Phil Wyman is perhaps the most interesting pastor in America.
He might not think so, but this is my blog and I can say things like that.
During my first semester in seminary I read an article about Phil and how he moved to Salem, Massachusetts to plant a church that would befriend witches, atheists, and other interesting people. Phil was given a grant from his denomination to come to Salem and start the church, but was ultimately kicked out for doing what he was given the grant to do in the first place: become friends with witches.
Yet, Pastor Phil has pressed on and continued to love and serve the people of Salem even when the cards have been stacked against him– which is what I love the most about this guy. Phil and I became friends about five years ago, and I’ve had the pleasure of not just being his friend but also preaching at his church and serving alongside him during their annual October ministry during Salem’s “Haunted Happenings”. During the month of October each year, over one million people flock to the city to experience the Haunted Happenings festivities. Year after year, Pastor Phil and his church (The Gathering) can be found serving and loving these people through their many contributions to make Haunted Happenings a positive experience for everyone (a great background article from Christianity Today can be found here).
However, after the October events settled down this year, a couple of unfortunate things began to play out on the internet and in the media, which is why I invited Phil to come on Formerly Fundie for an interview and talk about some of these issues publicly. First, a blog was posted by a Christian volunteer which grossly misrepresented the Pagan community in Salem as well as the ministry of the Gathering. Secondly, tensions between street preachers who flock to Salem for Haunted Happenings began to play out as well, with some accusations and misrepresentations being made against Pastor Phil and his church– tensions which have now resulted in some calling for changes in how street preachers are managed during Haunted Happenings.
What better way to sort this all out than with an interview with Phil himself?
So, here’s my interview with the Pastor of Witch City:
BLC: Phil– it’s really great to have you on the blog, thanks for joining me. I’ve been reading some rather inaccurate articles about your ministry lately, and wanted to bring you on the blog to sort some of this out. I’m hopeful that with this interview might be able to help folks understand your ministry in Salem a bit better, and perhaps begin to ease some of the tensions that seem to be playing out on the internet and in the media.
Pastor Phil: Thanks Ben, good to blog-hangout with you bro.
BLC: First, for those who don’t know you and the back-story to your ministry in Salem, can you give us a quick review of who you are, how you ended up a Christian pastor in Witch City, and the church you planted in Salem?
Pastor Phil: I moved to Salem in 1999. A handful of us came from Carlsbad, CA, where I was the Pastor of a Foursquare Church for 14 years to plant The Gathering. Strangely, now I have been pastoring in Salem as long as I pastored my first church in Carlsbad. We arrived in June, and in that first year, we met in homes, and began this Halloween Outreach, which has now been going for 15 Halloweens. I was surprised how amenable the city was allow us to do whatever crazy thing we thought up, and it has only grown over the years. This was due to a great degree, because I promised the city leaders that we would try to train Christians who come to Salem how to behave in a festival setting. We would not pass out tracts (which usually end up as trash on the streets), or preach on the streets (which usually makes crowds angry), and we would encourage other people to follow our model. This gained us respect among city leaders, because we’ve kept our word over the years, and we found other ways to share our faith.
BLC: One of the articles I read had a ton of misinformation both regarding the nature of your Halloween Outreach, and in the descriptions of the Pagan community of Salem. The article (though it didn’t mention the Gathering directly) made it seem like your church is involved in heavy evangelism and “healing” ministry on the streets, and described the Pagan community in terms that sounded like a scene out of a horror movie. Can you please tell us (a) what is the nature of your ministry to the people of Salem during the month of October, and (b) tell us about the Pagan community and your relationship with them?
Pastor Phil: The blog post you are referring to has been removed, and I think the blog was even taken down. It got a lot of attention from the Pagan community, who checks the internet for references to their activities, and quickly finds false information to refute it. The young woman who wrote the blog post apparently believed a number of Salem Urban Witch myths she heard from others and posted them to her blog. I am pretty sure I met her briefly. She came with a “Burn” – a prayer group connected to a movement out of Redding, CA. There is a tendency unfortunately in Prayer Movement groups to hyper-spiritualize things, and speak in very militaristic terms about their faith and their outreach, which is a death knell for befriending Neo-Pagans. Witches and Pagans inundated her blog with comments and complaints, and I also asked her to remove the material, and post an apology to the Pagan community. I am sure she meant well, but had a flawed model of communication of her faith, and it caused a commotion. She spoke of a Pagan gathering run by a friend of mine, and described it as a crowning of some kind of Witch King. In actuality it is a simple Pagan circle – no throne, not much pomp, and it didn’t even happen this year, because it got rained out. She talked about interactions with people in very black and white militaristic terms, which so often dehumanizes the people we are helping.
