Sisterhood / Salt Lake Tribune, March 12, 2005

Organizations emphasize female energy and
help members connect with Mother Earth

The Rev. Heron says she has always known that she "was born a pagan." (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune )

By Julie DeHererra
The Salt Lake Tribune

The room is illuminated by four candles that represent the four points of the compass. Burning sage cleanses the mind. A circle of women listen as Michelle Butler chants of sisterhood, the Ancient Ones and feminine wisdom. "Spirits of the North, we welcome you," Butler says as the women turn to the north, then turn clockwise to sustain the flow of energy. In the heart of Salt Lake City, this is the Goddess Circle, facilitated by Butler at the Haven at the First Unitarian Church.
Its adherents consider it to be a modern manifestation of spiritual sisterhood that has endured through the ages. It can be interpreted as feminist theology or as pagan belief, but the common thread is the connection these women have with Mother Earth. And it's not the only one. Salt Lake also is home to The Church of the Sacred Circle and the Sun Stave Circle. The Goddess Circle was founded in 1998 by Ann Hess and and other women using a Unitarian Universalist curriculum, Rise Up and Call Her Name: A Woman-Honoring Journey Into Global Earth-Based Spiritualities. The book explores revered goddesses from several cultures: Kali (Asian), White Buffalo Calf Woman (American Indian), Oshun (African), Hekate (Mediterranean) and Pele (Pacific Islands) and how it correlates with America's heritage.
"It is more of a support group for woman to explore their spirituality, [who do] not believe in the Christian version of God," says Anne Holman, an early member who now works with the Petite Goddess Circle, geared toward women and their daughters.
The idea is to "explore the earth's cycles in terms of nature . . . to emphasize women's power," Holman says. "And that [women] can be capable of being strong and standing up for their beliefs."

One thing the circle definitely is not is "a place to go and hate men," Hess says. "If anything, marriages and relationships got better."

Butler, who facilitates the Goddess Circle on Sundays, has been involved with it for nearly three years.

Growing numbers: The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted with the aid of The Graduate Center for the City University of New York, found that nonstructured religious organizations were on the rise. The nationwide survey, with more than 50,000 respondants, is the largest sample of its kind, according to study director Ariela Keysar.
Keysar, of New Jersey, said the first survey in 1990 made no mention of paganism. Eleven years later, researchers found 140,000 pagans in the United States. Wiccans, who believe in a panoply of deities and may practice harmless witchcraft, increased their numbers from 8,000 to 134,000.

Concurrently, Keysar said, the percentage of people who classified themselves as Christian declined from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001.
That comes as no surprise to Butler. "It was underground for a long time," she says. "Now it's coming out. Finally, female energy is being recognized, that has been neglected for so long. "I haven't given up on Jesus, but I wouldn't say I am Christian," she says. "I would call myself an eclectic Unitarian. And spiritual."

Celebration and support: A newer organization is the Church of the Sacred Circle, which was incorporated in 2003 when The Mooncraft Circle, which focused on earth-centered full moon ceremonies, and other sacred circle workshops were combined. The church, which meets at Anderson Commons in downtown Salt Lake City, celebrates the earth's energy and its cycles as well as those of the moon and sun.

One of its ministers, the Rev. Heron (born Tara Sudweeks Willgues) says she has always known that she "was born a pagan." At 9, she was studying astrology and mythology amid candles and incense.

"When I was 13 years old, my father was called to the principal's office," recalls Heron, now 36. "Apparently, I scared the other students because I kept calling myself a witch." Heron's dad told her to "come to Jesus" and confiscated a small goddess statue.

What does her father think about her now? "He thinks it's awesome," says Heron, a "craftname" she gave herself in 1997. It symbolized the bird's guiding spirit, which she says predetermined the journey she has taken.

One of three female ministers at the nondenominational Church of the Sacred Circle, Heron was ordained in 1994 and is able to conduct weddings and offer pastoral counseling.
"This is my calling, it's what I do and it's defined my life," she says. "We are average people. We're your neighbors and co-workers."

Heron describes The Church of the Sacred Circle as a balance between god and goddess, joined in a spiritual community and supporting one another. "What is offered is a celebration of the full moon and support for those on an individual path," she says.

Recently, Heron says, the church celebrated Candlemass, a cross-quarter day - meaning that it is a day that is a day halfway between a solstice and an equinox - that brings the first awakening of spring and celebrates the Celtic goddess Brighid (pronounced Breed), patroness of sacred wells and healing. Lore has it that Brighid was the first to toss coins into wells to obtain healing, which later evolved into granting wishes.

Come as you are: Heron is also involved with the Sun Stave Circle. Since 1996, it has touted itself as a "gathering for Utah pagans, witches, Wiccans, Druids, heathens, shamans, magickians, Vikings and all other faiths."

Sun Stave is community owned and run by volunteers, Heron says. As many as 150 people may attend the celebration of the eight Sabbats: winter and summer solstice, spring and fall equinox and four cross-quarter holidays known as the Imbolc, Beltaine, Lammas and Samhain.
Heron attends those rituals, which typically are held at parks, Millcreek Canyon or somebody's back yard.

On March 20, Sun Stave will acknowledge Oestara (spring equinox, just in time for Easter or Eostre) at which time a stave, or staff, will be passed around from person to person in a circle.
Generally, the ritual is up to whoever volunteered for the staff at the last ritual. There may be chanting or dancing; Heron says the "only constant is the staff, a symbol of the whole adventure."

The 5-foot-long wooden staff is decorated with ribbons, jewelry, beads. People who attend can wear whatever suits them -from Renaissance garb to street clothes to robes.

"The idea is to come and be yourself and to remember that we are all in it together," Heron says.