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[The following is a guest post from author and journalist Beth Winegarner. Winegarner’s latest book is “The Columbine Effect: How Five Teen Pastimes Got Caught in The Crossfire and Why Teens Are Taking Them Back.”]

On May 31, news broke that two 12-year-old Milwaukee girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, had stabbed a classmate 19 times and left her in the woods to die. Although those facts are startling enough on their own, much of the coverage has focused on the girls’ purported reason for the attack: they said they did it to appease the Slender Man, a fictional Internet character originally created by Eric Knudsen in 2009 during a Something Awful challenge. The Slender Man — or Slenderman, as he’s sometimes called — later joined the ranks on Creepypasta’s wiki catalog of fictional characters. Here’s what the site says about him:

Slender Man graffitti. CC BY 2.0. Photo: mdl70 (Flickr).

Slender Man graffitti. CC BY 2.0. Photo: mdl70 (Flickr).

Much of the fascination with Slender Man is rooted in the overall aura of mystery that he is wrapped in. Despite the fact that it is rumored he kills children almost exclusively, it is difficult to say whether or not his only objective is slaughter. Often times it is either reported or recorded that he can be found in sections of woods, and these generally tend to be suburban. He also has been reported seen with large groups of children, as many photographs portray. It is commonly thought that he resides in woods and forests and preys on children. He seems unconcerned with being exposed in the daylight or captured in photos.

The Slender Man story is a kind of fakelore; such stories have been since around long before the Internet. But in the days following the Wisconsin attack, some parents began demanding that Creepypasta either censor the article or shut down the site. Perhaps inevitably, in the days following the stabbing, some news outlets began targeting parents, asking if they know what their kids are looking at online. But such articles tend not to be too helpful. This one is full of vague half-statements about how kids always wind up in the “creepiest places” online, but offers few credible, concrete answers.

Such approaches to the attack suggest that the Internet in general, and the Slender Man story in particular, are to blame. Put another way, they imply that without Creepypasta’s wiki, the girls never would have stabbed their classmate. Even the mainstream press has done everything it can to connect the Milwaukee stabbing with the Slender Man story in readers’ minds: most are referring to it as the “Slenderman stabbing” now. In other places, headlines have made clear what they want readers to think: “Fantasy ‘Slender Man’ Meme Inspires Horrific Wisconsin Stabbing,” “Demonic Creature ‘Slender Man’ Motive For Waukesha Teen Stabbing?” “Could a fictional Internet character drive kids to kill?”

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier arrest photos.

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier arrest photos.

Even the Chicago Tribune, in the attempt to provide a more thoughtful piece on the killings, quickly concludes that children can lose the “boundary between fantasy and reality” when exposed to online fantasy violence, that 12-year-olds don’t understand that killing someone is permanent, and that “research confirms … that virtual violence raises anxiety and desensitizes kids to human suffering.” While it at least establishes that these kinds of events happened before Creepypasta, it plays up the shadowy specter that even young kids might become violent at any moment (which is true, but also incredibly rare). At the same time, it offers a seemingly simple solution: that if parents “restrict and monitor their kids’ Internet usage,” things will be just fine.

A writer for CNN Parents wrote an article discussing how parents can tell when their children are having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. It talks with a variety of experts, but when you examine their language, even they seem to be doing little more than guessing what might have led these two girls to attempt murder: “It may be kind of an inability to hold the potential consequences and reality in mind.” “”I think it’s the chemistry between these two girls. It was insane.”

Just about every time a teen or young adult commits a violent and seemingly senseless crime, society turns to media influences for an explanation. Whether it’s video games, extreme music, paganism, occultism or scary stories, it’s always some external factor — not the young perpetrator — that bears the bulk of the blame. The second scapegoat, particularly with younger kids or kids with developmental delays (like Adam Lanza) is their parents. As the news cycle on this stabbing matures, attention has now turned to Morgan Geyser’s father, who is allegedly fond of goth and metal cultures and who was also interested in Slender Man. But you can’t blame a man with countercultural interests — and who shares those interests with his daughter — for a killing. Not on that basis alone. There are far too many counter-examples.

The girls’ own attorney has openly acknowledged that they should undergo psychiatric evaluation. While “mental illness” is even more vague than “Slender Man” as an explanation, at least it begins the inquiry with the perpetrator. But others, including Joseph Laycock, have suggested that the girls aren’t mentally ill exactly: he cites other sources who say the intensity of their friendship might have been the spark for the crime, or that they simply blamed their acts on Slender Man to convince the police to go easier on them. Then he offers his own take:

I submit that Geyser and Weier were engaged in a form of play that extended the Slender Man legend complex through performance. Then, in a moment of lowered inhibitions, irrevocable consequences occurred, making the play world real. … The girls’ fascination with Slender Man was performative. Anna Freud noted that children often pretend to be monsters, acting out the very thing that they fear.

This difficult-to-comprehend crime comes on the heels of at least two others, including Elliot Rodgers’ rampage in Southern California and Miranda Barbour’s self-professed killing spree, which still hasn’t been proven. In Barbour’s case, she claimed she was a member of a Satanic cult. Journalists and police were correctly skeptical of Barbour’s claims, and that seems like an appropriate model for how we might approach the Wisconsin stabbing, too. In the wake of Rodgers’ spree, writer Mark Manson connected some of the dots on prior incidents of youth violence, from Columbine to Isla Vista, and came to an extremely important point about all of them: Nobody listened closely enough. He says:

Despite being relevant and important discussions, the glamorous headlines are ultimately distractions — they just feed into the carnage and the attention and the fame the killer desired. They are distractions from what is right in front of you and me and the victims of tomorrow’s shooting: people who need help. And while we’re all fighting over whose pet cause is more right and more true and more noble, there’s likely another young man out there, maybe suicidally depressed, maybe paranoid and delusional, maybe a psychopath, and he’s researching guns and bombs and mapping out schools and recording videos and thinking every day about the anger and hate he feels for this world. And no one is paying attention to him.

[The following is a guest post by Courtney Weber. Courtney Weber is a Wiccan Priestess, writer, Tarot Adviser, and teacher living in New York City. She runs open events in Manhattan and teaches workshops on Witchcraft from coast to coast.]

Jane Hash

Jane Hash

In a scene from her movie, Jane Hash is dressed as a Roman Emperor with two men in goat costumes hitched to her wheelchair, converting it to a modern chariot. She lashes them with a homemade whip as they pull her through the festival grounds.

“They were representing Pan,” Jane explained in a Skype interview. “It seemed like a good idea to harness Pan! So I did. “

Taming a Wild God from the seat of her wheelchair is perfect euphemism for Jane Hash’s life. She may be small, but she is one of the biggest badasses you’ve (possibly) never heard of.

Jane was born with 26 broken bones and the doctors expected she would live a few hours at most. By high school, she had broken 200. Today, this three-foot tall woman is a fixture at Pagan gatherings and well-known in her home state of Ohio as the self-described “Politically incorrect voice for the unheard.” This spring, Jane released her self-produced film about life with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, aka “Brittle Bones Disease.” Jane’s bones so easily break that when a penny was dropped on her head, she suffered a skull fracture. The condition keeps her confined to a wheelchair and requires full-time home aid. That alone might warrant enough curiosity for a film, but Jane doesn’t stop at life-on-wheels. In a tight 71-minutes, Plain Jane: The Shockumentary draws viewers into the unique challenges Jane navigates as part of her standard routine, but also openly into a world many might call alternative; including her polyamorous relationships and Pagan practices.