She described our outreach as though it was aggressive evangelism, but in fact, we do things like offer free blessings, give out hugs, and serve free hot cocoa to chilly festival goers. We do Dream Interpretation, and what we call Spiritual Readings (offering counsel about faith and spirituality), and people stand in line to experience these things. Yes, we do pray with people, we pray for the sick, we talk about Jesus, and are open about being Christians. It is all very gentle and graceful. Of course, we also sponsor a stage for the month, and have live music going on the weekends, so we also create a bit of a party atmosphere.
Our experience with the Witches of Salem has been good. We have respected them as regular people, who have the same needs, and desires most of us have, and they have generally respected us in return. Respect goes a long way in winning friends, and I tend to think of this “reconciliation ministry” we have been given as a friend winning process. Typically, I train everyone who works with us on the streets so this kind of misinformation doesn’t happen, but this year we had a new group working with us, and I did not do the training myself. Consequently, someone got in who had not quite adjusted to thinking of Salem as just another festival city, and the Witches who live here are just regular people who bleed, and cry, and laugh, and love their kitties just like you and I.
BLC: One of the articles said that you send out people dressed as monks to harass street preachers. Being one of your previous monks myself (see photo left) who actually encountered these street preachers, I obviously know this is untrue. In the years I served as a monk, we went around offering people “free blessings” and for those who accepted, we simply pronounced God’s blessing upon them. Ironically, I do recall that we were heckled by the street preachers– one of them yelled at us and said “only God can bless people”. Back then, we responded in kindness and even offered them free hot coco and to come down to the church if they needed to warm up or use the bathroom. It has been two years since I’ve been able to serve as a monk, so can you tell us a bit about what the monks are up to these days and why this writer is making this accusation against you? Is this a situation that was rooted in a certain element of truth but got distorted by the time it hit the Christian news network? (the article I’m referencing, can be found here)
Pastor Phil: There is an ongoing urban myth about us sending monks, and I suppose in some manner we do, but certainly not like it was described. The first time it happened, we had a group of guys (and girls) dressing up as monks to work in the confessional booth. They were taking a break, and I received a panicked call from one of the Witches telling me that a group of street preachers, were harassing people coming in and out of their psychic fair. I shared this info James Wilcox (whom you know), who got excited and shouted, “Dudes let’s monk up!” So, they “monked up” – donned their monk robes and went down the street to create a peaceful barrier between the Witches and street preachers. This turned out to be a good thing for both of the other parties. One of the witches was on the verge of contacting the police with harassment complaints.
Since that time, some of our friends make a point of “monking up” and visiting the street preachers. I typically have to remind the costumed monks to remain peaceful, and not to get caught up in the shouting matches, but alas, that doesn’t always keep the emotions down. Most of time we are simply giving away free hugs, free blessings, or are involved in spiritual counsel.
You can check out a story of our Confessional Booth here.
BLC: What are the historical interactions you have had with street preachers coming to Salem during October? Have things changed over the years, or are your interactions each year pretty consistent?
Pastor Phil: It is different every year. We do not assume that the street preachers are going to be mean, belligerent, or condescending. There are a number of street preachers who are really nice guys. Even some of the bullhorn toters are very kind people. Bob is a tall thin older man with a baseball cap, a sandwich board with depictions of Heaven and Hell and handfuls of Gospel tracts. He is gentle and kind, and if someone simply wants directions to the bathroom he will direct them without insisting on sharing the whole Gospel message first. Every year I spend time with Bob, and tell him how much I appreciate him, bring him hot cocoa, and we always invite him in to take a rest, or keep warm. (There’s a great story about Bob here.)
BLC: I remember meeting Bob when we were giving out blessings a few years ago. He was extremely kind, and actually challenged me to reconsider the way I’ve often prejudged street preachers. Some of them aren’t quite as gentle as Bob, no?
