A honeymoon trip isn't public business under any circumstances. A "trade mission" to Australia at Easter may technically be public business but is fishy enough to warrant an extensive investigation by the media. A Shelby County politician meeting with state education officials in Nashville to discuss report cards is clearly public business.
But between those extremes there's a gray area of entertainment, travel, lunches, telephones, and other expenses that prompt this question: What sorts of things can people who work in government write off as public business or political activity with a clear conscience?
That's the question local elected officials and top government administrators are grappling with in the wake of the ongoing investigation into misuse of Shelby County government credit cards. The question is particularly relevant to city officials, including Mayor Willie Herenton and members of the Memphis City Council, who are up for reelection in 2003. Shelby County elected officials, who took office in September just before the credit-card scandal broke, don't have to run again until 2006.
For elected officials, campaign contributions rather than credit cards present the greatest opportunity to spend other people's money. For one thing, credit cards are scarce and getting scarcer. Shelby County mayor A C Wharton has called in most of the county credit cards that were abused in the previous administration. The city doesn't issue credit cards, even to the mayor, although he has both a six-figure campaign fund and a personal expense fund paid for by private donors.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds will change hands in the next six weeks as the mayor and council members hold Christmas parties and prayer breakfasts that double as fund-raisers and political rallies. Some members of the city council who expect challengers next year aim to raise more than $100,000 in campaign funds.
Because the money comes from donors rather than taxes, how politicians spend it is basically up to them. The Shelby County Election Commission requires regular reporting and disclosure, and the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance gives specific rules for raising funds ($1,000 maximum from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees) and general ones for spending them. But enforcement is, for the most part, up to political candidates themselves -- and the media.
The published guidelines of the registry say the purpose of an expenditure "depends upon all the facts and circumstances surrounding the expenditure." An expense which is "directly related to and supports the selection, nomination, or election of that individual to public office is considered political activity. An expense which would be incurred by an individual regardless of that person's candidacy for public office is considered an expenditure for a nonpolitical purpose."
With that in mind, how would you classify these expenses?
* A new suit of clothes. "I've had candidates ask about this, and my first reaction was to laugh," says Brian Green, administrator of the Registry of Election Finance. "But after I thought about it I would say yes. Some people campaigning in jeans this year didn't get elected."
* Taking a trip to Dallas with spouse to study downtown development. "I would say yes," says Green.
* Dinner with a group of constituents at Folk's Folly. "Yes, if the candidate is trying to get their views," says Green. "It depends on what is discussed."
* Buying tickets for a Grizzlies game at The Pyramid for campaign workers. "Yes, and the drinks and pizza as well," says Green. "It's a way to say thank you and get votes."
* Donation to charity. "Yes, we see this all the time," says Green.
* Membership in the Plaza Club. "That depends," says Green. "The guidelines specifically mention membership fees as long as the organization has an up-to-date exemption from the Internal Revenue Service."
* Donation to another candidate for political office. "This is one of the most common uses of funds," says Green.
* A cable television subscription. "Is it for the purpose of getting knowledge or for entertainment?" Green asks. "The mayor of Lebanon, where I am from, has cable on all day to stay informed."
* Cell-phone bills. "Yes," says Green. "I see them on almost all forms." But some politicians like City Councilman Tom Marshall say they shun the practice because they don't want their calls open to the prying eyes of reporters.
* Newspaper subscriptions. "Yes," says Green. "It's a way to keep up."
* A Christmas party. "As long as it helps the candidate get elected or stay elected it's okay," says Green.
Green says his office gets a few calls a week from candidates asking about proper and improper spending. Enforcement is up to the state attorney general.
"Somebody has to make a complaint," says Green. "Then we pass it on to the attorney general." Green says he hasn't seen it happen in the two years he has been with the registry.
A spot-check of filings at the Shelby County Election Commission shows that most candidates file reports in a timely fashion, but losing candidates in particular can file late or not at all with impunity. The interpretation of "political purpose" is so broad that it makes no sense to hide something. Receipts are not required. As one Shelby County commissioner says, "I've heard of candidates basically living out of their campaign fund."
The bottom line: Campaign contributions beat a city or county credit card any day.
"The Toilet Bowl, that's all it is." That's how my good friend Gordo McAlister, in his usual graphic fashion, characterized last Saturday's contest between the University of Memphis and Army -- each ranked in the bottom 10 of Division I in many of the polls -- while explaining his reasons for declining my kind offer of a free ticket to the game. "I'd rather watch grass grow," he growled before hanging up on me.