Regarding the decision to make the film, Jane said:

“My whole life, people have said, ‘Oh, you’re so inspiring!’ I didn’t understand that for a long time. ‘Inspiring’ is kind of a dirty word in the Disability Community and I get that. But when it’s used in proper context, I think it’s acceptable. As I got older, I realized that a lot of these people said I inspired them not because I was doing mundane things like buying a loaf of bread. There’s nothing inspirational about that. But when I’m dancing around a bonfire naked under a full moon with 2,000 other people, and someone says, ‘Wow, I’ve always been afraid to do that, but you inspired me to do it and now I’m happy!’ and I’m thinking, ‘Wow. I wasn’t really trying to inspire anybody, I’m just down for the party!’ I thought if I put some intention behind it and tried to inspire people to let go of what they’re afraid of, I can help more people find happiness.”

At the opening of the film, Jane explains her philosophy that obstacles are illusions created by fear. “Fear seems to be the number-one thing that stands in the way of peoples’ happiness, whether they’re afraid to try new things or whether they’re afraid to be themselves.”

The film’s mission is described as a tool to help other find self-acceptance. Many of its subjects could stand alone, but Jane not only weaves them together logically, but hilariously. She even takes the viewers into some deeply personal parts of her life, including intimate moments with lovers or getting tattooed and pierced. Shocked or not by Jane and her life, you’re sure to find yourself laughing, even in the tougher moments detailing her experiences with child abuse and alcoholism. Jane evokes dark humor in a “Dramatic Recreation” of her younger self which included having an aide drive her to the liquor store, and then ordering the aide to mix a drink in the car since she couldn’t wait through a ten-minute drive home.

“(Humor) was my goal. There were a lot of uncomfortable topics that needed to be addressed, but I wanted to find a way to get that information out there and educate them without them realizing it.”

Jane’s movie doesn’t only follow her search for aides accepting of her lifestyle and willing to travel with her to festivals and drum circles (although the scene describing their interview process is one of the juicier gems), Jane exposes viewers to a much bigger fight—that of Disability Rights.  One scene shows Jane sitting outside a corporate building holding a sign that says, (Lawfirm) Refuses To Help Disabled Woman. A clerk in the firm had refused to give Jane a receipt of debt payment, which she needed for the purchase of a house—a debt that a previously trusted person laid on Jane’s credit card. The receipt was necessary for the mortgage and the window to purchase was closing.   

Jane Hash

Jane Hash

“The lady said, ‘Since it took you two years to pay this back, you can just wait for the receipt until I feel like giving it to you.’ I took a deep breath and I let them know that we could do this the hard way or the easy way. But either way, I was getting my receipt that day. She laughed at me and I said, ‘Okay! I guess we’re going to do it the hard way.’ I was prepared. I went outside and had somebody bring me the signs that I had already made. In less than ten minutes, the main attorney in the place got in my face and said, ‘What are you doing? This is my law firm!’ I said, ‘Your law firm is run by a bunch of bullies and I’m not leaving without my receipt.’ By then a crowd had gathered. Two guys asked me, ‘Want me to start cracking heads?’ and I said, ‘No. Not today. Let’s just see how it goes.’ And…I got my receipt that day.”

“I always have to be ready for battle,” Jane said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s some crackhead on the street or some corporate jerk. When people look at me they think, ‘Ooh! Easy target! She’s tiny, what’s she going to do?’ It irritates the crap out of you.”

Jane is not above breaking the law when it comes to fighting her battles. A few years ago, a malfunction in the Ohio Medicaid system deleted Jane from their system. After taking the protocol steps to fix the problem, when her caregivers were still not getting paid, Jane went to a busy section of downtown Kent with an empty coffee can and a sign that said, Bail Out My Home Health Aides.

“Eventually a police officer asked me if I was aware that panhandling without a permit was against the law. I was aware. I had researched and found a nonviolent law that I could break to get attention and I told him, ‘I’m just going to sit here until something happens to fix the situation.’ The cop was great. He offered some great advice, which I followed. I also launched a huge email and phone call campaign to the higher ups at Medicaid. Hundreds of people wrote letters, emails, made phone calls. The situation got fixed, but it’s really unfortunate that I had to go that far. I’m one of the few people it affected who can speak out. Many of them are children, or elderly, or disabled to the point that they can’t communicate.”

Jane Hash

Jane Hash

Jane is currently fighting state laws regarding her ability to work and still receive Medicaid benefits. In Plain Jane, Jane points out that those who born with severe disability are placed under enormous restrictions. Under the current situation, Jane has the choice between remaining fully dependent on the system or paying all of her own costs out of pocket. Costs for Jane’s home health aides and other needs total over $100,000 per year. But current work-transition programs available to Jane take away benefits faster than workers can replace them, or only offer jobs with partner companies like Walmart. In our interview, Jane mentioned that she could likely get a job as a Walmart greeter and still receive benefits, but with enough certifications in holistic healing practices to wallpaper her house, she has no interest in doing so. Jane’s goal is to run her own business.

“(People like me) have to either live in poverty or find this fantasy job that pays $100,000 per year right off the bat. That’s not realistic. There are no sensible in-between steps to gradually get you off the system. There needs to be a sensible program in place to help disabled people go from poverty to self-sufficiency without missing out on critical services.  Taking away twice as much as a person is making is not conducive to self-sufficiency. I would have no problem having my benefits taken away and then me pay into the system for them, just like regular people paying for their health insurance. I don’t need or want everything given to me. I have to be given the opportunity to work and do what it is that I do.”

Plain Jane: The Shockumentary is one step in Jane’s fight to address the gap in self-sufficiency. She is also talking to the media and blogging about it at Adventures of the Gimp AvengerJane is seeking out colleagues, particularly those in other countries with working programs that address this issue. In the U.S.A., Jane advocates people reaching out to Governor Kasich whether by phone or email to mention that legislative roadblocks are preventing people with disabilities like Jane from being gainfully employed need to be removed. As a suggested script, Jane suggests mentions that “Between the Governor’s Office of Health Transformation and the Governor’s Council on People with Disabilities, they should be able to develop a sensible plan that would provide disabled Ohio citizens the opportunity to obtain gainful employment without any risk of losing medically necessary support services.”

Now that her film is complete, Jane is moving onto other endeavors. She recently founded a nonprofit called Classy Little Fashions that utilizes community resources to make age-appropriate clothing accessible to men and women with non-standard body types. Jane points out that she’s “basically the size of an obese three-year old.” The clothes that fit her height-wise, do not fit her woman’s form. This project helps find age-appropriate clothing for people like Jane. She is also looking forward to the November election this November because there’s a chance that medical marijuana will be legalized in Ohio. Jane also has a connective tissue disorder, which can be treated with fresh-grown cannabis. “You don’t get high from it,” she said. “It’s just like juicing kale or an apple. (Getting high) is not what I’m after. I want fresh, organic, non-genetically modified cannabis to put in my smoothie.”

