Weekend protests by Christian groups unite local Pagan communities

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UNITED STATES — Christian protesters targeted a Pagan Pride Day in Philadelphia and a Pagan shop in Greenville, North Carolina in two completely unrelated events Saturday. While the reaction by the Pagans present at both locations differed, they all agree that those protests have since united their respective communities.

Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day

Last Saturday afternoon, Robert Schreiwer, coordinator and president of Philadelphia Pagan Pride Day, was doing some shopping at one of the vendor stalls near the entrance of the park where the event was being held. That’s when he heard a commotion nearby.

Mr. Schreiwer says it was a group trying to enter the park while one man “began to spew an invective full of hate” over a megaphone.

Schreiwer, and other attendees, quickly moved to intervene. “The folks in the community blocked their path, and I demanded to see his permit,” says Schreiwer.

The group, members of the Keys of David church led by Pastor Aden Rusfeldt, then retreated to the corner at the entrance of the park. In a YouTube video uploaded by Pastor Rusfeldt, he says, “We only moved back to the sidewalk because they had a permit for the park. It was a good one hour preach. Pray these witches and warlocks hit rock bottom and get saved!”

Schreiwer says Rusfeldt used terms like rectum wreckers to describe gays and derided Witches and Muslims. Rusfeldt’s wife then spoke briefly, followed by another male that Schrewer believes to be their son.

“He was the one, I believe, who kept asking a young teen from our group about how many abortions she had,” said Schreiwer.

Larry Goble has been a vendor at Philly PPD for four years. He noted the purposeful involvement of children, both as part of the protest and as a target of the protest. “They started all of this right in front of our children’s activities tent. They also had young children with them carrying signs and shouting.”

Shortly after the protest started, an attendee came to his booth and asked for a smudging stick to use against the protesters. Goble said that the attendee told him the Christian group was complaining about the smell of incense so they wanted to burn a smudging stick to “really give them something to complain about.”

Goble gave them a cleansing and purifying stick to use.

Karen Bruhin, co-ritual coordinator for Philly PPD, received one of the sticks and began smudging the area while leading a chant. “Smudge is a great way to clear out the energy and the space,” says Ms. Bruhin.

Bruhin says that the protesters then increased the volume of the megaphone, “It’s hard to compete with that when you have no electronic enhancements.” But she kept up the chant until her voice gave out and then she returned to the welcome tent.

Schreiwer, meanwhile, had called police, who arrived and took up a position between the two groups.

“Despite the fact that the police had their faces to us, they were not hostile toward us at all. A couple of them even rolled their eyes at some of the things the extremists were saying,” says Schreiwer. He notes the police were very polite and he has no issues with how the situation was handled.

But Schreiwer did say that there were tense moments before the police arrived, as the two group exchanged heated conversations.

Bruhin says one of the positive things that she remembers from the encounter is how some of the attendees formed a human shield between the protestors and Philly PPD. “They stood with their backs to the protesters facing the rest of us. I think those individuals shielded many from the brunt of the vitriol that was being spewed,” she explained.

Schreiwer and other Philly PPD Board members began encouraging attendees to go back into the park and ignore the protesters. Shortly after, the pastor and his group left.

“I think the fact that we began to encourage our folks not to attend to their behavior also began to weaken their interest. Attending to an unwanted behavior reinforces that behavior,” says Schreiwer. He says the Philly PPD board is discussing how to deal with situations such as this if they occur again.

He found it ironic that Philly PPD was taking up collections for a food bank, a cat shelter, and victims of Harvey, yet was disrupted by people who claim to be full of love. “I have looked at their site and found nothing that leads me to believe they are doing anything to help the community around them.”

Between the protest and the increasing rain, a decision was made to hold closing ritual earlier than originally planned. Schreiwer says the ritual was very well attended and he believes attendees were seeking some type of resolution.

“At the opening ritual we had talked about the need for the wider Pagan community to stand together, and that sentiment was underscored by what had happened,” says Schreiwer.

