DANVILLE, Va. — Danville may be the City of Churches, but a growing community of New Age spiritualists is quietly choosing meditation over prayer, and crystals over communion.
A paradigm shift
When 23-year-old Briana Pierce was a teenager at Chatham High School, she had to travel to Greensboro to visit a metaphysical shop and explore her Pagan beliefs. Now, there are three in the City of Danville alone.
"I have always been interested in the idea of things like magic," Pierce said. "That definitely always pulled me off of the religious beaten path. As a child, I would have called myself a Christian, but the reality is that there has always been a societal fear for most people who break away from Abrahamic religions."
Marion Freeman, owner of metaphysical shop and wellness center At The Cabin on Riverside Drive, said a paradigm shift is underway in Danville, especially among young people like Pierce.
"The people that are coming into Danville, they are knowing," Freeman said. "There is an energy shift, a definite rise in awareness and awakening. It’s not just spirituality, it's every walk of life—Pagan, Wiccan, Buddhist, and The Cabin is open to all of it."
Ackbar, owner of Galactic Treasures, another metaphysical shop also located on Riverside Drive, has noticed the cultural shift as well.
"We are moving into a new paradigm where we become more conscious that we are the creators of our own lives," Ackbar said. "That is what my shop is all about."
Ackbar, a native of Seattle, Washington, was raised Catholic. As with many large Catholic families, he was designated to become a priest.
"Your whole life is kind of focused on this one thing until you realize that there are other things out there for you, but that doesn’t happen right away," he said.
It was a "cosmic joke" when, on April Fool's Day in 1970, Ackbar was drafted and deployed to Vietnam.
"I decided to study Hinduism and Buddhism to find out the other half of the story," Ackbar said. "When I came back to Seattle to talk to my bishop about reentering the seminary, I had a lot of questions. The main one was, 'Is reincarnation an accepted church doctrine?' That was a big question for him and for me."
Ackbar started to do what few did at the time—he looked for his own meaning between the lines of the Bible.
"I began to see it from a different viewpoint. What set me free was understanding that Jesus had a different purpose that most of us think," Ackbar said. He believes the crucifixion of Jesus was to conquer death rather than to cleanse mankind of sin.
"This shop is all about different viewpoints," he continued. "I wanted to create a shop that was for all religions and all beliefs, and for the thinkers of this world, so we can rethink what we've been given in our religions and philosophies and maybe see things a little differently."
It took Ackbar well into his adult years before opening his first metaphysical shop.
"At age 40, I went to India for a week and ended up staying six months," he said. "My wife left me, I lost my job, but I came back a completely different person. At 40, I started doing these shops."
It was in India that Ackbar, formerly Bruce, changed his name to the mononym all in Danville know him as today.
Coming to Danville
Ackbar said his spirit called him to the River City after owning seven other metaphysical shops from Seattle to New Jersey.
"I thought I was done at 70 years old. Then, my beloved spirit said to do one more, and it picked this city," he said. "I have no idea why, but I had no control. Danville is just 50,000 people in the middle of no place, but it is a lovely town. You know your life is flowing with spirit when everything falls into place."
Freeman is also a transplant, hailing from Syracuse, New York.
"I felt that it was time for Danville to have something new and refreshing," Freeman said. "With Danville being the last capital of the Confederacy, there is a lot of hatred, a lot of sorrow and sadness. People live in this fear-based mentality, a lot of people do, and they're trying to find a way out. They're trying to find a way to feel like they belong here."
Alternative religions come in all forms and practices, but are unified in their ideology that each individual walks his own unique spiritual path. This modern school of thought is becoming more and more commonplace in Southern Virginia.
"It blows my mind really that we are continually receiving new people every single day," Freeman said of her shop. "It's like I know I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, here in Danville."
The Cabin hosts a variety of events including a full moon fire ceremony each month, where attendees write down things in their lives that no longer serve them and allow them to dissipate symbolically into the flames.
Rumors and insults
"It's surprising how much support we have, and the other side of the spectrum has not given us any difficulty," Freeman said.
For some, however, the "other side" poses a constant battle against accusations, insults and misinformation.
"We are not Satan worshippers. I'm sure they exist, but that is not what we are," Pierce said. "To have people accuse me of worshipping the devil, which is the most evil thing you can conceptualize, they are telling me that I worship the most vile, evil thing in existence."
Since she was a teenager, Pierce has noticed too frequently that all non-traditional religious belief palettes are lumped together, even those that advocate the antithesis of what she does.
"There is no horror in the world that is worse than the devil in this context," she said. "It is not a buzzword, it has meaning. It is disappointing that people don’t realize the hurtful nature of what they're accusing me of."
