No uniform required for Black Hat Society

By Larissa Gula

Je’Amour Matthews grew up in a Roman Catholic household, but all the while her aunts were… Je’Amour Matthews grew up in a Roman Catholic household, but all the while her aunts were teaching her Italian Stregheria — a form of witchcraft,

Matthews knew she preferred the nature-based religion where followers worship nature personified in gods and goddesses. She protested going to church on Sundays. Once during a service she even dipped her hand into holy water and began screaming about how the water supposedly burnt her hand.

Eventually Matthews stopped going to church altogether and became a full-time self-identified witch. As a witch, the 52-year-old does not wear black robes, opting instead for jeans and T-shirts. And she certainly doesn’t carry a wand, cast spells or make love potions.

In response to these stereotypes about practicing witches, Matthews organized the Pittsburgh Black Hat Society in 2009 to act as a social support network for witches and neo-pagans. The Society is a chapter in the larger Black Hat Society Network, which has several chapters across the country. The local group today has 200 members of different ages, genders and ethnicities. Members might identify as Wiccan, Shamanistic, Druid, Celtic, Norse or as practitioners of any of a number of other neo-pagan belief systems. Since the word “neo-pagan” can be used to describe any non-monotheistic religion, members can practice one or a combination of thousands of these beliefs, which are often referred to as “paths.”

Matthews and other Black Hat members are hardly alone in their faith. According to a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, witchcraft, or Wicca, and other earth-based neo-pagan practices have grown in popularity in the United States in the last several years. Nearly 2.8 million people identified with dozens of new religious movements labeling themselves Wiccan, pagan and so forth.

The Black Hat Society does not worship or attend ceremonies together, but instead acts as a social network for people with similar interests. It gives members a place to feel at home even if many people are, as Matthews says, “in the broom closet” about their beliefs. The organization also invites and even encourages members of the general public to come and learn more about some of these nature-based faiths.

“The community in Pittsburgh needed this,” Matthews said. “There is not a lot of outreach for those in pagan faiths and practices. Many people more or less practiced in [solitude] for years.”

Neo-Pagan Practices

A pet peeve of Matthews’ is being asked whether she dresses like a witch from “Harry Potter” when practicing witchcraft. In reality, when preparing to use her altar while mixing herbs or reading spells, Matthews stays in her T-shirt and jeans.

An incense holder, jewelry from her parents, a chalice, crystals and some of her favorite photos sit around the altar, Matthews said. She also keeps a journal of spells and recipes used during her practice — a common habit of practicing witches wishing to keep a chronicle of their faiths.

Matthews explained that in her practices she simply forms “intentions,” which are similar to prayers. They’re a form of wishes for possible outcomes and events in the future.

At the same time, she tries to channel energy into the Earth, because a key part of her practice is thanking the planet she lives on for its blessings and gifts.

“I think most people don’t understand that this is a nature faith,” Matthews said. “We feel responsible for the world around us and for the ground we walk on.”

Black Hat Society members’ backgrounds are as eclectic as their practices. In addition to her Italian witchcraft beliefs, Matthews has adopted a few ideas into her practice from several Asian religions, including Buddhism.

And this is OK, because one of the joys of neo-paganism is that it’s flexible by definition, organization member Francine Brashier, 47, said. She explained that there are literally thousands of combinations of paths to combine into a personal belief system that evolves over time.

This flexibility probably holds a very strong appeal for most practicing neo-pagans, Daniel Burston, associate professor and chair of the psychology department at Duquesne University, said. Neo-pagan practices don’t specify a single god or goddess, allowing practitioners flexibility in which deities they choose to worship.

“Some people may go to an Asian religion, and others go to systems like Wicca,” he said.

And according to the Pew Research Center, this is a common trend for the one-third of Americans who dabble in multiple religions. The study said that despite the overwhelming Christian majority in the United States, it’s common to find mainstream faiths that integrate aspects of other religions, such as belief in reincarnation.

