So, a little background.  A little while ago one Pastor Danny Nalliah, the leader of a pack of zealots from Victoria who go by the handle of Catch The Fire Ministries, put out a call for his congregation as well as any fellow-travellers, “prayer warriors and prophetic intercessors”, to travel up to Canberra to break the hold of witchcraft and occult manipulation on our nation’s leadership.  Pastor Danny, we should note, has specific evidence for said hold.  He no longer has to rely on generalities like the fact that a proportion of Federal Parliamentarians have marriage problems in their past – the idea for the Canberra expedition seemed to kick off when evidence came to light that the concrete base of the aviation beacon was being used as a witches’ altar, stained forever with the blood of the innocents sacrificed on it.

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That was it.  It was on.  The call went out and a bus was arranged, and at two o’clock last Saturday afternoon Pastor Danny and his congregation had rolled up to the Mount Ainslie lookout ready to go to work.

Which was more than I had managed to do, what with roadworks on Fairbairn Avenue steering me right off my usual route and halfway through Campbell before I could manage to make the drive up to the lookout where the action was happening.  No, I wasn’t there to join in the spiritual warfare.  I find spiritual and magical thinking fascinating, and I love it as an element of story – fantasy is my core genre, after all – but I don’t subscribe to it in real life.  What had got me interested was the fact that when word got out, Canberra’s Wiccan and Pagan community started planning a counter-protest.  No, I’m not a Wiccan or Pagan either, see my previous remarks.  Being brutally honest, I was there for the show.

I’ve thought to myself before now that if there’s a point around Canberra that I might ascribe some sort of urbanomantic space-distorting power to, it might well be the Mount Ainslie lookout.  The winding road up to it messes with my internal compass something fierce, and I end up looking out and seeing the city where I’m utterly sure fields and forests should be, and vice versa.  That happened to me again on the drive up, but this time I was slightly disappointed by it instead of disquieted: no flashes of light from the mountaintop, no shockwaves, earthquake.  I shrugged, got the camera and started trudging up the slope.

At the top of Mount Ainslie the road makes a loop.  Inside that loop is the last little bit of the mountaintop, with a trail, some trees, a walled lookout and the mast for an aviation beacon; below them facing west are more tourist lookouts.  The view is rather fine, actually, and I’m pleasantly surprised by it all over again whenever I go up there.

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Pastor Danny’s shindig began at 2pm, and I arrived a little after that.  Parking about fifty metres short of the top I wondered if the event were over already.  There were more cars around than I’d expected but things seemed awfully quiet.  When I got to the crest of the hill and started hearing a chant of “Je-sus! Je-sus!”, well, at least I hadn’t wasted my trip.

So, we had the Catch The Fire contingent on the northern side of the loop-road, chanting and clapping along to a drumbeat…

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…and the counter-demonstration occupying the heights of the uppermost lookout, waving the odd rainbow flag and having the odd heckle.  I noticed a good few folks lurking about who didn’t seem to be all that passionately caught up in either side of it, but were there as I was just to see what was going on.

That said, I think we can safely say that this car’s owner (whom I overheard telling someone that he was actually a local, not one of the Melbourne ring-ins) was there on the side of the Christian soldiers…

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…whereas these ladies were there to take the other side:

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These guys were very definitely there as part of the counter-demo…

(the placard says "You burn 'em, we convert 'em")

(the placard says "You burn 'em, we convert 'em")

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This woman told me she was a druidic priestess.  The picture is of the Morrigan.

This woman told me she was a druidic priestess. The picture is of the Morrigan.

…while these guys are in here because large hairy dogs are awesome and should be photographed on principle.

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Rounding out the picture were the occasional little clump of tourists, a seller of heinously overpriced ice-creams…

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…and the Australian Sex Party.  By what was obviously a total and complete coincidence, Fiona Patten was launching her Senate run on the same afternoon as the Melbourne daemonhunters.  What were the odds?

