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Columbia pagans find community in an age-old religion

As paganism and other alternative spiritualities rise in popularity, a robust community of practitioners has crystallized in Mid-Missouri

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Abi Dussetschleger, 16, walks into the warm, incensed Heart, Body, & Soul. She has visited the shop a number of times, drawn in by its focus on metaphysical healing. There, she has purchased tarot cards, a chakra necklace, a buckeye for good luck and her favorites: four sterling rings, one embossed with the tree of life, one with a pentacle, one made with hematite to ward off bad energy and a fairy ring.

This trip to the shop is different, though. She is nervous. She is attending her first Hearthfires meeting for mid-Missouri pagans. October’s meeting topic: animal totems.

Books, statues and crystals surround her. On the wall across from the entrance, “Become who you are” is written in bold script. Members of Hearthfires, an organization for those interested in or practicing pagan religions, are situated around a small table in a room the size of a doctor’s office on the right side of the main shop. Dussetschleger’s presence makes the space feel too small. There are more than a dozen people in attendance, which is a large crowd for a Hearthfires meeting.

“I can just stand outside,” she says nervously.

“Oh, no!” a few members of the group respond, assuring her she is welcome.

The attendees join her in the shop’s main area and make a circle out of the couches, love seats and comfy chairs that fill the store. The meeting begins.

“Does anyone have anything they want to say to get us started?” asks Taz Chance, a Hearthfires member and the president and high priestess of the Conclave of the Craft, a local Wiccan church.

Dussetschleger raises her hand apprehensively — a high school habit. “I’ve been noticing that I’ve been seeing a lot of squirrels lately,” she says. “How do I know if I’m just seeing them randomly or if they mean something?”

The group contemplates her question for a few moments.

“Well, we all see squirrels in the world,” Chance says. “The question is: Do you see them elsewhere? Do you see images of squirrels?”

“Yeah, you also have to pay attention to what you’re doing and how you feel when you see the squirrels,” Conclave of the Craft Priestess Amy Rhea says.

Chance says: “Another thing to consider is what’s going on in your life right now. Squirrels right now are saving to prepare for winter, so if you’re trying to save for something, like maybe a new car, then squirrels might have spiritual significance for you.”

Dussetschleger listens intently, soaking up all the information the experienced pagans offer throughout the 90-minute meeting.

Witchcraft and alternative spirituality are topics Dussetschleger has been interested in her whole life. Her mother, Lori Dussetschleger, practices Buddhism and works as a medium, interacting with ghosts and spirits. Dussetschleger once attended a medium session with her mother and says she felt her chakra necklace lift off the back of her neck. These experiences are what make the teen interested in spirituality.

Dussetschleger has been going through a difficult time. She is being home-schooled because of bullying and is dealing with depression. Maintaining her beliefs has been one of the hardest parts of depression for her. “Whenever I get into low episodes, the depression implants thoughts in my head that this belief is stupid,” Dussetschleger says. “‘It’s fake. Witches, magic, it’s not real. It’s kid stuff.’”

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jars

Paganism is heavily associated with herbalism. When peers discovered Taz Chance utilized herbal remedies when possible rather than modern medicine, they were able to correctly conclude she practices witchcraft. 

To fight these feelings, she decided to make a change. “My mom’s suggestion of helping me out was to explore my spirituality,” Dussetschleger says, “so I guess if my mom wasn’t open about it, I’d still be gloomy laying in bed, crying every day.” Dussetschleger has sought out other pagans and information about Wicca, a path within paganism. She has since settled on not explicitly identifying as pagan, a decision she made in January. Instead, she hopes to follow a more eclectic spiritual path and gather information from as many areas as possible, meaning she will remain somewhat involved in the Columbia pagan community. In addition to attending Hearthfires meetings, she took part in witchcraft workshops, connected with other pagans over the internet and read literature such as 1001 Spells: The Complete Book of Spells for Every Purpose by Cassandra Eason. Dussetschleger is part of a trend of young people leaving behind traditional religion for unorthodox alternatives. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, 31 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said they have doubted the existence of God, up from 17 percent in 2007.

Dussetschleger’s decision to embark on an unconventional spiritual path as a way of finding herself is one that goes against the norm for the state. In Missouri, 77 percent of the population identifies as Christian, which is 7 percent above the national average, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. Only 1 percent of adults in Missouri practice “other faiths,” which includes pagan religions, as compared to 1.5 percent of the total U.S. population. However, Zachary Montgomery, a graduate student in MU’s Department of Religious Studies who has researched paganism through fieldwork and independent studies, says these numbers might be conservative because there are many solo practitioners.