It isn’t surprising that Matthews continued to practice one of the faiths she was taught as a child, according to Kristen Tobey, a visiting professor at Pitt’s Department of Religious Studies. She said that Pew’s surveys have also found that though half of America’s adults change religious practices, many others remain within their childhood religion and some try new beliefs before returning to their original practices.

Matthews is only one neo-pagan who can relate to this statement. Of course, the backgrounds of Black Hat members are extremely diverse. Despite this, the group bonds over its members common hobbies and beliefs asneo-pagans and witches.

The Rules

Members of the Black Hat Society worked hard to create a strong and supportive community for practicing witches in Pittsburgh, Brashier said. She said she herself grew up in a neo-paganist household.

“To be in this group, you don’t have to believe in what I or anyone else believes in,” Brashier said. “But while we don’t all share the same philosophies or faiths or beliefs, we share a togetherness. We rely on the connections we form.”

Brashier joined the group after seeing an ad for one of the group’s informal coffee dates on Craigslist. Though members use social media to stay in touch, they also meet in person once or twice every month to gossip over coffee or attend an educational lecture. Meetings are informal and shift locations to try to include as many people in different neighborhoods as possible. Members simply attend when and where they can — no robes required.

Although the group discusses different practices and philosophies, every individual has a different faith and practice. Some use altars; others do not. Some might go through worshipping rituals daily, and others might not. Some worship different gods and goddesses than others.

Brashier loves that she “doesn’t need to fit in a mold” while with friends from the Black Hat Society. She also finds the group a relaxing escape from misconceptions about her practice.

“It gives us a place to go where we don’t need to explain to people, ‘No, we don’t worship the devil, and we don’t sacrifice children,’” she said. “Those don’t even agree with our practices.” Brashier remains extremely private about her practice and would not comment on how she practices her faith.

Matthews said that, though beliefs vary, true witches follow two ethical codes. There’s the Wiccan Rede, which says that practitioners can do what they will, but harm no one. Then there’s the Three-Fold Law, which says any evil one does will return to the doer three times over.

“Most [witches] believe in healing and giving of self to community,” she said.

But despite this, many  group memebers still face stigmatism. Burston said witches face less adversity than they once did, but suspicion of their practices remains. Matthews has actually had people, who she declined to name, refuse to sell or rent to the Black Hat Society and its members when they found out they were practicing witches and Wiccans.

Though there might be misconceptions about witches so extreme (like the common misconception that they worshipt the devil) that some members haven’t even admitted to their families they practice a neo-pagan faith, Tobey believes that the local network provides most of the necessary support these people need.

“If people have a strong sense of in-group elsewhere, it becomes easier to justify hiding from or being in direct conflict in the outside world,” she said. “They have somewhere else they belong. The new group provides the support and legitimating they’re not getting elsewhere.”

Tobey said that there are many reasons people would continue to practice a “fringe religion,” from rebellion against restrictive religions to the social dynamics of other faiths. In fact, Tobey thinks social interactions are a primary reason some people look for alternative faiths.

“People may explicitly disagree with the teaching of one faith, or they may relate more to the worship style or social structure of other groups,” she said. “Sometimes people just find something else that appeals to one of many aspects in their individual personality.”

Going to the Ball

Currently, the Black Hat Society Network is preparing for the annual celebration of Samhain, the witchs’ holiest holiday, which celebrated in multiple faiths and originated as a Gaelic harvest festival. Members have spent six months planning the event, which is set to take place at the The Pittsburgh Irish Center in Squirrel Hill on Nov. 5 beginning at 6 p.m., Matthews said.

The ball will feature musicians, dancers and artisan booths. The public is welcome to call and purchase tickets, but there are rules.

“We actually begin to joke before the ball, don’t dress up as a vampire, don’t come with green skin or moles, or other stereotypical things,” Brashier said. “Things like that promote the stereotype that you want to get away from.”

And there will not be any stripping naked at midnight. Though there are no lectures, the group wants to educate people.

“If we could, we’d love to create more community with a wave of our hands,” Brashier said. “We want people to be patient, and accepting.”