Archives For Sandra L. Harris

The Council for a Parliament of the World Religions made two big announcements this month. On Aug. 8, the Council reported that its Parliament would now be held every two years. Then Aug. 15, the Council announced that the very next 2015 Parliament would be hosted in a U.S. city for the first time in 22 years.

cpwr_logo_headerThe original Parliament of the World Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. As noted on its website, that meeting is now largely considered the “birth of interreligious dialogue worldwide.” The landmark event brought together representatives of both eastern and western religious traditions and, additionally, supported an unprecedented number of women speakers. After the 1893 Parliament, Hindu attendee Swami Vivekananda said:

If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not Fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.

Unfortunately, the Parliament wasn’t held again until 1993. Over that 100 years, the world’s religious canvas changed considerably. With all of those changes, the need for interreligious work only grew. In 1988, a group of religious leaders met in Chicago to form the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions as a nonprofit organization. Their purpose was to celebrate and promote interfaith dialog and peace through a regularly scheduled Parliamentary event. Since that point, there have been 5 Parliaments.

1993 – Chicago, USA

1999 – Cape Town, South Africa

2004 – Barcelona, Spain

2007 – Monterrey, Mexico

2009 – Melbourne, Australia

This past April, Council trustees met in Atlanta, Georgia for a special “Charter for Compassion” celebration event and the induction of two Pagans into the Martin Luther King, Jr. International College of Ministries and Laity at Morehouse College. During that weekend, the two inductees, Andras Corban-Arthen and Phyllis Curott, spent several hours speaking with local Pagans about the organization’s work. During that talk titled “Pagans in the Parliament,” they showed a digital slideshow illustrating the 20 years of Pagan involvement with the Parliament.

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Curott and Corban-Arthen at the MLK induction ceremony and Compassion celebration.

Today, both Curott and Corban-Arthen are on the board of trustees and involved with the decisions and future direction of the Parliament. One of those recent decisions was to hold the Parliament every two years. Up to now, the time cycle was set at five years but the actual implementation has taken various lengths of time. The last Parliament was held in 2009 and the next one will be in 2015.

Why have they moved the cycle to two years? The Board says:

As the interfaith movement has doubled and tripled in interfaith action and services in the last decade it has become necessary that this largest summit of people of faith working together for a just, peaceful and sustainable world come together more often.

Board Chair Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid also cited “the age of social media, a globalized world and shorter attention spans” for the adoption of a shorter Parliament cycle. The trustees hope that this change will draw more attention and greater support for the global interfaith movement. In addition, they believe it will engage and inspire younger generations.

The new 2-year period begins in 2015 with a Parliament to be held in the U.S. The Board has yet to announce the specific city but the organizational process is in motion. Chair Mujahid said:

America is the home base of the interfaith movement and it’s about time the Parliament come back home. The Parliament in 2015 will strengthen the interfaith movement through our listening, sharing and networking with each other.

U.S-based Pagans directly involved in the interfaith movement are looking forward to the event. In response to the announcement, the Contemporary Pagan Alliance, based in West Virginia, stated: “Excellent news! We will definitely be there.”

Upon hearing the news, Rev. Sandy Harris, M. Div noted the importance in the continuation of organizations work. She says, “The Parliament of World Religions has provided a venue for exploring [and] has opened a window into American spirituality far wider than the standard monotheistic beliefs. It has helped us all to explore the origins, practices, and understandings of people of all religions and paths.”

Holli Emore, writer at The Wild Garden blog and member of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, hopes to attend the 2015 event. She says:

I am beside myself that it will be here. This is where the first Parliament happened. I think that most Pagans in America are not involved enough with interfaith and don’t understand it. They see it as a platform for defending Paganism and miss the richness and joy of engaging and getting to know other faiths and people of other faiths.

In order to best serve future attendees, the Council is doing a survey on wishes and needs for 2015. The survey is posted on their website. Additionally the Council is seeking bids for hosting the 2017 event. The submission process and outline are on the site as well.

In meantime, the world awaits the announcement of the exact host city for the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Stay tuned for more….

Yesterday, Pagan learning institution Cherry Hill Seminary announced the launch of a new program, Pagan Life Academy, a series of low-cost lessons designed to bring Pagan values, ethics, and ritual to incarcerated Pagans. In explaining the rationale behind this new initiative, Executive Director Holli Emore said that “the prison experience can be a cauldron of transformation for many” and that they “hope that the newly-launched Pagan Life Academy will inspire others to design additional lessons and contribute to the series.”

Holli S. Emore

Holli S. Emore

“For years and years, incarcerated Pagans across the country have been writing CHS to ask, no plead, for instructional materials.  About three years ago I was talking to Patrick McCollum about prison ministry and he suggested that one of the best things we could do as a learning institution was to create a set of lessons.  He advised that they should be printed to mail and be very low cost (most inmates work, but make only cents per hour and must buy most of their own toiletries).  Meanwhile, the letters continued to come. 

