Forces of Nature

Pagans are all about peace and harmony. So what's up with all the fighting?

Ned Kelly The Cleveland Cinematheque 7:30 p.m. July 3 and 9:40 p.m. July 4
Lady Cerridwynn is running an hour late, an odd thing for a Wiccan elder. You'd think a devotee of a religion so attuned to the subtleties of nature would be mindful of seasonal time changes. But when clocks sprang forward earlier in the day, Lady Cerridwynn forgot to spring with them.

"I guess we'll be running on Pagan Standard Time again tonight," she moans, as she weaves her cherry-red Honda Civic through Lorain Avenue traffic.

The other four members of her pagan group wait at a round wooden table in Mark Sommerer's Lakewood apartment. Their napkins are yellow with potato-chip grease, and their coffee's been reheated in the microwave. But they refuse to start the meeting without Lady Cerridwynn; it would be undemocratic of them -- and just plain rude, besides.

A few minutes later, she rushes up the three flights of stairs. With her shock of bright red hair, twitchy muscles, and delicate features, she looks a bit like a cardinal in flight. When she apologizes, her voice, high-pitched and meek, comes out like a squawk.

Lady Cerridwynn is quickly forgiven. Beltane -- or May Day -- is fast approaching, and they need to spend their energy on event preparations. For 13 years, the Pagan Awareness Coalition's signature gathering has been its annual ritual on Public Square, their opportunity to enlighten nonpagans. But things are different now.

A power struggle broke out last year among differing factions of the Cleveland-based coalition, splintering the group in two, with each claiming ownership of the name. Before the dispute could get to court, Lady Cerridwynn's group reluctantly changed its name to the Pagans Next Door. It did not, however, release its hold on Public Square. With zero name recognition and Beltane just around the corner, they are understandably worried about turnout.

Mark, the de facto leader of the Pagans Next Door, is pondering the potential for unforeseen mishaps. He paces the room, declaring midstep: "We need to call an emergency meeting for next Sunday."

"Next Sunday is Easter," another pagan points out.

"We don't celebrate Easter," Mark replies.

"Yes, but some of us have family obligations."

Mark caves with a sigh, but he isn't convinced. The conversation dissolves into legal concerns, and the group sounds like a bunch of bitter divorcées fighting over waylaid possessions.

"We can still use the banner, can't we?" Lady Cerridwynn asks, pointing to a beige needlepoint canvas bearing the words "Pagan Awareness Coalition" in neat cursive writing, which she stitched herself.

"Of course we can use the banner," Beth, Mark's wife, assures her.

Heads nod, and Mark places his hand sympathetically on Lady Cerridwynn's.

"It'll be OK," he says.

Lady Cerridwynn shakes her head. "This is all the fault of that woman," she says, hands trembling. "She Who Will Not Be Named."

At the near-mention of the name, faces harden like overbaked clay.

"Don't get into this, please," says Mark. "You're going to make my blood pressure rise."

Pagans, by nature, are a peace-loving group. Though paganism itself is not a religion -- it's a broad term used to describe the various polytheistic religions that arose prior to the start of the Judaeo-Christian belief system -- many of its practitioners believe that the world operates in continuous, harmonious cycles, and that they should do likewise. Wiccans -- or witches, as they are sometimes called -- are the largest and most well-known pagan group. Many of their rituals are nature-based, and they tend to take place around the changing of the seasons.

When Lady Cerridwynn was a young witch, growing up in Cleveland in the '40s and '50s, paganism was as underground as homosexuality -- so underground, in fact, that "I didn't know there were any other pagans until the mid-1970s," she says with a laugh. "My great-grandmother always said it was not something we should advertise to other people."

There was reason for her worry. Throughout history, the term pagan has been used negatively to describe all those who do not subscribe to Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Pagans -- including Wiccans and Druids -- have long been associated with devil worship, though they do not even believe that such a being exists.

Lady Cerridwynn spent her 20s touring the country. By the time she came back to Cleveland in the mid-'70s, paganism was gaining prominence, mainly among people who embraced the ecological and feminist ideologies of the time. New covens opened up, but it was still mainly an underground network. In the 1980s, some pagan groups became more bold in their initiatives, posting fliers about their meetings in Wicca-friendly stores. As the group became more vocal, it also faced more harassment, thus keeping many Wiccans in what they call "the broom closet."

Fed up with the misinformation and isolation, Lady Cerridwynn and others decided that the cure for both problems was to go public. On a sweltering day in August 1990, a small group representing multiple covens gathered in a cramped house in Cleveland Heights to plan their coming out -- a way to let the public observe their religion in practice. "That way," Lady Cerridwynn says, "they could see that we don't kill babies in our rituals."

