FORT HOOD, Texas — The Fort Hood Open Circle, a non-denominational Pagan group that has been meeting on the military base since 1997 and has had a challenging history has been wrestling with problems such as being locked out of their ritual space and having their concerns dismissed by chaplains for a number of years. This past week, its leader had had enough and vented her frustrations on Facebook. Hundreds of shares and a huge outpouring of support followed, along with extensive meetings to address the short-term problems faced by members of the congregation. Solutions to the longer-term, systemic issues will take far more effort.
Michele Morris has served as Distinctive Religious Group Leader, or DRGL in military-speak, for the Fort Hood Open Circle for six years. Over that time, she said, the amount of support her congregation has received has varied considerably. “The last six years that I have had the privilege and responsibility to serve as clergy for Fort Hood Open Circle have been a dizzying roller coaster of harassment and neglect relieved by brief moments of support and underpinned by the soul killer that we proudly call ‘tolerance,'” she wrote in her Facebook post. “Tolerance is a terrible word,” she told The Wild Hunt, because “we tolerate things that we don’t like.” Instead, she feels, “Everyone who is supportive of people they disagree with makes a difference.”
The abuses she lays out in her very public post are not only disheartening, in Morris’ view; they are indicative of problems faced by Pagans serving in the United States military, and living in the country as a whole.
I am regularly told, by government employees that “you people” shouldn’t be “out there.” I have no problem ignoring them as long as they do their job, to each their own. But when it is a chaplain assigned to support our congregation that prefaces every single conversation we have with, “I don’t agree with what you do, but I’ll do my job,” for two years, that is not in fact support. When the religious education coordinator leaves our classes off of the calendar disseminated to all of the units on post and when questioned replies with the assertion that he did this out of his own pocket so he can put on, and leave off of, what he wants, that is not support.
What precipitated sharing these feelings on Facebook was being locked out of the stone circle that congregation members use for their rituals, something that has happened more than once. However, Morris is of the opinion that the issue is not one of access, or even one that is isolated to Fort Hood. “This is a military problem,” she said. “I don’t believe that chaplains are properly trained anymore,” and they fail to understand that they must serve the needs of all military personnel under their care, regardless of religious affiliation. She has found herself forced to serve as both minister and advocate, and unable to fulfill either role fully. “It’s unfair to have to be both for the same group,” she said, adding that she’s certain that other DRGLs are put into exactly the same position.
On an even larger scale, Morris feels that what needs to be discussed is the issue of Christian privilege. “It’s a huge issue, and it’s not being talked about,” she said. Simply trying to take off for one’s religious holidays in this right-to-work state — if they aren’t the standard Christian ones — is completely impractical, she said. “It doesn’t matter what the law says. People need jobs so very badly they can’t afford to walk away; they might not be able to get another one. They have stopped being able to stand up for freedom.”
The Fort Hood Open Circle is, in Morris’ words, the “oldest child” among military Pagan congregations. It is non-denominational by regulation, and in her estimation, “Neither the Army nor Pagans have any idea what to do with us.” That is because there isn’t a clear definition of what “non-denominational” means. Military parlance leans toward precise definitions, and Pagans are in some sense known more for disagreeing over what even the word “Pagan” means than for sharing any particular beliefs or practices. “The model is hard to find,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m writing a book on it.” In practice, one rule she won’t budge on is, “Absolutely no ‘witchier than thou.’ If you’re growing, it’s probably the right path for you. Stop comparing and competing.”
One source of support for many years has been the people of Circle Sanctuary, who Morris describes as “the only non-denominational Pagan group in the outside world.” Circle’s support extends back many years. For example, in 2009, ministers provided support in the wake of the shootings there. More recently, in 2011, Circle Sanctuary became the official endorser of the Fort Hood Open Circle.
Circle Sanctuary’s founder Rev. Selena Fox was quick to respond to Morris’ Facebook note, along with Lady Liberty League (LLL), Circle’s religious freedom advocacy arm. After extensive work behind the scenes, LLL released this statement last night on the current situation at Fort Hood. It reads, in part:
We are deeply troubled that Michele and members of the Fort Hood Open Circle have been denied access to their designated ritual space. We have been part of problem solving on the situation. We are thankful that a short-term solution for access to the ritual space has been reached. We are also part of the process supporting the development of longer-term solutions so that disruptive incidents do not happen again. We are continuing to provide support and monitor this situation.
That work resulted, in part, in a town-hall style meeting last night, during which members of the Fort Hood circle were able to talk about their concerns with base chaplains face-to-face. Three chaplains and many circle members were attended and, while Morris was not available to provide details as of press time, Fox reported that it went well.
Fox also explained to The Wild Hunt that the access issues were being resolved by obtaining different locks for the gate to the group’s stone circle. According to Morris, the fence was erected due to issues of vandalism. The gate’s lock is controlled by a civilian employee in the Office of Military Morale, Welfare and Recreation, who reportedly believes that the Pagans “should not be out there” and specifically intended to bar that access. That has had profound consequences, as Morris detailed in her note:
Last night a soldier about to deploy did not get to have one last service before he leaves this coming week. There is not a church of his faith where he’s going so it will be at least nine months before he can worship with a group again and that’s only if he’s fortunate enough to be stationed to one of the handful of bases that offer services. Most still do not.
The fact that Morris decided to speak about her frustrations publicly is in itself an indication of how stressful the situation had become. “The military has a PR issue when things don’t stay in-house,” she said, because keeping problems within the organization allows for the message and perceptions to be controlled. Speaking out goes against “everything I was taught as an Army spouse.” The outpouring of support that her note received has been “overwhelming” and “a little intimidating,” she admitted. “I hope I can live up to wherever this is going. I didn’t plan on being the poster child for change.”
Perhaps to be mindful of that military mindset of nothing being dealt with publicly, the statement released by the Lady Liberty League also urges concerned Pagans to contact its offices, or Morris directly. “At this time, we also ask that the wider Pagan community refrains from contacting Fort Hood officials and/or others within the military about this issue, so that the negotiation and understanding-building process may continue. We ask that people continue to send prayers and energy for a positive, long-term solution to this situation.”
Regarding long-term solutions, Morris thinks that they won’t be achieved unless other Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists step up. “I’m far, far out of the broom closet,” she said. “We need to be open about what we do. We don’t create change by living in fear.” She recognizes that more than fear keeps people being public about their practices. There’s an aversion to proselytizing, and answering questions requires being able to articulate those responses. “The difference between education and proselytizing is that you wait for the ask,” she said. Moreover, “Lots of times Pagans don’t bother to have good answers to questions. It’s harder because we have to come up with our own,” rather than drawing upon settled doctrine that can be found in most bookstores.
However, “most spiritual people have more in common than not,” she pointed out, and a meaningful conversation could very well lead to one more person who doesn’t believe that Pagans sacrifice babies, worship the Christian god of evil, or do whatever it is that ignorant people fear.
“Every time there is a news story which misrepresents Pagans, we get upset. There are more of us than people realize, because we stay in our own little bubbles where we’re comfortable. Change happens outside of where we’re comfortable. We’re uncomfortable here in Fort Hood.”