Pastor Phil: Two years ago, a young man from New Jersey was in Salem preaching the Gospel Ray Comfort style – he asked people if they kept God’s law, and if they did not (which, of course, none of us do) he challenged to think about their eternity. A few young guys got a little rowdy around him one night, and threw a full plate of lasagna in his face, while he was preaching. So, I addressed the crowd and yelled at everyone who laughed at the street preacher. I told them he was the only person practicing his right to free speech on the street, and then I shouted, “and you laughed at his humiliation, SHAME ON YOU!” The crowd actually applauded him. Then we took him down to the church and cleaned him up. My friend Chris refers to him as “lasagna face.”
On the other hand, some of the street preachers are a bit belligerent, and rile up the crowds making it hard for everyone else. Because we are friends with the Pagan community, the street preachers will sometimes stand in front of our events, or our meeting place and declare that The Gathering is a cult. So, not every street preacher is a good example of God’s love. My friend Allen Henninger from LA reminds them every year that their method is part of their message. They can’t persuade people that God loves them, and simultaneously shout in their faces with overdriven bullhorns.
BLC: Sean Bishop says that you support the crowds of Salem in rejecting the street preachers, that you listen to witches and subsequently send your “sheep” after his street preachers. How do you respond to this?
Pastor Phil: Of course, I support the crowds. I am for everyone. I want everyone to be blessed. But, that doesn’t mean I am against the street preachers. This issue is not a “for or against” scenario. I want the crowds to sense God’s love, and I want the street preachers to learn how to communicate God’s love effectively, and in a manner people would gracefully receive. I do not think the crowds are blessed by Hellfire and Brimstone preaching, through obnoxiously loud, poor quality bullhorn speakers, and I do not think the street preachers are sharing their faith, or exercising their free speech in a culturally relevant manner.
So, in some sense, of course, I listen to the Witches and the crowds. It only makes sense to know the people we minister to, and adjust to the cultural sensitivities of our times, and we can do that without compromising the basics of the Christian faith. I can be a difficult to stand in between the two sides, and in some manner try to be a benefit to both. I feel like Treebeard from the Lord of the Rings sometimes.
“Who’s side are you on?”
“Side? I am on no one’s side, because no one is altogether on my side.”
BLC: How do you think we can learn and grow from this present controversy with the bullhorn guys?
Pastor Phil: I think that there are a few things we can learn: 1) the number of people who actually behave, and/or support the behavior of the bullhorn toting street preachers are few, but they are a noisy few. 2) We do need to learn how to differentiate between the truly misbehaving, crowd provocating street preachers, and the people who are just counter cultural. It is quite possible for us to fight against free speech and the in some sense the Gospel itself. 3) We need to learn to respond in a truly Christ-like manner, even if we are being mischaracterized ourselves.
BLC: What could be done so that everyone in Salem could be able to interact peacefully during the month of October?
Pastor Phil: I believe it is time to increase the carnival dynamic of Haunted Happenings. Creative, fun, artistic expressions of truth should overwhelm screeching bullhorns. In this way, we would be having so much fun we would overcome anger with joy. A good example this year was a Witch friend of mine who would stand in her Witch garb, and a broom and cauldron as a busker taking donations for photos. The street preachers tried to drown her out. So, she started to dance in front of them, and got the crowds to cheer for her.
BLC: If you could tell the street preachers one thing about the Pagan community , and could tell the Pagan community one thing about Christians, what would you tell each side?
Pastor Phil: To the Street Preachers: My friend Allen Henninger says it best: “Your method is your message. What do you think it says about God if you yell at people through screeching bullhorns?”
To the Pagans: Many of the street preachers are a problem, but they are not all the same. Don’t take your frustrations out on everyone because of the actions of a few.
BLC: I know your ministry has had some difficult challenges and changes in the past year. What does the future look like for the Gathering? Do your see your October ministry to the city as being a long-term presence?
Pastor Phil: We were doing the October outreach stuff before we had moved into the location on Essex Street. Now that we have moved out of that spot, it does not stop our activities in October. Look for wilder, crazier, more creative and fun stuff to break loose. And if anyone (artists, builders, people who like to dress up…) wants to join us for next year, now is a good time to connect with me. We are “going big” with creativity next year.
BLC: Your love for the city and people of Salem has been something that I’ve always admired about you– it’s very authentic and real. Why do you love this city so much?
Pastor Phil: Cause its weird… and wonderful.
If you want to learn more about the most interesting Pastor in America, or join in with what’s happening in Salem, you can visit the website for The Gathering here. And, if you happen to visit Salem and bump into Pastor Phil, be sure to say hi for me!