These were the words that greeted me and four friends as we walked into Montclair’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Friday, Oct. 13, for our first taste of the pagan “meat Sabbath.” The “meat Sabbath,” as we came to learn, is (in spite of its sinister name) the harvest-time celebration of the meat we consume throughout the year.
There were no broomsticks or long black robes. Instead, we found ourselves in a circle of metal folding chairs, gathered with a group of strangers who couldn’t seem to stop cracking jokes with each other. If it weren’t for the spare altar topped with candles, pomegranate seeds, and a rune effigy of the Goddess, you might not even know this was a pagan affair.
This was the Circle of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) – a small, biweekly meeting of pagans and pantheists from across the Inland Empire and Los Angeles. While many CUUPS members identify as either witches or druids, it was clear from the start that the pagan traditions within which CUUPS operates are marked by their far-reaching diversity.
With its diversity of faiths, CUUPS eschews any one centralized dogma, or any commitment to dogma at all. Paladin and frequent CUUPS-goer Joseph Green told me that the “pagan traditions” are roughly analogous to the “Abrahamic traditions” in the sense that both encompass “thousands and thousands of flavors of things.” At the Sabbath on Friday the 13th, I met witches, druids, paladins, bards, and practitioners of Hoodoo. However, as we went around in a circle introducing ourselves and sharing our experience with paganism, most CUUPS members couldn’t pick just one “flavor.” One woman combined her Jewish and druid identities by way of a portmanteau (“Druish”). Another member simply introduced herself as a “witchy woman.”
The group has a facilitator and prime mover in 82-year-old Jeanne Coats, whose parents met as undergraduates at Pomona College. She identifies as a witch, but even within that specific identification, her modes of practice borrow from many different spiritual traditions. First and foremost, Coats is a “candlewitch”: she crafts candles by hand and dedicates them to certain gods and goddesses. Coats makes the candles do specific work for her, depending on the god or goddess to which they’re dedicated. Coats told me that she’s used candles to develop her relationship with the trickster god Loki, who has on several occasions helped mitigate violence and abuse against the women in Coats’ life. Coats also identifies as a dragon collector, and has two totem animals: the bear and the scarab.
“I was once stopped by a very haughty high priestess,” Coats told me, “who looked down her nose at me and asked, ‘What’s your tradition?’ So I stuck my nose right back at her and said ‘Pic ‘n Save’ … because whatever works.”
Coats’ methods of practice are as varied as the items in the now-defunct chain of stores for which her tradition is named. Coats rejects elitism and hierarchy in all aspects of her faith and brings the spirit of absolute equity to every CUUPS meeting. At the start of the service, Green made it clear that “Jeanne doesn’t do hierarchy,” but if she did, she’d certainly be their high priestess. Coats followed up: “it’s all love here.”
It was clear that even in this intimate space, among 20 people who’d been celebrating their faiths together for years, we student laymen were more than welcome. Coats made sure we knew that even if our religious views differed from hers, “[she has] nothing against Christ.” And while the service was an explicitly pagan celebration of the autumn “meat Sabbath” and the coordinate veil between the dark and light halves of the year, we were all invited to participate. As we read aloud from a story about Persephone, Hades, and the feminization of sexual agency, we passed around a bowl of pomegranate seeds and each ate a juicy handful.
It was also clear that CUUPS has helped crystallize its members’ relationships to their intersecting identities, both inside and outside of paganism. I spoke to a CUUPS member about his struggle to identify himself as a witch in the ’70s and ’80s.
“I came out as a witch and being gay at the same time – ‘birth’. And I combined the two. [They] add strength to each other because either one puts you outside the norm,” the member told me.
The member also said that the Goddess has been an incredibly validating force for him. When he talks to Her, She talks back. The member told me that for him, the Goddess has been the voice saying: “You’re perfect just the way you are, and you’re exactly who you’re supposed to be. Now go and become more of who you are.”
By the end of the Sabbath, any previous conception I’d had of the 21st century “witch” had been totally dismantled. What had begun as mere interest in Claremont’s connection to paganism had grown into deep respect for CUUPS and its community facilitators.
There are witches in Claremont. And Montclair, and Pomona, and Ontario. They laugh, crack jokes, and celebrate each other through good times and bad. Green’s mantra throughout the evening was that CUUPS is like a family. Only after three hours of stories and rituals and pomegranate seeds was it clear to me what he meant. “Blessed be!”