My Own Hell to Raise

I am Pagan. Being a former Wiccan, a Celtic/Hungarian tradition Witch, and a beginning Voudouisante, or practitioner of Vodoun, I can't really call myself anything else. Witchcraft and Vodoun are not "exclusive" religions, and I can give my heart to both. "What do you do," a former instructor asked me, smiling and shaking her head, "collect religions?" Well, it's more soul-satisfying than collecting Star Trek commemorative plates...

When I told my boyfriend, a fairly conventional Wiccan (yes, there is such a thing) that I was studying Vodoun again, he forfeited his right to sex for a week by making "Night of the Living Dead" noises. My churchgoing girlfriend understands Witchcraft's appeal for me--it's appealing to her, too--and studied Vodoun until she was satisfied that her girl wasn't into anything evil. I don't expect them, or you in the audience, to understand completely. Sometimes I don't myself. Know simply that the mainstream Christian/secular media's treatment of both Witchcraft and Vodoun is about as accurate as a Chick tract about the "homosexual lifestyle."

Five years and a lifetime ago, I was a devoted member of the Assemblies of God church. This does not mean that I was any simpler, spiritually or otherwise. I was a member of an enormous congregation in an elaborate church, its youth group, and the Bible Club at my high school. Though my mother's family had been Assemblies of God for generations, her own grievances with the church had limited her adult participation in organized religion to weddings and funerals. I had spent middle school and my first year of high school as a committed and vocal agnostic. But in my sophomore year, my needy spiritual side began to reassert itself, with no outlet in sight. A friendly fundamentalist Christian neighbor provided it by asking me to go to a youth group. One Wednesday night, I decided to have an adventure and see what went on in there. I thought I'd return with a story for my artistic, punkish, wannabe cynical friends.

Instead, I met hip, intelligent, friendly teenagers, some of whom I knew slightly from school. A teenage engaged couple, obviously in love with each other, took the stage to talk about Christian courtship. The youth minister, a dynamic woman in her thirties, was upbeat without corniness and seemed to genuinely care about the people she spoke to. The Bible verses I'd learned as a young child were made relevant. I exchanged names, handshakes, and even a couple of phone numbers, and I took all the free information I could.

"You're new here, aren't you?" the minister asked. "You look happy to be here."

"I am!" I exclaimed from the bottom of my heart. "Tonight was...a lot different than I expected. You were great up there," I added shyly.

"Thank you! Will you be back?"

"If I can, I will." I meant it. I came back to school anxious to tell my friends about the youth group, all right.

I'd been taken to church before by well-meaning Christians. I'd been "saved" many times, and none of them had taken. But the next week, I gave my heart to Jesus without ceremony, and felt that this time I had actually done it for keeps. My new friends were there to support me, and so were my old ones once they realized that I was a happier, saner version of the girl they'd known before. The eternal search for "something I'm missing" was over. With my neigbor's help, I attended Sunday church about twice a month and became a regular at the youth group. I joined the Bible Club so I wouldn't feel ignorant and attended youth group functions. I mixed DC Talk and the Newsboys with Nirvana and REM. I took some of my secular friends to youth group and discussed religion in class assignments. In school, at babysitting clients' houses, at my typewriter, Jesus was with me, and I loved Him with the fiercest passion I'd ever felt.

However, indications of trouble in evangelical paradise soon popped up. I'd been raised to believe in God and ghosts, Jesus Christ and ESP, the Bible and my intuition. My devoutly Christian extended family had believed in the paranormal since we were in the Old Country. My Great-Great-Grandma Babich, our family's matriarch, loved her God fiercely and was a powerful psychic. When the paranormal was brought up in church, all this flooded back to me--I even confided some of it to my friends and minister.

I was promptly beaten down with Scripture and told that belief in, let alone use of, psychic ability was Satanic. "The Lord says we can't serve two masters," my minister told me.

