Salem – When TV Land first wanted to place a Samantha Stephens statue in downtown Salem in honor of “Bewitched,” and the controversy was just winding up, Salem resident Jerrie Hildebrand was asked to look into what the local Wiccan and Pagan community thought.
Hildebrand agreed, but there was small problem: She wasn’t entirely sure who or what the local Wiccan and Pagan community entailed. Things had come a long way for people of that spiritual orientation, especially in Salem, but there remained many residents who still weren’t “out” to the world.
And with good reason, Hildebrand explained at a No Place for Hate panel discussion held April 12, because there are still so many stigmas against Wicca and Paganism. During the stir over the “Bewitched” statue, someone who knew little about Hildebrand’s faith labeled her a modern-day Samantha.
“You’re kind of like her, you’re a regular woman,” he said, referring to Hildebrand being as much a “soccer mom” as a Wiccan. The Salem resident is a mother who’s coached her kids’ athletic teams, and she’s also the owner of the marketing company Kishgraphics.
Hildebrand fights against this misconception that Wiccans and Pagans are somehow fundamentally different from Christians, Jews and Muslims — a belief she says was held and accepted even by Salem officials until recent years. In truth, said Hildebrand, they come in all forms: gay, straight, businesspeople and artists, family leaders and singles.
“We’re just regular folk having a life,” she said. “So we’re just like any other faith community.”
If there was a single message to came out of the discussion at Old Town Hall last weekend, it was that Neo-Wiccans and Pagans are each unique, just like everyone else, and although extensive progress has been made, prejudice and even discrimination still exist.
A major part of the public’s confusion is the word “witch,” used sometimes to describe a Wiccan. While Salem is home to many who cast spells and wear pointy hats, that’s not what Wiccan and Pagan faiths are about. And although lovers of the magic and psychic world are fairly well received in Salem, in the larger world that type of witch has a bad reputation.
As a result, there’s a debate in the Pagan faiths over whether the word witch can be salvaged for them, since “as well all know, this word witch has such negative connotations in our society,” said panelist Margot Adler, an NPR host, author and 35-year Wiccan priestess.
In the simplest form, Wicca is a religion, said Adler. Many of the faith arrived at it the way Adler did, born to more mainstream cultures and searching for people with beliefs like her own. While there are many variations, as with any religion, their common faith is ecology based and focuses on a communion with nature with an emphasis on ritual.
“I was constantly looking for an ‘ecological religion,'” Adler said of her youth.
The author of the landmark 1979 Wicca book “Drawing Down the Moon,” she notes that much of the modern religion is based on customs from ancient times when paganism was the norm. Many of the beliefs and rituals have been passed down, so for some people, paganism is a return to one’s roots.
“There have always been earth traditions, always been indigenous traditions €¦” she said.
Despite being an inherently peaceful creed (Wiccans are often involved in feminist and anti-war causes), Adler said, Wiccans are such a minority that many people still misunderstand, mock or even fear them. Even at NPR, considered by man to be a liberal media outlet, only a handful of coworkers have asked Adler about her faith over the years.
“Way down deep, I think people are very uncomfortable [with Wicca],” she said.
That’s why Adler and Hildebrand have given multiple speeches and discussions around the country together and separately, trying to educated the public about a deeply misinterpreted faith.
It’s also why Hildebrand, when she’s not running her business and being a mom, is a religious-freedom activist. An ordained minister, she said she gets calls almost daily from people who feel their rights were violated.
She does it for the prison inmate who isn’t allowed to keep his guitar, used to compose religious music. She does it for the Tennessee girl whose school won’t grant her permission to miss school for two holy days.
And, most famously, there’s the battle over veterans’ graves. Hildebrand was part of the team from Circle Sanctuary that worked to get the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to add the pentacle to its list of official emblems for the gravestones of Wiccan veterans. After the battle was won, about a year ago, she illustrated the official emblem now used.
For Adler, there are small fights to be won. She’s tolerant of some witch references in popular culture and feels people need to know how to laugh at themselves. But there are some witch stereotypes she can’t abide by, and she works to eradicate the common image of the ugly hag.
Hildebrand said although Salem is generally a tolerant place — a city where no one will attack you for wearing a pentacle in public — there are still challenges in educating the public about the definition and lifestyle of a Wiccan witch.
“What’s happening in Salem is a small microcosm of what’s happening at the national level,” said Hildebrand.