Lottery winner plans spirituality center

Ellwood “Bunky” Bartlett – Mega Millions lottery winner, Wiccan high priest, recently retired accountant – would like to clear up a few misconceptions about his plans for a “witch school.”

Yes, he’d like to start a pagan seminary. But no, it’s not going to be some sort of Hogwarts-on-the-Patapsco, with precocious adolescents running around in wizard hats and casting spells.

Bartlett instead envisions the place as sort of a yeshiva for all faiths, a “church” that’s less about God – or gods, if you prefer – and more about spirituality, nature and healing.

The future Willow Springs Sanctuary and Community Center – likely to be somewhere in Baltimore County, but Bartlett doesn’t yet know where – will teach classes about all religions, offer technology courses for those seeking better jobs and counseling for those seeking to make sense of their lives. And, the $33 million winner hopes, it will help demystify a religion that for most of the public remains shrouded in myth – a fast-growing faith that millions of Americans share, even if they’re not always open about it.

“When I won, I had a choice. I could have stayed quiet or I could take the bull by the horns and use this as an opportunity to educate,” Bartlett said. “I chose to educate. I believe that’s what the gods wanted.”

It doesn’t really seem in Bartlett’s nature to be quiet. His monthly coffee klatch yesterday at Mystickal Voyage, a New Age shop across from the Food Lion in a White Marsh shopping center, went long past the noon hour when it was supposed to end.

Wearing a polo shirt, black jeans and white sneakers, his fingers decked out in gold rings, Bartlett answered all kinds of questions from the dozen or so seekers who showed up.

Asked his opinion on drug use, he said, “If you can’t get there on your own, you aren’t supposed to be there.”

On spirituality: “People ask me, ‘How long does it take to become a Wiccan or whatever?’ And the answer is, ‘It takes a lifetime.'”

And upon realizing that he had spent the past 10 minutes talking with his arm leaning on his chocolate muffin?

“Move the muffin,” Bartlett bellowed. “It’s all good!”

One woman told the group how Bartlett had helped her cleanse her house of bad energy – energy that was streaming in from certain items her ex-husband had left behind that she didn’t realize were there. Others asked serious questions about Summerland, the Wiccan equivalent of heaven, and what it feels like to have a transformational experience.

Though the Wiccan religion has several major holidays and festivals, it has very little doctrine. The faith is, in a lot of ways, what the practitioner wants it to be.

That’s one reason pagan practitioners like Sherry Marts are excited about Bartlett’s plans. Few training opportunities exist for pagan clergy, and what is available is mostly through the Internet.

“Folks who have wanted to serve in a leadership capacity have managed to cobble together an education through Christian divinity schools, counseling programs, and the Unitarian Church,” said Marts, a practicing witch and spokeswoman for the Open Hearth Foundation, a pagan community center in the Washington area. “It’s been kind of a piecemeal. It would be great to have a pagan seminary.”

Practitioners like Marts say the Harry Potter books have made more people curious about Wicca. But they have also helped to spread misconceptions that the religion is all about magic spells and pointy hats. Indeed, after he won the lottery, many people stopped by Bartlett’s coffee klatch at Mystickal Voyage, hoping he would reveal the spell he cast to win the lottery.

Some religious experts say the number of people practicing Wicca is around 200,000. But Ed Hubbard, founder of the Witch School International in Rossville, Ill., said the number is closer to several million. The truth is, nobody really knows because so many practitioners keep their beliefs to themselves.

The Witch School International offers weekend workshops and plans to open a campus in Salem, Mass., next year. There is also a pagan seminary in Vermont. But Hubbard thinks there is a need for a prominent college-type institution.

“If he’s really serious about investing real money, he’d have the first Wicca university, easily, with 10,000 students in the first five years,” said Hubbard. “It could be the first of its kind in modern times.”

Starting a pagan worship and education center isn’t easy, he added. The Witch School International, for example, hasn’t always been warmly welcomed by those who live near its headquarters in Illinois.

It might help, then, that Bartlett wants to incorporate other religions into the center, and that he and his fellow devotees seem so, well, normal.

On a Sunday morning, they sit around sipping coffee, occasionally checking cell phones and BlackBerries. They drive regular cars and wear Sunday morning dress-down clothes. And they have a sense of humor – one woman sported a T-shirt that said “Abercrombie and Witch, 666.”

Like any normal guy who just won $33 million, Bartlett is also doing a little spending – he’s become a regular at a certain Ford dealer. But ask him if he knows about the “lottery curse” – the bad luck that seems to befall those who become multimillionaires overnight – and Bartlett the witch just smiles his Cheshire-like grin.

“Oh, I don’t believe in curses,” he said, then paused. “No, I have the ability to deflect the curses that come my way.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 5, 2007.
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