"It is not a cult," Mrs. Payne said. "I hope people reading this will think to view it in a different light, seek out information and realize there's nothing negative; it has nothing to do with the devil."
Her husband said: "Of course, with every religion, you have your fanatics, but we're really about coexisting with nature, connecting with the universe as a whole. You come of your own free will, your own free mind. We don't make anybody come; we don't put people under spells."
The Hephzibah couple is part of the Darkwood group, composed of people of different branches of pagan worship.
Paganism, the Paynes said, is an Earth-based religion in which the focus is on nature and its elements: Earth, air, fire and water. The Darkwood group - like many pagan groups, Mrs. Payne said - meets for outdoor rituals similar to church services twice monthly on Saturdays on or around the date of the new moon and full moon, and on pagan holidays (Sabbats).
At the rituals, members recognize and "invite" the elements. Mrs. Payne (a priestess) and a priest lead, praising a god and a goddess (also referred to as Mother Earth). Then they anoint each other's forehead to prepare to let the two deities work through them to talk to their congregants, much as a preacher would prepare to deliver a sermon, Mrs. Payne said.
A main part of the worship's focus is on being good to the environment, Mrs. Payne said. Paganism also involves recognizing ancestors, which some pagans will do at midnight tonight at PanGaea Sanctuary near Thomson. The members will celebrate Samhein, their new year, which is Oct. 31 but usually is observed on the weekend closest to it.
At the service, members bring pictures or mementos of loved ones who have died, and they invite them to visit.
The Paynes have backgrounds in the Christian church but began questioning, exploring and studying as adults.
Mrs. Payne said she grew up in a Methodist family but felt by age 8 that "there was something else out there as far as a female aspect to the creation of Earth."
Mr. Payne said he grew up in a strict independent fundamental Baptist church family, going to Christian schools and to church two or three times each week. He left the church because he considered the leaders and congregants as hypocritical, he said.
Both said they found peace with the pagan worship.
"We're not against anybody," Mr. Payne said. "We just want to live, grow and raise our children in a very peaceful environment. That's all we ask for."
They would love to be known for doing community service but said they have to offer it discreetly because of the stigma associated with paganism. People might not be accepting of their service or donations, Mrs. Payne said.
"That's the problem, because really, we want to give back to the community or be involved, but you have people who don't understand or who think we're devil worshipers, and until that changes we just have to sit back on the sidelines," she said. "We can't give as a pagan group. We have to do it individually or as an anonymous group."
Mrs. Payne said she wishes people would be less judgmental and more tolerant.
"We're more about the environment, the Earth, everything that's good, everything the Earth is made up of, so what makes us the bad ones?" she said. "Pagans respect Christians, accept and acknowledge Christians and their views on the Christian God, but it upsets me that they can't accept and realize what it means to be pagan - our beliefs, our views, the way we worship."
Reach C. Samantha McKevie at (706) 823-3552 or email@example.com.
According to the All About Spirituality Web site, "paganism" refers to the religions of ancient Greece, Rome and surrounding areas. It originated from the Neolithic, or New Stone Age.
The term is derived from a word root that means a country dweller.
Today, paganism, also referred to as neo-paganism, celebrates Earth, creatures and nature. Most modern-day pagans believe in more than one god, but worship only one. Others are atheistic.
American pagans practice a variety of forms of traditions, but the most popular are Celtic, Greco-Roman, American Indian, ancient Egyptian and Norse.
Michele Payne explained that the elements and humans correspond: Earth is equivalent to the body, the air to breath, fire to passion, and the spirit within; and water to blood.
"Since paganism is Earth-based, we recognize the changing of the seasons like our ancestors did," she said.
That their beliefs involve the devil is a common misconception, Mrs. Payne said. Michele Payne believes in the Christian God but chooses not to worship him, and does not believe in the devil.