Saturday, September 12, 2009

ADAMSTOWN, Pa. | In the rolling hills of deeply religious rural Pennsylvania sits Stoudtburg Village, a tiny hamlet modeled on a German town. On weekends, tourists come here to visit shops on the ground floors of closely set three-story houses painted bright colors on pedestrian-only streets.

But this weekend, plans for a nature-worshipping group of modern pagans and witches to hold a festival in this picturesque section of Adamstown are getting a mixed reception, with some shop owners welcoming the visitors but others saying they plan to close.

“My personal feeling is that it’s not something that I’d want to have anything to do with,” said Jane Lesher, standing Friday amid the yarn creations of her shop The Soxy Lady, which will close Saturday. “I don’t see how it’s going to benefit the village, especially if it’s going to leave a bad taste in the community’s mouth.”

The Reading Pagans and Witches booked tiny Stoudtburg, about 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, for the “Celebrating Earth Spirituality Festival.” The daylong Saturday event will feature music, prayers, storytelling and discussion. There will be games, coloring and face-painting for children. Vendors will offer massage, Tibetan singing bowls, stones and herbs. For a harvest rite, people will be asked to bring nonperishable food to donate to a local food bank.

Jen Anderson-Wenger, president of the five-year-old group, said organizers had merely planned a day for people of similar faiths to get together. Members do not try to convert others.

“If your path leads you to a just and moral life, it is the right path for you, and who are we to tell you what that path is for you?” she said.

Shop owner deLyn Alumbaugh, chairman of the town’s advertising committee, said the space is rented for $50, which covers trash removal and bathroom facilities. A pet and grooming store recently held a craft fair there, and a Rotary Club is coming for a function next month.

Mr. Alumbaugh plans to keep his store open. His deLyn’s Gallery features art and jewelry, soaps and oils but also “handmade elf, faerie and witch dolls,” and he got to know members of the group after advertising on their site.

“They’re a very nice group of people,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that this has taken place.”

Mr. Alumbaugh said he is concerned that the controversy will have a negative affect on the town.

“It just hurts everybody who’s in business,” he said. “It’s a tough economy, and nobody needs argumentative notoriety or press.”

There are many misconceptions about nature religions, said Selena Fox, who heads the Lady Liberty League, a support group on discrimination issues relating to practitioners of nature religions that has been advising the Reading group.

“We have nothing to do with devil worship or evil things,” she said. “Contemporary paganism is rooted in the old folk traditions of Europe … and has a lot more in common with Native American traditions in terms of respect for nature and seeking to live in harmony, not only with other humans but with the larger circle of life that we’re all part of.”

Still, a dozen or so Christian groups and churches are trying to organize a “wall of prayer” around the village Saturday, said James Horning, executive director of Crossfire Youth Ministries in nearby Eprhata, Pa.

“We are asking the Christians in the community to come out and make a circle around the entire facility and stand there for one hour and pray on behalf of the community, and then go home,” Mr. Horning said. “No signs, no shouting, no protests, just a visible sign that we disapprove … of the whole underlying theme.”

Festival organizers have posted a note on the group’s Web site saying protesters may be present and asking participants to refrain from verbal or physical altercations.

“We are coming together for education and merriment (and yes, shopping!) Please help to put our best foot forward as a community,” the site says. “Treat everyone as a friend and they just may turn out to be.”

In town Friday, one shop had a wreath and a sign on the door that said “Proud to be an American.” A note on the door says the owner would be in Washington on Saturday “actively supporting my political beliefs. And of course NOT SUPPORTING the activity taking place in the village today.”

In Hertzog’s Yard Sale Store, owner Terry Hertzog finished off a cup of ice cream and said he plans to close his store the next day.

“We just don’t believe we can support witches and pagans,” Mr. Hertzog said. “We believe in God, not in worshipping Satan or anything like that. We can’t really support that, and as a result we’re just going to stay closed.”

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