In October 1990, the newly dubbed Pagan Awareness Coalition gathered on Public Square for the first time in celebration of Samhain, the pagan day of the dead. They performed odes to nature gods and goddesses, and lit fires in memory of those departed. About 60 pagans and curious observers gathered to celebrate. Every year since, the group has celebrated Samhain, its numbers swelling to as many as 300. In 1995, an annual Beltane celebration was added.

From its inception, the Pagan Awareness Coalition was held together loosely. Meetings were sporadic, and there were no official leaders -- a natural outgrowth of pagans' disdain for hierarchies. By the late '90s, however, there was disagreement over how the group should be run. Some, like Mark Sommerer, were content with its limited degree of organization; others wanted to see the Coalition move toward more formal leadership. They argued that, without growth, the group would never be accepted as an authoritative body and thus would always be subject to ridicule grounded in misinformation. But issues put before Sommerer were immediately tabled. Requiring 100 percent member approval to sign off on new activities didn't foster progress either.

"We're fine as we are," insisted Sommerer. "We've existed for 13 years this way. If something's not broken, there's no need to fix it."

Others saw it differently.

"The group claimed to be in anarchy," says Larry Cornett, an area pagan. "But not all their procedures were as [anarchic] as they'd like to act. The inner core kept control of the group, but they never wanted to admit that they had control. They'd organize volunteer subcommittees, then they'd never listen to the actual suggestions and hold their own private meetings instead."

At the center of this rift was lifelong pagan Sherrie Nuyen, who had moved to Ohio in the mid-'90s and quickly became an active member of the local community. She belonged to multiple organizations, and she was involved in various pagan charities. She made it her mission to increase the visibility of the Pagan Awareness Coalition and encourage expansion. "The pagan community could be so much more than it was," she says today.

But others did not see the charity of her intention.

Nuyen established a reputation for freeloading at the homes of other pagans, lashing out against her enemies with web attacks and acting on behalf of Pagan Awareness without its approval. (A Beltane advertisement she placed in Scene last year without the group's consent still makes blood boil among the Pagans Next Door.) They accuse her of cyber-squatting -- trying to ruin the reputation of the original Pagan Awareness Coalition by usurping its name and web domain and spreading rumors about its members.

"She's a liar, a cheater, and a drama queen," adds another area pagan, who asked not to be named for fear of internet reprisal. "She's extremely good at playing the victim."

Nuyen, to the Pagans Next Door, is "She Who Will Not Be Named." She has been all but banished from Cleveland's pagan community.

Says Nuyen: "People just didn't like listening to what I had to say."

Jim Pido does not look like a man prepping to take over the universe. He is short and slightly chubby, with a severe comb-over and a pair of Hefty-like bags that underline squinty grayish eyes. Gregarious and friendly, he refers to himself alternately as a "social butterfly," an "extreme extrovert," and a "very vocal person."

An electrician who grew up in Garfield Heights, Pido was born into a two-religion household: His mother was Protestant, his father Catholic. Though he spent time at both churches, neither fulfilled him emotionally. When he was 12, he started looking seriously at other religions: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism. Though he liked bits of all of them, he ultimately found his true calling in paganism.

"What I liked about paganism is that the practice is based deep down on your own beliefs. There's no structure -- no one saying, 'You have to do things this way.' Most pagans live by one credo: Harm no one."

For most of his life, Pido did not seek out other pagans. He was, in Wiccan terms, "a solitaire" -- content to practice at home by himself. A few years ago, though, Pido's ex-wife, also a pagan, convinced him to join the Pagan Awareness Coalition. Grudgingly, he did so.

At first, others say, Pido was only a fringe member, attending the annual gatherings on Public Square, but not much more. He was not involved in event-planning and never considered himself a spokesperson. But two years ago, Pido met Sherrie Nuyen at a pagan festival in the Metroparks. She shared her growing discontent with the group: the lack of organization, the way outsiders were treated.

If he had tried, Pido could not have found a more controversial pagan to align himself with.

Last year, he began to speak of the downfalls of not having an organized body of pagans in Cleveland. "One of the reasons that Christianity is as powerful as it is, is because they have unity of members. There's strength in numbers," he says. "Not having a centralized recognizable group makes you a target for discrimination." (Pido says past donations he's made to charitable organizations have been rejected because groups did not want to take handouts from "satan worshipers.")

After meeting with Nuyen, Pido took an increased interest in Pagan Awareness meetings, and his frustration grew with each one.