"Grandma Babich called her ability a gift from God, like a good voice, and like a good voice it needs training. She only served one master--the Lord. And she used her gift to serve Him." Not wanting to tell a teenager her grandma served Satan, my minister quickly changed the subject. My aunts, frequent and devout churchgoers, insisted that "using intuition" was different from "Satanic Ouija board stuff" and anyway, I shouldn't have told anyone at church about it.

Amid all of this, I had also rejected the politics of the church. I came in, and remained, extremely pro-speech. The music, magazines, and books I liked were considered anti-family and anti-Christian. The conservative-Christian books and music I was encouraged to like were supposed to replace what I'd always liked, not to supplement them. Still I listened to Public Enemy and De La Soul; still I read Sassy and Anne Rice. I also was a pro-choice feminist and a vegetarian, which made my radical economic conservatism moot. I was quoted several times in the school newspaper and the Orlando Sentinel as a young feminist, pro-speech, and pro-sex education. I used the boycott guides the church provided me with as a shopping list. I became a puzzle. "Politics is politics; I'm here because I like the company and I love Jesus," I truthfully told other youth-group members. Nobody could figure out the free-speech feminist Fundamentalist, but everyone who cared seemed to like her just fine. That was how I wanted it.

I probably would still have been there if...a lot of things hadn't happened. If I hadn't fallen in love with a woman. If I hadn't come to the realization, all by myself, that the Divine meant me to be Bisexual, and come out after my high-school's Young Feminists' Organization disbanded. (As the founder and president, I was concerned about the dyke-baiting "my girls" suffered, so I got to feel noble and maternal in my closet.) If my inch-high blue-and-white "Pro-Choice" button didn't stand out so vividly in a lurid mass of bloody-fetus T-shirts. If I didn't feel so damn queasy when the new, very political youth group minister had a burning of "ungodly" music and magazines. (Mine didn't join that pyre.) In my last few months, we were told that then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was bound for hell and so were most of his supporters. This directly after my friends greeted me with high-fives and "I heard you got to interview Hillary Rodham Clinton on TV!" They didn't support her or her husband, but respected their friend and her achievement--if only I could have said the same about that minister. My third-to-last week, we were told that the serial killer Ted Bundy went to heaven because he repented of his sins. My second-to-last week, we were told that "unrepentant" homosexuals in committed relationships would go to hell.

I had to ask my minister. "So you're saying," I began, "that a man who killed several women goes to heaven and a woman who loves a woman goes to hell?" My minister attempted to explain that we were all sinners, that gay people injured each other emotionally, that it was all a matter of repenting sin. He mentioned my being "brainwashed" by feminists--"I know about that feminist group you had at your school and all those articles you write"--then asked if I "had something to tell him."

"Nothing, except I'm trying real hard to understand and I can't agree with you." Then I ran out of there. It took all the discipline I could muster not to cry in my neighbor's car. My dream of being an honest, loving, strong, committed Christian woman obviously had to be fulfilled somewhere else. I still loved Jesus. I still loved that church. That sleepless night was spent in sobbing and praying, asking Jesus to show me the right solution and mourning the death of the dream. I'd told myself that though God is perfect, humanity and its institutions are not. But I could no longer live in this one.

So I stuck with the Bible Club, becoming a pet project for more conventional Christian teenagers. I read and talked and prayed a lot. I graduated high school a Quaker, then tried Joy Metropolitan Community Church, a liberal Baptist church, a Unitarian-Universalist church, and a Methodist church. I became what every pastor dreads--a perpetually dissatisfied church shopper. In the Assemblies of God church, the Christianity I fell in love with was a full-bodied, passionate, seven-days-a-week faith. God was something to be excited about! But in all these nice, liberal churches, theology was reduced to, "Jesus said be a good person," and it was left behind on Sunday afternoon. It wasn't cool to get excited. The Unitarian-Universalist church basically said that I could figure out my belief system all by myself. I realized I'd been doing that anyhow and didn't need to miss quality sleeping-in time to learn that. In the Assemblies of God, it was sinful to vote Democrat; in these churches, it wasn't "nice" to vote Republican. Having accepted the concepts of economic freedom and small government if nothing else, having just escaped a pulpit full of politics, I really did not need that.