Several of our faculty raised their hand when I inquired about interest in working on such a project.  This would be a labor of love, and it would mean learning about culture and systems largely unfamiliar to most of us.  Several times we thought we were close to releasing a series, then were advised by someone closer to the penal systems to make changes.  We are greatly indebted to Selina Rifkin, who created the concept for eight written lessons and wrote each of them, and who formally transferred her copyright to CHS as a gift.  We also owe deep gratitude to Candace Kant, who began the process initially, to Annie Finch, who contributed a number of ritual chants, and, especially, to Wendy Griffin, who spent many hours as editor and advisor.  Thank you, all, for your caring, and for contributing your talent to this growing, though out of sight, need in our community.”

Each lesson and ritual costs $5, and is structured around the 8-spoked Wiccan/Pagan “wheel of the year.” Though the lessons are written so that they can be adapted to as wide a range of Pagan traditions as possible.

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“Contemporary Paganism is really a family of religions, the most popular of which are Asatru or Heathenry, Druidry, feminist Goddess worship, Wicca, non-Wiccan forms of religious witchcraft and reconstructionism (the attempted recreation of ancient religions such as those of Greece and Egypt). Of these Wicca is the largest. Because there may be different kinds of Pagans in any prison, we have attempted to create a Pan-Pagan prison program that includes elements from these traditions and emphasizes some of the values they have in common.”

Pagan activist and chaplain Patrick McCollum, who has done extensive work advocating for Pagan inmates, said the initiative was “very much needed” and that Cherry Hill Seminary was, quote, “changing the world and also making history.” Chaplain Sandra Harris, who was awarded Cherry Hill Seminary’s first Masters of Divinity, added that this was a “great step forward in Pagan prison ministry.”

“I know that there are many, many Pagans all over the United States serving time that we’re not aware of, and [who] could really use some support. And without a Pagan volunteer, they probably aren’t going to get any from their prison. And I think that our Pagan values are good values to share with people in the prison setting, too.”Holly O’Brien, Pagan chaplain and Cherry Hill Seminary Student

Many professional chaplains within the American prison industry feel that the number of Pagans behind bars is growing. As that growth occurs, the need to find ways of accommodating their spiritual needs without the impressive infrastructure of Catholic and Protestant Christian faith traditions can be an ongoing challenge. These materials are a step towards finding ways of getting materials to Pagan inmates in a cheap and effective way. Here’s a list of the existing Pagan Life Academy materials.

Pagan Life Academy

“These first eight lessons are the beginning of a dynamic, growing and changing response to the needs of Pagan inmates.  If you are inspired to create additional lessons which may increase the breadth and depth of the Pagan Life Academy, we welcome submissions.  Note that the Pagan Life Academy is our gift to the community, with no payments or royalties going to writers.  Cherry Hill Seminary reserves the right to edit copy as needed, or to decline use of a submission.”

Contact information, and more details, can be found at the Pagan Life Academy page.

Almost a week has gone by since the Marathon bombings – another terrorist act that has rocked the foundations of America’s comfort and security. If that wasn’t enough, the event was followed by a plant explosion in Texas with more injuries and loss of life. I really haven’t found a good way to express my sadness over either tragedy. I am on the outskirts of both situations. My sadness is purely communal.

Sports Illustrated Cover Image

Sports Illustrated Cover Image

So, instead of focusing on the broken pieces of grief, I’ve decided to shine a light on the people who lift us up during these extreme moments. I’m talking about the first responders who, in times of crisis, demonstrate the true power of the human spirit. They rush towards horror – not away. They normalize a situation, save lives and secure the community. They don’t consider themselves heroes but the rest of us often do.

On April 22, Sports Illustrated will feature John Tlumack’s iconic photo of three Boston Police Officers springing into action. This shot captures the instantaneous response of the officers – a moment in time. I am always transfixed by such photos. They leave me with a deep sense of awe that dredges up powerful tears of respect. I couldn’t do what they do. In emergency situations, I’m best locked in a padded room until danger passes.

On Tuesday, Rabbi Shai Held posted an article in The Tablet, a Jewish online magazine, which contemplates the first responders’ dedication to serve. Speaking through his faith, he writes:

In Jewish theology, the highest human ideal is to “walk in God’s ways.” A well-known Talmudic text puts it this way: “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you; just as God visited the sick, so should you; just as God comforted the mourners, so should you; and just as God buried the dead, so should you” (Sotah 14a). To walk in God’s ways, in other words, is to act in the ways that the Torah describes God as acting. Just as God is present when people are vulnerable and suffering, so should we be.   