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Tarot cards

Pagan religions place a strong emphasis on nature, as they believe everything on Earth has a life force. This translates to the materials pagans use when practicing their spirituality. The herbs and crystals, which belong to Abi Dussetschleger, appeal to her personal interest in metaphysical healing. 

Despite the low percentage of pagans in Missouri, Dussetschleger still had access to a sturdy local network to guide her. The two largest pagan groups in Columbia are Hearthfires and the Conclave of the Craft, the Wiccan church co-founded by Chance.

Paganism goes public

There are several explanations for how paganism made its way into modern public consciousness, but one theory starts with Gerald Gardner in England. In 1954, he published Witchcraft Today, a nonfiction book that discusses the history of witchcraft, and declared himself a witch. These beliefs and ideas were brought to the U.S. during the 1960s and melded seamlessly with the counterculture and New Age movements. The latter two social crusades focused on breaking from tradition as well as the connection to and conservation of nature, which is why it was the impetus for neo-pagan beliefs in America.

The umbrella term pagan describes countless sets of beliefs that can be both religious and non-religious. “Anything that you can state about one (group) can instantly be contradicted by another,” Montgomery says. But common threads throughout pagan paths do exist. For example, they are often “Earth-based,” Montgomery says. This means they feel strong connections to nature and animals and see them as “imbued with divinity.” They also typically have conservationist values. “We try to leave things better than we found them,” Chance says.

Intimidation tactics

Having only been practiced in the U.S. for 50 years, paganism is still misunderstood. Public misconceptions emerged immediately after its arrival in part because of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian movements during the latter half of the 1900s. Christian theologians began connecting forms of magic and New Age spiritualism, including paganism, to demons and Satan. “This was sort of the counterargument to the 1960s New Age alternative spiritualities,” Montgomery says.

These misperceptions were then reinforced during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and ’90s, a public fear that an underground satanic organization was ritualistically abusing and murdering children and animals. The reports of the abuse were investigated, but no substantive evidence was found to indicate that these rituals occurred. Despite this, negative stereotypes were formed, and discrimination followed.

This discrimination manifests in many ways. Chance recalls group events met with protest. A man, whom the group nicknamed “Sandwich Board Guy,” would don two large poster boards inked with Bible verses on his front and back and disrupt their gatherings.

Another disparager would bring a camera to events to purposely take unflattering pictures of people or misleading photos of the crowd size. He would then publish these photos, including pictures of children, online with captions such as, “This is what ungodly people look like.”

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book

Literature about paganism, such as Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today and Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon, has been essential to its growth. 

Chance has faced harsh personal discrimination. When she was employed as a full-time substitute teacher for students with behavioral disorders, word spread that she was involved with witchcraft and paganism. Five churches in the town organized a flagpole prayer outside the school where she worked with the intent to “bring her back to the light of Jesus.” It drew around 20 people. Chance describes this experience as intimidating, and it left her worried about her and her family’s safety.

Discrimination also takes place in subtler ways. “I have gotten dirty looks,” says Rhea, a Conclave of the Craft priestess. “People have been short with me or disrespectful, and I’ll be like, ‘What’s going on with them?’ and then I’ll remember, ‘I wore my pentacle necklace today.’” In response, she’s stopped wearing pagan accessories publicly.

Andy Hirth, a lawyer who dealt with religious rights cases during his employment at the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, says outright discrimination claims are less common because it’s difficult to prove someone is being discriminated against because of his or her religion unless it’s accompanied by an explicit statement.

To Dussetschleger, discrimination, once a deterrent to practicing openly, is no longer as intimidating. “In the past, I worried a lot about it because of bullying,” she says. But being home-schooled and securing her spiritual beliefs has helped. “I know the gods and spirits are with me,” Dussetschleger says, “even if other people don’t believe, that’s fine.”

Crafting a community

The Conclave of the Craft, the Columbia-based Wiccan church that Chance and three others founded, makes a concerted effort to build a community for pagans while dismantling public misconceptions.

Chance first encountered pagan practices at a very young age, around 4 or 5, though she never identified them as such. “I remember leaving cookies under the trees for fairies,” Chance says. In the mid-1990s, she started seeking formal training. She studied with a group called Holly and Ivy and gained priestess status with them. After more clergy training with a group called Dragonstone, she was elevated to first degree. A few years later, she was elevated again to second degree and became the group’s high priestess. She advanced to third degree in 2006.