Well, not a whole lot of grass was growing on the Liberty Bowl playing field on that brisk, picture-perfect autumn afternoon. But maybe, just maybe a football team was, as the University of Memphis comprehensively whipped the Cadets by a 38-10 margin that did not do justice to the Tigers' complete domination of the proceedings. And now that they're growing up, maybe, just maybe I'll be able to talk Gordo into going to a game next season.
He may have stayed home Saturday to watch Michigan/Ohio State on the tube, but, amazingly, an incredible number of Memphians chose instead to come out for the show at the Liberty Bowl. Officially 20,906 were in attendance; even deducting a few thousand no-shows, that number is remarkable, given the fact that this was a battle between two bad teams going nowhere.
I have long argued that Memphis is first and foremost a football town and that if the Tigers ever again have a winning season, they'll easily average 40,000 a game. And if they ever were to become a perennial powerhouse, U of M football tickets would end up being scarcer than hen's teeth. Give Memphis football fans a winner, and the Liberty Bowl would come to resemble Neyland Stadium, only decked out in blue not orange.
Even with the sorry excuse for a football season Tiger devotees have "enjoyed" this year, the U of M is a C-USA attendance behemoth. Take a look around the league last Saturday, and you'll see what I mean. A mediocre Houston team could only draw 12,856 for its game against South Florida, but even bowl-battling outfits like East Carolina and Tulane could only draw 23,189 and 21, 832, respectively, despite first-rate (TCU and Southern Miss) opponents. And I recall our own game in Birmingham against UAB earlier this season, where the entire crowd could have easily squeezed into the stands at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex.
Let's face it: This year's Tiger MVPs are the fans, the folks in blue who never play a down but are there by the thousands, in blazing sunshine, pouring rain, and in constantly trying circumstances. U of M football fans, having taken the concept of "delayed gratification" to never-before-imagined levels, take a licking and keep on ticking.
But maybe the payoff is just around the corner. Assuming that Coach Tommy West can find someone who can play offensive line (four of the five starters are seniors), 2003 just might bring an end to all this existential agony. The defense, young and inexperienced when the season began but significantly better in November than August, will return nine starters. And the team's two big offensive guns -- sophomore quarterback Danny Wimprine (who broke the U of M single-season passing record Saturday) and freshman running back D'Angelo Williams -- are just hitting their prime.
Of course, nothing will change if the Tigers don't find a cure for their desperate case of turnover-itis. The defense may well have pitched a shutout Saturday were it not for two first-half fumbles, and turnovers this season have already cost the Tigers 99 points. Regardless of talent, you can't give away a touchdown and a field goal a game and hope to enjoy a winning season.
Saturday's game in Fort Worth should be interesting. Having blown their national ranking by losing at East Carolina last week, the TCU Horned Frogs ought to be well-focused on the matter at hand. But if the Tigers can execute the way they did in the second half Saturday, and hold onto the football in the process, Christmas might just come a few weeks early. And if ever a football team deserved a favor from Santa, this one is it.
Nobody in the NBA can boast the experience, talent, variety of moves, diversity, and, above all, the depth of our Memphis Grizzlies.
Of course, we're not talking about the team on the floor, which was 0-10 at this writing. We're talking about the one on the bench, and behind it, and behind them, and up in the suites, and who knows where else.
The Memphis Grizzlies are the only team in pro sports with six -- count 'em, six -- active or former pro head coaches plus two former college head coaches on the payroll. Average age: 62. In the corporate world, a company with eight CEOs in its organization might be called, dare we say it, top-heavy. Such an organization might be expected to produce actual results. Or trim payroll. But there is no world like the world of big-time pro sports.
Quoting here from the team's 2002-2003 media guide: "The Memphis Grizzlies have an eye on building a successful future by carefully assembling one of the best collections of young talent in the NBA. Luckily for those young players, they play for an organization whose front office is one of the most experienced in the league."
You can say that again. With the all-important player-to-coach ratio at 1.5 to 1, the Grizzlies are, as they say, loaded. There are decent-sized companies with fewer secretaries than the Grizzlies have coaches. Suburbs have smaller operating budgets than the combined coaching payroll. It's a wonder there are enough clipboards to go around.
We're the Sun City of NBA coaching. The next NBA coaches reunion might as well be in Memphis since so many of them are here already.
