For Wiccans, the summer solstice is more than a day to get out and enjoy the sun. The longest day of the year is a holy one in Wicca, and local worshipers took to area parks over the past week to mark the occasion.
There are several covens (the Wiccan equivalent of a church or synagogue) in the Kansas City area, such as Lushede Grove in Independence, which is lead by a high priestess named J.
"This is a pretty public park for us," she says. Approximately 30 people turned out for worship at Waterfall Park in Independence, Mo., on Sunday, June 16. In the past, Wiccan communities largely worshiped in private.
Wicca is a modern religion of witchcraft and nature worship that falls under the umbrella term "pagan," meaning a faith that recognizes more than one god. The summer solstice is celebrated as a day marking the eternal battle between the seasons when winter "wins," after which the days begin to get shorter.
During the ritual, other park-goers looked on at the ceremony, which involved singing, chanting and a reenactment of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, symbolizing summer and winter, respectively.
The Holly King was played by the high priest of the coven, who goes by the name Thorgo. He says that, even though society has become more accepting of Wiccans in recent years, discrimination still exists -- even locally.
"There's still a large number of people that are persecuted for their religion," says Thorgo. "And even here locally, there's still people in 2013 that are being fired because its found out that they're pagan or Wiccan -- losing custody of their children."
In the past, during what Thorgo calls the "Satanic Panic" (when pagans were perceived and targeted as Satanists), the pagan community was pressured underground, sometimes even violently. Another worshiper named Christopher, who was once a high priest of a coven in southern Georgia, recalled when an angry man interrupted and kicked candles during a ritual there in the early 80's, splattering hot wax on a child.
"We ended up having to have him arrested," Christopher says.
According to J, there are about 90 people affiliated with Lushede Grove. Because many Wiccans are still afraid to be open in their faith, it is difficult to find out just how many there are. Estimates to the number of Wiccans in the United States range from 700,000 to 3 million.
"This is a family friendly gathering we have," says J. "We're not doing anything illegal or immoral, we just see deity a little different. We all have jobs, we all have families -- we're just normal people."