To other activists, Jane encourages keeping fun in life. Without fun, she says, burnout is all too easy.  She credits her Pagan practices in helping her stay grounded and continuing to fight her fight. “I think my spirituality allows me to see things more clearly and get caught up in trivial things. I think not having a lot of the hang-ups that come with a lot of religions helps me focus on the real issue at hand. It makes me feel less judgmental. As soon as I embraced Paganism, my life got better and better.”

“I really don’t think it is my responsibility to make people like me. You’re either going to like me or you’re not. It’s my responsibility to be the best person I can be.”

Plain Jane: The Shockumentary is available for rent or purchase at vimeo.com or at http://plainjanetheshockumentary.blogspot.com/.

Modern shaman and best-selling author S. Kelley Harrell’s new book, “Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism,” out May 30 from Soul Rocks Books, is a light-hearted and informative handbook introducing shamanism to today’s young adults and beginning seekers. Author and journalist Beth Winegarner’s latest book, “The Columbine Effect: How Five Teen Pastimes Got Caught in The Crossfire and Why Teens Are Taking Them Back,” addresses how certain interests — including alternative spiritualities like shamanism, neopaganism and others — have been unfairly blamed for teen violence. Kelley and Beth got together for a chat about alternative faiths, cultural misperceptions and the importance of trusting youth as they find their own paths.

Teen_ShamanismBeth: I know practitioners within Santeria and Palo Mayombe who say that those paths are gaining in popularity among teens. Are you seeing anything similar with shamanism? Do you think more teens are feeling the call? Why does this book make sense at this particular time?

Kelley: I do see this is the case with modern shamanism. It makes sense to put this book out now because so many young people aren’t satisfied with the status quo of religious paths, lifestyles, gender issues, philosophies, and even career concerns, in general. Their processes and options are very different, even from when we were that age. There are so many conflicting messages in media, that having a supportive, yet, disciplined way to examine the unseen and engage with it, connect it back to mundane life, is very grounding.  Young people are looking for ways to bring personal meaning more into everything they do. That’s what rebellion is about. Expressing that need in a compassionately supported context ultimately benefits us all.

A key thing I see that’s different about young people, now, compared to older generations, is a lack of fear, which manifests in a couple of important ways. First, they aren’t afraid of intuitive or even supernatural experiences. They express being a great deal more capable to accept them for what they are. Even when they don’t have an understanding of what those experiences are, they don’t run from them. There’s a greater willingness to just accept that life is bigger without having to define that what means. Likewise, teens, today, aren’t afraid to diverge from their elders’ philosophies and viewpoints. While they may not wave that difference around, they recognize that they approach life differently, and seem more able to express compassion for difference, period. It’s when they are not shown compassion for the difference that shadow becomes a factor.

Side note, but I’m also tired of information on paths such as shamanism coming from outside the shamanic community. The broad resources that flit through media read copied and pasted from some 1970s text book. There is a real need to see the path as alive and evolving, and in seeing it as such, a possibility for personal connection to the unseen.

Beth: I hadn’t thought about the possibility that younger generations might be more open to supernatural experiences without being scared of them. I wonder if that’s a product of growing up in a more agnostic, or even atheist society, rather than being raised in more dedicated religious households and not being so exposed to the idea that anything outside the church is scary. One of the things I noted when I was researching “The Columbine Effect” is that kids — even young kids — have a very clear idea of what they’re comfortable with and what’s too scary or out of bounds. So even if they’re less afraid of things that might make their parents or especially grandparents uncomfortable, they still show a propensity for defining boundaries for their exploration.

Those findings connect with something I noticed in “Teen Spirit Guide to Modern Shamanism.” In the beginning of the book, you say that we often don’t think of children as wise. Where do you think that idea comes from, and why is it wrong?

Kelley: I think it comes from old virtues around control and a general need to see children as creatures to be shaped, rather than allowed to unfold. That ideology hasn’t worked for myself or anyone I’ve worked with. I find so many wounds around suppressing the wisdom of childhood. What’s wrong about that is obviously that it denies the intrinsic value of the child, though it also creates a rut in which adults become stuck and don’t grow. The education system in the US is a great example of that. Instead of realizing that forcing all kids down the same curriculum the same way doesn’t work, we keep finding ways to narrow the system. It’s a pattern of, “This is how we’ve always done it, ” rather than allowing individuality and creating ways to meet needs more openly.

TCE-frontcover-med copyBeth: I think that probably leads to something else I found in my research, which is that many kids explore a pagan or other alternative path in part because they become so disillusioned with the church or even with a lack of spirituality in the household, and they crave something that helps them create meaning in their lives and maybe also validates those kinds of supernatural experiences you mentioned earlier. Whether it’s neopaganism, Thelema, or chaos magic, these inquiries can turn into meaningful and sincere spiritual paths for teens. It might start out as rebellion but it turns into something else.

That said, many assume that kids who explore a non Judeo/Christian/Islamic path are only “dabbling” or “rebelling,” that children aren’t capable of seriously following a spiritual path they weren’t raised in. But what’s interesting among shamans, even modern shamans, is that the “call” often comes in childhood, doesn’t it? What makes shamanism different in this respect?

Kelley: It does come in childhood. I think shamanism is different in this respect because we are all born animists, which is realizing that all things are innately alive. Children pretend their stuffed animals talk to them. Plants, rocks, cars — everything is a companion to be interacted with, that contributes to the child’s understanding of life. We come in wired for that experience, then as we age into a social system larger than our immediate family–becoming school-aged–we are taught to shun that perspective. We’re taught that imagining livelihood is bad and displays immaturity, possibly lower intellect, or emotional problems. In that light, the connection between judgement of mental state and the unseen starts very early in life, as well. Our natural way of sensing and engaging life is quickly redacted.

Beth: You also write about the line between shamanic experience and what we might consider schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I’ve written a great deal about youth violence being linked to paganism, Satanism, the occult, etc., when in reality we need to look more at violent kids’ mental health and state of mind. How can parents, and culture at large, get better at telling the difference between a child who is experiencing visions or trance-journeys and one who is experiencing delusions induced by illness?

Kelley: In anyone, of any age, the difference between invoking trance and delusions is control. If a young person can control the unseen experiences s/he is having, that isn’t mental illness. If s/he can change the dialogue between self and spirit guides, that isn’t delusion. Control is the key component of trance work — moving into trance at will, directing what happens within, and leaving trance when desired — these are the intended, willed choices that a shaman makes. Someone who can’t control going into trance, who feels victimized or controlled by the experiences within trance, or can’t make trance stop, is experiencing a state of being that could be considered a mental or biochemical condition.

What do you think is the cultural motivation to assign ‘spiritual’ deviation to a youth’s errant behaviour , rather than explore it as the result of mental illness? How does this emphasis shape our view of young people, and these spiritual paths?

Beth: Well, keep in mind that until a few hundred years ago, we didn’t have much of a concept of mental illness at all; the feelings and behaviors we now recognize as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or even neurological issues like epilepsy and migraines, used to be explained in terms of demons and possession. And I think that when it comes to kids, the same social impulses that lead us to assume children can’t be wise or capable of their own agency have also given us the idea that kids aren’t capable of being very mentally ill, that it’s something only adults suffer from seriously. For example, a lot of people don’t think teenagers are capable of being sociopaths, but in Dave Cullen’s book on the Columbine High School shootings, he makes a very strong case for the argument that Eric Harris was a sociopath.

