State Journal Register, Apr. 20, 2003
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For Courtenay Diehl, walking into Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Springfield was like walking into an Oriental bazaar: She was met by an almost entirely unfamiliar language and sights and sounds that bombarded the senses.
“My first thought was, What am I getting myself into?” says Diehl, 25 and a second-year student at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
Diehl had attended other services at Christian churches, including Episcopal services, as a high school and college student. That exploration and discussion about Christianity were discouraged by Diehl’s mother, a practicing Wiccan.
“I got stuck with a lot negative stereotypes, that all Christians were sheep,” says Diehl, who also practiced Wicca, of her upbringing.
The death of her grandmother in November, the gentle nudging of her fiance and her abandonment of the ceremonial side of Wicca all contributed to Diehl’s arriving at St. Paul’s. After an initial trial period, Diehl formalized her intention of joining the Episcopal Church to the Rev. Warren Raasch, St. Paul’s dean, in January.
Saturday night, at the church’s Easter vigil, Diehl was baptized and received Holy Eucharist for the first time. She and 13 others will be confirmed, allowing full participation in the church, by Bishop Peter Beckwith at the cathedral May 29.
Even after she started attending St. Paul’s, Diehl admits she was somewhat skeptical of the church and concerned about some of her preconceived notions, particularly issues related to gay people and abortion.
“For people not connected with Christian life, it’s a difficult step to take,” admits Raasch, who guided Diehl through a nine-week course in preparation for baptism.
“(Coming to a service) presumes you have all the preconceived notions of what the church is about. For her, it has be real motivational. She’s the one doing the hard work and taking the real risks.”
Diehl says she sought answers in an interdenominational Bible study group she found through the medical school after the death of her grandmother.
“That support got me through those times,” Diehl says. But when it came to the Bible, she found herself in over her head.
Much of Diehl’s knowledge about the Episcopal Church had come from her fiance, Ben DeGraves.
“Especially on holidays, he would invite me to church, but I was never pressured into going,” she says.
Born in Rockford, Diehl says her mother belonged to covens, or Wiccan groups, in the various places Diehl grew up: southern Missouri, Phoenix and Rockford. As a child, Diehl remembers attending a lot of social gatherings with other Wiccan families. She learned the basic tenets of Wicca – do no harm to others and nature is an all-powerful force – at the foot of her mother, although she later decried her mother’s ultra-feminist and anti-deity viewpoints.
At the Illinois Math and Science Academy, Diehl said, she stood out from the crowd. Friends asked questions about Wicca, but their beliefs raised questions for her.
“Growing up, I was open about it. I was never ashamed. Some friends’ parents had difficulties with it. Some parents didn’t allow me in friends’ houses or to social events. But it worked both ways.”
As a student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where she studied biology and behavioral science, Diehl says she felt increasingly isolated in her beliefs.
“There were one or two Wiccans, but they weren’t practitioners,” Diehl says. “That’s when I stopped being open about it.”
Without a Wiccan community, Diehl says, it was difficult. “I needed stimulation spiritually. It came down to beliefs rather than doing rituals. The ceremony was lost. It was difficult because it was a rural, forested area.”
People in the area had their own mindset about Wicca, which wasn’t exactly encouraging to Diehl.
“They would say it’s Satanist or that I was going to hell. People wouldn’t listen, and then they started to avoid me,” she says.
“I’d get comments under people’s breath. I was getting a reputation I really feel I didn’t need.”
Location and a lack of intellectual stimulation may have been contributing factors in Diehl seeking out something else. And although she calls her personal experience with Wicca “unfulfilling and lacking in purpose,” she says under different circumstances she may have stayed with it.
“I tried to explore as much as I could,” Diehl says, “but nothing seemed to click after my mother and father divorced” when she was a senior in high school.
Diehl says she has no plans to abandon some of Wicca’s basic tenets, such as respect for nature, as long as they don’t get in the crosshairs of Episcopal teachings.
Supporting Diehl is her roommate, Liana Greene, a high school friend and a practicing Wiccan.
“For all I know, she could love it and believe in it, (which is better) than being stuck in a religion you’ve been in since your childhood,” Green says.
Diehl says she was open with her learning group about her Wiccan practice. “They didn’t know what it was,” she says, “but they didn’t think it was Satanism.”
Raasch says he encountered Wiccans early in his ministry in Southern California, but says that by Springfield’s standards, Diehl’s spiritual journey is unusual.
“It says, certainly, that there is a deep intent to explore Christianity more fully. She stuck her feet in the water in other places, and the message she was getting was, ‘Thou shalt not,’ the negatives, where she was looking for the positives.
“There is joy in being a Christian. For whatever reason, she picked up some of that here.”