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Self-proclaimed ‘witches’ get temple in the Bible Belt

Posted at 1:10 PM, Aug 29, 2012
and last updated 2012-08-29 13:10:39-04

(Memphis/Natasha Chen) A Memphis Wiccan group now has a building for worship, becoming one of the first Wiccan groups in the country to do so.

The Temple of the Sacred Gift is a local chapter of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, based out of the state of Washington. They have official non-profit status with the IRS, making them just like any church in Memphis.

While some are taken aback by having self-proclaimed “witches” in the Bible Belt, the Wiccans of this temple sat down with News Channel 3 to explain their beliefs and practices.

Rev. Sonya Miller, a co-founder and high priestess at the Temple of the Sacred Gift, said the focus is on worshipping nature.

“We and the Earth are one, and so therefore we feel we are responsible for the Earth, and we should take care of it,” Miller said.

The temple holds worship every other week and often puts on festivals. About 40 people attend each worship, while hundreds can show up at some of the festivals. Participants include local policemen, lawyers, and business owners.

They believe in a God and a Goddess, and they believe in an after-life.

However, “We do not believe in Satan, or the Devil, or hell. We do not believe that the God and Goddess need to use fear to make humans good.

While some Wiccans are known to practice “witchcraft,” that is not the focus of the Memphis chapter. Still, some of the congregation identify as witches, since the original meaning of the word did not carry a bad connotation.

“I don’t think any of us have a problem being called a witch. I think all of us pretty much proud,” said Rev. John Hancock.

Hancock described though, that within their temple, people can vary in their practice. Hancock describes himself as closer to the Hindu faith, while Miller practices more in the Egyptian tradition.

Like churches of other faiths, their group has done charity work, like clothing and food donations to those in need.

They’ve been in a building on Summer Avenue now for about three months. They are one of the first Wiccan groups in the country to meet at a building.

They describe hesitation in the past about going public, especially in the Bible Belt where most people are Christian.

News Channel 3 spoke to some Memphians about the Wiccan faith.

One woman said, “I don’t think it’s the correct religion, if they’re thinking they’re witches.”

But others cited freedom of religion.

“The people should be free to worship any way they wish.”

Miller and her husband remember times in the past when they have lost jobs or been kicked out of the area for their beliefs.

But so far in their new religious home, they’ve had no trouble with their neighbors, which include other churches.

Professor Jeff Brawner, the chair of missions at the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, said the Wiccan faith is a broad one.

Brawner said that it is completely possible for the local group to coexist with other faiths in the Mid-South.

He suggested that any Christian who feels uncomfortable with the idea should consider talking to the Wiccans about Jesus Christ.

“Our ultimate goal is to try to present them the love of Christ, and what He can do in their life. Yes, unquestionably we would love to have those Wiccan adherents come and know who Jesus Christ is,” Brawner said.

Meanwhile, Rev. Miller said all faiths eventually lead to the same spiritual goal.

“You could be Christian, and be right. And we can be right too, both. You choose a different path based on what’s right for you,” she said.