Now let's get to the lineup.
At captain and starting at point guard, 69-year-old Hubie Brown. Younger than John Wooden, Joan Collins, and the Queen Mum. Older than Mick Jagger, Bill Russell, and the Amazing Kreskin. Still has great spring in his legs, range in his voice, can work the clipboard with either hand or even upside down, and will always beat the press corps off the dribble. Best of all, as a white guy drawing Social Security, is "hip" to young black guys. Great moves, as shown by new $10 million multiyear contract. You've heard that the NBA is dead set on expanding its shrinking audience and tapping new markets? Well, viewership at the Lewis Center for Senior Citizens is through the roof, and Depends is looking at buying a sponsorship.
At shooting guard, the immortal Jerry West. Sweetest jump shot ever, averaged 27 ppg during his career. Tenacious defender. What would he average today with the bigger, faster, more athletic players? Probably only 20. But then he's 64 years old.
At center, Chuck Daly, 72. Two NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons, the fearsome Bad Boys. Gave it up when he conceded that "sooner or later, they stop listening to you." Considered probably the best-dressed coach in the NBA. Advises team on haberdashery and picks -- picking up paper clips on the floor for majority owner Michael Heisley, that is.
At small forward, Lionel Hollins. This promising youngster, just 49 years old, looks to have a great NBA future once he gets his AARP card and a couple more decades of experience under his belt. Free agent picked up in the offseason to provide depth at the crucial assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant president and general manager spot. "The Kid" figures to get some pine time with the addition of Hubie Brown but could get the call if the Griz fail to deliver on Heisley ultimatum of double-digit "Ws" by Memorial Day.
At power forward, Dick Versace, 62. Chuck Daly's sidekick in Motown. Big cheese for the Indiana Pacers in 1989, then, like Hubie Brown, moved up to the big time, that being, of course, television analyst for TNT. His current duties include and and as well as .
Sixth man. Sidney Lowe, 43. Benched last week for being a poor shooter, lousy passer, weak rebounder, and pathetic defender as team got off to 0-8 start. But what do you expect from a guy several pounds overweight and wearing a suit and tie and street shoes? Unlikely to see any more playing time this season but goes in the books as winningest coach in Grizzlies history and gets a big assist in the Hubie Brown acquisition.
Bench Strength: You never know when a starter might run out of Suscatal. These fellas may not have been head coaches in the NBA, but they know their way around the hardwood and can always be counted on to step up and fill out a foursome at the bridge table, the links, or the shuffleboard court.
Gene Bartow, 70, who prepped at Memphis State University just 30 years ago and refreshed his skills with the immortal Memphis Houn'Dawgs in 2001, looks to get plenty of time replacing the toner in the copy machine but can also answer the phones. Gary Colson, a 68-year-old veteran with a deadly two-handed set shot, lends support to starter Jerry West and is the odds-on favorite in the Hubie Brown look-alike contest.
There they are, sports fans. A total of $186,674,973 worth of talent. A combined 787,654 career victories, 89,996 playoff-game appearances, and 62 grandchildren. And that's despite losing several of their best years to WWII!
Like the media guide says, "Production is always the benchmark when we judge a winner."
Anybody seen Dana Kirk?
What kind of election was it? A memorable one, of course. They all are.
This Flyer went to press on Election Day, when the votes hadn't even been cast, much less counted. Still, some awards are due.
Worst attack ad: The one questioning the moral values of Arkansas Democratic Senate candidate Mark Pryor and linking him to flag-burning. More proof that the sole purpose of proposed anti-flag-burning laws and constitutional amendments is to provide ammunition for political attacks. What made this one weird is that Pryor's opponent, Tim Hutchinson, is a former minister who, three years ago, divorced his wife of 29 years to marry a much younger aide.
Best change in election laws: Next year, the Campaign Reform Act will put an end to unidentified "soft" money for attack ads in federal elections. "If people are going to attack, they need to have the guts to identify themselves," says pollster Berje Yacoubian.
Biggest winner: TV stations reaped an advertising windfall in an ad recession thanks to candidates who bought more airtime than Corey B. Trotz.
Worst image in a positive ad: Democratic Senate candidate Bob Clement square dancing. The glasses, the big cheeks, the silly grin. And, just a guess, he looks like a nondancer.
Worst image in an attack ad: Lamar Alexander in sunglasses in black-and-white. Amazing what a pair of shades and a receding hairline can do to a clean-cut image.
