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Veterans Affairs and Hollywood could learn a thing or two from local Pagans

Sgt. Patrick Stewart, U.S. Army. Born: Oct. 21, 1970, Reno, Nev. Death: Sept. 25, 2005, Afghanistan.

In life, Sgt. Stewart, a Wiccan, was a casualty of the War on Terror. In death, he became a symbol for religious freedom.

Stewart's widow was initially denied the right to put a Wiccan pentacle on his headstone by the Department of Veterans Affairs. A lawsuit ensued, and the VA added the pentacle on their "Available Emblems of Belief" list in 2007.

It took two years to accept Wicca? Maybe they were influenced by Hollywood versions of witches portrayed as evil and eccentric. If we dig a little deeper, we'll find what's on the silver-screen is often misleading.

As a local, practicing witch, Seandreya is a wife of 29 years and mother. Her personality matches her light skin, bright eyes and red hair; a fun version of the Bewitched theme plays on her voicemail recording.

As we sat at Starbucks, we talked witchcraft, spells and misconceptions. From this initial introduction, I saw the earthy and spiritual nature of her beliefs. There was nothing dark.

Seandreya's literature defined witchcraft as "a nature-based religion/spiritual practice ... which recognizes that divinity is not an abstract principle, but is directly in the world." A "wheel of the year" outlines various celebrations of cycles, such as the equinox and solstice.

Being a witch means "doing spell work, energy work and seeing the divine in everything and connecting with that," said Seandreya. "Wiccans believe in many gods and goddesses. We connect with the cycles of the Earth."

Much of her definition of spell work is focused on taking an intention, putting energy behind it and working with your mind. To me, it was akin to Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention.

Freedom is also part of the picture. "The best thing about being a witch is with it being an experiential religion, you are validated. ... When you are little, you can talk to the flowers. But when you are a certain age, you are not allowed to do that. Wicca gives you that freedom to do that if you want."

For those not afraid to step out of the broom closet, there are some misconceptions to overcome: "Witchcraft is recognized in the United States as a legitimate religion. We are not Satanists," said Seandreya.

She also corrected a misconception I had about a local group. The Tucson Area Wiccan-Pagan Network (TAWN) isn't just a group of Wiccans. The group is a mixture of many Pagan practitioners.

"Pagans come in all shapes, sizes and varieties," said TAWN coordinator Arlene Davis. "There are Wiccans, Druids, Asatru. ... Most Pagans who I know follow a more nature-based, Earth-oriented path. Many believe in multiple deities. ... All follow the cycle of the seasons in one fashion or another."

Davis, a practicing Druid and a Tucson Unified School District band/choir teacher, has been a TAWN member since 1997. She said TAWN is a networking organization that allows Pagans to come together and find others of like mind to interact with.

TAWN's 22nd fall fest, celebrating the equinox, will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4831 E. 22nd St. There will be workshops, kids' activities, vendors and entertainment. The theme is "Unity in the Community," which reflects Davis' attitude.

"If you're curious, come check us out. ... We try to promote viewing of different groups so people can get an idea of what's out there. ... We are your neighbors, kids down the block, teachers, lawyers, engineers. We're not just the hippies with flowers in our hair anymore."

Davis said TAWN members believe that it's their duty to serve the community. They collect toiletries for veterans, donate food to the Community Food Bank, save medicine and water bottles for Primavera, and recycle.

TAWN's community focus is a result of a core practice: "Merry meet, fellow Pagans!" They strive to accept people who aren't all the same. That's something the VA should have done right away.

"We need to be aware of everybody so we can not only see our differences, but how we are alike," said Davis. "The better you get to know someone, the less suspicion there is going to be out there."

To contact Seandreya, e-mail seandreya@aol.com. For more information on TAWN, visit tawn.org.

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