Befriending witches is a problem in Salem, Mass.
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SALEM, Mass. -- The Rev. Phil Wyman presides over a small evangelical church here that befriends local pagans and folks who call themselves witches. It's an odd mission, even in Salem, a city where tourism capitalizes on infamy -- the mass hysteria of 1692 in which 20 men and women were executed for practicing witchcraft.
Salem (pop. 40,000) is home to hundreds of professed witches, psychic readers, potion brewers, mystics and Wiccans, a group that practices a nature-based faith. In 1999, Mr. Wyman, his wife and two friends set out to minister to them, hoping to convert some to Christianity.
Last year, local ministers began saying that Mr. Wyman was getting too close to the witches. They pointed to his friendships, his Web site's links to pagan sites, and a photograph that seemed to show him kissing a witch's hand. Mr. Wyman's denomination accused him of aberrance, revoked his ordination and expelled him. One letter to him said he had strayed from Christian teachings and was disobedient.
In recent days, as tens of thousands of tourists have flocked to Salem's leafy streets in anticipation of Halloween, Mr. Wyman has been hustling to keep his 35-member church going. He denies violating Christian precepts and says he himself is the victim of a witch hunt.
"I can imagine the Salem witch trials were not much different from this: It starts with a rumor and escalates to a trial," says Mr. Wyman.
Mr. Wyman's fans say he has helped bridge divides. "He's actively changed the dynamic between witches and Christians in this town," says Christian Day, a member of the witch community. But some pastors say Mr. Wyman's alliances have tainted him. "There's a fear mentality, if you hang out with members of the witchcraft community, you will come under the influence of the darkness," says Scott Smith, a minister for the Assemblies of God.
Mr. Wyman, 47, and his wife, Beverly, were members of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal Christian denomination whose adherents speak in tongues and believe in miracles. Foursquare, based in Los Angeles, was founded by famed revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1927. It claims 4.5 million members world-wide.
Mr. Wyman joined Foursquare in his 20s when he was playing guitar in Southern California. Yet he liked the intellectual challenge of talking with nonbelievers. He was drawn, he says, to those following pre-Christian traditions. Once in Salem, he volunteered to work with the city's biggest event, the annual Halloween festival.
Many evangelicals consider Halloween and witchcraft to be Satan's work and have persuaded some schools around the country to drop Halloween parties. Many Pentecostals believe that angels and demons are waging an active spiritual battle, and Halloween is a sign of Satan, says Matthew Sutton, professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., who has written about Ms. McPherson.
Mr. Wyman, hoping to get Salem's pagans to open up to him, tried neighborliness. Christians and witches debated the difference between magic and miracles at his Thursday night Circle and Cross Talk. He chatted with people at Salem's witchcraft shops, and he was shown how tarot cards are read. Some witches sought him out for counseling. Eva Porcello, a potion mixer, joined his church, saying Mr. Wyman didn't dictate beliefs. "He lets people figure out their own spirituality," she says.
Despite his friendships, Mr. Wyman says he has always been careful to observe, not join, pagan rituals. "It's their worship, not mine," he says.
On October weekends, Salem's Essex Street teems with folk musicians, candy-apple sellers, and caped tour guides. Mr. Wyman's church, called the Gathering, provides a stage, sound equipment, live music and hot chocolate.
He also provides Christian-tinged theater. Near the stage, people lined up this year for dream interpretations and "psalm readings," in which volunteers proffered their advice through scriptural passages. In another tent, redolent of incense, James Wilcox, a friend of Mr. Wyman's, was dressed in a monk's cowl as he confessed the "sins of the church," dating all the way back to the Crusades. Mr. Day said some of his witch friends were moved when they heard a Christian admit the church has wronged people. "Sure, he wants to convert people," he says about Mr. Wyman. "But he does it in a way that respects you."
At first, Mr. Wyman's supervisors seemed pleased with his work in Salem, according to other Foursquare pastors and leaders. Mr. Wyman's district supervisor, John Hatcher, lauded him at a convention last fall before dozens of ministers, two pastors said.
Jack Hayford, Foursquare's president, didn't return phone calls, and other church leaders declined to comment. Mr. Hatcher said only: "Phil had a strategy and methodology that was significantly different from how we perceive church life."
In September 2005, four local evangelical clergymen told Mr. Wyman they were concerned about a picture on a witch's Web site of Mr. Wyman bending as if to kiss the hand of Melantha Blackthorne, a Canadian horror-movie actress who appears at the Salem vampire ball as Countess Bathoria.
Mr. Wyman appeared "too familiar, too cozy, too amicable with that community," said the Rev. Kenneth Steigler, a United Methodist Church pastor.
Mr. Wyman said he was playacting, didn't kiss Ms. Blackthorne's hand, and didn't know that Mr. Day had posted the photo online. The photo was removed right away. But Mr. Wyman's superior, Mr. Hatcher, wrote to him several days later saying he was discomfited by local pastors' concerns and Web links connecting the Gathering's Internet site to those run by pagans -- people whose views oppose that of Christians, he wrote.
"I feel you are not seeing the vulnerability you are opening up to regarding demonic activity," Mr. Hatcher wrote. "It is my judgment ... that you are crossing the line into the aberrant."
Mr. Wyman, his associate pastor, Jeff Menasco, and their wives were summoned to a hearing in October last year at Mr. Hatcher's church in Weymouth, Mass., before several Foursquare leaders. They grilled the two couples as to how a Christian could be friends with witches.
A few weeks before the meeting, Mr. Wyman got word that an application he had made for a grant from the church-funded Foursquare Foundation had been approved, awarding him $84,000 to teach evangelizing techniques. Mr. Wyman pressed Mr. Hatcher for another meeting, saying he had not been given a fair hearing. Mr. Hatcher refused. In March, Foursquare's board expelled Mr. Wyman.
Mr. Wyman has been using some of the grant money to pay church rent and bills. Once it's gone, Mr. Wyman says he may weld or give guitar lessons to keep his church afloat.
First Published October 31, 2006 12:00 am