Good News for Witches
Shelly Wift laughingly describes herself as a "recovering witch."A plump woman in her early 30s with frizzy hair, she favors long cotton skirts picked up cheap at incense-heavy Indian shops in Manhattan."I'm kind of a cliché that way," she says. "What else would an ex-witch wear?"She used to belong to a coven that met monthly on the Friday closest to the new moon. In 1995 she and several of her fellow witches donned their Halloween finery and headed to (where else?) Salem, Massachusetts. The town is not the site of the witch hysteria that erupted in 1692—that distinction belongs to neighboring Danvers, which was known as Salem Village until 1752—but today's Salem capitalizes on the misconception. Halloween is an especially lively time in Salem, and Wift and her coven went there to meet up with other witches.It was early in the evening when Wift and her friends were approached by a trio of clean-scrubbed evangelical students."I think they were from Gordon [College]," she says. "They came up to us—it was rather bold if you ask me—and said, 'Excuse me, are you all witches?'"Her friends laughed at the evangelists and moved on, but Wift says she was transfixed by the students' message of faith and hope in Christ. At first skeptical and threatened, Wift could not pass up the chance to defend her right to practice witchcraft."I wanted to tell them that I really didn't need to worship their patriarchal God, and that I would never shove my faith down someone else's throat," she says. "So at first I argued with them. But then they said some really persuasive, powerful things. I found I couldn't argue anymore."Wift spent the rest of the night reading the Bible the students left with her, and she took a bus back to New York alone while her friends stayed in Salem. In New York, she found a church and was baptized."I wish I had gotten those students' names," she says emotionally. "I have always wished I could write them a letter to tell them how they changed my life."
As a onetime witch, Wift has some advice for students who, though well-meaning, "don't know how to talk Wiccan." In fact, Wift has seen disastrous attempts to witness to witches by Christians who do not know Wiccan basics."I'm sure God uses it all in the long run, but people without any nuanced idea of what Wicca is can say some offensive things," Wift says. She insists that Wicca is not a cult."They don't realize that this is people's religion, and if you want to get through to them, you have to sound respectful and not walk in with uninformed stereotypes about what people believe and why."While many in the medieval church associated witchcraft with Satan-worship and sorcery, most contemporary witches follow a nature-oriented, polytheistic belief system built around the worship of the Great Mother Goddess.One Wiccan Web site (www.religioustolerance.org/wic_beli.htm) says that covens aim for a balance of males to females, though men are usually in the minority.Wift returns to Salem every year to witness to such witches. She is not alone. Last Halloween 140 locals and students from Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary passed out about 30,000 tracts to costumed revellers. This year, they plan to distribute 50,000. Former witch Bob Benoit returns every year to delight people with music and spread the gospel of Christ.Ken Steigler, pastor of Salem's Wesley United Methodist Church, calls this "invitational evangelism." Steigler notes that Salem's Haunted Happenings celebration has grown from October 31 to the Halloween weekend to the entire month. He offers Holy Happenings as an alternative.Area evangelical churches began holding concerts of prayer near Halloween 13 years ago, with some lasting from 6 p.m. until 6 o'clock the next morning.This year's Holy Happenings will be even more spectacular. Rita Springer, a singer with Vineyard Ministries, will visit Salem for four days of Halloween ministry, and John Polce, a Roman Catholic singer, will entertain and evangelize. Steigler hopes to reach at least 1,000 people during Halloween week, and expects 500 to attend Wesley United Methodist's service on Halloween Eve itself.In addition to tourists, he says, three types of people come to Salem during Halloween season: partygoers seeking a carnival experience, dabblers in witchcraft, and committed witches who regard Halloween as their sacred day."They go off in their covens and have a very serious celebration," Steigler says. "But this is not a city taken over by Wiccans and pagans. It is also a city with a Christian community, and we want to say to all of these groups, whether you are dabbling in witchcraft or are a witch of many years, we love you, and we welcome you."So Wesley United Methodist, a church of about 265 members whose sexton was a witch for 42 years before becoming a Christian, opens its doors to provide prayer as well as apples, soda, and coffee. Last year the busiest time was between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., when hordes of drunken kids who needed bathrooms, phones, and other care flooded in."If 10 people go away from Salem thinking, 'There is a church that welcomed me, that loved me, even with all my amulets and all my stuff,' then all of it is worth our while," Steigler says.