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Well, the action on the main front was still a bit desultory and subdued, so I wandered over to the launch.  Fiona made a short speech, pointing to the demonstrators as part of a worrying tide of wowserism in Australian public life and arguing that conservative religious views are overrepresented in Parliament with some figures about the relatively high proportion of politicians who belong to churches and prayer fellowships as opposed to the rather lower proportion of Australian voters who practise the same beliefs.  (A figure I’ve seen quoted elsewhere contends that in any given year more people attend the Sleaze Ball, a big fixture on the Gay Mardi Gras calendar, than belong to the staunchly socially conservative National Party.  I didn’t hear that get trotted out this time – I wonder if Ms Patten didn’t know it, or perhaps those numbers don’t hold any more.)

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Anyway, she finished the speech, and her assistant unveiled a portrait of her.  It looked rather hastily done, and if the conversation I overheard was correct then it was done in rather a hurry a night or two before.  I’m still not entirely sure what it is she’s holding over the heads of the other politicians there – if you think you know, mention it in the comments and we’ll compare notes.

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The launch also featured an open-to-all-comers halal barbeque, which sounded pretty good to me but which was picked clean in extremely short order by the rest of the launch attendees.  Fuckers.  I consoled myself with a heinously overpriced ice cream and wandered back around to watch the demo.

While I was explaining what was going on to a pair of rather befuddled English tourists, things were starting to hot up.  The heckling had continued unabated and the crowd on top of the lookout had swelled.  I heard one shout of “Cthulhu!” (and remain rather surprised that that was the only such shout that afternoon) and watched a red-haired and red-faced young man in a Slayer T-shirt lean over the side of the lookout, his fists doubled up, shouting for the Ministries folk to “fetch Jesus down here right now, I’ll take Him on my fucking self!”.  It was about at that point, though, that the Pastor’s congregation made their move up the steps to the lookout and the beacon mast.

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Maybe it was just me, but the atmosphere seemed to tighten a bit.  There was the sense that things had shifted up a gear.  I don’t know if I was expecting any actual biff, but I seem to recall being glad I was down at ground level and out from between the two sides.  As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.  The congregation’s approach seemed to be to remain stony-faced and look resolutely past their antagonists, while most of the counter-demo, to their credit, seemed to want to make their point with cheerful humour and dancing.  As the congregation packed in amongst them to fill up the lookout they were singing, I shit you not, that song from the old Telstra ads, you know the one.

We are one, but we are many,
And from all the lands on Earth we come.
We share our dreams, and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.

There was also dancing…

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…and a great deal of cheering and same-sex snogging.  Underneath it all you could hear the congregation doggedly singing their way through the service.  If the Pastor managed to do any preaching or invocations I couldn’t hear them.  As far as I could tell that little white megaphone you see in the pictures did nothing at all for any of its users apart from make their voices sound slightly tinny, and even a little muffled.

Not everyone was quite so chirpy.  The confrontation seemed to be getting to one young woman whom I saw shouting to the air at large “I’m not gay!  I just support them!” in a voice that seemed just a shade off tears.  She must have had friends there, because a couple of calmer kindlier demonstrators closed in on either side of her and got her to sit down and collect herself.  Not long after that, as a group of protestors were putting signs together down at the car park, a different young woman came tearing down the steps and around the base of the lookout shouting “gimme a sign to stick up!  Now!  They’re holy-watering the fuckin’ pole!”  She grabbed the sign saying “Love is Love” and sprinted back up into the crowd, and a minute later I saw her at the base of the beacon mast in a red-faced shouting match with one of the congregation, something about whether or not she was made in God’s image.  And meanwhile the service went on.

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You know, I don’t carry much of a brief for organisations like Catch the Fire, but I did think the lion banner was pretty cool.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one struck by it: I overheard two other conversations in which congregation members were explaining it to curious onlookers.  One was talking in rather general terms about the lion being brave and a mighty warrior, the other was being rather more specific about the Lion of Israel, which if I recall the conversation aright referred to Elijah, one of the Old Testament prophets.  (Correct me in the comments if I have that one wrong.)  A couple of the witches near me were mock-indignant, claiming “Aslan’s one of ours, baby!”  It only occurred to me just now as I was typing this to think “Aslan as a pagan symbol… wait, what?”

Not long after I took that photo, the congregation moved from the lookout to the apex of the hill, followed by an exuberant conga-line of counter-demonstrators.

