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Lifestyle

Scouting for alternatives

Youth group is rooted in pagan beliefs

MT photo: Krysti Spence
Alterna-tykes: The Spiral Scouts promote religious tolerance.
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Published 1/11/2006

It’s a little before noon on a Saturday, and seven children are gathered around a table in a cozy Troy home, scribbling with markers. Many are dressed in uniform, sporting neatly pressed khakis and crisp green polo shirts. The boys and girls, ages 3 to 10, are busily decorating a box they’ll later fill with dry goods. It’s part of their latest community service initiative, and will be donated to Compassion Pregnancy Centers (an organization that works with pregnant women in high-risk situations) in Clinton Township.

While the kids color, five moms, two dads and two scout leaders look on. The scent of home-cooked comfort food wafts in from the kitchen.

It’s a scene so wholesome that you’d never imagine most of the parents prefer their families’ names not be printed in this article. Why? They’re afraid someone will accuse them of being satanists.

Founded in 1999 in Index, Wash., the Spiral Scouts was initially conceived as the youth group for the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC). The ATC is the first Wiccan church to receive full legal status. According to its Web site (aquatabch.org), it’s “a coven dedicated to providing religious services and support to the larger Wiccan community.”

But when the Spiral Scouts began a national expansion in 2001, the organization avoided rigid identification with any one particular faith. Though open about its basis in pagan beliefs and practices, Spiral Scouts is described more generally on its Web site (spiralscouts.org) as a “program for girls and boys of minority faiths working, growing and learning together.”

Janet Callahan, 29, program director for Spiral Scouts International, says the group draws members from many religious backgrounds. “We have Wiccans, Druids and a variety of spiritual people who don’t necessarily identify themselves with a certain group,” she says.

From its grassroots beginnings, the organization has now spread to 20 states, Canada and Europe. Chapters exist as far away as Switzerland and also thrive, according to Callahan, “in places you wouldn’t expect, like Arkansas and Oklahoma.” To date, 127 different groups have been chartered, and Callahan estimates that around 60 are currently active, involving about 600 people — ranging in age from preschoolers to teenagers to parents. Groups can be structured in two ways: as a “hearth,” which is composed of a single family, or as a “circle,” which has a wider membership. Seven circles currently operate in Michigan, including the Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Portage and Ann Arbor areas, and there’s a statewide Web site, michiganspiralscouts.org.

James O’Connell, 14, of Plymouth is a member of the Oaken Grove Circle, which operates in Washtenaw and western Wayne counties. He has been participating in Spiral Scouts for about five years, “practically since it started.” O’Connell, who also has two younger brothers in the program, says his favorite part of Spiral Scouts is his circle’s yearly summer camping trip to Sleepy Hollow State Park. “We camp out, walk around the woods, look at things, and just try to figure out what the world’s like.”

When asked about the most important lesson he has learned from Spiral Scouts, O’Connell responds, “Respect the earth. Don’t trash it, because if you do, it will bite you later.”

Callahan is one of the scout leaders for the White Pine Circle, whose members come from Troy, Royal Oak and surrounding areas. The majority of the families in the White Pine Circle discovered Spiral Scouts online, through pagan message boards and mailing lists.

On many levels, Spiral Scouts is very similar to mainstream scouting organizations. Members wear uniforms, attend monthly meetings, camp and learn wilderness skills. They perform community service and earn merit badges in subjects ranging from sculpture to ecology and nutrition. The organizational structure of the group is also comparable to its better-known counterparts, with different levels of membership corresponding to a child’s age. Youngsters aged 3 to 6 are known as Fireflies and those aged 9 to 13 are termed Spiral Scouts. Pathfinders, the highest level of membership, denotes teenagers aged 14 to 18.

But where the Boy and Girl Scouts recite a pledge to “do my duty to God and my country,” a Spiral Scout promises, among other things, to “respect living things” and “respect the beauty in all creations.” Additionally, Spiral Scout merit badges are set up in five categories — earth, air, fire, water and spirit — that correspond to the five points of the Wiccan pentacle.

When asked if Spiral Scouts has ever been formally contacted by the Boy Scouts of America, Callahan reports that the organization received a letter, accompanied by a cease-and-desist order that stated that the word “scouts” was trademarked at a federal level. She says a response from the Spiral Scouts’ attorney followed, and no further interaction between the two groups has occurred. At press time, the Boys Scouts had not returned Metro Times’ phone calls.

One key difference between the Spiral Scouts and the mainstream scouts is that membership is not gender-specific. In fact, each circle is required to have both a male and female leader, who must first undergo extensive background checks. Callahan says this openness is essential. She explains, “Often it seems when you segregate children according to gender, the mentality arises that they’ll either do ‘girl things’ or ‘boy things.’ In the real world, it’s necessary to work with both men and women. How are you going to do that if you’re just off in your own little box?”

Chris, who prefers not to give her last name, agrees. The 37-year-old massage therapist and yoga instructor from Clarkston has a 7-year-old daughter in Spiral Scouts. Chris identifies herself as “spiritual,” and says “earth-based practices” fit her belief system. “I believe that Spiral Scouts provides an excellent way to draw upon both male and female energies,” she says. “Having diversity in both ages and sexes is very important.”

After the crafts project has been completed, the children gather around while Chris reads them a tale explaining the winter solstice, or yule, in terms of the sun becoming more and more tired as the year goes on. The kids then dig into the food, which many helped prepare on their way to earning their cooking badges. Once the meal has been cleared away, the awards ceremony begins. As Callahan reads off each member’s name and lists the honors they’ve received, the children — two boys and four girls — walk up and light a white candle, which the younger ones hand off to more steady-handed parents.

Callahan says, “The important thing about Spiral Scouts is that it’s not about not being some other group. We’re our own holistic group that exists for the kids and the families. That said, we’re just like any other youth organization.”

Monica Price is a former editorial intern for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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