Brian is a 29-year-old clergyman at the Summerland Grove Pagan Church, in Memphis, TN. This is the first in a series of interviews with people who are professionally religious.
What's your faith background and how did your belief system develop?
I discovered paganism when I was 13 years old, watching a Discovery Channel show called Weird Religions. Being a teenager, I was drawn to Wicca and magic and polytheism, and I’d been reading mythology for 5 or 6 years at that point; it was fascinating to see that people were practicing these ancient religions today.
Before that, I hadn’t been raised particularly religious. But my parents considered themselves nominally Christian, and they were wary of me getting into witchcraft. They weren't familiar with it, they didn't know anything about it. But, once I was 18, I came out and said, “Look, I'm pagan, there's nothing you can do about it.”
Did you grow up in Tennessee?
Yes. Memphis. Never really lived anywhere else.
What happened after you told your family you were pagan?
I was able to branch out and start discovering more about it. I had a job so I could afford books on the subject, and I also found my church. Summerland Grove was the only organization around Memphis at the time that catered to seekers of any age. And, I'm not Wiccan—my specific path is called Ásatrú—but at the time, I did consider myself Wiccan, and I wasn’t quite sure I was interested in a coven, but I knew I wanted to meet people who were like-minded. I basically came to the church to learn more about paganism.
I knew that I could never believe the idea that shows up in most religions—the idea that all other religions are wrong. I've always had a feeling that there wasn't just some big father figure up in the sky looking down and saying, “Don’t screw up, or else.”
So many religions default to male leadership, and I'd assume paganism would be one of the few exceptions: is that the case, in your experience?
Summerland Grove does its best to be gender-blind, and there are some aspects in which we may fail at that, but by and large I think we do a good job. Two of our founders were female, we’ve had transgender members, and also—as you noted—we don’t work in a traditional paradigm. The dominant figure in the hierarchy of Wicca tends to be a high priestess. But then you do get exceptions, like the groups of all-male Wiccans, who tend to be mostly homosexual.
Really, with all aspects of paganism, you can’t make any generalizations; you can say one thing and there are five exceptions right off hand.
Could you tell me more about what you believe specifically?
My cosmology is based on ancient Northern European religion, and my source material is mythology and epic poetry written about and by the ancient pre-Christian Northern Europeans. I’ve always been a history buff, which is part of why this appeals to me. And within this particular brand of paganism, people often think of the Viking aesthetic, macho men going out looting and pillaging. But in the source text, from an anthropological view, you'll find a really complete society.
I do tend to worship male gods, but I’m a cisgender male, and I identify as such. Therefore I tend to resonate more with gods than goddess or gods with more fluid gender indenties.
What gods are you talking about?
Recently, Odin has decided to rear his head in my life. I started off working with the god Thor, and as I've gotten older, Odin has started to appear more. I also work with Freyja and Frigga, a little bit with Idunna, and the god Tyr.
What do you mean when you say you work with them?
I pray to them, I offer them time, I meditate on them. When I say that I work with a god, I mean that I engage in a practice of reciprocal gift-giving. I develop and maintain a relationship with my god by giving gifts to them and thanking for the gifts they give to me.
That’s a really nice, simple way of putting it. Do you feel that you also atone for yourself to them? Is there an analogue to Judeo-Christian punishment and repentance within paganism?
With paganism being so varied, there's no set code of ethics. Most pagans tend to believe that people know what the right thing is. They don't need a father figure to say, “Don't kill people, and don’t steal.”
Most pagans believe in a variation of the Hindu belief in karma, and the variation comes from the fact that pagans tend to believe that what you do will come back to you not in the next life but in this one.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I do believe in an afterlife, and I also espouse the idea that I have not been there so I can’t really know. Within paganism, you find a concept that your soul prepares itself for its next incarnation after you die, that you are reincarnated because you have learned certain lessons and still have more to learn, but that's an extreme generalization. My personal view includes Asgard, Helheim, and all the various afterlife aspects found in Norse myth.
How did you decide to become clergy? And what did that entail?
I joined Summerland's realm system in 2002. We use this system to train clergy, but there's no requirement to become clergy—everyone decides how long he or she wants to be in the system. I started the realm system without the intent to become clergy, but just knowing I needed to learn more.
The system is broken down. The first realm is sort of Paganism 101. The second is “shadow work,” or working with the parts of your soul that you feel uncomfortable with, and learning to incorporate those parts. That focuses on ethics, philosophy, and teaching you about the different paths in Paganism so you can learn about which one might be a fit. The third realm is when you’ve decided what your path will be, and it teaches you how to make it a whole path, make your beliefs dynamic, and make your spirituality a living spirituality. Fourth realm is where we teach you how to be a minister, and fill all the roles that entails.
