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UFO enthusiasts at Oregon festival, ‘it’s all extraterrestrial’

By Emily McFarlan Miller/Religion News Service
On June 1, 2016

McMinnvile, Ore. – Jan Woods believes.

She’s sure she saw a UFO back in 1978 when she was living in Nevada, something she spotted in the sky that was so amazing, she said, she had to pull her car over by the side of the road.

That’s one reason Woods, who now lives in Adin, California, attended the country’s second-largest UFO festival earlier this month. Another? She wanted to enter her dachshund – a “good sport” named Skeeter wrapped in silver duct tape and green cellophane – in the alien pet costume contest at the 17th annual McMenamins Hotel Oregon UFO Festival.

There was something for everyone – true believers, fun seekers and those in between – at the festival May 12-15 outside Portland – just as there’s something for everyone who’s ever looked up into the skies and wondered about something bigger than humankind.

Angels, demons, aliens – it’s all the same to Clyde Lewis, speaking in an episode of his Portland-based paranormal podcast “Ground Zero” that was broadcast from the McMenamins UFO Festival.

“We come from spirituality to the idea of the space age, and now coming together, we come to the realization that all people on this planet have an idea that something is out there watching us, whether it’s a god, an angel, a demon or even an alien,” said Lewis.

“It’s all extraterrestrial.”

Christopher D. Bader, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, agrees the difference between belief in the paranormal, such as UFOs, ghosts or Bigfoot, and belief in a religion is not that great. Both require faith, he said.

“People view the paranormal differently from religion, but to me it’s the same type of phenomena,” he added. “It’s belief in things that cannot be proven. That’s the currency of religion.”

The professor researched people who believe in the paranormal for the book he co-authored, “Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture.” He also is one of the principal investigators for the Baylor Religion Survey.

Those who are marginally religious tend to be the most interested in the paranormal, said Bader. Many very religious people don’t doubt the paranormal, but ascribe a different meaning to it, believing what appears to be an alien actually is a demon, for example.

People who aren’t interested in religion tend not to be interested in the paranormal either.

The difference between the two beliefs: cultural acceptance, he said.

“The majority of people in this country profess to be Christian of some sort,” he said. “So Christian groups – you might call them the accepted version of the paranormal or the accepted version of the supernatural.”

McMenamins Hotel Oregon began hosting the UFO Festival after historian Tim Hills stumbled across a famous 1950 UFO photo taken by Paul and Evelyn Trent on their farm outside McMinnville.

Hills thought that first event might attract 25 people; the crowd overflowed the room into the hotel’s restaurant and hallway and onto the sidewalk, he said. And 17 years later, the event brings 7,000 to 10,000 people to downtown McMinnville, a city of 33,000, from as far as Florida.

This year, for the first time, the festival’s speakers focused on a single sighting: the Phoenix Lights, a mass sighting of five orbs in a “V” shape that were reported moving over Phoenix on March 13, 1997.

Long-time director of the National UFO Reporting Center Peter Davenport called the sighting “probably the most dramatic event in the history of modern ufology” because of the number of witnesses, the size of the craft they reported and the interest the military apparently took in it.

For festival speaker Lynne Kitei, witnessing those lights outside her home near Phoenix set her on a journey that made her more aware of serendipity, of the connectedness of the universe and of what she described as the “potential we have as human beings.”

Kitei had no previous interest in UFOs and hadn’t grown up in organized religion. As a physician, she always looked for logical explanations. But she was also open to whatever might walk in her door, she said, and so what she experienced was profoundly transformative.

She set aside her career as chief clinical consultant of the Imaging-Prevention-Wellness Center at the Arizona Heart Institute to research what had happened, producing a book and documentary on the subject.

“Nobody said they had a revelation or anything religious at all, but the spiritual awakening is just amazing – in real time and long term – that these phenomena impart to the experiencer,” said Kitei.

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