"I love You, Jesus," I prayed tearfully, "but I can't fucking stand Your churches!" So I began to worship Him without a church. I wanted spiritual discipline. I wanted community sometimes. But I wanted absolutely no part of stomach-turning organized religion.

Then I began to encounter writers and in-the-flesh people who called themselves Pagan. At first I laughed at them, regarding their beliefs as superstitious. I also was far better conditioned against non-Christian religions than I realized. But even though I didn't seek it out at first, it kept coming to me. I read Scott Cunningham and Marion Weinstein. Their takes on Witchcraft, the Pagan "Old Religion" of Europe, and Wicca, its modern descendant, made a lot of sense. While still calling myself a Christian, I met Randle, a funny young Wiccan who makes a tiny bit of sense. (He was the first and last person to accuse me of being "full of hetero-Christian morality". He has since taken that assessment back!) Soon I branched out.

My father had taught me to love nature and to use lucky charms. When he died, I learned all about "ancestor-worship." My mother gave me a very healthy respect for the paranormal. I'd always heretically believed that God was both female and male. Nobody had told me this, but I knew it intuitively--don't we all have a mother and a father, whether we talk to them or not? Pagans believe in a two-gendered, multifaceted Divine, in revering the Earth, and in the powers of our minds. I'd been given a core that my Libertarian self could go along with: "Do as you will, but harm none." And I had the freedom to explore. My childhood love for the Pagan Goddesses Athena and Isis, long-repressed, could be acted on without fear. And if I could love Them as female aspects of the Divine, surely I, like other Pagans, could love Brother Jesus as a male aspect. They are constantly with me. I can't leave Them behind on Sunday afternoon, nor would I ever want to.

For some Pagans, Wicca is a gateway to the older, primitive, pre-Christian paths. It worked that way for me. After about a year, I rediscovered Vodoun, which I'd studied casually as a high-school girl before joining the church. Vodoun isn't a matter of pins and dolls and zombies--it's a rich, beautiful, magickal religion that was created from the ugliness of slavery and the African-Pagan traditions that nurtured the slaves of Haiti. It's very Queer-positive. Mambos and Houngans, priestesses and priests, are often Queer. Erzulie Dantor, one of my patrons, is the vengeful patron Goddess of abused, gay, and Bisexual women. Baron Samedi, Who I love dearly, is a loving, hard-partying, aggressive, Bisexual personification of gentleman Death. Many of the Ghede-Loa, or Gods of death and rebirth, are gay, Bisexual, and/or cross-dressers. I think Vodoun compliments European Witchcraft fantastically; Vodoun's Catholic gloss and sincere worship of Brother Jesus reconciles it to my Christian past.

I am beginning to reconcile myself to my past as well. For better or worse, it is part of me. Pagan religions don't demand that you reject your past when you accept them. Indeed, I still use much of what I learned from the Assemblies of God church. What makes much of their political agenda unhospitable to Queers is their belief that the Divine is in the voting booth and the bedroom--I believe that now. If a talisman is an object that focuses faith to achieve a goal, the True Loves Waits cards and "WWJD" (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets of my youth are surely talismen. Encouragement to pray for Congress, non-Christian classmates, and suffering members of the congregation brought graphically home to me the power of my words to the Divine. They stick together. They support each other, emotionally and financially. They taught me my work ethic. I can't not love fundamentalist Christians or value their spiritual path. To dishonor them would be to dishonor my family. To dishonor them would be to dishonor myself. But I love the church like I'd love an admirable-but-aloof parent. It was never really there for me.

I've learned that spiritually speaking, many of us are as terminally under construction as State Road 436. I'm just dumb enough to ask others to "please excuse the mess." The fundamentalist Christian girl I was and the Pagan woman I am are the same person. I've got a lot of years ahead of me, and I welcome the next level.

As much fun as it is to learn and grow, I'm certain that some questions will only be answered when I get to the Other Side. I've always had faith that I would like the answer.

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