While Chance was involved with Dragonstone, she studied with Susan Stoddard, another pagan priestess, and with her mentorship, they evolved Dragonstone into the group she runs today. Originally, the Conclave of the Craft went by the name Missouri Conclave of First Temple of the Craft of W.I.C.A. The group originally had around 15 official members, and the number remains similar today. The Conclave aims to foster greater acceptance for pagans through community-building efforts, quality worship experiences and educational opportunities.

To cultivate community, the Conclave has established a number of funding avenues. “The clergy discretionary fund allows us to help other pagans in need,” Chance says. For example, one member was struggling financially for months, so the fund paid for her phone bill. Others have been given money for gas or groceries. “It’s just there to help out when we can,” Chance says. The Conclave’s members also have dreams of owning their own property. “The goal with the land fund is to have enough money to buy a small piece of land with a building that can hold spiritual service,” Chance says. This will make the Conclave less reliant on public spaces to hold its events.

Additionally, the Conclave contributes to the community through its Companion Animal Outreach Program. “We, as pagans and Wiccans, kind of see animals, in a way, equal to humans,” Chance says. “We do our best to honor and respect all animals.” Members of the Conclave get involved in animal adoption days, raise money for animal shelters and even adopt rescued animals themselves. Chance now has five animals that are all rescues: three dogs and two cats.

Spiritual advising and counseling, land and house cleansing and blessings, and rites of passage are a few ways in which the Conclave provides quality worship experiences to its members. Shamanic path working, a journey to find an inner truth, is offered, too. “A perfect example of a shamanic journey is someone who’s trying to find their inner spirit animal,” Chance says. Through the direction of a spiritual guide and oftentimes, meditation, the seeker of truth will be able to the find answers to his or her uncertainties.

The Conclave also holds group rituals on some pagan holidays, known as the Lesser Sabbats — Yule, Ostara, Litha and Mabon. They occur on the solstices and equinoxes. On Sept. 17, the Conclave celebrated Mabon, which marks the beginning of Autumn, by holding Mid-Missouri Pagan Pride Day in Peace Park. The event featured vendors selling clothing, jewelry, plants and books, educational workshops and both a Mabon ritual and a ritual honoring pagan warriors. Mid-Missouri Pagan Pride Day started in 2000 and has been held annually with the exception of two years. “Its sole purpose is to educate the public about what pagans look like,” Chance says.

Igniting the future

The president of Hearthfires, Seileach Corleigh, was a devout Catholic in her youth but grew distant from the church because she says she believed it mistreated women. “I’m old enough to remember when altar girls were a big deal,” Corleigh says. “There were quite a few people who objected, and it felt weird and wrong that they were objecting.” Some dioceses began allowing female altar servers to assist in the mass in the 1970s without explicit authorization from the Vatican, but this practice was not officially permitted until the ’90s.

burning stick

Black sage smudge sticks are said to clear psychic energy for divination.

Corleigh discovered paganism, something she had before only encountered in “fantasy books,” when she was attending MU in the late 1980s. After reading pagan literature, she discovered a bookstore in Columbia called Bosom of Ishtar, a shop similar to Heart, Body, & Soul, and the store’s owner helped organize group pagan rituals. In 1989, Corleigh helped found a pagan organization at MU called The Pagan Students’ Association, which later became known as Sacred Ways of Earth and eventually folded in the early 2000s. Corleigh and the others she met through the MU group and the Bosom of Ishtar gatherings performed rituals and worked on their spiritual journeys together. However, in the mid-1990s, the owner of the store decided to leave Columbia.

“People were saying, ‘What are we going to do?’” Corleigh says. “‘What’s going to happen to the rituals?’” Corleigh’s immediate thought was that the group members should keep doing them on their own. From that desire to keep the rituals and community alive, Hearthfires was born in the late 1990s.

In addition to the monthly meetings at Heart, Body, & Soul, Hearthfires provides pagans with a supportive and active digital community. There is a Facebook page for Hearthfires with over 300 members. “The internet and social media have provided a lot of other ways for people to connect other than physical meetings,” Corleigh says. Corleigh still sees the value in face-to-face contact, but she also says that the internet and social media can facilitate connections for solo practitioners who are having trouble becoming a part of the pagan community.

Corleigh, who has been president for 15 of the group’s 20 years, is looking to retire from her position as president of Hearthfires soon but is having trouble finding a successor. The work the group does is vital in creating a better community for pagans. However, without leadership, organizations such as Hearthfires can’t exist. “I think that’s very important in the pagan community, to have a sense of generations and a sense of continuance,” Corleigh says. “Things do have their beginning and their maturation and their end, but it doesn’t have to end completely. It can change. It doesn’t have to stop.”

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