What's your church work like?
A lot of my work tends to be focused on helping us achieve our goals for the church, planning events, keeping us on track. We want to do away with our membership fees, but also, we want to eventually have our own building; right now, we meet at a park. I would like us to have land. We’ve been in existence for 19 years, we should have land.
Is this your full time job?
No, it's not, although it feels like it sometimes. I'm the assistant manager at a grocery store full time.
So this is a labor of love.
Very much so. I know of maybe two pagan organizations where being clergy is a full time job, and still, the clergy needs a supplemental income. It's kind of a common trope, but pagans are perpetually poor. We also don't have any concept of “Pay your tithes to God by giving money to the church.” There's no existing framework in which we could spiritually browbeat people out of their money.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions of paganism?
Here’s the biggest one: that we’re anything but normal, that we're evil, that we're devil worshipers, that we're going to steal your baby in the middle of the night. I mean, we all have day jobs and families. I'm just about to start a family. My wife is due in March.
Thank you. Yeah, we’re like everyone else, just sometimes with a different worldview.
Being in Tennessee, do you get a lot of people coming to you from a Christian background?
Newcomers are often converts from Christianity, yes, although we're starting to get to a point where people are raised pagan. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of converts used to come to paganism because they were burned by Christianity to one degree or another, but now I’m finding less that people have actually felt slighted, and more that they’re dissatisfied with the worldview.
Tell me about what you do for Halloween!
We hold a major event around Halloween, which we call the Festival of Souls. It's based around the idea that, at this time of the year, the veil between this world and the other world is thin. So it's easier to commune with your ancestors, and it's a time for honoring the dead.
And, at this time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere, the plants are dying off and the animals are going into hibernation. We work with this idea that we follow the way the earth is behaving in the physical world; it’s an appropriate time to do things associated with death and dying. So we have a four-day weekend with speakers and writers, and two major rituals: the ancestor ritual, designed to help people honor their ancestors, and let go of grief for those who have gone before, and main ritual which changes from year to year depending on which minister is running ritual that year. We also do a candlelight labyrinth, which basically functions as a walking meditation ritual. Everyone, we hope, comes out of the labyrinth with what they need.
How do you feel about portrayals of witchy, ritualistic stuff in media?
Well, I don't consider myself a witch, so it doesn't bother me on a personal level. But on a level of tolerance and people being correctly informed, it does bother me. The Craft was the shit when I was 12, and I re-watched it a couple months ago and I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
Some of this has to do with the dominant paradigm in this country, in which Christianity is good and anything associated with witchcraft is bad. I know the new season of American Horror Story is called Coven, and it's supposed to be examining stuff in a new way. At least I've heard good things about it. But I’m sort of ignorant of pop culture—I live in my own world.
Do you believe in magic?
Yes I do. I actually practice magic.
Tell me more!
I study a lot of folk magic, Appalachian granny magic, and voodoo. I am fascinated by voodoo, which has influences from Native American and Jewish and African cultures, but really grew up in America.
Magic has opened me up to be able to work with and interact with the spirits in the land that I live in. When I use herbs and things like that, I’m working with spirits of the land. I also work heavily with runes, which are an ancient Germanic writing system. I’ve done good things in healing with that. My wife has hip problems, and I’ve made things less painful for her.
Interesting. I think you’ve got to believe in magic if you’re religious, generally. Like, it’s hard for me to imagine believing in runes, but less hard for me to imagine believing in prayer, and they’re the same thing, really.
Yeah, I just want to make my world a better place to live in. I have never used magic to hurt anyone. I won't say that I won’t ever do that, but I would probably rather just deal with something legally or face to face than with magic.
What's something that you believe that could apply to anyone?
I really try to accept people for who they are. I very much believe in an individual's decision to lead their lives for themselves and find meaning however they want, and that process is a beautiful thing. That’s one of the reasons I became a minister, was to help people find what gives meaning to their lives.
And this is true for any religion, but I should say that it's very difficult for a single individual to be representative of paganism as a whole, because our faith structure is a postmodern one. Paganism—neo-paganism—only really broke on the scene in the ‘50s when England repealed its anti-witchcraft laws. So, fairly uniquely, paganism has always been defined by ease of access to information, which led us to emphasize diversity over orthodoxy, and promote tolerance, and acceptance of people walking their own paths.
Photo via Elias/flickr