Generally speaking, Christians have a similar theological ethic. I spoke with John Morehead, custodian for the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He explained:

In the Christian tradition, [there are] ethical teachings of putting others ahead of yourself, and this is done in light of the overarching New Testament teaching of the death and resurrection of Christ as God using…human evil as a form of transformative justice where the giving of innocent life out of love overcomes evil …

Christians use Biblical verse to support their charitable work and commitment to community. For example, Peter 4:10 reads “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others.”

What is the role of Pagan theology in the mindset of the first responder? We don’t have referential texts to guide our sense of transformative justice or “Godliness” as it were. Is there any religiously-based ethic that drives Pagan first responders?

Peter Dybing

Peter Dybing

I contacted ten different first responders. Unfortunately, most of them could not participate in the discussion. The demands, sensitivity and climate of their jobs prevent them from being publicly Pagan.

Fortunately, Peter Dybing was able to offer some insight. Peter is the Logistics Section Chief at National All Risk Incident Management Team, a Wild land Firefighter, an EMT and an IFSTA Fire Service Instructor. For Peter, becoming a first responder was part of his own spiritual transformation. He had what some may term “a calling” that coaxed him from the buttoned-up corporate lifestyle into one of service and Goddess spirituality. He said:

As my relationship with the Goddess blossomed I understood compassion as being central to my chosen path. The desire was strong to engage in service to my community as part of my goal to grow in my relationship with divinity… Believing that all contains the spark of the divine drives me to be in service to the entire world …

This commitment continues to drive Peter’s work. He added:

In service to those in crisis I feel the presence of divinity in a more powerful way than I ever have at any ritual. Often I am overwhelmed with the sense that I am walking my path “with” the Goddess.

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Pagan Chaplain Sandra Harris, M.Div expressed a similar connection with the Goddess in her work.* Since we last spoke, Sandra has completed her training as a community chaplain first responder. She is also a trained crisis chaplain acting as the on-call chaplain for a Level 1 Trauma Center and a hospital.

Sandra’s Pagan faith and interest in religious plurality lead to her work as a hospital chaplain. However, her underlying need to serve was born much earlier, during her Girl Scout years. She said:

I now recognize my own Brownie initiation as my first Craft initiation. The magic embedded the ethic deeply in me, and that ethic includes being prepared and helping other people…That magic is a very potent driving force, reinforced through life and practice…

Although Sandra’s and Peter’s work are very different, they both use their spirituality while on the job. Peter explains:

I always silently call the directions, invoke divinity and ask for guidance. At large disasters this process is more formal.  At smaller more immediate events this process is often completed in a shortened version before I even step from my vehicle… On two occasions, I was asked what I was doing. I stated that it is a private matter. There is an unwritten rule that we do not discuss issues like politics and religion with each other on scene.

As a chaplain, Sandra’s spiritual connection goes beyond personal practice. She said:

On the job, I am the hands and voice of the Goddess, as She chooses to work and speak through me.  I give myself over to this when I arrive on scene, then proceed to do what needs done trusting that I will know what to do…The scene, whatever it is, is Sacred Space. On entering Sacred Space, I ground and center, then invoke Her Presence…  Then I do, whatever – knowing and aware.  When stepping out of this Sacred Space, I ground and center again, thank Her, and leave the rest in Her hands…. This is the only way I know to remain sane in the face of the outrageous, the horrible, the traumatic, and the anguish.

A retired police officer confided in me that, like Sandra, his Pagan faith has also helped him through many difficult situations. However, he also emphatically stated that his work really has no theologically-based ethic. He explained, “[Officers] enjoy doing their job and working to help the public.”  Peter, Sandra and John Morehead all echoed this sentiment.

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Vietnam Women’s Memorial
Courtesy of Flickr’s lindseywb

I believe that to be true. Time and time again, we have all witnessed the average person become a “first responder.” Although they are normally fire fighters, police officers, EMT and military personnel, they can also be flight attendants, pilots, medical professionals, passengers on a doomed flight and even a teacher willing to take a bullet to save her children. In that respect, there is a first responder instinct deep within all of us. It begins with an ethic that is born of our humanness and rises, when needed, through our personal world views, religious or not.

While we each might have the capability, some people have a gift, similar to that of artist, that pushes them into a life of service as a professional first responder. May we never forget to thank those individuals who risk personal sacrifice for the good of us all. They are the ones that stand ready to hold the light when and if the danger comes.

* Note: Here are some additional thoughts on Crisis Chaplaincy by Sandra Harris. The entirety of her statement did not fit in the article but these words were too insightful not to share.

As we reach the close of 2012, it is time to stop for a moment and take stock of the previous year. When you look at (and for) news stories regarding modern Paganism (and related topics) every day of the year, you can sometimes lose focus on the larger picture. So it can be a helpful thing to look at the broad strokes, the bigger themes, the events and developments that will have lasting impact on the modern Pagan movement. What follows are my picks for the top ten stories from this past year involving or affecting modern Pagans.

