Like the faithful of any belief, Cathy McNulty wants people to understand her religion. But unlike most, she has to deal with the popular -- though misguided -- perception that her religion includes devil worship, animal sacrifice and wild orgies in the woods. Though for many, that last one might actually be a selling point.
"We want people to form their own opinions based on knowledge, not what Hollywood has done," says McNulty, a practicing pagan. "We're not scary. We're teachers and grandparents. We just have a different belief system."
That system includes the idea of pantheism, that there is no one true god but divinity everywhere: in people, animals and trees. Many pagan groups -- including Wiccans, druids and the Asatru -- predate even that peace-loving hippie Jesus Christ. The spirituality of Native Americans is also a component. "It's just a reverence for Mother Earth," she continues. "There is a universal energy that we recognize and revere and a sacredness in everything."
Other tenets of paganism include a reliance on "folk" or earth-based medicine rather than manufactured drugs. "They're just like Mom's old home remedies," McNulty says, rolling off a list of natural cures for everything from burns to stomachaches. "Instead of grabbing an aspirin, we drink tea made of white willow bark, which itself is the basis of aspirin."
Area pagans will celebrate both their faith and the fall equinox at the fourth annual Pagan Pride Day. They also hope to educate a skeptical public. More a festival than a somber religious gathering, the event will feature food, live music, vendors, children's activities and the author of Wiccan Feng Shui.
While acknowledging that there is a "lunatic fringe" of pagans who might grab headlines with their activities, McNulty says they do not represent the majority, who have more in common with environmentalists than the unseen force of The Blair Witch Project. Just imagine if all Christians were believed to be dancing, whooping snake handlers from Alabama.
"People are suspicious of what they don't understand," she says, "and with this event, we just want to let people know who we are. We show respect for whatever people believe."
As to the notion buoyed by fantasy literature and countless Dungeons and Dragonsmanuals that pagans practice "magick" from the tips of their fingers, McNulty laughs. "Spell casting" is nothing more controversial than powerful prayer, projecting thoughts and energy intent on improving something in one's life.
According to its Web site, Houston Pagan Pride Day is one of more than 100 similar events that will be held around the world. "Houston pagans are wonderful, and we try to bring together all the different traditions," McNulty offers. "All of the groups concentrate on their similarities rather than differences. It's an open acceptance."
As per the Pride Day directive, a different charity is chosen every year to receive admission profits, and the 2002 recipient is the local animal welfare group H.O.P.E. "We love animals!" says McNulty, who is partial to cats. And no, they don't have to be black.