So, if you don’t believe kids are capable of being so ill that they’re likely to commit violence, it’s easier to look for other causes when they become violent. And if they happened to be exploring an alternative spirituality at the time, it’ll seem like an obvious culprit.

Of course, one of the reasons those explanations can make sense to people is that they don’t actually understand pagans or Satanists or occultists all that well. They’re relying on what they’ve heard on TV news or horror films, which is far from accurate. It’s like what you said about relying on the wrong sources of information about shamanism earlier. Instead, people who have a teenager exploring an alternative faith need to read and talk with legitimate sources. I talk about that a lot in “The Columbine Effect,” along with the ways various minority faiths and paths are misunderstood by society at large. So, what are some of the misconceptions people have about shamans and shamanism? Are those perceptions harmful to the practice?

Kelley: This is a personal button. The overlap of New Age ideology and earth-based paths hasn’t always been a service to shamanism. Out of the New Age movement, a lot fluffy, everything-is-always-good perspectives emerged, regarding shamanism. One of those is the idea that all mentally ill people are shamans, which is erroneously based on some nebulous tenet that tribal cultures revere the mentally ill as wisdomkeepers. This is always contrasted with the derision of the mentally ill in the west, which is virtually incontestable.

Every person contributes valuable intuitive insights, regardless of mental state. Everyone. No one is elite and special in that regard. The thing is, tribal spiritual leaders know the difference between someone who is mentally ill, and someone to whom they can completely turn over the spiritual reins of the tribe.  Someone who can’t control their ecstatic experience isn’t acting in the role of shaman, and that is the difference. Being able to go into trance doesn’t make you a shaman. Having a spirit guide doesn’t make you a shaman. Just having visions or interaction with spirits doesn’t make you a shaman. Being able to bring those experiences back and shape them into some improved, manifest state for the community makes you a shaman. It’s not the technique, but the role. This has been a steep learning curve in the modern path.

How can practitioners of minority faiths bring awareness of their paths to wider society in a way that is non-threatening, yet informative? What I see is compartmentalization of faiths. Practitioners/Leaders of faiths are out there, writing, speaking, engaging in their own community. They don’t step out, often with good reason, based on maltreatment by the larger community. Rarely does wider society venture in to fact check, let alone learn more. How does that education happen?

Beth: That’s an excellent question. As you point out, many don’t want to speak out in the larger community because they could face backlash. It’s already tough to walk an unorthodox path, which means many people don’t want to go the extra mile of being an ambassador for their faith. And in some cases, as with chaos magic and Satanism, I found that there was a vocal faction who decidedly didn’t want to work toward more societal acceptance. They enjoyed being seen as evil and scary by outsiders to their faith and weren’t interested in anyone accepting and tolerating them.

Fortunately, I think there are at least a few out there — writers, journalists and people who are willing to make themselves available to the press as sources — who are helping bridge the gap between spiritual communities who maybe don’t want to be their own ambassadors, and a culture who otherwise wouldn’t make the effort. Sometimes, this can unfortunately come across as one of those “Gosh, isn’t this weird/fascinating/cool” feature stories, but not always. For example, when the so-called “Craigslist killer,” Miranda Barbour, claimed she belonged to a Satanic cult, both the Satanic Church and the Satanic Temple — the ones who are designing the Oklahoma monument — were quick to talk with major news outlets and say, “This woman has nothing to do with us and we don’t kill people.” That’s exactly what we need more of, and it’s great that the Church of Satan Peter Gilmore, who comes across as a calm, diplomatic and sensible representative for a church that still has many of negative stereotypes to dispel. With time, more groups are learning that a spokesperson like Gilmore is a real asset, and I think that will help a lot.

Learn more about Kelley’s work and writing at Soul Intent Arts.

[The following is a guest post from Michael Reeder. Michael Reeder LCPC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Baltimore, MD.  He holds a certificate in Spiritual & Existential Counseling from Johns Hopkins University, and is a graduate of Gryphons Grove School of Shamanism.  He has been affiliated with several local Pagan organizations and presented at conferences including Sacred Space, Free Spirit Gathering, Ecumenicon, and Pagan Pride Day events.  He can be reached at michael@hygeiacounseling.com and www.hygeiacounseling.com]

Spiritual_Guidance_Across_ReligionsI am pleased to announce that Spiritual Guidance Across Religions: A Sourcebook for Spiritual Directors and Other Professionals Providing Counsel to People of Differing Faith Traditions has just been published by Skylight Paths Publishing.  I’d like to talk a bit about this book, developing Pagan counseling efforts, and the role of a recently deceased Pagan elder.

This book contains a 19 page chapter on Neo-Paganism – as much text as is devoted to most of the other faith traditions.  Our inclusion here is a big deal so I want to dwell on it for a brief moment.  Up to now, there have been the very rare and occasional professional journal articles on Wicca or Paganism for mental health counselors.  There are also a few books teaching pastoral counseling skills to Pagan clergy or presenting Pagan versions of AA 12-Step.  Even books on world spirituality have tended to leave us out or give us a few pages lumped in with miscellaneous odd topics at the end.  I am unaware of other college-level textbooks providing professional instruction on spiritual counseling for Pagans.

This book offers exactly what the title suggests — help for psychotherapists, counselors, spiritual directors, clergy, and other helpers to understand a bit about the faith tradition of the clients in front of them and some guidance on how to appropriately help them from the perspective of their tradition.  (The full list of faith traditions includes Evangelical Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, Reformed Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Spiritual Eclecticism, Unitarian Universalism, Neo-Paganism, Bahá’í Faith, Sikhism, Shinto, Humanism,  New Thought, Zoroastrianism, Native American Religion, African Diaspora Spirituality, Daoism, Jainism, & Confucianism.)  Each chapter gives you an overview of the tradition, methods for spiritual guidance honored in that tradition, common spiritual problems encountered by people of that tradition, tips & techniques & practices, and helpful resources for further learning.

This opportunity came to me through the quiet good graces of Judy Harrow and an open-minded editor willing to trust her and myself.  Although a known Pagan elder, many are unaware of all the good work Judy did as both a mental health counselor and an interfaith goodwill ambassador. Judy was a past president of New Jersey ASERVIC (Association for Spiritual, Ethical, & Religious Values in Counseling – an American Counseling Association division) and active on the AAPC (American Association of Pastoral Counselors) Yahoo Group. Both ASERVIC and AAPC are very mainstream, slightly conservative counseling organizations with LOTS of ordained Christian ministers. The fact she was so respected there speaks volumes.  Judy was a former Chair of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Department at Cherry Hill Seminary (where I took a wonderful online class which taught me exercises I still use with clients).

Judy taught a class on pastoral counseling skills for Pagan clergy for some years with the Pagan Leadership Skills Conference.  I was honored to co-teach it with her a few times.  She was also instrumental in gathering Pagan counseling heavyweights to join the Pagan Professional Counseling Yahoo Group that is now well over 100+ members strong, and a place where licensed professionals can converse about the intersection of Pagan spirituality and counseling.  She wrote a recommended book entitled Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide that I’m pleased to see now has a Kindle edition available.  Buy a copy.

I mention all this both to discuss the significant contributions of Judy, and to outline a large portion of the work on Pagan counseling to-date.  Along the way I have also created a www.pagantherapy.com website I occasionally update and is currently somewhat shabby, a now ancient training slideshow for hospital chaplains, an in-service training for psychotherapists on Paganism, and even a rather rough video for Pagan therapy clients on how to discuss Paganism with their counselor (very long load time!).  Several years ago the Pagan-Centered Podcast did podcasts on mental health topics I was involved with located here (Paganism and psychology) and here (trauma, depression, and anxiety topics).

