Wicca in the heartland

pagan circleThe Chicago Tribune had a potentially tremendous story to tell Sunday about a witch school setting up shop in Rossville, Ill., a small, economically struggling town in the heartland. The perspective of the story -- about Wiccans trying to fit into a Bible Belt community -- is what first jumped out at me. By the fourth paragraph, a resident was quoted saying the Salam Witch Trials were back and traditional churches and members of the community were rallying against this strange group that had set up shop in a local storefront. The story, which has a reasonably interesting ending that I won't share in this post, seems headed toward a brawl:

In a town that sometimes feels closer to the Bible Belt than to the city, churches had been holding weekly prayer sessions for months in hopes of driving the outsiders away. They also had erected a billboard denouncing Wiccan beliefs, proclaiming, "Worship the Creator not Creation."

Fueling their sense of urgency was a ball held by the Wiccans last weekend to celebrate Samhain, their new year's festival, which falls on Halloween.

As more than 150 people filed into the shuttered high school Wednesday night for the meeting, Andy Thomas, youth minister at the Rossville Church of Christ, said residents had a spiritual responsibility to drive the witches out. If they didn't, he said, young people were in danger of being pulled off the Christian path.

"Rossville has fallen on hard times," Thomas said. "The school closed. This is a popular place for meth. We're like, 'Great, now a witch school.' It feels like we're being attacked."

Donald Lewis, who serves as CEO of Witch School International, said it was the other way around.

"They're trying to make us scapegoats," he said as he slipped into the meeting unannounced.

Lewis, a rotund 44-year-old with a silver ponytail and goatee, said he started the online school in 2001 with two friends he met through the neo-pagan community in Chicago. All three were devoted practitioners of Wicca, a controversial movement that, by some estimates, has hundreds of thousands of adherents nationwide.

Five of the school's administrators operate out of a humble, white building with a green awning on Chicago Street, the main strip in downtown Rossville, which looks like an abandoned Hollywood set of a small town. Their office, which consists of five computers, copiers and a fax machine, is in the back of a store that sells silver wands, incense and colored candles wrapped in spells.

Attached to the story is a decent video that does a good job of putting names with faces. This was the future of journalism 10 years ago. It's great to see it in practice.

The Wiccans' side of the story isn't entirely ignored. They get their quotes in there, but this story is definitely less about them than about the town's residents. A reader of ours, Christopher, mentioned in a note to us that the story is largely about a community dealing with "economic decline, arson, and drugs."

Megan Twohey, the reporter on this story, delves into the background of the Wiccan group. They left Chicago in search of cheaper rents and headed for small-town America. They moved to Rossville after a "lynch mob" drove them out of another town, and now they're dealing with hostile neighbors once again. And by the way, Rossville's downtown probably doesn't look as much like a Hollywood set than, um, a downtown of an average Midwestern small city. (Since when does a Hollywood set make a better illustration than real life?)

A lot of this reminds me of the "pentancle wars" that the Department of Veterans Affairs dealt with over that last few years.

The story ends up being about how the Bible Belt responds to outsiders and less about what Wiccans believe. There are references to their beliefs, but there is little mention that Wiccans represent a very diverse group of traditions. From what I understand, Wicca isn't exactly some strange East Coast religion that Middle America knows nothing about. Middle America is where Wicca has quite a number of followers, depending on how you count them, but that doesn't mean they're always accepted, as we see in this story.

This story had only broad, unsubstantiated estimates on the number of Wiccans. The general point of the story is about whether other religions are tolerated in the heartland. As Christopher said in his note, "the story is really about the local Christian community" and Wiccans are "little more than a foil for the community's fears and anxieties."

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