NEW YORK — WitchsFestUSA, an annual Pagan festival held in the heart of New York City, was attended this year by Christian protesters. The noisy group, who stood all day on the corner of Astor Place, held up large signs calling for repentance and angrily yelling at the passing crowd. Despite the protesters’ presence, the Pagan festival kept to its program and ended on a high note.Now in its fifth year, WitchsFestUSA describes itself as an outdoor, Pagan street faire. Its mission is to “bring the community of witches or pagans together in general and enjoy who we are as such, while at the same time raising funds for The NYC Wiccan Family Temple acquire our own space of worship.”
The festival was founded and is annually hosted by elder High Priestesses Starr RavenHawk and Luna Rojas. RavenHawk founded and now runs Wiccan Family Temple and the Academy of Pagan Studies, both located in New York City. In 2013, RavenHawk was featured in a Time Magazine about Witchcraft and its modern day practice. Rojas is also a high priestess and member of the Wiccan Family Temple. Additionally, Rojas is the founder of the New York City Pagan Council, a pagan civil rights organization.
RavenHawk and Rojas have been running WitchsFestUSA since 2011. The festival takes place in New York City’s Greenwich Village on Astor Place between Broadway & Lafayette Streets. The one-day Pagan event hosts a variety of workshops, rituals, performances, and vendors, all set up on Manhattan streets like a typical city street faire. This year’s guest presenters were many, including: Rev. Don Lewis, Lilith Dorsey, Christopher Penczak, Courtney Weber Hoover, Lady Rhea, Rhonda Choudry, Qumran Taj, and Lexa Rosean.The group of protesters, who numbered between 10 and 20 at any given time, arrived early and stayed all day. They set up on one corner of Astor Place, near the festival’s teaching tents. The group held up signs and yelled at the growing festival crowd. According to RavenHawk, this was the same group of people who protested Pagan Pride in 2015.
Witch and author Christopher Penczak told The Wild Hunt that the protesters appeared to be “some evangelical variety” of Christian, but he could not identify any specific denomination or church affiliation.
“I have never encountered such a belligerent group,” said Hannah, a member of the Temple of Witchcraft and a regular attendee at Pagan and other similar conventions. “One [protester] screamed in my face that I need to repent.” She said that, in her experience, most convention protesters are typically more passive. “These guys were seriously full of aggression and hate.”
While the group kept to its physical location on the street corner, its members were reportedly extremely loud and often shouted over the teachers trying to teach, which appeared to be their goal. In a blog post, author and priestess Courtney Weber Hoover wrote, “We delayed the beginning of our workshops as their ‘Repent, you guys! You’re all going to hell!’ rallies were too loud!”
Lexa Rosen, who was scheduled to teach in the tent directly beside the protesters, attempted to start a chant and a spiral dance to hush them,” as relayed by Wiccan High Priestess Dawn Marie. She said, “In the end we moved her tent over so she could do some of her workshop.”
As Penczak began to teach his workshop, he quickly realized that he couldn’t “speak without yelling to be heard.” He said, “Though naive, I thought: ‘has anyone asked them to be quieter in a polite way?’ Have we tried to just talk to them?’ So I tried.”
While other attendees had engaged with the protesters in theological debate, Penczak “had a more practical request in mind.” He simply wanted to ask them to lower their volume. As his story goes, he approached the woman leading the chants, who said, “Can’t you see I’m busy. I got a job to do. I’ve got no time to talk to you.” Penczak then “tried to explain that [he] also had a job to do and she was making it impossible.” She ignored him.
Penczak said, “I tried to talk to what I thought was her associate right next to her but the gentleman turned around, and his sign said ‘Will work for cigarettes,’ and he explained he wasn’t with her.” He said that he then returned to his “teach-yell” workshop.
Weber Hoover said the same: “I led my Tarot class with a chorus of shouts about Jesus and redemption off to my left.”Priestess and author Lilith Dorsey experienced the same. She shared this story with us:
I was all set to give my Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism workshop when I realized I was about 10 feet away from a loud group of Christian protesters. My godson who had come with me asked if I was going to try to reason with them. My initial response was that I used to sing on Broadway and it would be possible to talk louder than them even at this close distance. So my understanding class gathered close and I proceeded to project a well-received and well-attended lecture despite the circumstances.
Dorsey added, “After my class was over I think there was a moment where I flashed some devil horns and stuck out my tongue.”