I’m sure I am missing out on a lot of the work by my more academic colleagues and I believe much of the work regarding Pagans in the military overlaps with counseling topics.  My apology – work as a full-time psychotherapist makes it hard to keep up sometimes.

The few paragraphs above serve both as a partial resource guide to Pagan counseling, and as evidence of how rudimentary efforts in this area still are.

Michael Reeder LCPC

Michael Reeder LCPC

Years ago I naively thought that there would be lots of interest in the topic of Paganism and counseling from the mundane world.  At first I worried that other mental health counselors would be judgmental.  This proved largely not the case, and I even was a student member of AAPC for a time and an associate at a pastoral counseling center in Washington, DC.  Later I thought other counselors would be interested in learning about Paganism or refer Pagan clients my way.  This has sadly proven to be mostly untrue also.  Most therapists don’t think they need any special knowledge or training about Pagans.

In 2007 I sent an unsolicited manuscript on counseling Pagan clients into an ASERVIC monograph project.  ASERVIC had called for papers on how to assist clients from a variety of spiritual backgrounds, and not asked for any information on Paganism.  This ASERVIC project stalled for many years and I finally ended up significantly rewriting and expanding the monograph into a chapter for the book that was just published.  I figure I’ve put 4-6 weeks of time into writing the chapter.

Writing about Paganism and counseling for a mainstream audience presents several challenges.  My first goal was to lay out a convincing case that Paganism promotes mental health.  Pagan readers of my chapter may be a bit uncomfortable with how much emphasis I place on how useful Paganism is, and how to tell the difference between “odd” Pagan beliefs versus mental illness.  I also do some similarity comparisons between Pagan rituals, counseling, and hypnosis procedures.  The idea here was not to convince the (mostly Christian) audience that Pagan spirituality is real, but rather to convince them that it is a good healthy thing regardless.

Another challenge was writing about Pagan religion in one chapter.  We of course have at least dozens of different religions under the Pagan umbrella.  (Although I do subscribe to Michael York’s arguments that Paganism broadly should be treated as a world religion too.)  This resulted in quite a mash-up of different religions in our one chapter and an emphasis on their similarities and the more common Wiccan norms.

I also had to follow a discussion outline standardized across all of the chapters that was written with well-intentioned mainstream (mostly Christian) assumptions.  When your clergy are largely trained at home; don’t get the educational benefit of rotations in hospital chaplaincy units; are more conduits of energy than sermonizers and flock shepherds; “lead” groups of priests rather than laity; and can worship potentially any god, goddess, spirit, or ancestor; you’ve got a lot of explaining to do!

I am honored that the chapter on “Spiritual Guidance in the Neo-Pagan Tradition” got passed to me to complete.  I believe this book will be helpful to counselors, spiritual directors, students, and helpers of any type trying to reach a wide variety of spiritual clients.

[The following is a guest post by Zay Eleanor Watersong. Zay Eleanor Watersong is a teacher in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft, community organizer, and law student.  She got her start in Reclaiming with the Ithaca Reclaiming Collective and the Pagan Cluster, sharing priestessing roles in Pagan circles internationally and Reclaiming circles nationwide since 2003.]

“Anthro-arrogance is not an option,” stated one of the law student organizers for the 2014 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the University of Oregon in Eugene as they opened the conference on February 27.  “This conference, this planet, expects action.”

PIELC-Website-Banner-1024x332

University of Oregon students took this to heart and continued a long history of protest at the conference with a 100-person walkout shortly thereafter during one of the keynote addresses, protesting the speaker’s anti-transgender stance.  It was an interesting echo of the controversy at PantheaCon in 2012.  Hopefully PIELC too will learn from the experience.

photo (1)This conference, now in its 32nd year, has a long history of bringing together legal scholars, lawyers, activists and organizers to discuss the pressing issues of the day and weave synergistic relationships to address them. It brings together so many who are working at the leading edge, whether in blockades or in the courtroom, to protect the earth which we hold sacred.  There is a deep magic in being able to see the web of laws and policies that hold the current system in place, and seeing the points where if we push just a little bit, things can shift.  Practicing law and practicing spellwork are not that different.

This year’s theme was “Running In to Running Out”.  It could be easy to come away depressed by power of the oil and gas industry, which is extracting resources as fast as it can and using more and more extreme ways to do so, with absolutely no consideration for the impacts on the environment, and very little reigning in by the government.  In fact, it turns out this industry is exempt from most of our environmental laws. And as former NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen explained, if the oil and gas industry is allowed to extract and burn all that they wish to, we are looking at a 6° C increase in global temperature, blowing past the 2* C limit that scientists and governments worldwide have agreed is the absolute upper limit to prevent catastrophic climate change.  What was that we were saying about anthro-arrogance?

There is no doubt we are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put the current situation into perspective with a baseball analogy: “A player taking steroids increases the chances of more and bigger home runs.  You can’t point to any one home run as caused by steroids but overall, you know where the credit lies.  The climate is on steroids now.”  The weather is getting more extreme, more frequently.

"Outlaw party" during PIELC.

“Outlaw party” during PIELC.

Yet, the conference was a testament to the deep hope and commitment to action of the environmental movement.  The camaraderie and energy was palpable at the “Outlaw Party” thrown on the outskirts of Eugene by the Cascadia Forest Defense, where anarchists, organizers, and lawyers alike danced our love of the earth in the mud and rain to excellent bluegrass and let our primal nature run free around a rather spectacular effigy.  As the Pagan Cluster and Free Cascadia Witchcamp know, a little bit of ritual goes a long way towards feeding the soul and avoiding activist burnout.  These direct action activists -such as the 398 arrested at the White House on Saturday protesting the Keystone XL pipeline- who put their bodies and freedom on the line to make a statement about the failure of the administrative process deserve our thanks, and our spiritual support.

Just as important are the lawyers, advocates, and citizens that watchdog the bureaucracy, read and digest long tomes of environmental impact statements, and spend their days paperwrenching with public comments and lawsuits.  Theirs is an effort of endurance, particularly when environmental laws no longer protect the environment.

Mary Christina Wood

Mary Christina Wood

“At every level, agencies have turned environmental law inside out,” explained Mary Christina Wood, professor at the University of Oregon and author of the new book Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age.  Her keynote address Saturday evening followed Dr. Hansen’s dire predictions and painted a visionary method for the profound legal paradigm shift needs to happen.

“We’ve been running around putting out all these fires,” Wood explained, “but what if we can stop the pyromaniac?”  Wood is one of many legal scholars around the country re-invigorating an ancient judicial concept known as the Public Trust Doctrine.

It’s a basic idea: that there are certain natural resources that are so important for society as a whole that the government has a responsibility to protect those resources for everyone’s use.  The key case that brought this doctrine from ancient Roman law and English common law into U.S. Federal law is Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois (1892), where the courts determined that the shoreline of Lake Michigan was held in public trust by the states and could not be given to a private railroad corporation.

A more recent case was Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (2013) where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that legislation removing many regulatory hurdles for the fracking industry violated the public trust doctrine, which Pennsylvania voters amended into their constitution in 1971.