10. The John Friend Scandal: Since the beginning of 2012 I’ve been keeping a close eye on the fall of John Friend, founder of the Anusara yoga school, since allegations emerged of sexual, legal, and fiscal improprieties. Of those improprieties was the allegation that Friend ran a Wiccan coven, named the “Blazing Solar Flames,” as a pretext for sexual liaisons with Anusara students.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

Anusara Yoga founder John Friend.

John wanted us to do the ritual in sexy underwear and kiss each other on the mouth, tongue-y kissing,” said ‘Melissa,’ a former member of the coven who asked that her real name not be used. [...]  Friend suggested to the other coven members that sexually charged rituals would heighten everyone’s senses and therefore raise more energy, according to Melissa. “It was certainly never the way that I had experienced Wicca,” Melissa told The Daily Beast, but she was initially open to the experience, in part because of her intimate relationship with Friend and because of her confidence in him as a leader and teacher. “A teacher’s voice is so deeply engrained in your brain, and you implicitly trust them because that’s what helps you do great things in your practice,” she said.

Friend would go on to assert that he takes Wicca “really seriously,” and that he has “taken Wiccan oaths over the years where death is actually the consequence of telling the truth.”  This scandal is important for our communities not only because Friend claims Anusara yoga is “a philosophy and practice that is totally aligned with Wicca on every level,” but because this scandal should be a wake-up call for national Wiccan organizations, an opportunity to engage with myths versus the reality of how our traditions work. As other, more noxious cases of abuse done in the name of Paganism emerge, the need for a more proactive approach to these incidents seems clear.

09. Transgender Inclusion In Modern Paganism: For two years running, the issue of gender, and transgender inclusion in designated women-only spaces, has sparked debate, protest, and remarkable shifts within the Pagan community. The events at this year’s PantheaCon, where debate, protest, and controversy emerged around a scheduled “genetic women only” ritual led by Dianic elder Z. Budapest in part led to one Dianic group removing themselves from Budapest’s lineage, and PantheaCon changing its policy regarding limited-access events. However, this issue was not isolated to events at PantheaCon in San Jose, California, as transgender inclusion became a hot topic at Pagan Spirit Gathering in Illinois as well. That instance led to a historic press conference where prominent Dianic High Priestess Ruth Barrett acknowledged the womanhood of  transgendered activist Melissa Murry.

barrett murray

“Both women said the transgender community is trying to find their voice, similar to the feminist movement in the 60′s and 70′s.   Like the feminist movement, they speak of suffering, pain, and violence.  Murry and Barrett also spoke of the value in claiming mysteries and rituals specific to their sacred journey as women.  “Within my Tradition, which is about the female body and the journey of being born female and the journey through the bloods and birth and menopause,” said Barrett.  “That is a different journey for transgendered women who come to womanhood through a different path.”

What we are witnessing, in real-time, is change happening. A realignment and reconsideration of gender both within and outside a Dianic context that seemed almost unthinkable a decade ago. No doubt there will be further debate and analysis related to this issue, but I think the shifts seen in 2012 are a predictor for future changes in how modern Paganism thinks about, and engages with, gender identity.

08. Cherry Hill Seminary and CHS Graduate Achieve Major Milestones: While there are many Pagan learning institutions Cherry Hill Seminary is reaching farther than most, working towards accreditation as a seminary for Pagan clergy. This year two important milestones in their journey were accomplished: the awarding of its first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling, and graduate, Sandra Lee Harris having her credentials examined and accepted by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc., the credentials-examining body for the Association of Professional Chaplains. This not only frees Harris to her to complete the process of becoming a board-certified chaplain but, in the words of David Oringderff, Ph.D., Harris’s department chair and adviser at Cherry Hill Seminary, “the precedent set by the BCCI/APC decision, which could strengthen the case for future acceptance of Cherry Hill Seminary degrees by other institutions, the U.S. Department of Defense, for example.”

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

“The courses credited toward the first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary are shown to parallel those of degrees from two accredited seminaries, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Tyndale Seminary, when religion-specific requirements for Bible and Christian history studies are replaced by Pagan studies and personal spiritual formation is based on the stated mission values of Cherry Hill Seminary rather than the teachings of Jesus. Further analysis, given similar accommodation, suggests that the Cherry Hill Seminary curriculum in Pagan Pastoral Counseling could satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Association of Theological Schools.” – Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

As the Wild Hunt’s Heather Greene noted, “these advancements indicate a shift in society towards genuine respect for alternative religions within the professional world.” Meanwhile, 2013 is shaping up to be a notable year for CHS as well, with their upcoming partnership with The University of South Carolina  for the “Sacred Lands and and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium.