Bad words: HMO, TennCare, Sundquist, millionaire CEO.
Good word: veteran.
Most interesting proposals in other states with fiscal problems: Ohio voters weighed in on gambling (video slots at racetracks), while the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona proposed selling off the downtown state fairgrounds in Phoenix for $75 million for 96 acres.
Biggest demographic anomaly: The lottery would benefit college students, but according to Census 2000, only 20 percent of Tennesseans are college grads and Tennessee ranks 45th in percentage of people over age 25 that are high school grads.
Most skewed view: Memphis and Shelby County look less like the rest of Tennessee every year. Tennessee is 80 percent white, 16 percent black, and so strongly Republican that native son Al Gore couldn't win the state in the 2000 presidential election. Shelby County is evenly divided black and white, and black Democrat A C Wharton crushed a white Republican in the last county election.
Best campaign tactic: Lottery proponent Steve Cohen attending his opponents' press conferences. He got to hear their claims immediately and unfiltered, and the media often let him respond on the spot. Few politicians are better than Cohen at getting free media time.
Most overexposed: Steve Cohen. This goes along with crashing the press conferences of your opponents. Where were the testimonials from other politicians and college administrators? Cohen's challenge was to press the issue without becoming the issue, but he sometimes seemed to do just that.
Most overrated factor: Money. Clever candidates can get free publicity, and some are better off with less publicity, not more. Former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout had over $500,000 in surplus campaign contributions he could have given to Republican candidates. Rout did support Lamar Alexander and Van Hilleary but still has over $400,000 to give to charity or use in future elections.
Most underrated factor: Endorsements. The Big Three of Memphis and Shelby County, mayors Herenton and Wharton and Congressman Harold Ford Jr. logged a lot of airtime on behalf of Democrats. All of them enjoy strong bipartisian support in an election where crossover votes were crucial. On the Republican side, only Senator Fred Thompson came close as a power endorsement. Thompson has more statewide appeal than Herenton, Wharton, and Ford, but few voting precincts in the country are as solidly Democratic as the inner-city precincts in Memphis, where margins of 990-1 have been recorded in presidential and Senate elections. So Bredesen and Clement did what most Democrats do in statewide races: They spent Election Eve working Memphis.
Least in demand: Governor Don Sundquist. Both gubernatorial candidates tried to tie their rival to Sundquist in attack ads. So much for putting principle above party, as Sundquist did when he supported a state income tax.
Most unreliable: For weeks, antilottery lobbyist Michael Gilstrap and his aides asked to come visit the Flyer to meet with editorial staff members. On the chosen date, they were no-shows. A belated apology followed with a promise to reschedule "ASAP." We're still waiting. Worst wording: The lottery amendment, which begins with the proposal "that the period (.) at the end of Article XI Section 5 of the Constitution of Tennessee be changed to a comma (,) ... " and goes on and on and on. If the lottery wins, it will be no thanks to such verbiage.
Most paradoxical possibility. University of Memphis political scientist Ken Holland (and possibly others) pointed out that the lottery could lose and still win if more people voted on the proposed amendment than in the governor's race. If the amendment failed by a narrow margin, the "yeas" could still exceed 50 percent of the total votes for governor.
On November 7th, Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) will celebrate its 10th anniversary in Memphis with a benefit dinner at The Peabody. The program, which brings a study of the history and implications of the Holocaust and other cases of social injustice to middle and high school classrooms, began in six Memphis schools and now reaches over 100,000 students in 299 schools throughout the region.
"It's unusual that Memphis has a regional office, if you think about the other offices that are in places like Boston, New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago," says Stephen Haynes, an active member of Memphis' FHAO advisory board and associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College. "Memphis was the first region to break out of that major-city mold. It's been remarkable that we've made it work here and become independent financially and so forth. And it's really all because of Rachel Shankman. It's her vision that got it going in Memphis."
Shankman, director of the Memphis region, has a very personal stake in the success of FHAO because her parents were Holocaust survivors. Working in a variety of capacities ranging from director of the Jewish Student Union at the University of Memphis to casework associate with Family Service of Memphis, Shankman felt FHAO united each of her interests into a powerful educational program. "I was always very driven to understand universal questions that come out of studying that history," says Shankman. "Facing History brought together all the elements that are very important to me: the teaching of history so that we can learn from it, work with adolescents, which is very important to me, and working with teachers. And beyond that, I think what I understood about Facing History was that it linked the classroom to the larger community, so it wasn't just learning in isolation."
