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For its eighth year, the York Pagan Pride Day Festival, an event aimed at stimulating curiosity and curbing misconceptions about a peaceful community that is working against hate, was back in Lower Windsor Township, organizers said.

In a quiet woodland clearing, about 50 people gathered in Samuel S. Lewis State Park around 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28.

Pagan is an all-encompassing term — the big umbrella for any belief system that is not among the major world religions — so there's not one tradition that's highlighted above others, said Sabrina Bowman, president of York Pagan Pride and the local coordinator of the national nonprofit Pagan Pride Project.

Bowman is an eclectic witch — based on a belief system of doing what feels right — and the idea that everyone is after the same idea of connecting with a greater power under different labels.

"You may say a prayer, I may say, 'let me light a candle for you,'" she said.

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What started with three volunteers and 50 guests grew to 20 volunteers and more than 300 attendees last year — and typically 300-500 each year, Bowman said.

Local vendors from York and Lancaster counties offer metaphysical and everyday items, including Angel Wittman's hand-sewn "dancing goddess" doll from Mystic Heart Coven, in Hellam Township.

"Some traditions call the autumn equinox 'harvest home,' which is like a Thanksgiving celebration," said Shawnee Frasca, the coven's priestess and the festival workshop coordinator.

Each year, the festival collects food donations to benefit New Freedom-based nonprofit HOPE, which stands for Help for Oncology Problems and Emotional Support, to aid families of cancer patients. 

The festival takes place on the fourth Saturday in September each year to be centered around the autumnal equinox and also to not conflict with other regional pagan festivals, which many locals also attend.

More: York's Harvest VegFest blossoms in second year

"People want to go where there's like-minded people," Bowman said.

Donovan Hamm, of Hellam Township, said he's been coming with his brother Corey for a few years and likes it because there's not that many places for pagans to go.

"This is a safe haven for people," said Jay Strum, public relations specialist for the Pagan Pride Project locally, adding that many are afraid to come out because of misconceptions about the pagan community.

Pagans don't do anything to hurt or harm anybody, are not associated with the devil and are not trying to convert anyone, Bowman said. 

But for the most part, there has been little backlash, she said, except for a peaceful group of protesters who prayed over attendees and volunteers at the festival two years ago. 

What people might not know, Strum said, is that many groups associated with paganism are positive, such as Heathens Against Hate, which works to reclaim pagan symbols that have been co-opted by extremist groups such as neo-Nazis.

"If the gods call you, the gods call you ... unless you're a racist," said Victoria Young, noting her religion — a Pennsylvania Dutch denomination of heathenry called Urglaawe — stands against hate.

Kasey Gallagher runs the Women's Red Tent — a tent she brings to people's homes based on a global movement stemming from Anita Diamant's book "The Red Tent," which seeks to get back to the basics of women gathering in circles, supporting each other without judgment.

"In this day and age, that's what we need," she said.

The festival opened with a ritual spiral dance to raise the energy, and throughout the day, workshops and presentations highlighted a water theme — following a tradition each year of representing one of the earth's elements.

 A "goddess" rotating through the three life stages of womanhood — maiden, mother and crone — collected wishes written on rice paper and stirred them into a cauldron. At the end of the day, all three women would reunite and bottle up the wish bubbles for guests to take home.

"It's a part of my heart, part of my soul," said Laura Webster, of Dillsburg, who played the maiden, adding that what she loves about her religion is there's no dogma — it's just about being a good person and loving others.

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