07. Druid liturgy in Paralympics Closing: One unexpected highlight of 2012 was the inclusion of Druid liturgy in the London 2012 Paralympic Games closing ceremony.  Alongside performances by Jay-Z, Rihanna and Coldplay artistic director Kim Gavin, Music Director David Arnold and Designer Misty Buckley showcased a seasonal theme which “took the audience on a journey through Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer.” Part of the seasonal-themed closing ceremony, spoken by Rory Mackenzie, a representative from Help For Heroes, was in fact written by Druids from the British Druid Order (BDO).

Lance Corporal Rory Mackenzie at the Paralympics closing ceremony.

Lance Corporal Rory Mackenzie at the Paralympics closing ceremony.

“We were sworn to secrecy beforehand, but Emma Restall Orr and I [Greywolf] were approached by the organisers of the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony with a surprising request. They wanted our permission to use parts of the gorsedd ritual we wrote in 1997. So, about 20 minutes into the ceremony, these words went out to 750 million people around the world,”

Philip Shallcrass (aka Greywolf), Chief of the British Druid Order, says that the original ritual was written to bring people from different backgrounds and faiths together, so “its use in the Paralympics closing ceremony seems perfectly in keeping with this original intention.” While the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony featured brief hints of Britain’s pre-Christian past, it featured no explicit contribution from the vital Pagan threads that exist in the United Kingdom, a nation that has played a huge role in the revival of Pagan religions. So it seems fitting that the last closing ceremony in London, for the Paralympic games, would explicitly reference modern Pagan contributions to British culture.

06. A Major Setback For The Maetreum of Cybele:  Earlier this yeear I reported on how Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, in an ongoing tax battle with the Town of Catskill, New York, lost their exemption battle before the New York State Supreme Court. Catskill’s lawyer intimated to a local paper that he “does not expect much protest from pro-pagan groups now that a judge has carefully analyzed the evidence.” That lawyer may have spoken too quickly, as the Maetreum seems fighting mad, not cowed, though Pagan attorney Dana D. Eilers (author of “Pagans and the Law: Understand Your Rights”doesn’t seem convinced that the Maetreum would be able to turn this decision around on appeal.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

“We are now at risk of losing our property to back taxes under a corrupt local system that does not allow for payment plans, installment payments or anything other than immediate payment in full. We are a poor order and spent all our money fighting the Town of Catskill in court. Currently four women live at the Maetreum who would be homeless otherwise. We need to take the battle to Federal court at this point and we need help in doing so. We need to raise the back taxes just to hold on to our property and continue our work.” – The Maetreum of Cybele

The Maetreum is about to launch an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to save their building, and hopefully further pursue their legal case against the town of Catskill. We will keep you posted as this story continues to develop in 2013. I personally don’t think this fight is over as the Maetreum feels that the judge analyzed the evidence through a lens that delegitimized practices he didn’t understand. Quote: “Charity is not charity, prayer, meditation and spiritual activities are not religious, duties of clergy clearly spelled out are not spelled out, activities every week and formal ones every two weeks are “irregular”, some mythical standard of number of regular congregants was not met.  We are a “legitimate” religion but actually exist to wrangle a tax exemption (not legitimate)  I am personally a liar with no actual evidence provided to justify saying that.”

Tomorrow I will post the top five Pagan stories for 2012. In the meantime, I invite you to check out the top religion stories from some different perspectives. The Religion Newswriters Association top 10 religion stories of 2012, HuffPo Religion’s top 10 religion stories of 2012, and 13 religion stories that went missing in 2012 from  Religion Dispatches.

This week has weighed heavily on me.  As the mother of three school age children, I spent this holiday week in-and-out of classrooms. With the Newtown tragedy still fresh, there was an underlying uneasiness within our elementary school – a profound sadness and unspoken fear.  While I looked at all the children’s projects taped to the walls, one phrase kept passing through my mind:

“How could God have allowed that to happen?”

Pere Lachaise

From Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise
Photo courtesy of Leo Reynolds of Flickr

You wonder how a practicing Pagan, a Wiccan Priestess could ask this question? But I’m not asking it. I’m hearing it. I’m reading it. Whether it’s spoken by neighbors or published on the internet, this burning question is drowning out much of the news reports and political calls-to-action as people desperately grasp for meaning.

I began to wonder how we, as Pagans, approach this question. Not for ourselves within our Pagan community but for others outside of our faith. How can we, as Pagans, talk to a depressed Catholic man who has recently lost his wife in a flood?  How do we help a young Jewish girl find peace after losing her friend in a war? How do we calm a Methodist mother whose child has just been shot in a classroom?

Whether at a private memorial service or on the front-lines of tragedy, we all will be or have been put in the position to console the grieving. Given we are in a minority religion, there is very good chance that the grieving individual is not Pagan. How do we console someone who understands the Divine in an entirely different way?

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Several months ago, when I interviewed Sandra Harris, the master’s graduate from Cherry Hill Seminary, we briefly discussed this topic in relation to the Hurricane Sandy disaster.  Aside from her work in hospital chaplaincy, Sandra was accepted to the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, an interfaith first-response unit that “provides spiritual care and support to community members during and after a local emergency or man-made or natural disaster.”