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I sort of got swallowed up in the middle of it all, but by this stage my earlier trepidation was gone – being an actual physical threat, to one another or in any other way, didn’t seem to be on either side’s agenda.  There were trumpets and horns being blown (I didn’t get a good picture, but we’re talking proper curly goat-horns here), Australian flags, including the classic Big Day Out style flag cape…

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…and some preaching and speaking in tongues.  It was the first time I’d heard the latter, and at first I thought I was hearing Christian prayers being said in Hebrew for extra authenticity.  The congregation seemed to like that sort of touch: one of its officers, who led the flock back and forth between locations and prowled around the edges during the preaching, was wearing a Jewish-style prayer shawl and had a horn strapped tightly across his back, the way a certain sort of action hero carries his shotgun.  Anyway, I can’t say about the prayers with any certainty, since I’m not familiar enough with Hebrew to recognise it when I hear it, and particularly not at speed.  I suspect speaking in tongues, though, because after a fairly short burst of this language, the people who’d been speaking it moved on to long, loud chants that weren’t much more than a monotone “halalalalalalalala…” with every outgoing breath, often with arms spread and face tilted upward.  As you can imagine, a number of the demonstrators kept themselves rather amused with that.

After that it was time to go back to the lookout and thence back down to where the congregation had started.

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A few people moved to sit on the steps to block them, with cries of “Make the haters walk down!”, a slightly confused instruction when you think about it, but I suppose I can guess what they meant.  With the congregation once again back down by the side of the road, the protestors had the mast to themselves again, more or less.

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This lady had come up to promote a gig she was playing that night, and had brought a stuffed lion and some roses to pose for photos with.  Apparently the lion and the rose have some sort of pagan or wiccan significance, which she was evoking in rather tongue-in-cheek fashion while putting up posters for her “goddess-friendly” show.  At about the same time I got chatting to a couple of the other onlookers about the brown dribbles on the mast base.  The rumour that someone really had been beaten up and/or cut there came up, but a burly and goateed gentleman who looked to be in his early thirties told me that his partner was a pathologist and he had it on good authority that there was no way that blood shed under the circumstances that Catch The Fire were alleging would look like that.  We studied the mast and ended up agreeing with the diagnosis of rust-inhibitor paint washing off some of the fittings higher up, but that didn’t convince the two women from the congregation who came up to the lookout while we were there and walked in circles around the plinth, pouring drops of water and wine onto it, giving out that odd ululating sound and calling down Jesus’ vengeance for the innocent blood that had been spilled.  A couple of us pointed to the fittings higher up and said “look, it’s paint.  You can see that it’s paint”, but I don’t think they even registered that we were there.  Both of them had thousand-yard stares that didn’t register the other people in the lookout at all.  I don’t know if it was a direct reaction to the anointing or not, but later in the afternoon a couple of the protestors went off to reclaim the mast by dancing around it and singing songs about Isis and Inanna.

Oh, and speaking of dancing, there had been a couple of cars doing laps of the loop and honking their horns during the prayers…

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…and now one of them pulled over and got the music cranked up while a young woman led the way in getting a bit of an impromptu disco started.  By way of retaliation, Pastor Danny apparently felt that the cleansing of the whole mountaintop was in order.  The Pastor and his congregation set off to walk the loop of road, parading with banners flying and singing “When The Saints Go Marching In” while their leaders scattered salt and oil on the earth.

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Again, I think I get the general symbolism here: salting the earth to sterilise it, anointing with oil as a consecration or sacrament, but I don’t know if this particular ritual is a concrete part of a tradition or if Pastor Danny was improvising his own ceremony as he went along.  And speaking of symbolism, if you’re curious, they went clockwise.  I’d have been rather amused if they’d gone widdershins.

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As another aside, the Mount Ainslie nature reserve is just that, a nature reserve, and dumping stuff on the ground is one of the things you’re specifically not supposed to do there.  There was word going about that a park ranger had seen the Pastor scattering his salt and was off to get reinforcements and/or a hose truck to wash it away, but that may have been wishful thinking.  At time of writing I don’t know if Catch The Fire has been had up by ACT Parks or not.

By the time the congregation finished their procession and went back up the stairs things were getting a bit muted.  People were tired, voices were getting hoarse, it was clouding over and was threatening rain, and the energy of the afternoon was starting to feel a bit used up.  There was another scrum at the lookout for a bit more preaching…

This shot didn't come out so well, sorry.

This shot didn't come out so well, sorry.

