Witches, Burning Man, theremins, and even a pirate!

Pillars of the Saints

Although I am rather straight and conservative, I have always appreciated those who are creative, alternative and ‘out there’.

Recently I came across (on the web) someone who is all of those, and more. And loves Jesus too!

The Gathering in Salem

Phil Wyman is pastor of a small church in Salem, Massachusetts. Advertising itself as “Short on rules, long on relationships”, The Gathering sees its mission as bringing the love of God in “culturally aware, and yet wildly creative” ways.

Mission in Salem

Salem is the city where notorious witch trials were held in the late 17th century. Millions of tourists visit historic Salem each year, many follow heritage trails around town, which takes many past the old bank building in which The Gathering meets. The area is also home to “New Age shops, palm readers, and other storefronts with pagan and occult paraphernalia”.

And so this small christian community has developed a ministry that includes:

  • offering hospitality to tourists in “gentle, life affirming, and Christo-centric” ways;
  • participating in festivals such as 4th of July and Halloween (where they offer free “psalm readings” :))
  • offering non-judgmental friendship to local witches and new-agers.

Burning Man festival

Burning Man is a week long festival held every year in a desert in Nevada. Up to 50,000 people attend, and the emphasis is on creativity, minimal rules (only what is necessary to ensure peace and safety) and free expression. Attendees are encouraged to use their artistic gifts to create installations, and to interact peacefully. At the close of the festival, everything is dismantled, and nothing remains. If it sounds a little “hippie”, you’ve probably got the picture.

Phil and team at Burning Man

Depending on your viewpoint, you might see Burning Man as a wonderful opportunity to escape the mundane and express yourself without inhibition – or you might think it is hedonistic.

Phil Wyman thinks it is place where God is (just like everywhere else). So he and a team of creatives dreamed up the idea of “allowing people to experience the spiritual realm in unmediated, undirected ways [that] allows for an experience of truth and wisdom to occur”.

And so in 2011 they built The Pillars of the Saints, pictured above, where people were encouraged to climb up an internal ladder, sit or stand on a pillar like a modern day Simon Stylites and wait until the Spirit spoke to them. Visitors were given the opportunity to write on the white walls or to write “things that hindered them from hearing the voice of the Spirit” on paper and burn it at an altar.

Using the word ‘Spirit’ was brilliant, as those who took this opportunity would likely be quite accepting of the idea of a ‘Spirit”, but Phil and the team were praying for the Holy Spirit to speak. And he apparently did speak to many people, leading many to emotional response – to seek prayer, confess sin or resolve to change their lives.

Then in 2012, the team (which included Matt the Pirate) constructed ‘Theophany’, aimed at engaging people’s imaginations and hearts to consider spiritual disciplines and their spiritual aspirations, to and reach out and connect with God. It consisted of a large yurt with several significant inclusions:

  • paintings illustrating success and failure, especially in spiritual searching, and
  • a large specially built theremin (an electronic instrument that produces wailing type sounds as people move within its range), with the opportunity to try to match the theremin’s music to ambient music being played from speakers.

Pioneers sometimes get burnt

There have been various reactions to Phil’s outreach efforts. He has been written up in magazines and newspapers, for example, this article in Christianity Today. They train hundreds of christians each year to be creative and culturally aware, and Phil is invited to speak on radio and at christian festivals.

But not everyone is impressed. Wyman originally went to Salem as a minister of the Foursquare denomination, but in 2006 he and The Gathering were removed from membership of the denomination, which felt that they were getting too close to witches and had strayed from christian teaching. They now have insufficient funds to maintain the church and mission.

What would Jesus do?

It is impossible for me, at this distance, to know whether Phil has led The Gathering into wrong ways, or whether he is a great christian innovator and missionary. But I can say:

  • I think the church’s simple statement of faith, which focuses on Jesus and allows people freedom on many other matters, is one which I would happily agree with.
  • Everything I have read on the church’s website seems to be appropriate to the mission he is engaged in.
  • Having had some experience myself in sharing faith with people on the margins of our materialistic society, I know that many have to be given time and freedom from expectations as they respond to the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus was accused of being a friend to ‘publicans and sinners’. As Phil says: “We live in Salem. How could you not [be friends with witches]?”

If you want to support Phil and The Gathering financially, you can donate here. You can read more of his thoughts in Lessons on Christianity from Witch City.

Photo from Phil Wyman’s Square no more blog. I feel sure Phil would be happy for me to use his photo here.

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