"It quickly grew apparent that the group did not want to grow larger than Cleveland. They were happy to stay where they were," he says, creases forming in his forehead. "I thought we could do a lot more."

Last fall, Pido threw pagan etiquette out the window. He usurped the Pagan Awareness Coalition's name and identity, and declared himself its new leader. Pido, opponents claimed, was doing the bidding of She Who Will Not Be Named.

"Not true," says Pido, eyes flashing. "This I did by myself. No one in the group seemed willing to put themselves out there, to put their name and address on a piece of paper and say, 'This is who we are. This is what we are doing.' So, being the vocal person I am, I decided to step up and do it myself."

Pido christened himself Pagan Awareness's "international director." One of his first gestures upon seceding was to draw up papers distinguishing the new group from the old group; for the first time, Pido says proudly, Pagan Awareness is a charitable, tax-deductible organization; the website encourages $35 contributions for annual membership. The money, he says, goes toward all the "day-to-day expenses of running an organization," everything from event permits to incense.

Now 10 months into the takeover, the new Pagan Awareness Coalition has filled 12 of 13 positions on a newly formed board, members of which are selected by a committee made up of . . . Pido. One of the board's first tasks is to establish its own legislative bylaws, and it recently arrived at the question of tenure. "We decided that the board should be an electorate position, but that there should be one unimpeachable position," Pido says. "That way one original member of the board will always have a voice." That one unimpeachable member? Jim Pido.

"It makes sense," he rationalizes. "I'm the most easygoing of everyone. In disputes, I'm easy to sit down with." (He declines to divulge the names of the 12 board members.)

To hear Pido speak about himself and his objectives, you'd think he were the long-lost brother of Mother Teresa, not the instigator of a totalitarian takeover. Inside of 10 months, Pido says, he has established Pagan Awareness chapters in all 50 states and five countries, with plans for further expansion. "We're going to help bridge together the world's pagan community," he insists, his grayish eyes unblinking. Never mind that those 50 chapters are really just Yahoo groups; about a third of those are devoid of activity.

Soon after Pido took control, She Who Will Not Be Named left for California, where she is the Pagan Awareness Coalition's regional coordinator.

"This has put many in the community in a difficult situation. No one wants to get in the middle of a witch war," says Larry Cornett. Indeed, the war between pagan factions has stranded numerous pagans in the middle.

"If they had used a different name, no one would have blamed them for separating," says Silver Wolf, a Cleveland pagan who asked not to have her legal name used. "But the fact that [Pido] chose to use the same name makes me not want to join either group."

Pido says he's doing his part to smooth things over. Out of respect for the old Coalition, he's decided not to hold his own Beltane celebration this year. Just so you know, he adds, "I was not trying to break up the group. I was hoping that when I legalized the group, they would simply join in. That didn't happen."

He pauses, spreading his arms wide, as if to demonstrate the depth of his innocence.

"I'm sorry to hear that the other group's holding grudges," he says. "I did offer one of them a position on the new board, but I haven't heard back yet." He adds later, "I'll probably make an appearance at Public Square to support the old group."

Kerstin, a pagan who sympathizes with the Pagans Next Door, would be happy to see him there. "Oh, I'd like to run into Jim, all right -- with my car."

On the Sunday before Beltane, the five Pagans Next Door sit cross-legged on the floor of Lady Cerridwynn's house in South Euclid, making up packets of seeds for the Beltane ritual and dipping wax for candles. Lady Cerridwynn's cats, "Eros" and "Demon," dart between the legs of Mark Sommerer, who shoos them away. The late-afternoon sunlight streams in through a dust-clouded window, and the television plays muted scenes from the Sci-Fi Channel. Celtic chants, emanating from a CD player, fill the empty spaces in the air.

"The reason why we changed our name to the Pagans Next Door," Lady Cerridwynn explains, as she sifts through a pile of sunflower seeds, "is that three of our members are pagans, and they actually live next door to each other. They're a good percentage of our base group." (Besides, she confides later, they had no money for a legal battle. "And we didn't want to waste the money we did have on them.")

In the kitchen, Mark stirs wax on the stove, next to a shelf lined with Wiccan recipe books and various herbs. He looks up from the pot, and his brown eyes narrow. There goes the blood pressure again. "It's up to Jim now to uphold our good name," he says. "Do I think he can do it? No. And you can tell him I said that too."

The Pagans Next Door arrive at Public Square mid-morning on Beltane Saturday, toting with them carloads of baked goods, two cartons of Moo-brand soda (on sale at Sam's), bottles of grape juice, and one maypole, ready to be staked to the ground and wrapped with colorful ribbons. They are worried about the weather, which is threatening, and the attendance, which does not look promising, what with the whole name confusion.