Wood and others are taking the public trust doctrine one step further, with atmospheric trust litigation, arguing that the atmosphere itself is one of those resources that must be maintained for us all.   Youth are filing lawsuits in every state, to hold the states and federal government responsible under the public trust doctrine for developing carbon recovery plans to meet the 6% annual reduction in carbon emissions that scientists agree is necessary to stabilize the atmosphere.  They’ve put together a wonderful video explaining the idea.

Is it a coincidence that so many of us have heard the call of Goddess at the same time that the earth, air, and waters that we honor are so threatened?  Gaia is calling us to action.  Our descendants are calling us to action.  What has been done in your state?  Does your state constitution include the public trust doctrine?  Do you have children who want to be part of the fight for their future?  When it seems like government at every level is failing us, and failing the climate, the positive action of the people working on atmospheric trust litigation is truly a breath of fresh air.

[The following is a guest post from Michelle Mueller. Michelle Mueller is a doctoral student researching polyamory in Pagan communities. She has integrated women's and gender studies throughout her study of religion, and thinks it's never a bad idea to think about representations of women in the media, as well as messages about queer culture and Pagans.]

As many of us in the Bay Area (and beyond) reintegrate into the “mundane world” after PantheaCon, it feels timely to turn an eye towards images of Witchcraft in pop culture. Some Wiccans were upset about Katy Perry’s performance of “Dark Horse” at the Grammys three weeks ago, during which she invoked theatrical imagery to refer to “the Burning Times.” In her grand finale, she attached herself to a broom (basically stripper pole style); the pyrotechnics produced a blazing fire around her, a reference to witch-burning.

I missed the Grammys but my good friend, Assembly of the Sacred Wheel member, Shelly Graves brought the performance to my attention with a Facebook post the next morning, “Did anyone just see that performance by katy perry? Wtf was that? Not cool with the whole witch burning imagery at the end” (Jan. 26, 2014).

I watched the video and caught up on aggravated comments from Wiccans and critics. Intrigued by the strong response, I asked my other Facebook friends what they thought.

Selina Rifkin, Executive Assistant to the Director for Cherry Hill Seminary also enrolled in its masters program, offered:

“I think it depends on how sacred you hold the symbolism she was using. The color black, graveyards, broomsticks, some flames, however we hold these images, they are also part of the broader (yes largely Christian) cultural view of what is dark and dangerous. We aren’t going to change the fact that we are a minority religion, and it’s not reasonable to expect that someone like Katy Perry is going to be interested in anything but addressing the largest audience possible. She has no reason what so ever to accommodate a minority religion, assuming she even knows Wiccans -or any other Pagans – exist.

That being said, Wiccans in particular are working to reclaim some of that “negative” imagery and I don’t think it[’]s a big surprise that a pop star used it to suit herself. After all, if it’s “art,” pretty much anything goes.” (Facebook, Jan. 26, 2014)

Shelly clarified her criticism, “I think that her performance tarnished the message of unity the Grammy’s were trying to present. I was really surpr[i]sed that Katy Perry would do that. I guess people really can be clueless and not understand that The Burning Times were as horrible as any of the genocides that have taken place. People were killed for no good cause.”


For me, Perry’s performance of “Dark Horse” in the Grammys was refreshing compared to other things I’ve seen her do, which I will describe shortly. I didn’t mind the references to witch-burning because it seemed she was identifying with the motif of the martyr or the persecuted witch. I am in good company. Abel R. Gómez, graduate student at the University of Missouri and past contributor to the Wild Hunt, commented, “I liked it. I think it’s possible to read into it more, but to me, it’s just a performance.” Of course, others find the performance offensive because Perry may have been making light of atrocities towards women and healers.

I liked Katy Perry when she first debuted. I’m a Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon aficionado. I liked Katy Perry’s girly style, lollipops, and teenage dream.
I became concerned over lyrics of “Last Friday Night,” which glorify blacking out as meaning a terrific night, especially because of the number of girls listening to her music and the impact this message could have on them. I pivotally lost respect for Katy Perry when I saw this video of a live performance (Sydney, Australia, October 2013) in which she jumps rope in platform heels for 17 seconds before the finale of “Roar,” the song whose lyrics unmistakably refer to the women’s liberation movement: I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire/’Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar.

I love instances of women affirming their sexuality, but I do not like women being reduced to boobs, which is what I felt this performance did. Her fans loved it. You can hear them singing Roar along wildly in the video. As with the Grammys performance, we will disagree about the intentions of an artist and the quality of their art.

In an interview, Perry herself said, “I hate working out, but I love jumping rope. I think it’s because it’s like dancing; there’s a rhythm….I’m a really good rope jumper. I can double jump, I can cross, I can do all of it. I look like Rocky when I jump rope!’” (Mail Online, Oct. 28, 2013) Somewhere some women may have found her message empowering, an example of choice, free expression, or fitness. I did not.

Two years ago, Katy Perry’s “Ur so gay” made it on the radio, which Elena Rose of Starr King Unitarian Universalist seminary brought my attention to. See link for Katy’s explanation and performance on MTV Unplugged (June 2012). Somehow this song had skipped my radar. Maybe others were offended and the radio stations and DJ’s held back from playing it with the strength of other Katy Perry singles. It’s one thing to be disappointed that your crush likes the opposite gender and not you, but these lyrics are downright hateful to gender non-conforming people:

“I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf
While jacking off listening to Mozart
You bitch and moan about LA
Wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway
You don’t eat meat
And drive electrical cars
You’re so indie rock it’s almost an art
You need SPF 45 just to stay alive

“You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like boys
You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like
No you don’t even like…

“You’re so sad maybe you should buy a happy meal
You’re so skinny you should really Super Size the deal
Secretly you’re so amused
That nobody understands you
I’m so mean cause I cannot get you outta your head
I’m so angry cause you’d rather MySpace instead
I can’t believe I fell in love with someone that wears more makeup than…”

In conclusion, many Witches are upset about “Dark Horse” at the Grammys. I find other things by Katy Perry more offensive. I found her Grammys performance creative while others found it triggering of genocidal history. I observe with patience and curiosity what in the next year will emerge from behind Katy Perry’s curtain. I hope to Goddess she develops into a more mature performer because I really would like to see her succeed as an artist. I had high hopes when she emerged (though I always felt “I Kissed a Girl” was a rip-off of Jill Sobule without credit.) I believe Perry can use her power and fame more constructively than with lyrics like “Ur so gay,” and I pray she chooses to.

Many have said Katy was tipping her hat to the wildly popular series American Horror Story: Coven. I hope to hear at a future date from Crystal Blanton about this series, as I know she has been following!

[The following is a guest post from Lonnie Murray. Lonnie Murray is a naturalist, local environmental activist and part-time politician. For many years, he was a leader of the NatureSpirit group at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church (Unitarian Universalist), and currently lives with his two daughters and wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.]

Lonnie Murray

Lonnie Murray

Beneath the concrete, steel and asphalt of our cities there are ghosts gurgling whispering and moving nameless beneath us. An anthropologist, Loren Eiseley once wrote that “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”. Many people never stop to think what happens to the streams when a shopping center or housing complex is built, but the secret is beneath our feet in large pipes. This water flowing through man-made engineered stormwater systems is all that is left of places once rich with life like salamanders, crayfish, dragon flies and minnows.