Ackbar seeks to dispel misconceptions about alternative religion as well, drawing likeness between modern spiritual practice and traditional organized religion.
"People come into the shop and expect certain things because different churches have talked about these type of stores being evil and bad, and crystals and all that," Ackbar said. "The Old Testament says that, before he went into Holy of Holies, Aaron had a carbon breastplate with 12 crystals around it. The kings and queens always wore crystals on their crowns, too. This is nothing new here, and yet there is so much misinformation out there."
Ackbar said it is the fear of the unknown that causes independent thinkers, especially those from his generation, to be marginalized.
"Incense and crystals have been around even longer than the church," he said. "So, what's in here that's so devilish and Luciferian?"
Ackbar said that shops like his and Freeman's are creating a community that has never before existed in Danville. It is one that spreads the truth about spiritualism.
"The purpose of these shops that Marion and I have is to create a community, to say we have information about crystals and the Bible and everything else," Ackbar said. "Crystals aren’t evil, they come from the earth. How can it be evil? You can use it for evil, of course, but you can use anything for evil and anything for good. Choose one."
A day in the life
For Pierce, Paganism revolves only around doing good deeds and following her own spiritual path. For many including Pierce, the Pagan ideology rejects universalism, which is the process of seeking to recruit new followers, a common practice in many sects of Christianity and Islam.
Newer Pagan religions repudiate the notion of groveling to whatever divinity a follower believes in, according to Pierce. However, Pierce finds comfort in her spiritual routine.
"While it is important that everyone individually follows what feels right for them spiritually, I think that fear of regular ritualized practice that we see is really harmful," Pierce said. "I try to pray at least every night."
Pierce spent her early years identifying as Wicca, a modern Pagan religion categorized as both a new religious movement and as part of the occultist stream of Western esotericism.
"One of the core things that I did keep from Wicca, because I really identified with it, was the emphasis of both a god and a goddess," Pierce said. "It sounded reminiscent of what I already felt. My main goal was to remove my own cultural perception and do my best to know the god and the goddess in a more true way."
A day in the life of a Pagan raised in Chatham includes a number of rituals, Pierce said.
"I do a sort of spiritual cleansing using literal water as a representation of that," she said. "I have a wooden bowl I keep on my altar that I fill with clean, drinkable water. I am physically clean because I shower beforehand. I dip my hands in and use it to wash my face. The idea is that I am trying to physically represent washing away the worries and transgressions I many have committed against other people during the day."
Pierce also engages in prostration, an act seen in many traditional and non-traditional religions.
"It is a form of bowing in reverence. In Buddhism, it involves getting all the way flat to the ground. In Islam, they prostrate as well during their five prayers, not all the way but with their forehead to the ground," she said. "When I prostrate, I start out standing and move to my knees. I don’t lay completely flat or touch my forehead to the ground. Once I have given my prostration, I will stay on the ground and sit back up. That would be where I say my prayers."
When praying formally, Pierce gives an offering, which is typically monetary.
"The most effective way to give offering is to give money," Pierce said. "I leave it on the altar every night, then give it to a charity of some sort or to the homeless. I'm doing the good I believe my divine would want me to do."
Pierce's routine also involves a string necklace of prayer beads. She chants a recitation prayer with each bead.
"Pagans experience extreme discrimination," she said. Her devotion to spreading love in the world makes the accusations laid upon her more hurtful.
"My faith calls me to do good above all else. I go out of my way to provide, even to people who are perfectly able," she said. "Pagans don’t believe they will be rewarded like in other religions. Most Pagans believe in only one type of afterlife. I'm not afraid of Hell or being punished, I'm simply afraid of not being a good person."
For Freeman, Hell is only a mindset.
"My perception of Heaven and Hell is a state of mind," Freeman said. "You can live in Heaven right here, right now. You can live in Hell right here, right now. It's all emotions. It's all how you are manifesting."
Ackbar, too, sees the concept of Hell as an antiquated one, used only as a device to keep people in chaos.
"We can now look at living life with intent and focus rather than fear and manipulation that we're going to go to Hell," he said. "People are becoming smarter and wiser enough to know that that fear can't be perpetrated anymore on me. For the thinkers of the world, it doesn't make sense anymore."
One of the most prominent symbols of spiritual esotericism is energy crystals. Sold in both The Cabin and Galactic Treasures, the crystals can satisfy a litany of physical and mental imbalances if used properly, according to Freeman.
