I’ve heard it said that the famous “Witch City” of Salem, MA has five seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and October. As a witch from the opposite end of the country, I’ve always wanted to experience that October goodness in Salem. Finally, two days before Samhain, I got the chance.
Part of the experience is the overall vibe of acceptance and openness among the pagans in town. I’m so used to being part of a fringe religion, that to be thrust into a situation where I was among the majority was a sudden and welcome change. Certainly, not everyone wandering Essex St. and Pickering Wharf that day was a practitioner of Witchcraft, or even Pagan, but they were open and tolerant of my minority religion. Even if they were only doing it for the money, it was still a wonderful feeling.
I’ve been to Salem before, and there has always been that openness and receptivity to all. Yet, October in Salem felt like a celebration of that openness. Most of the people around were tourists and had little idea of what it meant to be a Witch, a Pagan, or walk any alternative spiritual path. But they were celebrating the joy and fun of something just a little bit strange. A tad bit dangerous. Definitely out of their comfort zone. Standing in the historical shadow of 20 people murdered under the banner of religious zeal, it was hard to be otherwise.
Of course, religious zeal still exists. Not everyone in Salem is open and tolerant. October Salem is renowned for the street preachers who pop up around the town throughout the month. The are usually equipped with microphones, amplifiers, signs about the saving nature of Jesus, and sometimes a chair to stand on. Standing alone, or sometimes with a partner, they implore the crowd to repent and turn to their own version of Christian faith.
For the most part, the revelers completely ignore them. They may stop for a moment, morbidly curious about what this guy with the Madonna mic is all about, but then they walk on. I did the same thing in in front of the White House last April when I came across some half naked dude spouting on about marijuana and nuclear arms and – I don’t know – black helicopters or something like that. A moment’s curiosity, then I had better things to do.
I sought out these preachers while I was in Salem, mostly for entertainment value. But I was also interested in the interplay between the faithful and Witch City’s throngs of tourists. I remembered this wonderful video of a little girl confronting an evangelist, and I was fascinated to see how others dealt with the constitutionally protected buzzkillers.
There’s this enjoyable, but longer video of a more philosophical engagement:
I did find what I was looking for, and at first I got the entertainment I desired. But, then I started thinking. I found two preachers that night. Each had a group of dissenters attempting to argue with them. The first was just yelling back and forth in a sort of debate (the kind of debate where no one scores a point), and the second dropped all semblance of argument. Every time the microphoned evangelist began to preach, a man drummed him out by beating a bucket with a drumstick. Nearby, a man dressed as Jesus wagged a shaming finger every time the preacher began to speak.
As I watched that exchange play out, I got to wondering exactly who it is that needs to go out and proselytize for their faith. Clearly, there are Christians in the Salem are who are uncomfortable with the Witch City’s current reputation and the source of its cash flow. They feel a religious calling to spread the Good News to people whom they perceive as sinners. Ok, fine. They have that right, but why? What is the purpose? I seriously doubt they get too many converts from the population who has consciously selected to spend October in America’s most well known refuge for Witchcraft.
A good evangelist, it seems to me, goes where the fruit is ripe. They come to people who are questioning, suffering, or struggling in life, and spiritual direction of any flavor may help those people. They certainly seem to have greater odds of conversion than among the witch hats and metaphysical stores of Salem. Preaching to the crowds of Salem seems like a Sisiphysian task. I can only guess that it’s driven by insecurity. The idea that an alternate religious practice may give other people joy and happiness seems to eat away at the fiber of these few so much that they have to come out and try to ruin their party. I would never walk into a church on Easter and tell them all about Cernunnos.
But the same is true from the other side. Why bother to drown out the preacher or argue with him? You’re not going to convince him. He’s not going to suddenly jump off his chair and start dancing around a fire with horns on. The crowd is against him – and those who aren’t are not really cut out for Witchcraft anyway. We always say we don’t proselytize, and we wear that as a mark of pride to contrast us from monotheistic religions, but isn’t drowning out someone who differs from us just an alternate way of proselytizing? If we are comfortable with ourselves and not seeking converts, why not let the other guy talk? He’s not going to make much progress anyway.
As I was considering all of this, the Starbucks red cup “controversy” started to make its way around the internet. It began with one guy posting a video about how Starbucks hates Jesus because their holiday cups are now two-toned red with no Christian iconography. Most Christians I’ve seen think the whole thing is ridiculous. It was started by one pastor who is so insecure in his own world view that he feels the need to attack those who don’t overtly promote his path. Christians and pagans alike from across the country rightfully dismissed him as a fool.
We have this temptation to fight those who disagree with us. Sometimes it’s necessary. If that person holds extra power or privilege in society, then a strong fight might be the way to go. That may often be the case when it comes to evangelists. Christianity is still the majority religion with a place of societal privilege, and many pagans have escaped it far enough to see the cracks in its armor.
Yet, in a place like Salem in a time like October, the actions are futile. Like the guy who ranted about Starbucks’ cups, the street preachers step right into their own self-made world of futility. Let them talk. The few whom they can convert would have gone that direction eventually anyway. Go about your Great Work and them do theirs. Their work will remain as futile as ever.