Archives For Robert Keefer

Yesterday the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the findings of a 50-state survey of prison chaplains.  The survey, which was endorsed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association, interviewed 730 prison chaplains, and has a lot of interesting things to say about religion in the American prison system. At first glance, there are no major bombshell revelations to drive the news cycle, leading to initial headlines like “a lot of religion goes on behind bars.” However, if you start digging into the data, especially the section on what chaplains think about the inmate’s religious lives‘, there’s a lot there that should be of concern to modern Pagans, particularly Pagans engaged in prison outreach and chaplaincy work.

First, we find out that around 1.7% of the national prison population are adherents to a Pagan or earth-based/nature religion. If you extrapolate that to the currently incarcerated population of the United States (around 2.3 – 2.4 million people) it means there’s close to 40 thousand incarcerated Pagans (Native American spirituality averages around 2.7%, or  over 62 thousand incarcerated adherents).  In addition, 34% percent of prison chaplains say that their Pagan populations are growing, with another 49% saying the population has remained stable. Only 8% of chaplains noted a decline in Pagan inmates.

Which brings us to the most contentious section on the religious lives of inmates, extremism. A sizable minority of chaplains (39%) say that extremism is “very” or “somewhat” common within Pagan religions.

No one is going to deny that some Pagan groups in prison are extremist in nature, but I want to push back a bit and contextualize this finding. First, we need to note that the vast majority of prison chaplains are Christian. Of that number, an impressive 44% of prison chaplains are Evangelical Christians. I’m not saying that Evangelical Christians can’t be impartial in making judgments about what is and isn’t extremism in non-Christian religions, but I do think that most of them start out with a severe deficit in practical, unbiased, knowledge of our faiths and traditions. Also, as the Christian Post points out, “extremism” isn’t just about race or intolerance towards other groups, it’s also about “exclusivity” and “unreasonable” requests for accommodation. Both of those factors are highly subjective, and could be skewing the number higher than it may actually be. Still, even without those caveats, it should be noted that most chaplains (61%) don’t think there’s a major Pagan extremism problem.

“I agree that there can be extremism, depending upon your definition. Very, very few offenders were raised Pagan; almost all converted while inside. Now, converts in general are more fervent than cradle raised believers, but there is an extra issue for Pagans; many converted to a Pagan faith because they felt the church of their childhood failed them. This can result in some rigid attitudes. But extremism does not automatically mean a security threat. A hard nosed, rigid member of a pacifist faith is only a threat as a speed bump, for example. Yes, there have been problems in some places, some times- but a lot of that is caused by two factors: first, we ARE talking not only about fallible humans, but fallen ones as well; prisons aren’t the place to go for demonstrations of wise decision making.”Joel Monka, volunteer with Indianapolis Pagan Prison Ministry

For Pagan clergy, volunteers, and organizations trying to provide chaplaincy services to incarcerated Pagans, these statistics simply underscore the many challenges inherent in providing guidance to an often misunderstood religious movement. In 2008, Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights on prisoner’s religious rights, saying he “found discrimination against minority faiths everywhere” and that the problem was “endemic.” Noted Pagan leaders like Starhawk have personally experienced the poor treatment and lack of respect our religions often receive from prison officials. However, when Pagan clergy are allowed in, and Pagan inmates are given the same consideration as other inmates, truly healing moments of fellowship can happen.

“The Pew Center study on the opinions of prison chaplains was a fascinating read. I found it interesting that Earth-based religions were listed by some of them as being extremist. I volunteer with the Druids in a minimum/medium security prison in Washington State, and I can state categorically that none of my men have ever expressed extremist views in my hearing. I can’t speak for the Wiccan or Asatru inmates, but based on discussions with my fellow volunteers from the Paganfest we held in the prison last summer, these other groups in this prison aren’t particularly extremist, either.” – Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF)

Robert Keefer, High Priest of Crossroads Tabernacle Church – ATC, who’s on the Advisory Council for the State of Michigan’s corrections department, noted that relations with the local prison chaplain have been “friendly and helpful,” though he points out that ritual meetings are “limited to the 8 Sabbats currently,” and that expanding that to include Full Moon rituals and educational services have been “slow going.” Aside from bureaucratic hassles, and dealing with hostile or simply misinformed chaplains, the biggest problem we face is finding enough volunteers to deal with the large and growing number of incarcerated Pagans who want or need religious services. Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDríaocht Féin (ADF), pointed out that “in the prison I volunteer at, if there is no volunteer, the men of that religion are not allowed to meet. This can truly be a hardship.” Thomas says that he “can only pray that our Gods will inspire the hearts of my Pagan brothers and sisters to step up and volunteer to help our incarcerated men and women lead valid and fulfilling spiritual lives.”