I turned to Sandra this week to revisit her advice. She shared this:

When something happens none of us knows why, in all its details, cosmic or mundane. Asking the question [“Why?”] is a very normal human behavior.  We count on the Universe to have some order, some predictability. The question arises because the Universe didn’t follow the rules and we fear there are other things we assumed to be true that maybe aren’t. 

[As a Pagan friend, minister or confidant] our best response is one that, first, affirms the need and validity of the question and the questioner. Our second response is to encourage the questioner to talk with the aim of releasing what meaning he or she fears the event has. Finally, our third and most difficult job is to help the questioner re-frame the event in some way that leaves hope alive and allows meaning to grow from what happens next. This is where we walk with the questioner while the he or she questions the Divine. We just facilitate that conversation, gently reigning it in when it sidetracks down dark alleys, trying to steer clear from the “if only” and the “what ifs.” 

In all cases, never take away hope, stay in the “here and now,” and never be so presumptuous as to impugn meaning to an event in another’s life.

Lady Emrys

Lady Emrys, Wiccan Priestess
Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Sandra’s thoughts were echoed by another Pagan minister, Lady Emrys, who is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with extensive experience in hospice and palliative care as well as psychotherapy. She has worked to ease the spirits of both grieving families and the dying themselves. For much of her career, Lady Emrys worked in the heavily Baptist Deep South with many of those years spent at St. Joeseph’s, a Catholic hospital in Atlanta. Her patients and clients are rarely Pagan. When I posed my question to her, she remarked:

When we sit with people who are experiencing this level of suffering, it’s not about what you say. It’s about how well you listen; how well you can create a space for them to safely feel and say whatever is in their hearts.  It’s about how well you can stay present with them, when their pain is so difficult to witness, that all you want to do is fix them.

Whether as minister or as a friend, helping another in this capacity is no easy task for even the trained. Lady Emrys added, “On rare occasions [when] I had interactions with people who were nearly impossible to work with due to a combination of fundamentalism and personality issues, I partnered with another team member, especially the chaplain. This was always helpful in my own self-care and safety.”

In the end, whether the client is Pagan or another faith, in order to truly be present as both Lady Emrys and Sandra describe, we must step outside the barriers that separate our religions. We must journey far beyond interfaith constructs to reach a boundless space where only universal humanity exists. Lady Emrys reminds us:

Regardless of our differences, we are humans with similar needs and desires. If we focus on our similarities, on the compassion we have for our fellow human beings, the connection we make will cause those differences to become insignificant.

So, when they ask, “How could God have allowed that to happen?”  We respond, “Well, what do you think?”    And then, once there, we listen.  Most importantly,  Sandra Harris reminds us, “Silence is OK.”

Merry Solstice, Light the lights and may peace find you today and always.

 

 

 

One small step forward for a Pagan but a giant leap for Pagan-kind. 

Footprints in Sand

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Blatz

Earlier this week Cherry Hill Seminary announced that the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Incorporated (BCCI), certifying body of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), granted Sandra Lee Harris MDiv the go-ahead to apply for her chaplaincy certification.  The letter reads:

“Thank you for your application for a theological education equivalency.  The Commission on Certification has reviewed your education credentials and it is the decision of the Commission that your request be granted.”

Many of you may already know that.  Sandra’s news was reported here at The Wild Hunt and was emailed throughout many of the Pagan networking organizations.  So why am I spending an entire post on this?  Why am I wasting our collective Sunday rehashing the story?

Really, is there anything better to do on a chilly, fall morning than contemplate the future of Pagan education within Academia?   I think not.   So, sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let’s examine how the implications of this announcement far exceed the personal triumphs of one Pagan’s journey.  Let me share what I’ve learned after a week of research and two interesting phone conversations.

How a step became a leap….

Cherry Hill SeminaryBefore ever graduating from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS), Sandra began investigating the prospects of earning her professional Chaplain certification from APC.  In doing so, she realized that she would have to prove that her theological education, from an unaccredited institution, was equivalent to the academic work of any CHEA (Council for Higher Education) accredited school.  However, there were two major hurdles. First, there is no APC precedent for judging Pagan theological programs.  Second, there are no standards in theological courses of study across religious institutions. So how do you prove the equivalency of an unknown factor to something else that just doesn’t exist?

Solving this conundrum and proving equivalency became the basis of Sandra’s master’s thesis.   Her abstract reads:

The courses credited toward the first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary are shown to parallel those of degrees from two accredited seminaries, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Tyndale Seminary, when religion-specific requirements for Bible and Christian history studies are replaced by Pagan studies and personal spiritual formation is based on the stated mission values of Cherry Hill Seminary rather than the teachings of Jesus. Further analysis, given similar accommodation, suggests that the Cherry Hill Seminary curriculum in Pagan Pastoral Counseling could satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Association of Theological Schools.

