Salem – Pastor Phil Wyman would be the first to agree that he’s a black sheep among clergy. An expert on Wicca, a well practiced interpreter of dreams, Wyman has been an avid participant in the city’s annual Halloween celebration, supporting a holiday many Christians believe to be a symbol of darkness and the occult.
A little over a year ago Wyman was excommunicated from his church, accused of getting too amicable with the city’s Wiccan community because of controversial missionary tactics that included operating a pagan-Christian discussion forum, offering Web site links to pagan sites and fostering personal friendships with witches.
Today the church continues to operate, although it no longer has a parent church, and has about 45 members.
Wyman’s mission is to break stereotypes about Christians and Wiccans. He says many Christians don’t realize Wicca is a nature-based religion.
“Christians have a National Enquirer view of pagans,” he says. “They think they must be worshipping Satan or sacrificing babies … or they view the pagan community as a well organized machine that’s after the church. That’s a sad picture. In turn, because a few Christians have taken advantage of that to make money in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the pagans have a bad view of the Christians. We want to break that.”
Wyman, 49, is an amber-bearded man, with longish hair and a friendly face who looks like he could be a member of a Grateful Dead tribute band. He is matter-of-fact when talking about his excommunication from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal Christian church whose congregation has 4.5 million members worldwide and is known to speaks in tongues while worshipping. (Calls made to Foursquare leaders have not been returned.)
Since October 2006, when Wyman was cut off from his church, not much has changed. He hasn’t lost any members of his congregation and, if anything, his newfound freedom has allowed him to offer more experimental programs at his Essex Street church, The Gathering — things like Lectio Divina, a type of ancient meditation using the Bible, meant to build two-way communication between the reader and God.
And Wyman is still running the same program he began when he moved to Salem from California with his wife and son eight years ago, an e-mail discussion group between pagans and Christians called Circle and Cross Talk. He’s continued to grow his church’s array of controversial street theater events, offered during the month of October, things like dream interpretation; psalm readings, where a costumed monk confesses the ancient sins of the church; and the Brimstone Chronicles, where participants “travel” through Dante’s heaven and hell and are forced to face their own mortality.
Spreading the word
In his ministry Wyman insists he is not out to convert anyone, but to act as an educator for pagans and Christians alike. In fact, the California native flinches at the word “convert,” though he admits he sees himself as a missionary. “That is one of my philosophical differences with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical people,” he says. “I don’t look at conversion as something I’m trying to make happen, I think it just happens in life … when someone says ‘I like what you’re doing and I want to be a part of it.’”
He continues, “… If I get a call on my home phone and I say I’m not interested and the guy goes on … and I feel rude because I have to hang up on him. That has become the model of evangelism. American Christianity has taken on the cultural perspective of intense capitalism. We think we have to sell what we have.”
Some Christians see being a missionary as a street campaign with brochures, Bibles and the plenty of opportunities to speak of heaven and hell. Each Halloween for decades, Christians of different stripes have been coming to Salem in hopes of converting the pagan community.
Michael Marcavage, 28, is the founder of Repent America, a Philadelphia-based organization of missionaries that spent five days in Salem this October spreading their beliefs via brochures and amplified talks on the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall. This, Marcavage believes, is the proper way to go about spreading the gospel.
“Jesus began his ministry by saying repent or perish,” he says, admitting that Wyman has spoken to him in the past to criticize his gloom-and-doom approach. “Jesus preached in the open air and declared truth. That does in fact call for people to either accept or reject it.”
Marcavage accuses Wyman of affirming the pagans’ beliefs. “Is he reaching out to them?” he asks. “He has no division from them … They’re so comfortable with what he’s doing they haven’t taken issue … The word of God invites confrontation.”
Instead of preaching about heaven and hell, Wyman chooses to explore wider topics and compare the spiritual basis of Wicca and Christianity.
“Why should we as Christians be limited to talking about heaven and hell?” he asks. “Jesus didn’t say ‘follow me or go to hell,’ he had many other things to say. It’s not that it’s not a part of what we say, it’s just not everything.”
Which man has been more successful in his ministry? Marcavage says his people talked to thousands on Halloween day and made a meaningful connection with at least 10 people who signed up to start an e-mail dialogue. Wyman says he’s attracted only a few pagans to his congregation since he moved to Salem nine years ago. He seems unconcerned about this, saying he sees Christianity as a viral thing that is passed on and “caught instead of taught.”
Two sides of the coin
Despite his blase’ approach, or maybe because of it, he’s gained the respect of one of the leading members of the Wiccan community, Christian Day, 38, a witch and psychic who says he is able to communicate with the dead.
“If ever there was a person that could make me want to become a churchgoing Christian it would be Phil,” Day says. “Not because he’s tried to convince me that witchcraft was evil, or hell is fire and brimstone, but because he leads a life of honesty. He’s one of the most honest people I know … and I’m a psychic. I look at people and I see their dishonesty.”
The two men have been friends since Wyman contacted Day back in 1997 when he was considering moving to Salem to minister to the pagan community. Though he’s never been to a church service, Day often stops by The Gathering to say hi to Pastor Phil and says he’s attended several church events.
“I go to church to break bread with them,” he says, admitting he often enjoys the company of Christians more than his own community, which he considers “full of gossip and innuendo.”
It is easy to see why Day and Wyman get along so well. In addition to sharing a theatrical flare and offering the community psychic services (Wyman dream interpretation, Day psychic readings), both men have in the past two years had experiences that resulted in them being ousted from their spiritual communities. With Day, the schism came last year when he was accused by a fellow witch of planting raccoon remains at downtown shops, a false rumor that rippled through the pagan and Wiccan community.
Because of these common experiences, perhaps, the two men have fostered a symbiotic relationship. Wyman donates dozens of church chairs to Day’s annual psychic fair on the Museum Place Mall. And Day offers the pastor free marketing advice for his church events.
“If I can sell Jesus, I can sell anything!” he says. Recently Day admits, he donated $200 to The Gathering.
“I don’t believe in Moses and the Red Sea,” says Day, “but I believe in doing good for the community. Maybe evangelicals will vote for things I don’t agree with but they do good things for humanity.”