…but the really fiery heckling was all gone now.  In fact, at the last part of the afternoon, as the congregation moved back to its starting spot and passed around the bread and wine there were conversations and weird little flashes of camaraderie breaking out.  When some of the protestors started to sing “I Will Survive” I saw several of the congregation chuckling and nodding along, and when some dipshit broke a beer bottle on the ground and I went to pick up the glass, there being several people in bare feet and a few small kids around, people from both sides came over to help out.

I kind of dropped out of the loop a bit here when I ran into someone from work and her friends, so we chatted for a bit about books and concerts and contacts (it doesn’t come out too well in the photo, but Em, the blonde lady, was wearing bright pink contact lenses).

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By the time my attention went back to what was going on around us both factions were fragmenting and winding down.  People were getting too tired and cold to shout at each other any more.  By the end of the final prayer session on the lookout the car horns were really starting to get on my nerves, particularly the one that got driven up onto the hilltop…

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…and particularly when the drivers lifted the bonnets so the horns would be even noisier.  Of much more interest to a pointy-headed interlekshul like me was eavesdropping on a lengthy argument between a husband and wife who I think were there from one of the athiest groups, and who took turns tag-teaming one of the congregation while chasing down their little girl, who kept making determined breaks for the road or the bush.  The young man, who sported a beard large and thick enough that I had earlier thought he was one of the religious contingent (no I don’t know how that follows, but it somehow made sense on the day) was arguing the skeptic’s case and getting as worked up as some of the prayer leaders had been doing earlier.  His opponent, who looked to be in his fifties, had a weatherbeaten ruddiness and matter-of-fact speech that hinted at a life in the country, or at least a small town.  He didn’t seem in the least fazed by standing in a knot of largely unsympathetic people and going toe-to-toe with this couple, although I noticed his answers were – how to put this charitably? – perhaps not as good at engaging the questions as he thought they were.

“How can you reconcile the penalties stipulated by the Old Testament with the unconditional love called for by the New?” I seem to recall was the gist of one line of questioning.  “And if you’re only going to follow part of the Bible, how do justify which bits to cherrypick?  In fact, how do you reconcile cherrypicking at all with the idea that you’re dealing with a divine and inerrant scripture?”  “How can you justify as good the damnation of people who weren’t alive when Christianity reached their cultures and therefore never had the chance for grace?”  Now, I understand that there are Christian apologetics who can make a fist of answering these questions, but on this afternoon answers like “I don’t need to worry, I have the Holy Spirit” had the bearded man groaning and clutching his head, saying “arrgh, you haven’t even read the book, have you?”  Every so often the older man would come out with something like “I see you just stopped your daughter running into the road, why did you do that?” or “What about the chemicals that are in your cigarette there?”, with the air of one producing a rhetorical silver bullet, but if there was a line of thought underpinning any of those questions it stayed hidden.  A better impression was made by another of the congregation who simply went around giving all of us a beaming smile and firm handshake before he went off to board the bus.

With the bus gone it didn’t take long for things to drop sharply below critical mass, and as the sky got greyer and greyer the hilltop emptied out quickly.  I took my chill and my slightly sore feet back to the car for the weird little coda to the day: a congregant getting into his car (Victoria plates, the Pastor must have led a bit of a convoy up) looked over in my direction and commented loudly to his passenger that “that warlock has been skulking around here all afternoon.  Well, praise Jesus for everybody!”  And with that got in and shut the door.

Warlock?  Really?  Maybe he was looking past me at someone else, someone who’d shown up in proper warlocky hooded robes or whatever the uniform is.  Were I actually a warlock I’m sure I’d have turned out in something better than a daggy grey tracky top and jeans*.  And if I had had dark and secret occult powers, you can be sure I’d have used them to get myself some of that halal barbeque.  I’ve never done any warlocking, but it sounds like it’d give one an appetite.

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If you want some other accounts of the great day, there are several already out there in the Web.  A local blogger who goes by “Arthwollipot” has a phot entry here, and a link to his podcast here – I saw him going around recording little interviews for it, and we chatted a bit.  The coverage from the indie Canberra news blog Riot ACT is here, including a link to some YouTube snippets.

*Or possibly some snazzy black and yellow body circuitry.  (One for the comic geeks there.)