Faith, crisis and the first responder

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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.


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.

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46 thoughts on “Faith, crisis and the first responder

  1. I wish to state that The Wild Hunt is an excellent expression of the greater community for its consistent quality in writing, honest coverage and relevance to Pagans and Heathens as well as to our society-at-large. I’m honored to be permitted to comment and gratified to see the involvement in dialogue from all of you.

    Well met, well done, and so very welcome aspect of our community.

  2. I’m glad you were able to interview these folks. Dybing is an inspiration to me, as I am an openly pagan first responder myself.

  3. Applause, applause! Beautiful article, Heather! And Sandy’s additional comments are spot-on. At Cherry Hill Seminary we are so proud of her years of service.

  4. Great article! If you ever need to get a comment from a Pagan Police Officer, Fire or EMT, check out Officers of Avalon. We are on Facebook.

  5. “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.”
    That’s not entirely true, is it?

    Whilst there is no universal Pagan theology, there are referential texts, such as Hávamál, that can act as guides for moral and ethical conduct.

    • Totally agree.
      Myths people, study the myths upon which we base our beliefs, they can teach us so much 😉
      Just because we didn’t gather them up into a book and slap an offical seal of approval on it like some other folks out there, doesn’t mean we don’t have a wealth of stories from those came before us to learn from.
      Just because they don’t list commandments for us to follow doesn’t mean they can’t teach us a thing or two about how to live.

    • “Whilst there is no universal Pagan theology, there are referential texts ….”

      Absolutely. In fact, the difference between Christianity and Heathenry is not that we are lacking in referential texts, but rather that we have multiple texts from which we are free to choose.

      As a matter of fact, the very concept of “compassion” (as well as the word itself)comes from Greco-Roman Pagan teachings about the interconnected of all living things (indeed, of everything in the Cosmos). There are also multiple sources of similar teachings from both China and India going back centuries before Jebus came along.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. Funny enough that your comment was exactly my own point in last Sunday’s article about ostension. Unfortunately, my meaning here in this article was not clearly stated…It should have read “a singular holy referential text or set of texts” (like a Bible or Torah).

      • Because “paganism” is described as a group of several religions, everyone but the most blank-slate of a nub or nonner is going to understand that there’s no such thing as a single body of referential texts in pagan religions. But when writing for a blog by pagans, for pagans, writing what you did seems to speak more to ignorance than anything. There’s not only plenty of mythology speaking to the ethical virtues of compassion, but plenty of texts from Mediterranean and European traditions, and mythology and texts of Eastern and African traditions, and I’m unfamiliar, but I’m sure there’s surviving mythology of the America and Australian and Oceaniac peoples that supports compassion.

        But you didn’t say that. You said “pagans have nothing” and included a few quotes speaking vaguely about how The Goddess (which is not a universal pagan deity) help a few people understand compassion. You implicitly excluded hundreds of people in the pagan community both in your claim of lacking an ethic guideline (maybe true for some) and in only including testimony from two people who honour The Goddess (a deity unknown in traditional polytheism), and then after you were called out on the former, offered up little more than “oops, I guess I wasn’t clear”.

      • I feel that comparing Paganism to Christianity is grossly flawed. Paganism is better compared to Abrahamism – both are umbrella terms describing discrete religions.

        That said, even that comparison is flawed as Paganism, as commonly used today, described many completely disparate religions whilst Abrahamism only described a small number of closely related religions.

    • Just realised that this is pretty hollow without any supporting ‘evidence’.

      Just looking through Hávamál ( Online Hávamál ) to see if there are any passages that might be of relevance here, and came across these:

      Let no man stint him and suffer need
      of the wealth he has won in life;
      oft is saved for a foe what was meant for a friend,
      and much goes worse than one weens.

      This refers to the act of gift giving and cautions against hoarding, but it can be interpreted in a modern context to include the giving of aid to those in need (for one day you may well be the one in need, yourself.)

      Young was I once, I walked alone,
      and bewildered seemed in the way;
      then I found me another and rich I thought me,
      for man is the joy of man.

      A good line referring to the importance of community.

      • Also there is this:


        I counsel thee, Stray-Singer, accept my counsels,
        they will be thy boon if thou obey’st them,
        they will work thy weal if thou win’st them:
        growl not at guests, nor drive them from the gate
        but show thyself gentle to the poor.

        • Yup. Just further reinforces the point that there are referential texts available to Pagan types.

  6. I’m a Druidic police officer and Iraq/Afghanistan vet currently deployed in Khandhar province. My beliefs not only inform what I do as a first responder, but are largely the reason I joined the army and then went into LE. Hell my decision to join was virtually the same decision as my decision to start practicing the old ways.