The data given to us here by the Pew Forum is a boon. Even taking into account the Christian lens through which most of this data was obtained and filtered through, it gives us needed information is discussing and addressing the needs of Pagan prisoners. It underscores the challenges, and affirms what many already suspected: that the Pagan population in prison is growing, that the institutional chaplaincy is disproportionately Christian and conservative in makeup, that extremism (whatever its true extent) is an ongoing concern, and that we simply don’t have the volunteers or institutional muscle in place to properly address prisoner’s needs. Just as it is on the “outside” our growth continually outstrips the pace in which we can train clergy or build institutions and services. In short, we have a lot of work to do.

This report is a first foray into the many issues and concerns raised by this data, and I’m committed to continuing this conversation for as long as it needs to happen. I’m already in communication with several other voices from within the Pagan community on the issue of prison chaplaincy and the topics raised by this survey, and hope to spotlight them in the coming weeks and months.

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion's Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Three days into the campaign and I'm less than $150 dollars from reaching my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven't pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]

Top Story: The company Serpentine Music & Media, founded by author and dream expert Anne Hill back in 1992, has officially ceased its role as distributor of Pagan-created and Pagan-themed music. Originally created as a way to help Starhawk and Reclaiming distribute a collection of songs and chants that Hill had helped produce, it grew into an essential resource boasting a catalog of 350 items at its peak, while establishing the ever-nebulous “pagan music” genre tag. In a letter to customers, Hill describes recent changes in the music industry as a prime motivator for her decision.

“It is no secret that the music industry has been suffering for several years now. During that time, I have changed the business model for Serpentine Music to adjust for reduced sales due to MP3 downloads, pirated music, and other factors. This year, however, sales have dropped yet again, while I have had new and exciting opportunities opening up in different areas.”

Serpentine Music & Media will continue to distribute albums the company had a direct hand in producing, most notably “Circle Round and Sing,” “The Best of Pagan Song,” and “The Music of Gwydion.” The company will also continue on a venue for Hill’s self-published books like “What To Do When Dreams Go Bad: A Practical Guide to Nightmares”. Serpentine is now in the process of liquidating its remaining stock.

As someone with a deep interest in Pagan music, I think it’s safe to say that this shift represents the end of an era. Serpentine was one of the last active (explicitly) Pagan music distributors surviving from the 1990s, and its contributions towards building a modern audience for, and general awareness of, music made by and for modern Pagans can’t be understated. Serpentine was also one of the few distributors that were adventurous enough to dip its toes into goth and non-folk/circle-chant genres at a time when the generational gulf of musical taste within our community seemed pretty vast. Today there are dozens, if not hundreds of Pagan and Pagan-friendly musical artists operating around the globe, many of whom use the Internet to market directly to their fans. While this situation has created a wealth of riches for the adventurous music fan, it hasn’t created a atmosphere where such a specialized niche distribution company could thrive as it once did. I salute Anne Hill for her contributions to Pagan music, and wish her the best on her future endeavors.

Some Scandinavians Not Overly Fond of Wicca: Helsingin Sanomat reports that plans to republish the young-adult “Sweep” series of books by Cate Tiernan in Finland, Sweden, and Norway have been derailed after it was discovered that Wicca plays a central role in the novels.