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

As you might imagine, the comparison was not cut-and-dried. Pagan theological course work does not always fit neatly with that of other religions.  For example, many Christian-based masters programs require in-depth Bible study classes. Pagan theology doesn’t have an equivalent text and, therefore, can’t have similar requirements. In the end, Sandra not only had to demonstrate academic course equivalency, she had to explain Pagan theological structure, proving its equivalency as well.

As the BCCI letter proves, she was successful, paving the way for future Pagan Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) students.  During my conversation with her, Sandra, who is now 65 years old, emphasized that she did not apply for the sake of her own career.  Her goal was to “kick the door down for others” and to help establish the credibility of CHS Chaplaincy programs.  Her work, as she said, “is now a prototype for how it can be done” while the school remains unaccredited.

But that won’t be forever.  Holli S. Emore, executive director of CHS, verified that the administration is currently undergoing the lengthy application process that will eventually lead to full accreditation with the Distant Education and Training Council (DETC).  Holli described, in detail, how becoming accredited is a crucial step for the future of CHS and its students.

First, it will “earmark” Cherry Hill Seminary as a legitimate school of higher education on par with any other accredited academic seminary regardless of religious affiliation.  At this point, CHS has already been licensed in the state of South Carolina to award higher-education degrees.  Accreditation will take that a step further, setting the institution apart from make-shift online courses by recognizing CHS’ high academic standards, rigorous programs of study and degreed teachers.

Cherry Hill Seminary's Holli Emore

Holli Emore
Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary

As for the students, accreditation means two things.  For graduates seeking credentials, like Sandra, they no longer have to prove equivalency or justify the credibility of their education.  Furthermore, accreditation would allow CHS students to apply for federal tuition assistance including Veterans’ benefits and other Military-based aid.  Right now, CHS students pay out of their own pockets.

So where is CHS in the process?  The Board has jumped through the first set of hurdles.  Now they are faced with a funding problem.  As it turns out, the accreditation process is very expensive, costing thousands of dollars.  It will take some time to raise enough funds to meet the remaining accreditation requirements.  However, with its dedicated staff and the support of the greater Pagan community it is certainly a real possibility.

In the meantime the school is gaining professional respect through alternative and unexpected means, such as the BCCI letter and the upcoming partnership with The University of South Carolina  for the 2013 “Sacred Lands and and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium.  In a recent email,  David L. Oringderff, CHS professor noted:

“The fact that [Sandra] has progressed this far speaks volumes…for the growing acceptance of Pagan spiritual formations within the Interfaith Community, and Cherry Hill Seminary’s standing and credibility in the academic community.”

So what can the rest of us take away from this?  What does this mean to the greater Pagan community?  All of these advancements indicate a shift in society towards genuine respect for alternative religions within the professional world.  Pagan institutions, like CHS, are on the front lines of this social change, breaking the boundaries that separate Paganism from mainstream society and actively standing for the legitimacy of Pagan belief systems.  The benefits trickle down to each of us, allowing for positive work at the community level.  “When Cherry Hill Seminary is healthy, that well-being extends into all corners of the Pagan world,” Holli remarks.

Labyrinth Courtesy CHS

Walking the Labyrinth
Courtesy Cherry Hill Seminary

That’s a big statement.  However, Sandra clarified it best when she explained that, “the big institutions will never be able to define Paganism.”  They can never take place of the small, autonomous groups practicing throughout the country.  However, the institutions do have a very important role to play. “[They] put Paganism into [a social] context for us and for the rest of the world,” she concludes. That work benefits everyone.

As for Sandra, she will continue the APC application for Chaplaincy certification.  Beyond that, she looks forward to working with the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, a local interfaith organization that “provides spiritual care and support to community members during and after a local emergency or man-made or natural disaster.”  Once again, she takes a small step forward and who knows what size leap may follow.

 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

tow new home

The Temple of Witchcraft’s new Salem home.