    The myths of the ulster cycle help teach me what it means to truly give yourself fully to the service of your people and all the good, and the bad, that it can bring.

    My relationship with my patron goddess Morrigan is not unlike my relationship with darkness and violence I’m exposed to in my work, requiring a sort of cautious controlled acceptance, but not something to ever fully embrace.

    My paganism is central to why I do what I do, and how I survive what it puts me through.

  7. This is so powerful. To see that our hands, our feet are the hands and feet of the Divine/gods.

  8. 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?

    As a Hellenist, YES WE DO!

    Maybe you speak true for people into Pop Wicca and similar self-made “paganism”, but you’re implicitly excluding HUNDREDS of people, especially traditional / reconstructionist polytheists (including lunot only Hellenismos, but Heathenism, Kemetics, Romans…), from your definition of “paganism” to say “we don’t have this” and “we don’t have that”.

  9. I’m also curious, given the journalistic standard I’ve seen JP-W claim to hold The Wild Hunt to, why are anonymised statements excluded? This is a by-and-for-pagans source, trusted by thousands, and even the most respected news sources in the Anglosphere will quote people anonymously, especially if the person requests it out of fear for their job or the safety of their family. Seriously, how many drug addicts are show in silhouette and vocodered on 20/20? Why does that so seldom happen on TWH, and not in this article at all? It would’ve been nice to see testimony from people who aren’t Goddess worshippers, even if they wished to have their identities anonymised.

    • It’d be interesting to see an in depth article on Pagan morality, wouldn’t it? Highlighting the differences between the various religions that get placed under the large umbrella that is Paganism, as well as explaining on where the moral guidelines come from.

      • Indeed. Unfortunately, for some curious reason, so many in the pagan community seem deeply invested in perpetuating the Christian fallacy that all ethics and morality began with Christianity, that somehow, for millennia prior the advent of Christianity, laws were just… I dunno, a means of maintaining power for Rome? Or something. And that ethics and morality had nothing to do with spirituality and was all an individual matter and the like? I honestly don’t know what goes on in some people’s heads about this, so I ask, cos from where I sit, too many self-identified pagans seem pretty determined to maintain Christian lies about the history of ethics and morals.

          • Which just strikes me as a gross betrayal of ignorance.

            …but then, considering where that Q&A is hosted, I’m not surprised that it was written to cater to the lowest common denominator.

          • But the lowest common denominator are the ones that need educating the most.

          • They’re also the ones most resistant to it, and the ones least likely to realise both a) that they need education and b) that they themselves are the most resistant to being educated. Thus anything aimed at “educating” them has to be formulated into dumbed-down, easy-to-swallow caplets, lest it actually contain something akin to real information.

          • So, just tell them that Paganism can’t be described in general terms?

          • British Nationalist Party-er or Big Name Pagan?

            (The acronym always confuses me.)

          • My most famous embarrassment (ahem, yes, I have a few) was from my first encounter with the acronym “YMMV”. Due to the tone of the conversation at the time, I immediately thought it meant “you make me vomit.” People had some fun leading me slowly to the correct meaning. 😀

          • Can never be too sure, both seem to be overly political with a veneer of religion. :p

        • “from where I sit, too many self-identified pagans seem pretty determined to maintain Christian lies about the history of ethics and morals.”

          I think a major part of the problem is that it requires a sustained, conscious effort to resist the “dominant paradigm”, which is still strongly biased in favor of Christianity and against Heathenism, Hellenism, Paganism, etc.

          • I also think it has something to do with ‘Paganism’ often being used as a form of ‘rebellion’, with people trying to define Paganism as being a counter to Christianity – if Christianity has something, then it must be bad, etc.

  10. I’m following the exchange between Ruadhán and Lēoht with interest (and gratitude) and I wish to offer a caution that could be a criticism, but only if either of you resemble my remarks: We too easily fall prey to projection of our personal perspective to others. It’s similar to dueling anecdotes, as it were, in that (for example) my contact with many members of that lowest common denominator shows a rather normal (to the general case) mix of people who want to learn, people who at least start out with open minds, and people who either just don’t want to be bothered or truly have already made up their minds.
    Anyway, separate point: The ubiquity of Wicca in the public awareness will just by default make it the “go-to” representative of Pagans (and Heathens, I have found). I call it the Kleenex effect: people will automatically ask for a “kleenex” instead of a “tissue”, even though that is just one brand name amongst several. Copy machines are routinely called “xerox” machines despite some other company name and logo prominently displayed. There are other examples, I’m sure. Market saturation is nine-tenths of the lexicon, to mangle another cliche.

    • I’d agree. There are two types of ignorance -wilful and incidental.

      Everyone starts of ignorant on any given subject and only through learning do they remove that ignorance. Too often we consider the lowest common denominator to be the wilfully ignorant rather than the incidentally ignorant.