FHAO was created 26 years ago in Brookline, Massachusetts, by native Memphian Margot Stern Strom, a graduate of Central High School, who now serves as the national director. There are seven regional offices across the nation and one in Europe. The program offers weeklong institutes to middle and high school teachers, during which educators learn not only the historical developments behind the Holocaust but also the questions the Holocaust raises about civic responsibility and the importance of the individual in a democratic society. These are precisely the questions that the program wishes to ask its students as they connect historical events to the moral choices they must make in their lives.
After attending the institute, teachers work with FHAO associates to introduce the material into their curriculum. Teachers keep in close contact with the regional office, which also provides them with access to an extensive library of supplemental material as well as coordinating visits by speakers ranging from scholars to survivors of social injustice. This February, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African-American students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, spoke about her experience to East High School students and community members. Coming in January, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, South African activist and professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town, will speak about her encounters with one of apartheid's most brutal covert police operators. These guests, who are scheduled throughout the year either as classroom visitors or public speakers, allow students to gain a greater understanding of what it means to be actively involved in great social change.
"What we do is start with the teacher," says Shankman. "We feel strongly committed to their professional development. One of the things that's imperative for us -- and I think one of the reasons we've had 10 years of success in Memphis -- is that it's one of the few places where teachers can really build that kind of collegiality. In other words, teachers from Memphis public schools are in an institute with teachers from independent schools and Catholic schools and Shelby County schools. There aren't that many opportunities for teachers to share methodology as well as content. So the follow-up [after the institutes] is, I think, what has been our strongest commitment to teachers. We are in this with them for the long haul."
Although Memphis has a history thick with social injustice, one of the challenges for FHAO locally has been relating a history that may seem rather alien to its students. "Facing History and Ourselves is a natural for San Francisco or New York, where in a public high school you might have people speaking 20, 30 different languages," says Haynes. "Memphis is much more of a traditionally bifurcated city, where you've got black and white. To adjust the curriculum so that it can make sense to the Memphis public schools has been both a challenge and a success."
The universal nature of the implications of the Holocaust, however, are what FHAO feels makes it applicable to all students. "What's important for people to understand," says Shankman, "is why we do this. We're concerned about adolescent issues. And whether we're doing this in San Francisco or Memphis or Boston, those issues of peer pressure and loyalty are questions adolescents are really grappling with."
As for the next 10 years, Shankman's goal is not only to make FHAO available to more students but to strengthen the existing program. "I think that we want to grow and deepen," says Shankman. "So in the schools where we have perhaps one educator who's gone through the Facing History institute, we'd like that to be a team of teachers. If we're really going to help change -- and 'help' is an important word in there we're not a panacea -- a school culture, the more teachers involved in this, the more successful it will be."
For more information on the Facing History and Ourselves benefit dinner at The Peabody Thursday, November 7th, call 452-1776.
Television dramas and mystery writers have it all wrong.
On television's CSI: Miami and Crossing Jordan and in Patricia Cornwell's novels starring Dr. Kay Scarpette, fictional medical examiners use their wits and microscopic bits of evidence to make something out of nothing.
In the real-life case of Shelby County medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith, police and crack federal investigators have, since June, made nothing out of something, even though the victim was the medical examiner himself and a trail of bombs, blood, and letters stretches back 18 months.
Smith was attacked, wrapped in barbed wire, gagged, and had a bomb placed on his chest as he left his office on the night of June 1st. The attacker also splashed or sprayed a chemical substance in Smith's face to stun him and hamper identification. A security officer found Smith nearly three hours later. The bomb did not explode, and Smith was not seriously injured.
In contrast to the Washington, D.C.-area sniper case, investigators, not reporters or hired experts, seemed to be the ones jumping to conclusions and hyping the Smith attack. They almost immediately connected it to bombs placed in the morgue near Smith's office in March and three letters a year earlier that threatened Smith in baroque religious language because of his testimony in support of the conviction of death-row inmate Philip Workman.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) said the unexploded bombs in the office were capable of killing "several people," and they warned that not only Smith but "anyone who might know the perpetrator could be in danger." The ATF's National Response Team, "the cream of the cream," was called in to "saturate" the investigation. The Memphis bomber, said to be growing bolder and more dangerous, made national headlines, and investigators were featured on the nationally syndicated television program America's Most Wanted.