"The crystals are elements of the earth, and they all resonate a frequency," she said. "Everything has frequency and vibration. When you think in terms of the universe and the way that energy flows, if you’re listening to the radio and you don’t like what you’re listening to, you change the frequency. It's just like that."
According to Freeman, each stone resonates with one of the body's many chakras, which are components of each person's internal energy system that can help bring the body back to homeostasis.
"Amethyst is purple, so it resonates with your crown chakra," Freeman said. "That will give you calmness. It helps with sleep, helps with pain. You could use obsidian, which is black, for grounding or protection. Green is for your heart chakra. It helps with harmony and it even helps with good luck. You can use citrine for your solar plexus for your core, your well-being. You can put multiple ones together that will create a frequency of balance to help an imbalance. You can use them for protection, for rituals, for spells."
Spells and mysticism often go hand-in-hand even with the aspects of alternative spiritualism that are backed by science.
"It was funny, when I officially made the decision that this was the path I wanted to follow, I remember my mom was walking upstairs and I said, 'Hey, wait,'" Pierce said. "I rounded the corner and asked, 'What would you say if I told you I wanted to follow Wiccan?' She said, 'Don’t cast any spells until you know what you're doing.'"
Law of attraction
Both metaphysical shop owners mentioned the Law of Attraction as a keystone of their alternative belief system.
"Your emotions are your guidance system. Your frequencies that you put out are what you're going to receive back," Freeman said. "All those frequencies are flowing out into the universe, and the Law of Attraction is going to bring that back to you."
Like Ackbar, Freeman grew up in a religious family. In upstate New York in the 1980s, her parents were both ministers. But when they came across Conversations with God, a bestselling book series first released in 1996, they began to expose Freeman to the concept of seeking outside of herself.
"When we moved to Danville in 1997, people weren’t on that wavelength," she said. "We just laid low. People would invite me to church and I would say, 'Thank you, I appreciate that,' but I would just kind of do my own thing. It was all internal, something that I had to go within to find. Like my dad always said, 'You go within or you go without.'"
Ackbar said he sees the Law of Attraction in all facets of life—proof that the law is unequivocal, he said.
"If you put out kindness, you get kindness. It's that simple," Ackbar said. "The Bible says, 'As you sow, so shall you reap.' Or for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, which is more of today's physics. We understand really right now that I’m responsible for my reality."
Ackbar said too many are stuck in the old paradigm, which fosters feelings of unfulfillment.
"People are in fear. They don’t know how to live their life fully, and they've given up," he said. "There is a hopelessness in the world out there, and most people have given up, and they have just lost passion for life. So in this store and stores like this, we are about living life more fully."
Freeman said that, for her, the Law of Attraction simply explains why prayer does in fact work.
"When you're saying a prayer for someone, you're sending that energy with the intention to bring them health and healing," she said. "It's the same exact energy with what we do. It's an intention that's being sent to wherever, whether it's connecting right here or across the universe."
Along with the Law of Attraction is the Law of Allowing, Freeman added.
"Unconditional love is just that—it's allowing someone to be who they are," she said. "I have no control over who they are, I only have control over me. When you open your heart to love, you open your heart to humanity, there is no room for judgment because there is only love."
When she started At The Cabin in 2019, Freeman, a 36-year veteran hair stylist, wanted to retain at least 75 percent of her hair customers in her metaphysical shop. She has since exceeded that goal.
"When I first started, my whole point was just to be a wellness center with energy workers that would come in and help raise the frequency of love and healing in Danville," she said. "Now, we have successfully raised the frequency of love, and with love, there is no judgment. This is a no-judgment zone. This is an outreach of love."
At The Cabin will soon feature a love garden that will be added to Virginia's LOVEworks registry. People will travel from across the commonwealth to take photos with the 8-foot symbol of love in the heart of Danville.
"At the end of the day, I can go to bed and know I've done something to help someone, and that's really a good feeling," Freeman said.
For Ackbar, spirit is what keeps everything in order.
"When you live a life that is in flow with spirit, things happen, people come, events change...but I think that spirit keeps everything in order," he said. "I see the system out there as self-correcting. I don’t think there is karma and I don’t think there is sin, either. In the Catholic Church, you say a couple prayers and your sins are forgiven. I don’t see it that way anymore. If I put out kindness, I get kindness. If I'm looking for love, I give love. That is my truth, at 70 years old, that I can pass onto anyone who has the eyes to see and the ears to hear."
At The Cabin is located at 5047 Riverside Drive in Danville and is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Marion Freeman can be reached at 434-710-1516.
Galactic Treasures is located at 2016 Riverside Drive and is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Ackbar can be reached at 856-448-3884.