Raising Pagans 

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

Page 4 of 6

Tina and Chris both grew up Catholic. The high-school sweethearts were actively involved in their youth group at Saint Leander's Church in San Leandro. Tina was particularly drawn to its expressive, open liturgy — then under the musical direction of famed composer Bob Hurd — which included things like liturgical dancing.

But over time, Saint Leander's changed. It became more conservative, and Tina found it less and less interesting. In college she began to explore women's studies and was exposed to ideas about Paganism, but never pursued them. She majored in psychology, married Chris, and got her master's degree in clinical psychology. Eventually she changed careers, became a teacher, and focused on raising her children. But Tina never again found a Catholic church she connected with.

What most turned her off about Catholicism, besides its observatory style of worship, was its description of a male God. "I feel like spirituality should empower you," Tina says. "And Catholicism has never empowered me."

When she became a mother, she resolved to empower her children. It was also something she sought for herself after feeling limited to a world of diapers and nursing. So a couple of years ago, she made a trip to the now-defunct women's bookstore Change Makers in Oakland. As she perused the shelves, she came across a flier for a Goddess circle. One Sunday, she decided to attend.

The circle of about eight women was held in a patio area at the bookstore. Being in their company brought back a familiar feeling. "It was a moment like when I had walked into the grove of trees at camp," Tina said. "Almost like my spirit could settle down and find a place to be and express itself."

Chris remembers the day. "She came back really enthusiastic and really enjoyed it and it felt like she was in the right spot," he said. "That was neat to see."

Yet Chris had some deep reservations about his wife's new spiritual pursuit becoming a way of life. Like most Catholics, he'd grown up with false notions of Pagans as devil worshippers. "I was a little freaked out and weirded out by it and was not happy," he said.

Tina's husband did not share her alienation with the Catholic Church. A one-time altar boy, youth group counselor, and Eucharistic minister, Chris grew up entrenched in Catholicism. Although he doesn't consider himself devout, or even attend church regularly, he views his experience as positive. He credits the church with having instilled in him a sense of social responsibility and an openness about world religions. It was what inspired him to become a social worker. It's these values he hopes his children will gain from growing up Catholic.

Now the kids will be growing up Wiccan, too, and the father's struggle to understand what that means has prompted him to question his own beliefs. Chris wonders if there's a difference between polytheism and monotheism, and why Wicca is considered such an evil religion. With his wife's help, he's also learning about connections between Catholicism and Paganism — which are the subject of considerable controversy. "St. Brigid, a Catholic saint in Ireland, was actually a Celtic God that the Catholic Church couldn't seem to get rid of, so they made her a saint," he says. "So you start reading about these things and you go, wow.

"It's really made me try to define what I really believe in, because I think sometimes we go through the motions," Chris continues. "Do you really think through every single thing the Catholic Church has taught and say, well, where did that come from? And it's making me do that. So in some ways, it's been an interesting journey."

Yet much as Chris tries to be accepting of his wife's religion, he has to deal with parents who are dead set against it. In fact, they're downright afraid for the kids. "They're very opposed to it," he said. "They don't understand it; they think Tina's weird and out of her tree, like clinical diagnosis. ... That's a real source of conflict."


A Religion of Converts

The Nettletons are far from the only Pagan family struggling with religious identity. Because modern Paganism emerged from the movements of recent decades, most Pagans, like Tina, were raised in religiously conventional households. "We're almost exclusively a religion of converts," says M. Macha Nightmare, a Priestess, Witch, author, and de facto historian of Bay Area Paganism. "I think the trickier part is somehow not blending, but adapting primarily Christian or secular holidays with who we are and what we do."

If adapting is an issue, it's one that thirteen-year-old Miriam Isler has perfected. The seventh grader, who aspires to be a fashion designer, identifies as Pagan, Christian, and Jewish. Her mother, Donna Isler, grew up attending Berkeley's First Congregational Church, while her father, David Isler, was raised Jewish in upstate New York.

David and Donna became attracted to Paganism in the early 1980s. Donna liked the emphasis on personal transformation, and she'd always had a hard time believing that the Bible is the word of God.

But when it came time to raise their kids, Miriam and ten-year-old Joe, the Islers decided to teach them all three religions. "I felt that Christianity and Judaism were part of their heritage," said Donna, sitting in a rocker at the family's North Berkeley home. "I feel it's important to know about where you come from. And also because Christianity is the dominant religion in our culture, I wanted them to know about it. I think there's a lot of value in the stories."

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