"We want to get as much as we can out there about this case," explained Inspector Matt McCann of the Memphis Police Department at the time.
The letters, with their now familiar references to "DOCTOR-KILLER," the Mike Flemming (sic) radio show, "LAMB OF GOD," and "soulless PAWN of the DEVIL," were posted on the Memphis Police Department (MPD) Web site under the headline "Police Need Your Help in Finding Attacker!"
Five months later, they still do. Investigators have no suspect, no composite sketch, and no leads they are willing to talk about in any of the cases, related or not.
The trail is apparently as cold as the story. The MPD and ATF investigators quoted in the days following the attack refused to comment last week. MPD spokesperson Latonya Able said it's a federal case now. ATF investigator Gene Marquez said his office can't talk about the case. U.S. Attorney Terry Harris said, "It is our position that we cannot comment on pending investigations."
Smith, through a spokesman, also declined to comment, as he has consistently since the attack. Although there was talk about beefing up security at the morgue, access around the building at 1065 Madison is unrestricted. Some ATF investigators who were working on the Smith case were called away to work on the sniper case.
Investigators have updated their description of the attacker to make him older and larger. He is described as a while male with a fair complexion, 5'10" to 6', 180 to 200 pounds, in his 30s or 40s. He managed to stun and overpower Smith, a physically fit 49-year-old with military training, and bind him "head to toe" with barbed wire before placing a bomb on his chest that, for unexplained reasons, did not explode. The attacker reportedly shed drops of blood at the scene. Investigators have not said what he sprayed or splashed in Smith's face, what, if anything, he said, or if he was armed.
The bomber has not been heard from since June. Nor have there been any more threatening letters, at least not any that have been made public. The Philip Workman case has been quiet for more than a year since his last-minute stay of execution. It is on appeal once again, with another round of oral arguments pending.
Whatever attention it may be getting from the feds, the Smith case won't just go away. It has too many overtones of terrorism, torture, and pulp fiction. The use of barbed wire as a restraint is especially ominous, not to mention cumbersome. Civil rights martyr Emmett Till was bound with barbed wire, shot, beaten, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River in a notorious Mississippi race crime in 1955. Hundreds of World War II POWs in Burma were bound in barbed wire before they were killed by the Japanese. More recently, human-rights activists in Indonesia and South Africa have been bound with barbed wire and tortured or killed.
Famous fictional medical examiner Kay Scarpette is sometimes in peril in books such as Body of Evidence, Point of Origin, and The Postmortem. In Black Notice, she is attacked by a madman with a hammer.
By any standards, it has been an unusually eventful year for Smith. In addition to the Workman case and the bomb scares, he did the autopsy on Dr. Don Wiley, the visiting microbiologist who mysteriously fell to his death from the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. His office also did the autopsy on Katherine Smith, the driver-testing examiner who was either murdered or committed suicide in a burning car in the middle of an investigation of bogus driver's licenses and illegal Middle Eastern aliens.
|A high priest lights sage for the Samhain (Halloween) ritual.|
No, this is not an adult Sunday-school class. These are members of Summerland Grove, Memphis' only pagan church, at their monthly Sunday-night meeting, and they're listening to the words of a woman named Tammy, who has traveled from another pagan church out of town to deliver a speech.
The group is made up of Wiccans, "druids," and members of other pagan religions. They worship a number of deities that represent two parts of one whole: a Goddess and a God.
These witches are not the old green-faced hags of lore, with pointy black hats and riding rickety broomsticks past the full moon. Nor do they sacrifice babies or virgins or have wild orgies at the stroke of midnight. They're simply people who happen to have an intense love for Mother Earth. Some might even call them tree-huggers.
The members of Summerland Grove come together to worship their deities and share in common rituals, the same reasons members of most other religions congregate. Only, paganism is a little different from most other religions.
"All right, everybody! Line up according to your astrological sign. I need Fire signs over here, Air signs here, Earth there, and Water over there," says the High Priestess Gaia as she directs participants in the Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) ancestor ritual.
Witches in ceremonial robes of varying color and texture hustle around the crowded dining hall in a cabin at Meeman-Shelby Forest as they attempt to follow Gaia's instructions. They're attending Summerland Grove's annual Festival of Souls, the celebration of Samhain (Halloween), the pagan new year.
