Pagan chaplain’s voice for change is heard by global conference

Terence P Ward —  April 27, 2016 — 14 Comments

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Mary Hudson made waves when she became the second Pagan chaplain at a higher education institution in the United States, continuing a service that began with the advising the Syracuse University student Pagan club. Two years after that chaplaincy appointment, Hudson decided to attend the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education, which was being held at Yale that year. Unfortunately, the experience left a decidedly bad taste in her mouth, which she shared with the conference organizers. They took her feedback to heart, and asked her to return this year as a presenter.

Mary Hudson preparing an altar

Mary Hudson preparing a handfasting altar. [Courtesy Photo]

Hudson would like very much to return to the conference to do so. However, “global” means that the conference moves around, and this year it will be in Brisbane, Australia. She has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the needed travel expenses. As of this writing, her campaign has raised nearly 60% of the $5,000 she expects the trip will cost.

Hudson’s history of working with college students on questions of religion dates back some 14 years, as she told The Wild Hunt. The position fell into place because she was already a university employee and practicing Pagan:

Many years ago I was sitting in my office when a student, non-trad, walked in. We had met at a small Pagan gathering a couple of months earlier and they had a request: would I consider being the advisor for a student Pagan group registered at the chapel? This student had been working with the Lutheran chaplain to get Pagans recognized, as it had become evident based on the amount of students looking for such a group that something needed to happen. I asked what my duties would be and I was told all I had to do was sign the paperwork. Well, that wasn’t exactly true as I came to find out. I stuck with it because the students needed to find community someplace and they needed to learn, from elders and from each other, that they were part of a larger community and not alone.

When in 2009 Hudson was preparing to leave that job, she began to look for another adviser for the Pagan students, whose club was called Student Pagan Information Relations and Learning, or SPIRAL. What she learned from some of the campus chaplains was that she was qualified to become one herself, partly because she belonged to the legally-recognized Church of the Greenwood. She worked with the church’s president and university officials to create the first Pagan chaplaincy. Then, she was appointed to the newly established position.

The University of Southern Maine had already created such a position in 2002, but Hudson understands that the original chaplain there, Cynthia Jane Collins, has since left and no replacement has been found. As TWH reported at the time of Hudson’s appointment, “Not everyone is happy with this growing ethos of interfaith cooperation, both Free Republic and conservative Anglican site Virtue Online have gotten the vapors over this development.” Despite those complaints, the overall reaction was positive.

Three years later, TWH reported tha,t under Hudson’s guidance, Pagan students had obtained and built their own sacred space on the Syracuse campus.

The project was approved with relative ease. On October 14, the school installed four permanent altar stones in the main quad, each representing the cardinal directions. Coincidentally, while the stones were laid, a Native American student group happened to be performing a ceremonial dance across the quad. Mary says,“[This] is a true symbol of the dedication that the university has to supporting all people in a diverse world.”

But it was in 2012, attending the chaplains’ conference at Yale, when Hudson experienced firsthand what it can sometimes feels like to be a Pagan in a predominantly Christian world. It is not that she was openly discriminated against, as she explained. However, the overall impression she received was that Paganism was a surprising oddity. At one workshop in particular, which was focused on crafting a common language for spirituality, she found the intolerance towards non-Abrahmic paths quite overt. She said:

The workshop leader started by declaring that they had found, based on research they had done on their own campus, that spirituality was a word that should be done away with; it was not a viable way to talk about connection to anything. Religion had to be based in longstanding tradition and practices and that is what was needed to be built on in the schools so that students “have a foundation of belief.” This attitude and belief was cheered and it was stated that only religions with texts which tell people how to live, and the organizations which hold those texts, are valid. It became worse as the participants began to snicker and mock the idea of [the] “other religious” designation in the program. I was the other religious designation – literally. I wasn’t listed as Pagan but as Other.

The mocking grew more vociferous when the workshop presenter talked about a student in her study that identified as Jewish Wiccan Quaker. These three faiths were what the student grew up with in her household. Participants openly mocked the student’s self-identification and attempt to claim a multi- and inter-faith tradition. The man seated next to me openly stated that the terms multi-faith and interfaith should done away with as there were no such things and never would be. I was seething with anger, and at the same moment felt attacked. No one in the room other than my friend knew my faith practices; no one knew the other was sitting amongst them and so there was a comfort in belittling and mocking anyone not part of the norm – meaning Christian.

Hudson said that this was just one of the many experiences she had at that year’s conference.  When organizers called for a reflections paper, she provided some strongly-worded feedback, and it was that paper that led directly to an invitation for her to participate again, including sitting on a panel.

[The feedback] was scathing, and I called it what it was – a horrible event that wanted nothing to do with anyone other than Christians. I was contacted immediately and told that my paper would be published in the journal dedicated to the conference and asked permission to share it with the forming committees so that they could change. The individuals in charge had no idea how the “other” faiths were treated or felt. It was eye-opening. This request to participate shows and effort to change and I think it is imperative to attend and show those that are willing to see what true hospitality is about. I firmly believe it takes just as much courage to accept change in others as it does to try and change the self.

The panel, on which she will be sitting, has the curious title of “Pulling Apart a Platypus.” The focus will be four different models of chaplaincy in use today. Hudson will be sitting beside a Catholic priest, a Buddhist, and one other person whose religious designation — if any — Hudson didn’t know.