“Christian Democratic Party MP Leena Rauhala submitted a written question to the government on Friday, stating the view that the books should not be published in Finland. Rauhala mentioned content of the book, including drug use, nudity, smoking, alcohol, and strong language.  The publisher had removed references to tobacco and alcohol, as well as the strongest language from the translation. As for drug use, the publisher said that the books portrayed illegal drugs in a negative light. The Wicca religion proved to be the deciding factor in the matter. “We do not want to promote any individual religion or political ideology in the books that we target toward children”, says the publisher’s CEO Jens Otto Hansen. He said that the publisher was not familiar with Wicca. “I only learned on Monday morning that such a thing as Wicca exists.”  Hansen sees the case as an “industrial accident” for the publisher.”

Interestingly the publisher has no problem promoting Twilight-related events in Sweden, so Mormon vampires are OK, but witches are beyond the pale. Guess a little unwelcome political controversy can make all the difference. Whether tweens and teens in Finland, Sweden, and Norway will someday get to join America, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy and France in following the adventures of “blood witch” Morgan Rowlands remains to be seen.

The (Legal) Poly Marriage Debate Begins In Earnest: Way back in 2006, and then again in 2007, I said that our community would have to seriously confront the reality of Pagan polyamorous families (30% of poly families identify as Pagan according to one survey) coming into the spotlight and eventually seeking legal recognition. Now a case in Canada might be the one to break this issue wide open, and yes, Pagan religion is mentioned.

“Maridas explained all of this [her poly lifestyle] in an affidavit filed Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court. It was one of six filed by the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, which is intervening in the case to determine whether the anti-polygamy law is valid. While others — such as Surreybased Wiccan priest Sam Wagar, who also filed an affidavit Tuesday — contend that they have a religious right to practise polygamy, the polyamorists say that for them it’s a matter of freedom of expression. And what they have to say in their affidavits about how they live offers a glimpse of just how far some Canadian families diverge from the tradition of Mom-Dad-kids or the more recent “traditional” families of two Moms or two Dads and kids. And this peek behind normally closed bedroom doors is a hint of what’s to come in November, when Chief Justice Robert Bauman begins hearing the case.”

If polygamy becomes legal in Canada, will we see a repeat of the early steps of the Gay Marriage movement, with groups crossing the border to find some semblance of legal recognition? How will Pagan groups established or operating in Canada react to such a legal reality? Even if this challenge to polygamy laws fails, Pagan groups in Canada and America need to be ready for the culture-war blow-back  and to decide where they stand on the issue. The time where we could just not mention it for the sake of political expediency is quickly fading.

Prison Ministry in Michigan: Crossroads Tabernacle Church, an affiliate of the ATC located in Southeast Michigan, has announced that Founding High Priest Robert Keefer has been appointed to serve on the Michigan Department of Corrections Chaplain’s Advisory Council.  The first time that Wiccan clergy has been appointed to this position in the state.

“For his two-year term,  Robert will meet with clergy from other faiths and lend his expertise in Wiccan spirituality to advise the Department of Corrections on requests made by inmates and staff, work to ensure equal access to materials and worship space as appropriate for all Pagan and other Earth-Based religions, as well as make it possible for other Pagans to volunteer as faith group leaders in Michigan’s correctional facilities.”

This is an important positive breakthrough, and I congratulate Robert Keefer on his appointment. May it lead to similar advances throughout our country, and cast a light on how needed such clergy are in our prisons.

Witch-Child Protectors Launch Their Own Propaganda Campaign: I’ve mentioned before about how Nigerian witch-hunters like Helen Ukpabio have created a media industry with propagandistic “expository”  horror films featuring witchcraft possessed children, while selling non-fiction religious titles like “Unveiling The Mysteries of Witchcraft” that make assertions about the reality of child witches. Now Stepping Stones Nigeria, one of the few groups working to protect children accused of witchcraft, is fighting back. They’ve partnered with acclaimed Nollywood director Teco Benson to create their own film entitled “The Fake Prophet”.

Stepping Stones hopes the film will be a corrective to the spate of Nollywood films that peddle in the myth of child witches, and create a public debate over the prevailing belief that such “witches” exist. The premiere of the film is taking place at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in London on July 24th. For more information about the event and the film, you can contact Justine Atkinson with Stepping Stones Nigeria. Will fighting propaganda with propaganda work? I suppose we’ll have to see.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!