Once they're lined up, they're given some instruction regarding the ritual they are about to take part in. There's no goofing around, and anyone who arrives late is not allowed inside the circle. Gaia makes sure no one's allergic to sage or pomegranates, which will be used in the ritual, and then goes over the order in which things will happen.
After a quick bathroom break, they are led outside to the ritual circle, which is lined with candles and torches. Once everyone's in formation, the high priestess and high priest begin to call upon the Lord and Lady, and the ritual -- which involves individuals calling upon their ancestors for guidance in the coming year -- commences.
Explaining the specifics of the ritual could take up a book, but, in short, it's a set of practices witches perform to clear their minds of secular thoughts and connect them with their deity. It's sort of like prayer, only it involves tools such as incense, wands, candles, and athames (ritual knives -- not used for actual cutting). Some witches may also wear cloaks during ritual, but they're not required.
"Ritual takes me out of the mundane. I lived in the mundane for a damn long time, and I still do. Now I have breaks, and these breaks provide me with sanity. By totally getting out of myself, even if it's only for an hour a month, I come back refreshed," says Trudy Herring, a jovial church elder, who serves as Summerland Grove's council president.
To understand ritual, you must first have a general understanding of the pagan belief system. It may come as a surprise to many, but pagans or witches do not worship the devil. In fact, they don't even believe in the devil.
"Pagan" is an umbrella term that refers to a number of different faiths: Wicca, druidism, even Native American faiths. Basically, a pagan is someone who practices a polytheistic religion. Instead of paying homage to only one god, as in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, pagans honor any number of deities, all of which are considered parts of one larger deity, who is separated into feminine and masculine aspects: the God and the Goddess, also known as the Lord and the Lady.
"It's a revival of the pre-Christian religions, the time when Earth was revered as a Goddess or a deity and when natural phenomena were given deity status," explains church elder Scott Sumers, a tall, lanky fellow wearing a safari hat and a blue-jean shirt.
Many believe Wicca stemmed from druidism, but its exact origins are unknown. Wiccans are pagans who share the basic belief that one can do whatever one wishes so long as it doesn't bring harm to anyone else, an idea known as the Wiccan Rede ("And if it harms none, do as ye will"). The Rede is the heart of the Wiccan religion and is the one concept that most witches embrace. The rest is up to the individual. The practice and belief systems of witchcraft tend to be eclectic.
If there's one thing that automatically comes to mind when most people think of witches, it's "magick" and spells. But these witches cannot move books with their minds or cast spells to make you win the lottery.
"Magick is not the Harry Potter type of magick, although I really want to know how to blow on a candle and make it light," says Herring, laughing. "Basically, it mixes the three parts of the human together: heart, mind, and spirit. It doesn't change the physical world around you, but it reprograms my mind to get what I need or what I want."
For example, if a witch wanted to bring more love into her life, she could perform a love spell. But this doesn't mean that she actually believes the next Brad Pitt look-alike that comes along will swoon at first glimpse. She believes the spell will simply give her more confidence, making it easier for her to find love. Magick "works" on the principle that it's easier to get what you want if you truly believe in yourself, and it's generally performed through a ritual of some sort.
Most pagans use ritual on a daily basis, but there are eight major holidays, or Sabbats, on which witches meet to perform ritual. The witches of Summerland Grove join together on these special days of the year to feast and honor their deities, as they do each year at the Festival of Souls. Other pagan holidays include Ostara (the Christian Easter), which is celebrated with colored eggs and all the usual Easter fare minus images of the risen Jesus, and Yule (Christmas), which involves an exchange of gifts and a large feast.
After death, pagans believe they go to a place called Summerland (hence the church's name), the pagan version of heaven. In Summerland, the spirit rests as it reflects on its past lives while waiting to go into the next one. Pagans generally believe in reincarnation, and with each new body they inhabit, they believe they gain new knowledge.
"By gaining as much knowledge as I can, I am brought closer to godlike status. Eventually, I think we will be absorbed by the whole: the Akasha, the Spirit, or the Chi," explains Sumers. The idea is similar to the Hindu system of reincarnation, in which the ultimate goal is to become the godlike Brahman.
So if they're just reincarnated nature-lovers, where do all these crazy stories of sacrifice and devil worship come from? Herring and Sumers believe many of the misconceptions about paganism stem from ignorance and old beliefs dating back to the days of the Inquisition.
