CADILLAC — Pagans have appeared in dozens of films and novels, and are typically depicted as being a source of evil and devil worship.
One Cadillac couple is hoping to fight the Pagan stereotype with a new community group geared toward open conversation about faith and spirituality.
Alan and Kendra Wagenschutz have been involved with Paganism for quite some time, and they said, despite what many people think, Pagans look like everyone else. Because of the stereotypes surrounding Paganism, the Wagenschutzs said most practitioners are private about their faith.
The lack of connection amongst Pagans in Northern Michigan is what inspired the couple to jump start their group, called Northern Michigan Pagan/Wiccan/Witches. Kendra took the lead in making and advertising the group.
She and Alan had been searching for a place to have open, judgment-free conversations about all of the beliefs covered by the Pagan umbrella, but found that most of the available groups are downstate, or in other metropolitan areas.
“You’d get posts in there saying ‘Anybody from up north?’ And I’m like, yeah, we’re up here, but it’s a smaller community,” Kendra said. “So I’m like well, I’m not a super outgoing person, but I’ve got (Alan), so we decided we’d do it together.”
Alan had taken over the teaching side of the group, posting different pieces of information about Paganism each day, and encouraging others to share facts about their faith as well. Kendra’s role is finding ways in which the group can come together, rather than focusing on everyone’s differences.
Over the years, Alan said he and Kendra would invite their friends over for roundtable-type discussions on their varying belief systems, and that those gatherings were always productive. Northern Michigan Pagan/Wiccan/Witches is meant to model those experience and act as a place where conversations with the community can begin.
“We would spend hours with our friends discussing our different beliefs, and we realized it was a coming together moment, not a dividing moment,” Kendra said. “And that’s what I wish we saw more of in the world today. Let’s come together for our similarities rather than pushing each other away for our different beliefs.”
Currently, the group has reached about 51 members, and the Wagenschutzs said it includes people from all different walks of life. Some fall under the Pagan category, like Druids and Wicca, but others follow more traditional faiths like Christianity and are simply looking to learn.
Kendra said she grew up in a traditional household where religion was often discussed. Alan’s upbringing was the opposite, and he never adopted a consistent belief system, but the interest in Paganism was there early on.
Throughout his youth and into adulthood, Alan explored a myriad of religions and spent time attending various church services, trying to see which one fit. In the end, he was drawn back to Paganism because of its ties to nature and its focus on individual belief and spirituality.
“It’s the primordial aspect of it; the purity of it within the world around you. For me, walking through the woods would be equivalent to going to church,” he said. “There’s a peculiar serenity to it, and with that, I’ve started delving more into the different pantheons and practices.”
Eventually, Alan was led to Druidism, which is a Celtic pantheon of Paganism. Some of his tattoos are artistic reflections of the pantheon, like the image of the Celtic deity Cernunnos displayed on his arm.
Although Alan and Kendra have been together for about 14 years, Kendra hadn’t pursued Paganism until recently, and now identifies as a secular Pagan. She had always known of Alan’s beliefs, and he was welcomed into her more traditional family, despite their religious differences.
The final push toward Paganism for Kendra was watching her husband come into his own and embrace the person he is inside. She wanted to see if the religion could do the same for her, so she began asking more questions and listening to what Alan had to say.
“We went for a walk in the woods, and we did our look at the birds, look at the trees and learning from him. And then he sat me down on a bench, and he told me to close my eyes and to really listen to the woods, and to feel the breeze,” Kendra said. “I know how corny it sounds, but I swear I felt my mom, and I just started bawling. I mean, I haven’t cried that hard, ever, but it was such a good feeling.”
Kendra’s mom passed away in 2016, and despite her traditional religious values, Kendra said Alan was never judged by her or turned away. The acceptance from her family meant a lot to Kendra at the time, but even more so now that she’s become a Pagan herself.
Being a Pagan doesn’t come without judgment from others, and the Wagenschutzs said there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what Paganism actually is. For instance, the pentagram has shown up in dozens of pieces of media as a symbol of evil or darkness. In reality, Alan said it represents unity within yourself and the world around you.
“Hollywood has mis-conceptualized the bulk of our belief system and we’re trying to kind of reclaim that, and in small doses kind of grow our community to get us back to the way it should be,” Alan said. “And who knows, in the end, maybe even have group meetings and gatherings in the parks and do cleanups and fundraisers.”
Getting involved in community action is one of the hopes that Alan and Kendra have for their Pagan group. Once the group reaches 100 members, they’ll be planning a potluck for members of the group and the general community. For now, they said their focus is to continue to bring people together and make new friends in the area.