COLLEGE PARK – Jessica Loew is a seemingly average college freshman, who is addicted to the television show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” loves to swim and is studying zoology.
She’s also a witch.
“My dad still doesn’t know,” said Loew, a University of Maryland student who still bows her head when her Catholic family says grace. “He would probably kick me out of the family.”
Loew has kept the secret from him since she was 14.
Her story is common among pagans, who believe in multiple deities and closely link their faith to nature. As gays struggle to tell friends, family and co-workers the truth, so do pagans, who often keep their beliefs a secret until they find the right moment.
“We call it coming out of the broom closet,” said Caroline Kenner, 47, a Silver Spring resident who is on the board of directors of the Chesapeake Pagan Community.
“My advice is go slow and be brave and trust people to give you a positive response,” said Kenner, who has been pagan for 21 years.
While many pagans consider themselves witches, not all embrace the term, because of the popular image of broomsticks and pointy hats. Loew describes herself as an eclectic pagan, who believes everything has a spirit and worships by meditating in a circle of burning candles.
She spoke about her religion at a meeting of the newly re-formed Pagan Student Union on the College Park campus. Club President Jennifer Castagna said many people are confused about what it really means to be pagan.
“We don’t worship Satan,” she said, frustrated. “We don’t even think that Satan exists.”
Allen Stairs, a University of Maryland philosophy professor who has taught a class called “Magic, Science and Religion,” said the intolerance comes from misunderstanding.
“The image of a witch I think most people carry around is an evil hag. That’s scary and off-putting, but not what these people are about,” he said.
Although many pagan religions have roots in ancient ideas, Stairs said the current movement is relatively young, only blossoming in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. He said people frequently piece together traditions from Greek mythology, the Renaissance and other cultures to create a religion that suits them.
“It provides people with something that appeals to imagination,” he said, adding that it should not alarm parents. “I don’t think there’s any good reason to think that if your kids are involved in neo-paganism that they’re at any risk.”
That does not mean it is any easier to come out of the broom closet. Loew remembers telling her mother.
“I’m pagan,” she recalled saying when she turned 18. “There’s not anything you can do to change that.”
Her mother dismissed the declaration with a “not under my roof.”
Other pagans say that mistrust is not limited to immediate family.
Kira Bucca, another member of the Pagan Student Union, said her parents are OK with her religion but her extended family is not.
Bucca, 21, said she became pagan after spirits started talking to her when she was 10 years old. She plans to marry her pagan fiance in two years; their wedding will include a hop over a broom and will take place at a graveyard so spirits can attend.
“My family is probably going to be like, ‘Oh that’s nice, we won’t be there,'” she said.
Kenner said pagans live and practice magic across the state, but they cannot be open about their religion everywhere.
Two years ago customers boycotted a Taneytown coffee shop where pagans met, and Caroline County nurse Melanie Ball-Pearson said a bumper sticker reading “Life is a witch and then you fly,” was torn off her car. One Wiccan — a veterinary assistant who lives on the Eastern Shore — declined to give her name for this story because she worried it could affect her husband’s job.
But Kenner encouraged pagans to be as honest as possible about their faith. She said authenticity is best for their own spiritual development.
At the close of the Pagan Student Union meeting — after they planned who would bring the fruit, nuts, bread and other natural foods to a Halloween ritual known to pagans as Samhain — Loew said she wants to tell her father about her religion soon.
But she will probably wait until she is more financially independent. Until then, whenever she is at home in Virginia, she will continue to cast her circles behind her bedroom door.
“When I’m at home, I keep my religion to myself,” she said.
-30- CNS 10-29-04