Church severs tie with branch over pagans

The Gathering chastised for getting too close to witches

SALEM, Mass. — A small evangelical Christian church that has tried to reach out to the witch community says it was dropped by its national organization for getting too close to local pagans.

The Gathering at Salem, which was scheduled to give free “psalm readings” at a Halloween celebration, has been relegated to the status of independent Christian church after being removed last March from membership in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a worldwide evangelical movement based in Los Angeles, according to Phil Wyman, pastor of The Gathering.

The trouble began two years ago, Wyman said, when he inadvertently posed for a photo on the Essex Street pedestrian mall with a woman calling herself the “Countess Bathoria,” who had stirred up controversy by appearing in a promotional poster for a vampire ball wearing a bikini and covered in blood. She was being paraded around by two local witches that day when Wyman said he went over to greet them and was photographed as he bent down to kiss the woman’s ring.

“Don’t get me in trouble,” Wyman, 47, said he commented good-naturedly to the witches.

The photo made its way to the Web site of a local pagan event, The Festival of the Dead, and was seen months later by church leaders, Wyman said.

The pastor said he was called before area church leaders in Weymouth last year and questioned about the photo and about links on his church’s Web site to pagan groups. The pagan Web sites were educational, he said.

Paganism and Witchcraft

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“The meeting was brutal,” Wyman said. “It was a little bit like an Inquisition. … It kind of escalated to, €˜How can you be friends with witches?'”

Wyman, who was accompanied by three others from the Salem church, said, “The four of us kind of looked at each other and (thought), €˜We live in Salem. How could you not?'”

The Foursquare church had no comment.

“We are aware there have been some reporters trying to call and inquire about that story,” said Gus Delgado, an administrative assistant in the national church office in Los Angeles. “We don’t have any comment. Maybe (we will) in the next weeks or months.”

Outreach to witches

Although The Gathering has only about 40 members, its visibility in the city increased last year when it leased space inside the former Naumkeag Bank on the Essex Street mall, the center of Halloween activities in the Witch City. The church received an $84,000 grant from the Foursquare Foundation to lease the space and to reach out to the Salem community, including witches, Wyman said.

The pastor said a “big portion of the (foundation’s) interest … was our outreach to the neo-pagan community. … That was unique. They don’t have anybody else in the denomination doing this.”

The Foursquare Church focuses on evangelical efforts around the world, according to Delgado, the spokesman in Los Angeles. Founded in 1922 by the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, it has about 1,900 churches across the United States, he said.

Wyman said he came to Salem in 1999 from Los Angeles, where he had worked with “unique people groups” like Mormons and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In Salem, the church has been active during the Halloween season, running a children’s day on Salem Common and setting up a stage near the Peabody Essex Museum on Halloween night. Wyman plays a guitar and sings while others hand out hot chocolate, give psalm readings, interpret dreams and run a confessional booth, all for free.

The national church was impressed by the outreach of The Gathering and the number of people it came in contact with during Halloween, he said.

While the Foursquare church is an evangelical denomination with a goal of converting new Christians, Wyman said he took a low-key approach.

“We believe conversion is something that happens between an individual and God,” he said.

While in Salem, Wyman said he has worked with many people, including witches. He even started an online chat room for born-again Christians and neo-pagans called “Circle and Cross Talk.”

Wyman said he also traveled to England to sing at a stone circle for local druids.

“I’ve made some real good friends in the pagan community,” he said.

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This post was last updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 3:33 AM, Central European Time (CET)