Before he was a Wiccan, Bryan Lankford was a Baptist. He grew up in a Baptist home, attended a Baptist academy and graduated from Baylor University.
"I was as Baptist as you could get," the 36-year-old Dallas native said. But this week, he became Dallas' best-known witch. With less than five weeks before Halloween, he had the city's top official under his spell.
Mayor Ron Kirk apologized to Mr. Lankford at Wednesday's City Council meeting for not allowing him to lead the invocation. Mr. Lankford had been uninvited after a Christian radio station called the mayor's office and raised questions about his religion.
Mr. Lankford would have been the first Wiccan to lead the prayer. A Christian minister was given the honor instead. Mr. Lankford said late Thursday that the city has invited him to give the invocation at next Wednesday's council meeting.
"The mayor said, 'I'm sorry,' and that's big," said Maeven Eller, one of a dozen Wiccans who gathered with Mr. Lankford at a restaurant after the apology.
"It showed a lot of character," Mr. Lankford said as he ate a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes. He declined to criticize the mayor.
The day before, Mr. Lankford was mostly known for his work as a professional magician. He'd even performed at a birthday party for one of the mayor's daughters a couple of years ago.
But speculation about religious discrimination put Mr. Lankford's religious beliefs in the spotlight. Even as he ate, his telephone wouldn't stop ringing. A Christian radio station wanted to know what Wiccans believed. Do you worship Satan? "No, Wiccans don't believe in Satan," Mr. Lankford said.
Do you believe in God? "Wiccans believe in a god and goddess and that deity is found in everything."
Even in trees? Do you worship trees? "We don't worship trees, but we revere trees and all of nature as part of the deity."
Mr. Lankford said he doesn't use the word "God," because it conjures images of an old man sitting in the clouds, "looking down on us, keeping track of all our actions and thoughts."
That God is too judgmental, he said.
Between cups of coffee, Mr. Lankford and his friends commiserated about the stereotypes of Wiccans. They don't perform black magic and they don't eat babies, they said.
"That's the stuff of Hollywood," Ms. Eller said.European traditions
Modern Wiccans base their beliefs on ancient European traditions that predate Christianity, she said.
"We just try to live in peace and harmony with nature," said Matt Lee, a tall, slender man who is never without a cigarette. "Like road rage. Instead of getting angry or flipping people off, we wave to people who cut us off." Mr. Lankford said he doesn't like to be called a witch, because of the stereotypes. But many of his Wiccan friends proudly identified themselves as witches.
At home in Mesquite in the afternoon, Mr. Lankford played with his 2-year-old daughter Lucina, named after a Roman goddess. Living room walls were decorated with broomsticks and drawings of wizards and dragons. When his 10-year-old daughter, Peri came home from school, she pointed to the pentagram she'd drawn on her hand. The pentagram, a five-pointed star with a single point upright, is a symbol of the Wiccan religion.
"Daddy, I was playing with my friends, and they said it was the devil sign," Peri said.
"Well, tell them it's not," Mr. Lankford said.
Mr. Lankford said he knows kids can be cruel, because he taught high school science for five years before becoming a full-time magician. He performs mostly at birthday parties and in schools.Good spells
His coven, Order of the Inner Circle, meets once a month in his home. He said 20 to 40 people come together for rituals. They don't wear flowing robes like witches in the movies, but regular street clothes. He said he and other Wiccans cast spells, but only good ones.
"Spells are just like praying," he said. "You cast spells to heal people and for good things like that.
"Some people use herbs and candles and say special words. I basically just close my eyes and direct positive energy."
Mr. Lankford and his wife, Anastasia, keep altars in their bedroom containing symbols of their spiritual journey. His includes a smudge bowl, crystals and tarot cards. Hers has mostly candles with Virgin Mary images. "She used to be a Catholic," he said.
Mr. Lankford said he first got saved as a Baptist when he was 8 years old, and again at age 12. But by age 13, his religion just didn't feel right. "Over the next few years, I read books and pretty much carved out my own religion," he said. "But I kept going through the motions of being Baptist."City's invitation
Several years later, classes he took at an alternative bookstore helped him realize that his beliefs were Wiccan, he said. Two years ago, he was licensed to perform marriages as a Wiccan minister. He has a brother who's a Baptist minister.
"My parents don't like my beliefs, but they still love me," he said. "I know lots of Wiccans who have been disowned by their families." Today, Mr. Lankford is the first officer in the Texas Council of the Covenant of the Goddess. He's also the Wiccan representative at Thanks-Giving Square, an interfaith organization in Dallas.
The Rev. Roy Harrell, vice president and chaplain of Thanks-Giving Square, had suggested to City Hall that Mr. Lankford be asked to give an invocation. Mr. Harrell offered the names of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, too, in hopes that the diverse religious traditions in the city would be recognized at council meetings.
Mr. Lankford said he was surprised that his name had been submitted to lead a prayer. But he was even more surprised that the city extended an invitation.
"When they called at the last minute and canceled, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt," he said. "But it was hard not to feel it was discrimination. Think about if the first black to ever get invited had been told a few days beforehand not to come."
Mr. Lankford and his friends said they never expected the mayor to address them or express regret.
"When have Wiccans ever been treated with such respect by a mayor?" Mr. Lankford said.