From a massive former bank building at the heart of Salem’s Halloween scene, Pastor Phil Wyman runs a small evangelical Christian church steeped in controversy.
Wyman reached out to local pagans several years ago, usually a no-no among Christians, and landed in a cauldron of trouble with his national denomination.
“We came with the attitude of trying to be a blessing to the community and to get involved in community events as much as possible,” Wyman said. “This meant anybody and everybody. Typically there’s this antagonism between Christians and witches, but we thought let’s be friends with witches too.”
Wyman’s church, called , was a member of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a worldwide evangelical movement based in Los Angeles. Initially impressed with Wyman’s work, Foursquare leaders soon felt he was getting too close to the pagan community, revoked his ordination and expelled him. For this, Wyman shares an affinity with Salem witches of the 1600s, and says bias against witches continues today.
“I’ve got pagan street cred,” Wyman said. “Witches all over the world know us because I was persecuted like them. It’s kind of become our calling card: we’re the church that befriended the witches. We stood up for them. They’re not eating children. They’re not trying to infiltrate your church.”
Wyman says his 40-member church is home to several pagans. Those who participate feel comfortable once they realize Christian conversion is not his mission.
“Theology doesn’t work like that. I don’t think I have the capability of converting anyone,” Wyman said. “I don’t look at the Christian salvation thing as a sales pitch. That’s God’s job. I talk about practical things. Why can’t I just have a regular relationship and talk about the Red Sox?”
Wyman spent 14 years pastoring at California Foursquare churches before moving to Salem in 1999. He originally studied music before his calling was revealed to him through divine intervention.
“I had God encounters that were fairly dramatic,” Wyman said. “Then I realized there is a God, he must be real, and Jesus is his son.”
He describes his first God encounter as a slap across the face from an invisible hand as he was driving in California. Wyman says his head snapped, his ears rang and he heard one word: “God.” Some weeks later, the same thing happened, only the hand hit him on the other side of his face.
Wyman said at that point “all of the information about the death of Christ being the sacrifice was just downloaded into my head. I said to myself, ‘Everything I know just ended. I have to start over in terms of my world view.’ I realized there was an intellectual surrender that needed to occur.”
Since arriving here, Wyman and The Gathering have been integral in Salem’s Halloween celebrations. Joined by over 150 volunteers and leaders of other local churches, they run the annual and an outdoor stage with live music on October weekends. Free dream interpretation, “psalm readings” and hot cocoa are offered at the stage and at The Gathering’s headquarters at 217 Essex St., known as “The Vault.”
New this year are two concerts at The Vault by Aradhna, a band whose music focuses on spiritual enlightenment, and the other by Christine Cooper, a Welsh storyteller and award-winning Celtic traditional fiddler.
The Gathering relies on donations and grants to fund its programs, and particularly needs help since switching to fair trade cocoa. Wyman says his costs for cocoa have quadrupled and the church would appreciate any help from the community, even donations of cups, as they have served upwards of 10,000 in previous years.
To check out The Gathering’s Halloween schedule, Wyman’s blog and even an online chat room for Christians and pagans, visit www.salemgathering.com.