Two Worlds Collide | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Two Worlds Collide

Wearing a long, dark robe with a hood, the spell caster mixed two pinches of sea salt with two drops of water blessed in the light of a new moon. Slow, rhythmic drumming accented by the tinkling of a tambourine drew an assembly of colorfully dressed people. They circled a black cauldron, inside which incense burned in the flames. Candles flickered, and the group chanted harmoniously as dusk turned into night.

Sounds like a scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which three horrible old hags -- otherwise known as witches -- predict and, to some degree, influence the fate of the doomed title character.

But, in fact, this Harvest Home ceremony, a pagan ritual that coincides with fall's arrival, took place last month. Life's four elements were well represented: sea salt for a mixture of earth and water; incense for air; and candles for fire. The participants were members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship congregation in Hollywood which consists of people who don't believe in traditional organized religions. Most, in this case, are believers in pagan spirituality and, as such, they're looking forward to Samhain, a time when the line between the living and spirit worlds is blurred. (It's known to the rest of us as Halloween.)

Rel Davis, the spell caster at the Harvest Home ceremony and author of The Existential Pagan, a volume of essays, claims that views on religion are beginning to shift. "People are outgrowing the traditionally patriarchal religious idea that the Earth is bad and fate is out of our hands," he says. "Pagan, or Earth-based, religions and rituals are from life for life, a belief that answers are intrinsic."

Davis, age 62, is a former Baptist minister and journalist who says he joined the Universalist church out of concern for the environment. He claims that pagan spirituality centers on ancient mythological practices that promote harmony with the planet.

In a survey conducted earlier this year, 19 percent of all Unitarians, nearly one in five, revealed that their theological positions were "Earth- or nature-centered," according to The World, a Unitarian magazine. Davis, who's led the Hollywood congregation for 22 years, says he "came out of the broom closet" 12 years ago, announcing his dedication to witchcraft. Since then his congregation of as many as 70 members -- depending on the time of year -- has gone exclusively pagan.

The story's a bit different in Fort Lauderdale, where the Unitarian congregation of about 300 includes only 20 or so pagans. Regardless, paganism's growing popularity in the area has led to the first Witches Ball, which will take place October 31 in conjunction with the Samhain ceremony.

Davis claims that, contrary to the images conjured up by Halloween, the word "witch" has a positive connotation. "It is simply someone who bends nature to healing purpose," he explains.

One of the highlights of the ball will be the "Ritual Between the Worlds," which takes place at midnight. Through group meditation, led by Davis, participants will attempt to contact dead loved ones. As creepy as the whole thing sounds, Davis doesn't want anyone to think his form of witchcraft is all hocus-pocus.

"The Unitarian Church is one of the only churches where the curious may grow theologically in a variety of ways," he says. "We are open. And we're much more into it than just playing historical games. It's more serious than that."

Yeah, just ask Macbeth.

-- Diane Bostick

The First Annual Witches Ball begins at 8:30 p.m., Saturday, October 31, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Lauderdale, 3970 NW 21st Ave., Oakland Park. Admission is $7. Call 954-925-1917 or 954-484-6734.