  • The Temple of Witchcraft, a religious organization co-founded by author Christopher Penczak, is still encountering difficulties in getting their new building in Salem, New Hampshire the proper zoning so that they can build a parking lot and make improvements. Neighbors say it isn’t about the Witchcraft, just traffic, but at least one neighbor disagrees with the notion of them identifying as a “church” even though no Christian denomination would receive such a challenge. Meanwhile, a new Hindu temple in the same area has been approved, while the Temple of Witchcraft is still having their essential “church”-ness questioned. Make no mistake, the Temple is in the legal right here, and I hope this is resolved before lawyers have to file litigation, costing Salem quite a bit of money.
  • Remember my analysis of last week’s elections here in the United States? I noted that religious demographics were shifting, and this may have been the first post-Christian election. To add more data to my assertions, Discover Magazine notes that Asian Americans, who voted heavily Democratic this cycle, have also become far less Christian, influencing how they vote. Quote: “Barry Kosmin has documented that between 1990 and 2010 Asian Americans have become far less Christian, on average. Meanwhile, the Republican party has become far more Christian in terms of its identity. Do you really require more than two sentences to infer from this what the outcome will be in terms of how Asian Americans will vote?” In short, the more some Republicans want to become “God’s Own Party,” the more a growing number of votes will simply evade them.
  • Over at HuffPost Religion Deepak Sarma addresses the question of white Hindu converts, and whether this growing group, sincere or not, are engaging in a unintentional mockery of that which they profess to honor.  Quote: “So, no matter their sincerity, or self-proclaimed authenticity, their mimicry seems more like mockery. And, unlike the forced mimicry of the Diaspora Hindu, which may have subversive undertones and may destabilize the dominant ideology, reverse mimicry, ironically, merely reinforces existing hierarchies and paradigms. In fact, some claim to be more “authentic” than Diaspora Hindus and, in so doing, deny the voice of those they mimic/ mock.” Sarma goes on to posit that perhaps white converts can never understand the experience of the Hindu diaspora and wonders if welcoming Western Hindu temples and homes suffer from “post-traumatic, post-colonial, servile disorder” by accepting these converts. It should be interesting to see the debate and discussion this post incites.
Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

  • Pagan learning institution Cherry Hill Seminary has passed another important hurdle on their road to becoming an established, recognized, seminary. After awarding its first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling, graduate, Sandra Lee Harris has had her credentials examined and accepted by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc., the credentials-examining body for the Association of Professional Chaplains. This frees her to complete the process of becoming a board-certified chaplain. Quote: “David Oringderff, Ph.D., Harris’s department chair and adviser at Cherry Hill Seminary, congratulated her on her achievement, “This is indeed a milestone, both for your professional aspirations and for Cherry Hill Seminary.”  Oringderff noted the precedent set by the BCCI/APC decision, which could strengthen the case for future acceptance of Cherry Hill Seminary degrees by other institutions, the U.S. Department of Defense, for example.” We’ll have more on this story, and its implications, in the near future.
  • Check out this interview with West Memphis 3 member Damien Echols, conducted by Henry Rollins, who talks to Echols about “his life before and after his trial, including his spiritual and intellectual journey in prison as well as his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he met and married while on death row.”
  • Back in 2010 I announced that long-running web magazine Heathen Harvest, which covered post-Industrial and neofolk music, was closing down. Now, the site has returned at a new address, with new owners, and with the blessing of the original founder. Quote: “Heathen Harvest’s second major incarnation came into being on 4th July 2011, learning from the past by chiefly reviewing digitial promos and concentrating only on the most stimulating music received. The new site has been respectfully named The Heathen Harvest Periodical to distinguish it from the old website, which still remains archived at www.heathenharvest.com. We continue to cover all material from the darker musical underground and to serve the needs and works of musicians, artists, authors and journalists alike all across the post-industrial spectrum.” The new site can be found at: www.heathenharvest.org.
  • In other Pagan-friendly music news,  UK Pagan band The Dolmen have just released a new album entitled “Wytchlord,” while fellow UK Pagan artist Damh the Bard (a most excellent human being) is coming out with a new album, “Antlered Crown and Standing Stone,” on November 17th.
  • At the New Yorker, Michelle Dean wonders if the folkloric witch has been tamed to its own detriment. Quote: “But the witch is no longer terribly wild to us; she’s domesticated, normal, prone perhaps to a spell of madness but one from which she’ll emerge sunny and whole. She no longer signals a liberating spirit. Culturally, we have replicated witch-figures like Samantha of “Bewitched,” whose powers aid her in serving her husband. Our emblematic witch is Hermione Granger, who performs all the magic and takes none of the credit from Harry Potter. She is self-effacing and noble and never in any real danger of contamination by the dark. There are bad witches in Harry Potter, indeed, bad witches in many stories. But their cartoonish one-dimensionality cancels out any real portent. The internal conflicts go to Snape, while Bellatrix is irretrievable.” Dean feels we need the uncontrollable and unpredictable witch in order to do battle with those who seek to control women.
  • The Fourth Circuit Federal Appeals Court ruled that a prison does not have to provide an outdoor worship space for Asatru in prison, noting that there’s no authority requiring it. Quote: “A federal trial judge concluded that Krieger failed to show how the practice of his religion, which is called Asatru, was harmed by the lack of a worship circle outdoors. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision.
  • In a final note, tomorrow I’ll be heading to the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. and I’m hoping to post updates during my time there, and bring back some interviews as well. You’ll also have regular updates from Wild Hunt columnists and reporters to read while I’m away. I’d like to thank everyone who funded this coverage trip back in April, and will do my best to transmit what’s happening in Pagan Studies and Pagan scholarship to you.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.