At one time, the thinking was that the best way to deal with water and pollution was to get it out of cities as fast as possible. Under that thinking, streams were straightened or put in pipes. Other policies made by local governments and engineers paved most urban areas reducing them to a sea of concrete. We now know that each time it rains all the oil, fertilizer, trash and other pollution goes into the stormwater system, which then eventually makes its way to rivers.

I think a lot about water because I serve in Virginia as an elected official on the local Soil and Water Conservation District, and as an appointed member of several different boards and commissions related to the environment. For as long as I can remember, my environmental activism has been tangled up in my spirituality (but which one caused the other is impossible to say.) Like many modern pagans, I often find it hard to classify my spirituality with labels, but I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist church who follows animistic beliefs that see all living and natural things as having a spirit worthy of reverence. I led a UU-Pagan group for well over a decade and was active for a while in my local Reclaiming community. While I’m highly influenced by the Romantic and Transcendentalist thinkers of the 19th Century, I confess that I also take great inspiration from my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy.

A still from "Spirited Away."

A still from “Spirited Away.”

In one of my favorite animated films “Spirited Away”, by Hayao Miyazaki’, there is a scene where the main character, Chihiro, is forced to work in a Bath House for the Spirits. One day a “stink spirit” oozes its way to the bath house. While everyone else runs away in terror and disgust, she kindly bathes it and removes a bicycle lodged in its side. Upon being cleansed, the spirit’s true nature, a river spirit, is revealed. In interviews, Miyazaki has mentioned that this was inspired by a river cleanup in which he participated. During another scene Chihiro finds the true name of a river spirit that had been buried under a housing complex. This notion that a river has a spirit is impaired by our treatment of it, is consistent with Shinto and other animistic ways to view the universe. To anyone that has done a river cleanup, or seen a stream restored, there is indeed a presence you can feel beyond mere water flowing over rock.

Within modern Paganism, it is common to hear praise for trees, mountains or Nature, without any specific reference to a real place or specific living being. This is a stark contrast to many indigenous cultures that usually have specific sacred trees, rocks, streams or mountains that are essential to their faith. Indeed we hear the same sentiment in Judaism in the reverence accorded specific sites in the Holy Land. My ancestors in Scotland and Germany certainly had sacred places, streams and trees. I know the Monacan nation, who still live in my corner of the world, had sacred places, some of which we’ve now buried under concrete. Like many of us, being separated from the lands of my ancestors I have lost that direct connection to the spirits of place my ancestors certainly knew.

While restoring streams is good public policy, and I advocate for it on that basis, as an Animist, I feel too the spirit of place that is healed as we heal our streams. I also feel it as a spiritual wound when we fail to do the right thing by our sacred waters. In recent years, I’ve watched as two “nameless” tributaries of the Meadowcreek were buried under a new shopping center. Even though the public asked repeatedly what the large pipes were about, the only thing the public heard was that it had something to do with “stormwater”. I could not save these streams, but I was able to bear witness to what really happened there, by confronting local media organizations with the truth.

a typical bioswale at the University of Virginia using native grasses to filter stormwater.

A typical bioswale at the University of Virginia using native grasses to filter stormwater.

As localities have increasingly had to deal with the implications of the Clean Water Act, passing pollution downstream has ceased to be an option. Much of the cleanup of streams and rivers is wrapped in arcane acronyms and technical jargon like TMDL (or Total Maximum Daily Load). In my work, it is part of my responsibility to help localities deal with the challenges of meeting federal mandates to clean up streams. In particular, the Chesapeake Bay TMDL will require a complete reversal of the kinds of behaviors that paved the landscape and buried streams. Changing those attitudes, policies and ultimately the landscape itself is not easy.

In practice, improving the quality of stormwater can only be done by living systems, like special gardens made of native plants called biofilters that remove toxins from the water. I’ve had the exceptional opportunity to witness several stream daylighting projects, where streams are resurrected from the deep and returned to life on the surface of an urban landscape. I dare say it is hard not to feel the spiritual implications as you see butterflies, wildflowers and a splashing stream where there was once nothing but pavement. Also, once these streams are daylighted, they cease to be unnamed and start becoming places again like the Dell, a stream daylighting project in my area.

The Dell at the University of Virginia.

The Dell at the University of Virginia.

The importance of naming has a long history within the concept of magic, including the idea that a measure of power can be gained over anything if you learn its secret name. Indeed as Tolkien once said in On Fairy Stories, “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.” Part of spell work in many traditions involves setting an intention and visualizing a change in the word. Like the Reclaiming tradition, I tend to follow Dion Fortune’s definition of magic, “the art of changing consciousness at will.” Public policy is a whole lot like that; you come up with an idea and then you advocate it by participating in public advisory groups. Over time, if you are lucky, you change consciousness (and policy) and it has a real lasting impact in the world.

Like those once nameless streams, I begin with no human names for the spirits of the landscape of my community; their true names were lost long ago, if ever they were known. While my work in the community of helping improve stream buffers, daylight streams, or promoting best management practices is inherently based on sound conservation science, it is also part of my spiritual work in the world. As a public official I serve the public, not my faith, but when I look out over a paved city or a construction site, it is faith that helps bring me to the table and inspires me to seek solutions. It is my way of giving a name to that which was lost. By speaking for those places that cannot speak for themselves, by caring for them as Chihiro did, I come closer to naming those spirits of place so they need not wander as ghosts in concrete beneath our feet anymore.

[The following is a guest-post from Joseph Merlin Nichter. Joseph Merlin Nichter is an author, blogger, ritualist, Freemason, Wiccan and co-founder of the Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain, Joseph provides Pagan religious services and assists with religious accommodations of minority faiths for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; he has also served the California Department of Mental Health as a religious program instructor. Joseph is the co-founder and current president of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Joseph lives in Central California with his wife and four children, where he continues to actively serve his community.]

The odds are quite favorable that the average Wild Hunt reader has experienced religious discrimination which has manifested in either social, legal, or vocational arenas. We must consider the impact this type of discrimination can have on our spirituality and self-esteem. I would argue that this form of discrimination which occurs on a daily basis within a correctional-rehabilitative environment, is in direct conflict with their goals and purpose. Nonetheless, that has in fact been the unfortunate state of affairs for quite some time.

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

In October of 2012 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) issued an internal memorandum containing new directives pertaining to inmate personal religious property and religious grounds. Attached was a newly drafted list of proposed religious items that would be universally approved at every prison within the state of California. Referred to as the Religious Property Matrix (RPM), the list was developed on an effort to improve the current policy which the department itself recognized as “vague and inconsistent.”

Earlier this year the CDCR released its second draft of the property matrix which contained at least 24 alterations. Some of those changes involved simple terms, but important context; for example many of the items which were limited to a small list of allowable colors had been changed to “multicolored, excluding red or blue.” This has been viewed by many as an understandable change considering that Security Threat Groups (gangs) have proven to be an enduring epidemic and colors, such as red and blue, continue to be employed as a primary mode of recognition.

By March the department felt comfortable and confident with the new property matrix and released a notification of change to regulations. These changes will ratify and implement the new religious property matrix and will also include a change in verbiage. All religious objects previously referred to as “artifacts” is being changed to “items.” Perhaps more significant is the removal of the word “Bible” from list of examples included in the states definition of the term “Religious Artifact Item” located in the 3000 block of Title 15, Crime Prevention and Corrections.

