Mercury News Religion & Ethics Editor
San Jose Mercury News - Sat. Oct. 20 1990
A peaceful prayer crusade? Or just another witch hunt?
The term "holy war" will take on a whoe new meaning in San Francisco on Halloween, as Pentecostal Christans and goddess-worshipping pagans square off to prove who's holier than thou.
Texas telvangelist Larry Lea is mustering 10,000 Christian soldiers in San Francisco's Civic Auditorium Halloween night, to do battle with the forces of Satan . And members of the normally low-key pagan community in the Bay Area - practitioners of Wicca, nature religions and New Age spiritualism - have launched a counter offensive, claiming Lea's spritual warfare interferes with their constitutional right to practive their religion.
Lea, a protege of Oral Roberts and former pastor of the Church of the Rock in Dallas, has made a name for himself among Pentecostal and chrismatic Chrstians for a tendency to preach in Army fatigues and hand out "prayer army dog tags" to his followers. He is a proponent of "spiritual warfare" - using prayer to exorcise demons.
Last month with the backing of 500 pastors of Bay Area churches, Lea announced a three-day San Francisco crusade to "reverse the curse" of Halloween and march through the city to convert those they consider possessed by Satan: drug addicts, gay people, the sexually promiscuous, believers in New Age "religions," and Wiccans: those spell-casting, Goddess-worshipping folks commonly called Witches.
"These are not just kids having fun," Lea said at the time. "There is actual worship of the devil."
Janet Christian, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Pagan Assemblies, an organization of Wiccans and nature-worshippers in the South Bay, is outraged.
"We're Goddess worshippers: Witches don't have anything to do with 'Satan.' Who do these people think they are?" asks Christian, who's group is sponsoring a Witches' Ball at the Palo Alto Hyatt tonight, an open-to-all costume party designed to build bridges of understanding between the practitioners of Wicca and the community at large.
"What if we brought some big-name Witch to town on Christmas day to do a ritual outside their churches? We'd never do that to them," Christian says. "Why are they doing this to us?"
Planning for trouble
Christian's group has taken defensive action in the pending holy war, hiring security police to keep out any Bible-wielding Christian soldiers. But other pagan groups are on the offensive, planning counterdemonstrations outside the Civic Auditorium and threatening guerrilla actions to disrupt Lea's crusade.
"Larry Lea's going to find out that there are more of us than he can handle," ways Eric Pryor, [alleged] high priest of the New Earth Temple, a San Francisco group of Wiccans and other pagans. Pryor is marshalling a show of spiritual force at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Civic Center Park, calling together New Age religionists, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists and other non-mainstream faiths to form a prayer circle to counteract the Lea crusade.
Pryor, who says he has repeatedly challenged Lea to public debate but never received an answer, has called off the annual Hallow Mass ritual at his temple Halloween night to attend Lea's crusade in disguise, disrupt the service and force a confrontation.
"We're not a bunch of uneducated dingbats running around in robes waving wands," Pryor says. "We're intellegent, purposeful people who have chosen a particular spiritual path. We have a right in this country to practice any religion we choose." No reliable statistics exist on the number of practicing pagans in the Bay Area, but estimates range from 30,000 to 50,000.
Lea, who arrived in San Francisco Wednesday to prepare for the crusade says he was surprised by the intensity of the pagan backlash, which has not been evident in similar campains in Anaheim, Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia. Entreaties from several religious denominations to avoid confrontation - including the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco - convinced Lea to cancel plans for his spiritual warriors to march through the city on Halloween night. Instead, Lea says, they will keep a low profile inside the Civic Auditorium.
The right to disagree
"I love people. I love all people. I think we have been misinterpreted; we don't want to be seen as confrontational," Lea says. "Every person has the right to believe what they want to believe. But I have the freedom to stand up and say they're wrong. To me, there are only two kinds of people in the world: Those who have found Christ and those who haven't found him yet."
The Rev. Dick Bernall, pastor of Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose is disappointed that the prayer warriors will not be a visible presence on the streets of San Francisco. Many of Jubilee's 5,000 congregants are expected to take part in the Lea crusade. Bernal's not a complete spoilsport about Halloween: Jubilee kids might not go trick-or-treating, but they do get to dress up as Bible characters for a party at church.
"Larry and I are beginning to look like a couple of wackos," says Bernal. "The misconception is that we're a bunch of narrow-minded goody-two-shoes. San Francisco's a city where everybody has parades; I wanted our people to be a presence, too. We weren't going to call down fire on anybody; it was not going to be a confrontation, just a little show of force.
"But the war on Satan will go on - inside the auditorium. There won't be any pussy-footing around," Bernal promises. "There'll be singing, preaching and speaking in tongues. It'll be wall-to-wall spiritual warfare."
Bernal, a former ironworker and self-described hell-raiser who says he was born-again a dozen years ago, has gained some fame himself as a televangelist and spiritual warrior.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Bernal traveled to Beijing and in a much-publicized ceremony, annointed the stones of the square with oil to drive the devil out. He also has prayed to cast the devil out of several sites in the South Bay, including the San Jose Mercury News.
Bernal says he respects the rights of Wiccans to worship as they please.
"They're sweet, sincere people, who are operating out of ignorance, not malice." Bernal says. "I don't condemn these poor people; I want to convert them. I was a dope-smoking, LSD-taking hippie myself once. Some of our greatest pastors today are old, burned-out hippies."
To Eric Marsh, a 36-year old software engineer from Fremont who is a practicing Witch, Bernal's attidue demonstrates the stereotypes that are inflicted upon Wiccans.
"Fifty percent of big-city Witches are involved in high-tech; 90 percent are computer literate. That's because people in high technology puersuits have innovative and inquiring minds," says Marsh, who established a computer bulletin-board network for Wiccans who use the technology to keep abreast of a variety of spiritual, philosophical and environmental issues.
What bothers Eric Pryor of San Francisco's New Earth Temple is the automatic linkage of Satan and Wicca.
"Satan is the best friend the church has ever had. Satan's the bogyman who has kept them all in business," Pryor says. [NOTE from WWW editor: that is an exact quote from LaVey's Satanic Bible, which a Wiccan would definately not be quoting from.] He adds that the members of his temple, who follow a Welsh tradition of Wicca and have been very private about their beliefs in the past, are starting to be more public.
"People can come in here anytime and see we don't sacrifice babies, we don't worship Satan and we're not lunatics," Pryor says. "And the only good thing about this kind of campaign (that Lea is waging) is that it makes us open up more and be more accessible."
Carl Raschke, a sociologist at the University of Denver and a specialist on Satanism in America, regards the pending Christian-Pagan holy war with a certain amount of amusement.
"This sounds like the gunfight at the metaphysical OK Corral," Raschke says. "There are Satanists out there: criminal Satanists, who do violent things in the name of the devil. There are religious Satanists, who dress up in black robes and do strange and essentially harmless things. And that's part of the whole, exotic religious flora and fauna that is unique to the Bay Area.
"Doing spiritual battle with Satan is an established tradition going back to Jesus himself," Raschke says, adding that most spiritual warfare is done quietly, through the power of prayer and laying on of hands.
"But in the age of TV, there's an impulse to make religion into a public spectacle. And the whole thing strikes me as supreme street theater. We haven't had a good, crazy religious spectacle since the harmonic convergence," Raschke says.
"And now, on the streets of San Francisco on Halloween night, you'll have neo-pagans doing ceremonial magic vs. Pentecostal Christians praying up a storm. This is probably better than skinheads bashing Geraldo with a chair."