Now there are Christians to contend with too. In the northwest quadrant of Public Square, in the very same spot that the pagans had reserved, Christian do-gooders dressed in bright yellow shirts and faded blue jeans are standing over five-foot ovens, singing praises to Jesus as they cheerily dish out helpings of pasta to the homeless.

The pagans stop in their tracks, staring open-mouthed at the Christlike audacity.

"City Hall did this on purpose," says Mark, his forehead a tense line of worry.

"More proof that the world hates the pagans," says Beth with a sigh.

It is decided that one of them should go over to the Christians to negotiate a solution. Excuse me, the chosen one says, tapping one of the organizers on the shoulder, "but I think you might be in the wrong place. We have a permit for the square today."

In a voice brighter than her T-shirt, a Christian woman patiently explains that they also have a permit. "So if you'll excuse me," she says, "we're here doing God's work." Then she kneels on the ground and hands a recycled jacket and jeans to a man in a wrinkled T-shirt and brown creased boots.

The pagan retreats to the group, unsure of what to do next.

"Well, we can't exactly kick them out -- they are feeding the homeless," Mark mumbles angrily. "But their permit is for the sidewalk, not the square!" His shoulders sag. "I can't deal with this today."

The group sighs, begins to mutter about persecution, discrimination, and the ineptitude of City Hall, then sets up camp a few yards from the Christians. At that moment, a man in a tight white V-neck T-shirt takes out his keyboard and, in a scratchy, gravelly intonation, begins to sing about the saving graces of Jesus Christ. The pagans grimace.

By around 1:30, visitors start trickling by. Two teenage girls, one wearing a set of horns on her head, are among the first to arrive.

"Is this your first Beltane?" someone asks them.

"Nuh-uh. I've been into this forever," says Serena Hogan.


"Well, since I was 13 or so," Hogan allows.

"Do your parents know you're here?"

"Uh-huh. They're over there, doing their Kerry thing," she says, motioning to a middle-aged couple passing out John Kerry pamphlets to unenthusiastic passersby. The folks turn and wave hello.

By 2 p.m., Public Square is speckled with men and women -- some dressed in jeans and jackets, others in Renaissance Fayrewear. "There is no typical dress for this event," explains pagan Chip Bodnovich, who's sporting a long brown cape. He surveys the square, with its few pagans and numerous homeless men eating baked ziti. "Not the best turnout ever," he says.

Phaedra, an ordained high priestess who participated in Pagan Awareness's first Samhain celebration, agrees. "This is one sorry celebration. People! This is a joyous occasion. Look happy. Happy!" Under her breath, she mumbles darkly, "We had a much bigger turnout when we ran this ourselves in the early '90s."

At 4:30, the Beltane ritual commences. About 25 pagans form a circle and duck, limbo-style, under a raised vine, one of the ceremony's many symbols of fertility.

"In the past six years, we've had five pregnancies," says Mark proudly, as he holds up the vine.

"What if we don't want to be fertile? Can we, um, skip this part?" asks Jessica Guerra, a Cleveland State student.

A flicker of annoyance passes over Mark's face. "No," he says. "Being fertile doesn't just mean being pregnant -- it also means being successful in life."

"Oh," says Jessica, dutifully passing through the circle. She still looks worried.

The rites begin, the group belts out its ode to the earth gods and goddesses, and then everyone lines up alternately by sex. Each person picks up a ribbon strand and dances and twirls around the maypole, which is upright in the middle of the square. The ribbons are woven together in a crosshatched pattern. The purpose, Mark explains, is to form a symbolic birth canal around the phallic pole, representing the union of the goddess and god.

About 30 minutes later, the maypole dance complete, the small group gathers around a wooden table, which is cluttered with plastic cups of grape juice and paper plates filled with doughnut holes. "All in all, we're pleased with the turnout," says Mark, grasping a cup. "Considering everything we went through this year."

As the group starts to pack up, Mark asks pointedly: "Did you notice who did not make a showing?" Jim Pido is nowhere in sight. "So much for his community relations."

Into the box, with the rest of the leftovers, go the capes, the maypole, empty bottles of Moo-brand soda. Perched precariously above the clutter is the small square sign with a stencil of blue dancing gods and the words "Pagan Awareness Coalition" in cursive lettering. For a moment, as the group heaves the boxes into the car, it looks as if the sign will fall, but then Mark adjusts his handgrip, and everything shifts back into place.

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