The Pagan Alliance and the House of Danu called for an Emergency Pagan Conclave to address and discuss these new changes. The conclave convened on Sunday of this past Beltane weekend in Oakland, California with several Pagan community leaders in attendance; including M. Mach Nightmare, Pantheacon organizer Glenn Turner, Sam Webster, Diana Paxson, and T. Thorn Coyle of the Solar Cross. The conclave commenced with an hour long presentation by Barbara McGraw, which was followed by narrative commentary on the religious property matrix by event organizer James Bianchi. The remainder of the event was dedicated to an open discussion forum which included a panel of experienced Pagan religious volunteers, including two primary officers from the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association.

Referred to as an “Orwellian list” (that which is not permitted is absolutely forbidden), the primary concern being expressed is that the list will place an unfair restriction on religious accommodations and related practices. But based on my own direct personal experiences, I’m inclined to embrace a more optimistic view. There has never been a consistent statewide policy or single unified list of universally approved items.

The fact is that the CDCR policies regarding personal religious items have been vague (no list) and inconsistent (no collective standard). So whenever an inmate, (for the purpose of this article, a Pagan inmate) wants a religious item such as a pentacle pendant, it must be approved by a state employed chaplain. While it may not be hard to imagine how difficult it might be to obtain such an item in such an environment, the challenge doesn’t end there. Most of the time such an item is not approved, but in the rare instances that it get approved, there is no guarantee that said inmate will be able to maintain possession of the item. If the inmate is transferred to another prison or just moved from one yard to another within the same prison, a difference in policy or social climate often results in the confiscation of such items.

The purpose of the Religious Property Matrix is to establish statewide standardization, resolve the inconsistency and facilitate the rights of inmates to practice their religion within the parameters of the correctional environment. The list will ensure all individuals, regardless of religion, will be guaranteed personal possession of fundamental items. At least eighteen of the twenty-four items listed are applicable to Pagan practices and several of the items listed are explicitly Pagan in nature such as the Wand, Tarot/Divination/Runecards, and Rune tiles. I personally view these items in particular as a significant improvement as they have been among the most difficult for me to get approved in the past.

The other concern that’s been expressed is that items which have been approved in the past, yet are not on the new property matrix will be seized. Although there will be a one year wear out period for all items not included on the new matrix, what this does mean is, yes, there are inmates that will lose some of the items they have been fortunate enough to obtain in the past. But this also means that there will be many inmates that will finally acquire items that they were never able or allowed to possess previously. There will be a loss for some and a gain for many others, but there will be state wide continuity and religious equality. Everyone everywhere will finally be granted and guaranteed basic religious items, without equivocation or discrimination. I for one consider that to be progress, for our incarcerated Pagan brothers and sisters, and for pluralism movement as a whole.

In speaking with department staff regarding the matter, they felt it is important to note that several suggestions received during the public comment period are already in the process of review and are expected to be added to the property matrix. In addition, the property matrix is not a static document. There is a process in place to continuously receive and review suggestions for improvement and the inclusion of additional items into the matrix on a regular basis. It is also important to make a clear distinction here between personal religious items and congregant items, which remain subject to approval at a facility level.

Perhaps it’s due to my own military background that I am sympathetic to the logistical, political, financial and social challenges the CDCR faces in the pursuit of its goals. But it is also due to that same background, having been discriminated against as a Pagan myself, that I am sympathetic to the religious rights and needs of the inmates. And while the department is not without its incarnations of ignorance and apathy, I have seen an encouraging trend of equality and acceptance emerging from a previously inhospitable atmosphere. Finally I’d like to take this rare opportunity to challenge the Pagan community to lend their attention and concern to an equally critical need within our circles and groves by previously incarcerated Pagans; reentry acceptance, assistance and support.

[This editorial from Joseph Merlin Nichter is part of a response to the new CDCR rule changes regarding items allowed to Pagan prisoners. I will also be reaching out to Pagan opponents of the proposed changes for their viewpoint. I'd like to thank Mr. Nichter for submitting his thoughts. As always, opinions expressed in guest editorials are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent The Wild Hunt, its editors, or staff.]

[The following is a guest editorial from Cara Schulz. Cara Schulz is the Managing Editor of the Pagan Newswire Collective and the Chair of Pagan Coming Out Day.  She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, enjoys attending festivals, and has no tattoos.]

Let me first state that all persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That said, things look grim for Councilman Dan Halloran (R), Queens, although he maintains his innocence.  He, and five others, were arrested on charges of accepting bribes and attempting to rig an election.  Halloran was specifically accused of setting up meetings with three other elected officials and handling bribes totaling thousands of dollars.  The details, and guilt and innocence of each person, will come out in trial and I have no interest trying the case here.I’m also not naïve enough to think bribery and corruption aren’t rampant in all levels of our government.

Cara Schulz

Cara Schulz

It may be as blatant as what the FBI claims Halloran engaged in or it may be more subtle and pervasive.  How many of our politicians leave office poorer than when they were first elected?

Dan Halloran wasn’t just any politician, though.  While we’ve had, and will have, other Pagans and Heathens in elected office, none were as prominent as Halloran.  None had been so publicly and brutally outed during their campaign, and yet still won, as Halloran.  And none, once mocked and derided for their religion, had either of the two major parties stand by him as steadfastly as the Republican Party stood by Halloran.  For the first time, mocking one of our religions not only didn’t work, it backfired.  People of all, and no, religious persuasions said bigotry was not a winning campaign strategy and they voted Halloran into office.

Which is why his election as a New York City Councilman was a watershed moment for our religious communities.  We could now point to his election, and the circumstances around it, and say, “This is now possible.”  It was something many Pagan and Heathens didn’t think they would see in their lifetimes.

His election to office was something we could take pride in, although many Pagans and Heathens wouldn’t vote for a Republican even if the other choice was Prince Joffrey.  And many in the Heathen community disliked Halloran personally and by reputation and were vocal in opposition to his candidacy.  We don’t always get the trailblazer we desire, but in order to blaze a trail, the person has to succeed in gaining the position.  Halloran ran a tough campaign during an even tougher election when all the momentum was for his opponent.

Which brings us to this week.

pagancomingoutdaySome of you may know me from my work with Pagan Coming Out Day (May 2nd).  I’m the founder and Chair of this organization, which works to achieve greater acceptance and equality for Pagans at home, at work, and in every community.  We help those who feel they are ready to come out, in some way, in some portion of their lives.  This is important not just for the well-being of the individual, but for the community.  The more people that come out, the safer and more accepted we will all be.

Yet there are responsibilities when a person comes out.  For many people you are the only Pagan they know.  They will judge all Pagans by your behavior.  That may not be fair, but who said life is fair?  When you are a prominent person in your city or in your career field, the responsibility to be an ambassador for other Pagans is greater.  When you are the first Pagan in an area or at a certain level, such as a CEO of a major company or a New York City Councilman, the responsibility jumps even higher.

No matter Halloran’s eventual verdict in a court of law, it’s clear he either didn’t understand or refused to acknowledge he carried that extra burden of honor.  To act according to the highest of ethical standards so others, when given the opportunity to vote for a Pagan or Heathen candidate, could look at his example and feel reassured we are as moral a people as any other religious group.  Because we are.