He went on to describe the closing ritual, “We talked about how we as a community will not always agree and may not even like each other, but we drew a line in the ground with a Sickle of Holle that we will not allow ourselves to be defeated or torn apart by such hatred.”

Sojourner Whole Earth Provisions

On the same day, Greenville metaphysical shop Sojourner Whole Earth Provisions was protested by two Christian street evangelists.

At around 4pm store Apothecary Manager Courtney Varnadoe noticed a man, known as EC Street Preacher, in front of the store. He had a large sign which read ‘Who will Jesus Damn’ with a list of sinners, a video camera mounted to a hand truck, and orange caution cones.

Another street evangelist, Portable Evangelist, parked his truck at the end of the block and invited people to seek him out if they wanted someone to pray with.

Ms. Varnadoe went out to talk with EC Street Preacher.

After a short time, store owner Michelle Jenkins, more widely known in the Pagan community as Heron, joined the discussion. Heron says she enjoys talking about religion and often takes part in interfaith events.

“I chose to engage him as a fellow member of clergy with the hopes that I could help clarify those misconceptions for him and his viewers. This is how I accept my fellow man; listening and honoring their right to worship the gods of their choice, though I will also defend our rights to differ,” she explains.

Heron captured some of the exchange and posted it to Facebook.

While Heron chose dialogue to deal with the situation, Varnadoe’s husband, a Norse Heathen, chose humor.

Nate Varnadoe teaches Heathenry and Runes at the shop. After hearing about what was happening, he showed up with his own sign. It read, in response to the list of sinners that EC Street Preacher’s sign said Jesus will damn, ‘Odin is OK with ’em.”

Mr. Varnadoe, similar to his wife and Heron, talked with EC about Norse mythology and answered his questions for approximately an hour.

[Courtesy Heron Michelle]

Heron says, “Despite Nate not being seen much in the video, he can be heard, and I found it to be an awesome example of non combative, effective but pointed counter-protest; I was very impressed by his calm handling of what could have become a bad scene.”While these exchanges were taking place, Pagans, hearing about the action, started to arrive at the shop.”Because we were getting such an excited turn-out of customers in the shop, Courtney chose to remain open a whole hour after we normally close, giving EC and Nate plenty of extra time to talk,” says Heron.

Heron says in the over 8 years of business at this location they’v never had any protesters or drawn the attention of street preachers. They did find a prayer circle happening on morning in 2015 at the entrance area of their shop, but the group fled as they arrived, leaving behind crosses drawn in anointing oil on the window and doors.

Heron says since the incident, the shop has been flooded with supportive messages from all over the world, many of whom have made purchases to show their support.

“Their attention galvanized our community in brilliant ways,” says Heron. She’s been asked why she engaged EC in conversation instead of calling police to have him removed. Her response:

“I love to discuss religion, and found his attention to be a golden opportunity. Mostly, I was curious about him and his intentions. I found him to non-threatening, polite and sincere, and reasonably well-read on his religion, though his sources clearly show the bias of this form of ‘hellfire and damnation’ evangelism.”

“I recognized him to have a similar zealousness that my mother once possessed, and I consider to be cultish, and an aberration of the message of Jesus which is destructive to all involved,” Heron adds.

“I was raised in this evangelical Christianity, so I knew the drill. I know that evangelicals in our area are misinformed about who we are, and what we believe. So I took the chance to try and inform them.”

While the Pagans in these two situations used different tactics when confronted by protesters and both were considered successful by their respective communities, both chose the tactic based on the behavior and perceived threat the protesters presented.

The Philly Pagan Pride Day board felt the protesters were aggressive and were concerned the actions could cross a line from violent words to violent actions, so they called police. Heron said EC Street Preacher remained polite and calm so she not only engaged with him in a conversation that lasted several hours, but also invited him back for another discussion.

Neither EC Street preacher nor Keys of David church responded to requests for comment.

Correction 9/6 7:31pm: The original article read that Philadelphia Pagan Pride closed early. However, it was only the ritual that was held early. The event closed on schedule. The article has been corrected with this information.