After her emotionally bruising experience at Yale, Hudson does have some advice for other Pagans who feel put upon. First, she said that what you do and say really depends upon the situation. Then she offered:

I don’t normally “hide” and after the first three workshops that is exactly what I did. I was in “hostile” territory and I didn’t feel safe. I did find two friends that came with me. They were allies with whom I could talk to about what was going on and what I was feeling. I think it is important for people to have someone to talk about what is happening and how they are feeling.

I have to stress that no one is alone. They may feel that they are at times but truly they are not. Look to the local shops, PPD websites, Witchvox for local groups, and other such places for contacts that might be able to give you support and healing kindness. I would also stress that help doesn’t have to come just from other Pagans. Someone being mistreated for their faith will find allies in people who dislike injustice. Talk to people of faith, minority on non-mainstream traditions, to seek out an ally if you need to. You would be surprised at where help can come from.

Those interested in helping Hudson with her triumphant return to the Global Conference for Chaplains in Higher Education can contribute to the GoFundMe campaign here.

Terence P Ward


Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Mary Hudson’s experience at the earlier conference dovetails precisely with Nikki Bado’s experience in academia. In the eyes of some, we will always be déclassé. This is a personal kvetch for me; twenty-odd years ago my wife and I tried to get one stinkin’ presentation about the Goddess shoehorned into a multi-paper conference on “The Idea of God” by a supposedly liberal, tolerant institute we had attended for years, and got the same treatment. (We held a free-university workshop on the subject instead and managed to bend some minds.)Hudson’s invitation shows at least some changes in self-awareness, indeed perhaps some authentic Christian repentance. Fortune go with her (to Australia).

    • Jules Morrison

      People interested in a supportive modern academic take on polytheism should take a look at the book “A world full of gods” by John Michael Greer.

  • Govannon Thunorwulf

    Last I knew, and I just checked, University of Southern Maine is not looking to fill the Pagan Chaplin position. If they were, I would be applying. It was never called a Pagan position either, they called it an Interfaith Chaplin.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    Thankfully we have people will to enter the Lions Den, and this is where much of our progress as a increasingly known quantity comes from. Only by being visible, and then using care and common sense can we wear down the resistance and fear of our difference. Not all of it will wear down, but a surprising percentage of people are more open than they were and will continue to increase as long as we have Pagans willing to challenge the stereotypes.

    • friendlyprogrammer

      As the world becomes educated through the internet and television they leave behind the idiocy of Judeo-Christianity. I think those religions have never been as weak and the world is heading towards a much larger enlightened crowd.

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        I hope that you are right. However I note that 90%, or more, of the information on the Internet is little more than Graffiti on the information highway. So I question the quality of the information, from a factual standpoint of what people are learning on the Internet.

        These primary elections are showing how easy it is to reduce the Internet to merely being the fastest rumor mill ever created. Note net etiquette, or rather the lack, of it on most forums. Note the cyber bullying and the computer game bullying.

        “But it is on the Internet, so it must be true.” The problem being that the Internet allows anyone to put anything that they chose to invent on the Internet, doing nearly instant damage, before anyone bothers to check if it is factual. By which time a persons reputation may be destroyed for a lifetime.

        • friendlyprogrammer

          I literally convert people from Christianity daily. The religion is doomed. Even Pope Francis has said the evils of abortion are outweighed by the evils of the Zika Virus… so now he has said abortions are okay as long as the baby doesnt suffer as much… this could be interpreted in many ways.. but they make mistakes and we gain ground.

  • Freeradicals

    Just a quick note to clear up some confusion, Bendigo is a regional city in the state of Victoria, while Brisbane is the capital of the state of Queensland, Australia. I wish Ms Hudson well in her plans to attend the conference.

  • g75401

    The idea of “religion” was introduced to pagan Europeans by xtians looking to convert. It is not ironic that those same xtians want to do away with the concept of spirituality. Our ancestors didn’t separate their spirituality from the entirety of their life. Paganism today is approaching what we had 1600 years ago, a fixture of our daily lives. We need to always remember, “interfaith” means Baptists and Catholics working together. If we want to pursue true community outreach, we’d be better off looking eastward, as in Buddhism or Hinduism.

    • Deborah Bender

      Your definition of interfaith is way out of date. Jews began to be invited to interfaith dialogue in the 1950s. The major national and international interfaith organizations have included representatives of non-Abrahamic religions for decades. A friend of mine who is a Witch served as one of the trustees of the North American Interfaith Network ( a venerable interfaith organization) recently.

      Local interfaith councils tend to be autonomous and they set their own standards of admission. Some of them do only admit Christians. The Marin Interfaith Council and the SiVIC (Silicon Valley Interreligious Council) are extremely diverse.

  • I heartily concur with Ms. Hudson’s admonition to seek allies, not based on their religious affilliation, but on their zeal for justice. Many Abrahamics are quite open and are eager to learn more about we “others” if only we will come out of the closet and get to know them. Here is an account of one remarkable event that happened to me.

    • Franklin_Evans

      Holli, I read both parts. “Remarkable” is not quite adequate to describe your story, and I’m very grateful to learn of it here.

      • TY for the feedback, Franklin. It’s been an amazing and mostly exhilarating adventure.

  • Actually, here is the first part of the story I mentioned.