In talking about this unfortunate situation, Dorsey made it a point to express her “respect for Christians who practice what they preach.” This sentiment was echoed in Weber Hoover’s blog post. She wrote, “I won’t call [the protesters] Christians. I know too many wonderful Christians to lump them in with this crowd.”
However, Dorsey said that, in this particular situation, she felt “disturbed and disrespected.” She added, “I have sat on interfaith councils with Christians and people of all faiths. Fortunately I have never had to directly deal with such vitriol until now. It was extra disheartening to see many people of color protesting, which in light of recent events and the #blacklivesmatter movement makes me want to ask them don’t you have better things to shout at.”
Winifred Costello, a Traditional Witch and the proprietor of AwenTree, was visiting from her home in Western Massachusetts. She said, “I felt upset for the presenters, organizers and attendees that worked hard to put on the event. The protesters were yelling so intensely and with such anger, that I did could not hear the workshop presenter speaking and I did not feel comfortable sticking around.”
Dawn Marie echoed that sentiment, saying, “[The protesters] were really angry and aggressive, and I started to worry that it would get out of hand because of the recent shootings.” She had to shield herself, adding that she felt “rattled” and “inconvenienced.”
The New York City Police Department was on hand and watching the protest. RavenHawk noted that four officers remained near the protesters at all times to protect the attendees. Dana Marie said that “[The officers] were respectful and kept us protected while keeping an eye on the protesters and telling them to stop getting so loud.”However, not everyone felt safe. As mentioned earlier, Costello left the festival because of the intensity of the protest. She said, “Due to recent events in the nation, I felt far more sensitive to, and disturbed by, the strong vibe of intolerance radiating from this group in particular. It is not that I haven’t encountered religious protesters before but given the reality of how intolerance is literally leading to folks being killed, I just had no stomach for the energy these protesters had. If they want to spread their beliefs I think there are more productive, kinder and tolerant methods than the actions they choose.”
She continued on to say, “The biggest take-away from this experience was that we need to keep advocating for positive, safe change, for acceptance of diversity in our country. The time of angry intolerance and fear-driven actions needs to shift towards a time of inclusion, acceptance and peaceful interactions.”
While many attendees simply ignored the protesters, others, like Penczak, did engage with them in some way. RavenHawk told The Wild Hunt, “I tried at first to reason with them that, this is our civil rights to be here and practice our religion, just like they do. To which they answered that it was their right as well to do their job and save us despite ourselves.”
On her blog, Weber Hoover describes her own action, in which she hugs two of the protesters and repeatedly says, “I love you.” Her chanting first elicited the same statement back. However, as she continued and got louder, the two protesters became fearful that she was casting a spell.Weber Hoover said, “[A leader] held his hand up and started shouting an incantation, as though to strike the Devil out of me.” She added, “I don’t know that my choice this time was the answer, but it was the right answer for me at that moment.”
Other actions included the drawing of pentacles, spirals and other magical images in chalk and salt on the ground at the protesters feet. Dawn Marie said “One gentleman had started smudging and charging the circle he had drawn as well as the other symbols around him. The whole thing was a barrier of peace.”
Dawn Marie was impressed with the attendees’ reactions to the situation. She added, “They didn’t blow the smoke at the protesters or disrespect the protesters as much as pray to the Gods for protection on the festival.”
In retrospect, RavenHawk said that the situation was “very offensive” and “traumatizing.” She said, now, “I literally cannot seem to want to hear anyone speak to me or near me about Jesus. I am so turned off by it right now, and never noticed or paid attention to it before.”
Despite that experience, attendees universally reported that RavenHawk handled the situation with grace and was “cool and calm” despite the unwanted guests and the continual disruptions.They said that she did her best, communicating with officers and being available to attendees, vendors and presenters.
By the end of the day, nothing that was done by the organizers or festival participants provoked the group to leave their corner. However, at the same time, nothing the protesters did ended the festival. Although presenter voices needed to be louder and some teaching events had to be relocated, WitchsFestUSA 2016 was considered successful, ending with a rousing closing ritual.Dorsey said, “Overall it was only a minor distraction at an amazing event, run by some of the most competent and powerful people I know. ”
RavenHawk expressed her personal gratitude to everyone involved. In a public post, she wrote, “We sang songs of love and the Goddess, clapping our hands to our own beat… later on many drew sigils of pentagrams on the street before them.. witches took lemons and made lemonade. Refreshing.”The sixth annual WitchsFestUSA is already in the planning stages and will be held July 15, 2017 at the same location.