"The Catholic Church spent a great deal of time eradicating paganism from Europe, and a lot of the stories that came back were about pagans sacrificing humans. Did they do that? Probably so, but only in extreme cases," says Herring.
Another of Herring's theories about how pagans are misunderstood concerns their worship of a horned god associated with preparation of the harvest and protection of wildlife. She believes early Christians may have mistaken this god for the devil.
"I think a lot of fear and misunderstanding about paganism comes from not being exposed to it. A lot of people have been brought up to believe that anything non-Christian is satanic or evil. They don't wish to learn about it, because by learning about it, they believe they too become evil," says Sumers.
Church was supposed to start at 7 o'clock, but most of the cars began pulling in around 7:30 p.m. They call this Pagan Standard Time, meaning that things get started when they get started and end when they end. As people arrive, they're greeted and then take a seat in the circle of chairs arranged on a church member's brick patio. While they wait for church to begin, members talk. Cigarette smoke and myriad conversations fill the air.
Finally, Herring rises and announces that the meeting will begin. After several announcements are made, all eyes turn to the guest speaker. Tammy captivates her listeners for nearly an hour as she discusses her personal belief system, using anecdotes from significant spiritual moments in her life -- like the time when a grandaddy longlegs, perched on her drinking glass, helped her to understand the vast web created by the human search for spirituality.
And although her path may have been different from that of other church members, she is embraced and accepted. "Celebrating Diversity in the Pagan Community" is Summerland's motto. Other than sharing the central pagan belief of honoring the earth, the elders decided that the only requirement for church membership was that members be themselves and respect others for who they are.
"The basic goal we want for any member is to find themselves and become the best person they can possibly be. That will benefit the community as a whole, even the mundane community. Being the best person you can be is the closest thing to divinity," says Sumers.
Although the original coven was Wiccan, the group decided the church should be considered pagan, opening it up to more people. The church began as a small coven of witches in 1994. Covens usually have a leader, and the rules are strict. But these members wanted a different kind of coven.
"Someone suggested starting a leaderless coven where we were all on the same level. I was very frustrated with the whole leadership of covens, so we decided that, no matter what, we'd always be on the same level," says Sumers.
And so a leaderless coven was formed. But after a member claimed to be having trouble with the Department of Human Services due to her religious beliefs, the group decided that they should go a step further and become a legal church in hopes of curtailing future problems. After drafting bylaws, filling out paperwork, and paying a registration fee, the group became a legal church.
Summerland claims 220 members, 84 of whom are active and have paid a yearly membership fee of $15. The fee pays for the quarterly newsletter, the mailing of membership certificates and cards, and Summerland Grove bumper stickers.
"Before, we didn't charge for membership; it usually just came out of our pockets. When membership was free, we had over 2,000 members. That got costly real quick," says Sumers.
The group has council meetings once a month, at which elected officers plan church events. And the church also hosts special ceremonies such as weddings, known as "handfastings," because during the ceremony the couple's hands are fastened with a cord.
Members interested in leadership positions within the church are given the opportunity to advance by using the church's Realm System. It's divided into five levels, each named after an element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit).
With each level, members read certain texts. Some other requirements: "spend a lot of time with Mother Nature" or "write, lead, and perform two rituals." Members who have passed the Fourth Realm (Water) are considered high priests or priestesses. Those who've passed the Fifth Realm (Spirit) become church clergy.
"I've often said one of the hardest parts about paganism is that the book of paganism is written on your heart. It's not published by anybody. So you really have to trust yourself. The [Realm] System is an excellent way to go through that process," says Herring, a member of the clergy.
Summerland Grove has generally been well accepted by the community at large. They regularly participate in charity events and volunteer work, such as cleaning up the Chucalissa Indian Village in South Memphis and collecting canned foods for MIFA each year.
"I think it has an awful lot to do with the fact that we really have striven not to be the scary people. You wouldn't pick me out for a witch walking down the road," says Herring, jokingly. "Grandma, yeah, but not one of them witch people."
Summerland Grove, like other national pagan organizations, strives to get rid of the old, negative ideas about witches. They're trying to create a more positive image -- that they're simply worshipers of nature and revivers of the ancient Goddess-worshiping religions, not devil-worshiping freaks.
"We have different beliefs, but we try not to go around and 'boogie-boogie, hocus-pocus' people. That's not helping our image any, and that's honestly not what we believe," says Sumers. "We don't believe we're different from anybody else."
For more information about Summerland, visit the Web site at Summerland.org.