A gay witch in Tennessee?

While he might not wear a pointed hat or fly on a broomstick, Christopher Penczak is a witch.

As a writer, teacher, and healer, Penczak draws upon both modern and traditional Wicca, blending them other mystical traditions from around the world including shamanism, herbalism, astrology, tarot, Reiki healing, and Qabalah. An ordained minister serving the New Hampshire and Massachusetts pagan, metaphysical, and GLBT communities, he will be leading some of his workshops at the fifteenth annual Pagan Unity Festival beginning May 17 at Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tennessee.

“I try to balance a class of intellectual information and theory with practical application and experience, along with a bit of humor and heart,” Penczak says of what PUF attendees can expect. He will also be leading the main ritual at PUF and hopes to bring some good cheer to the event as well.

“PUF is one of my favorite festivals because its so fun,” he says. “Everybody is good humored and fun to hang out with. While some serious etching can happen, no one is too serious about themselves, authors and presenters included. We have a lot of laughs, a few drinks and some time around the fire and on the field.”

Penczak’s comfort with his spirituality did not always come so easily, nor did his comfort with his sexuality.

As a child, he attended Catholic mass every week and was fascinated by the ritualistic aspects of the service. Still, he wanted to know why only the priests and not the nuns could take part in the ritual. Hearing answers that quoted the fall of Adam at Eve’s hand for the reason, Penczak’s views on religion started to tarnish.

“By the time I was in high school, I realized my own feelings and ideas were in direct conflict with my religion,” he says. “Religion classes were intertwined with morality classes. I found being a gay boy trying to grow up in this unfriendly environment very difficult. I remained closeted. Coming out in an all boys school is particularly tough. I was told it was okay to be gay, but not to act upon it. That was a sin.”

Penczak found hope in two of his teachers, however. One was his religion teacher who advised him, "Talk to God everyday. I talk to Her all the time." The other was a childhood art teacher who spoke openly about the mysticism of classic mythology, the pre-Christian goddess cults, the Egyptian priesthood, and magical symbols.

“I realized there were other ways to look at religion,” Penczak says. “I knew I believed in something. I felt spirituality in my life, but I knew that Catholicism was not the way for me.”

Penczak discovered his way as he began to compare religions, philosophies and mythologies across the world. “I think of witchcraft, rather than just Wicca, as a vocation and tradition that springs up all around the world, not in any one culture,” he explains. “There is a mystical, healing, cunning tradition in most cultures. The inner experience of the mysteries is the same, and I like the hunt for all wisdom around those mysteries.”

Penczak also found that the reconciliation of his faith made it easier to come out as a gay man, as he began to see healthy, happy and spiritual gay men and lesbians around him and that they were ordinary people. He also hopes those in the GLBT community trying to reconcile their sexuality and their faith remember the foundation of most religions.

“I think it is important to know that at the heart of many religions is the essence of love,” he says, “be it the perfect love and perfect trust of Wicca, the heart of Christ in Christianity, the compassion of Buddhism, or any other variation of it, and love does not exclude. Seek the mystical side of whatever your faith is, and you'll find love, harmony and acceptance no matter the outer form or current community.”

Meet Christopher Penczak and learn more about him this month at Pagan Unity Festival, May 17-20 at Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns. For more information, check out www.paganunityfestival.org.

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