This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
Cindi “Rain” Ostrander’s family knows she’s a Wiccan — a member of a nature-based, non-Christian religion.
They don’t love it, but they shake their heads and move on.
Jennifer Hartzog-Price’s family knows, but they refuse to talk about it.
Ostrander, who works as a hairdresser, has met people who don’t want to work with her, bosses who don’t want to hire her, and clients who suddenly decide they don’t need a trim.
In a small, Bible Belt town, it’s easy to stay in the closet – the “broom closet,” Ostrander and Hartzog-Price call it.
They’ve decided they’d rather not.
The two Caldwell County women, who have each studied Wicca for more than a decade, started a public Wicca 101 course. The class meets on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. at the Caldwell County Public Library.
Though Wiccans sometimes are called witches, the class isn’t about spells, witchcraft or hexes, the group’s website explains.
“We are not a ‘coven,’” an introduction to the course reads. “We are friends who walk similar paths.”
It can be tough to nail down what Wiccans believe. The religion is traditionally duotheistic, indicating belief in a god and goddess – sometimes called Lord and Lady.
But not all Wiccans believe that – some are atheists.
Some Wiccans identify themselves as witches, but some don’t.
The religion is decentralized. There’s no ruling body and certainly no pope or pastors, so levels of belief vary among different believers.
Some within the faith have claimed it’s the fastest-growing religion in the United States, but there’s no solid evidence to back that up. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which collects data on the religious makeup of the United States, includes Wicca within the “other world religions” category, which constitutes less than .3 percent of the nation’s faithful. Reliable estimates of the specific number of Wiccans in the U.S. aren’t available, according to the Pew Research Center.
The religion is, more than anything, a malleable collection of rituals and traditions. There are few solid beliefs – there’s no claim that Wicca or any other religion is the only faith that’s true, and there’s no belief in hell.
There’s just one hard and fast rule to it: Do no harm.
“Do no harm” is not something that comes to mind when most people in Caldwell hear the word “Wiccan,” Hartzog-Price said.
“People think that it’s the 18th century: Get out your spellbooks and start slinging curses at people,” she said.
But the two women emphasized how normal they feel, and how average their lives are.
Ostrander is a hairdresser. Hartzog-Price is a stay-at-home mom to an autistic son – something that has brought both trials and joys, she said.
Both were baptized in Christian churches. Ostrander describes her background as “backwoods Baptist.” Hartzog-Price grew up attending the same church as her “grandpa’s grandpa.”
Hartzog-Price struggled with organized religion from the beginning.
“I tried to believe what they wanted me to believe,” she said. “I never felt it.”
Ostrander, on the other hand, struggled to believe in something she couldn’t see. Wicca made sense to her because it was about nature – about something tangible.
“Nature is real,” she said. “It’s a nature-based religion, you know, it’s real. You can tell it’s real. You can see it.”
Ostrander had always wanted to be spiritual, but it never clicked for her with Christianity. Wicca made sense as soon as she started studying it, she said.
“When I started learning about it, I just felt like, ‘I am home. This is what I’m here for,’” she said.
The new faith clicked for Hartzog-Price in another way.
“Before I really dove into it, I was very hurt, angry, depressed,” she said. “I was a dark person. With Wicca, I found a peace, honestly. It was an inner peace.”
In the fall of 2012, Hartzog-Price decided she didn’t want to go it alone anymore. She started looking around online, poking through websites and message boards, sending emails to anyone who might respond.
For weeks, there were no response. Then, all of a sudden, there was one. In November, Johnny “Ike” Ikner and Hartzog-Price started studying together. Eventually, their study group grew to about five members. They were moving toward being able to offer a public class on Wicca.
Then, three weeks in, Ikner died.
At first, Hartzog-Price wasn’t sure about continuing the course without him. But she decided to move forward.
Now, four months later, Wicca 101 has about 10 registered members.
Hartzog-Price and Ostrander are bracing themselves for controversy about the course. They’ve told people who have questions that they’re just trying to provide knowledge, not convert anyone, Ostrander said.
“Hopefully, it’ll open up some eyes to people who are so close-minded,” she said.
The course started Tuesday and will continue for two months.