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.

If the popularity of the Harry Potter series has led many people to think fondly of witches, it has also sparked a resurgence in anti-Pagan writings, which range from sensational to subtle. Christian author Steve Wohlberg, while dispelling notions that Wiccans are Satan worshippers, nonetheless condemns the religion in Hour of the Witch: Harry Potter, Wicca Witchcraft and the Bible, one of numerous recent books to sound an alarm over Pottermania. Wohlberg argues that the nation's "growing fascination with witches" will make Paganism the third-largest religion in the United States by 2012.

Such attitudes extend beyond the realm of Christian literature. In custody proceedings, even in the Bay Area, according to McCollum, it's not unheard of for an ill-informed judge to revoke custody of a child based on a parent's practices. "There isn't a month that goes by that I don't get a call from some Pagan parents who are potentially losing their children because they are Pagan," he says.

Some Pagans view their religion as a sort of last frontier for human rights. "As you go down the line you get people who gradually get rights," McCollum says. "First the blacks, Irish, Catholics, and they keep going down the list. If you look at human history, kind of the bottom of the barrel is the Pagans. If they throw out the misnomer that Pagans are evil people that worship Satan and want to destroy the world, there aren't too many people to hang your problems on."

Path to the Goddess

Tina Nettleton distinctly remembers the feeling she got when she walked into an outdoor church while attending Catholic Youth Organization camp. She was about nine years old. At the end of a dirt path, the church was cut out from a large grove of enveloping redwood trees with benches and an altar made from rustic lumber. "I walked in and I felt the sense of spirituality in this setting," she remembers.

The young girl sitting next to her didn't share that sentiment. "This girl was incensed, just incensed," Tina says. "And she's like, 'This isn't church!' I'm like, 'What?' She goes, 'You're not supposed to have fun in church!' And that was a defining moment for me. Because I thought, 'The heck you're not supposed to have fun in church,' you know?"

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