      That is actually why I feel it is important to give decent summaries to that demographic.

      It is important for all Pagans and Heathens (and other, related groups) to be clear about the differences between us all, rather than to simply reinforce false stereotypes.

      • My personal quest, recently revived from a frustrated sense of being thwarted, is to engage all of my siblings in faith to determine a definition of core values. They need to be clear enough to gain consensus, but general enough so as not to be conflated with any single belief system (having a name that begins with an uppercase letter, that is).

        The Jones & Pennick book “A History of Pagan Europe” makes a good attempt. It runs on for a substantial paragraph. I also would like to use Bonewits’ triune designations of paleo- meso- and neo-pagan. I just need to find enough likeminded peers… something which I’d given up on (until recently).

        • I don’t think you can have ‘core values’ within an umbrella such as Paganism. It think you will struggle to even find core values in the eclectic solitary Pagan demographic.

    • I suppose that depends on how one defines “lowest common denominator”, to address your first point.

      To address the second, few are being harmed in the market dominance of Kleenex branding, making the term ubiquitous with facial tissue, and similar treatment of Xerox is becoming antiquated, as many brands for a variety of needs and uses are on the market, to the point that Xerox is a speciality product; it pretty much always was, and even though the 1980s, “xerox” as a synonym for “photocopier” was a bit of an oddity among regular library users and people familiar with computer printers.

      When people in the community assume a Kleenex situation whilst continuing to treat “pagan ” as just another word for “Wicca”, especially on a site like Patheos (linked above by Leoht), which claims to take a “scholarly ” approach to religion (and then they gave Bristol Palin a blog, go figure…), this is just as antiquated as referring all photocopiers as Xerox, when the market clearly lacks a saturation anymore, especially considering how many home computer printers have that photocopier function. It’s not at all relevant.

      • Ruadhán, we likely need to agree to disagree. I was describing a general trait in our fellows — all of them, of any stripe — that is at once a mark of intellectual laziness and one of language efficiency. I won’t hesitate to criticize laziness, but I do believe it should be distinguished from the cyclic dynamics between language and its use.
        Harm is not a determining factor, I believe. Defiing the lowest common denominator is local and often subjective… but it is something I’ve honed as a skill out of necessity, for my work as well as for my efforts in social activism on behalf of Pagans and Heathens in general. I always need a starting point. Educating the non-Pagan/Heathen public is a thankless task in the short-term, but I believe it is a critical effort in which to put our energy. The rest is dealing with the local context (and avoiding nervous breakdowns, in my experience).
        I join you in decrying any laziness within our own community. I occasionally read Patheos when Gus DiZerega posts there, and rarely on my own. I will pay more attention the next time.

        • I think Ruadhan has the right of it with his Xerox analogy. “Pagan/Wiccan” made a lot more sense in the ’90s at the height of pop Wicca and true market saturation, and when even Heathen groups were… well, kind of “Wiccish” in ritual format with the four-quarters hammer-rite and the like, and other Recon groups just getting started.

          But the “Pagan=Wiccan” idea is pretty dated now, especially on the blogosphere where you really should expect people to keep up a bit better. I’m not even sure how dominant the Wiccan majority still is anymore– I see a lot less of the old “Wicca as a gateway drug” among newbies and more newbies coming in through completely different ways. (A *lot* of new Heathens have never been Wiccan, for one thing.) “Antiquated” is a good word for it. I appreciate that putting the idea of a subcultural umbrella held together mainly out of common minority status but often surprisingly little else* into a bite-size paragraph is hard, particularly for readers with so much privilege as to have never needed such a thing, but so little justice is done by keeping that dated old thinking that it actually surprises me when I still encounter it.

          *-I do think there are vague commonalities between many Pagans, but I think they’re more subcultural than they are religious. Openness to science and technology, a sharp tendency to be geeky in some way, romanticism of the past, that sort of thing. Religion, values, beliefs– that’s the one place you *won’t* find agreement, IMO.

          • (A *lot* of new Heathens have never been Wiccan, for one thing.)

            I know very few Hellenists who were Wiccan, first, and none of the younger or otherwise newer people I’m aware of ever were. Even though I’ve been in and out of the pagan community since the mid-1990s, I’ve certainly known about Wicca and some of its basics, but I’ve honestly never been Wiccan, either.

            Very few people still go looking for a “xerox machine”, unless that’s the brand they have in mind. Similarly, over the past six or seven years, I’ve seen the pagan community go from the last days of assuming everyone must be some kind of Wiccan to at least one Heathen, one neo-Druid, and a minimum of one of at least two of the following on every major pagan group blog: Hellenist, Celtic polytheist, Kemetic, Feri, Roman, and often enough at least one person who practices something else. And I think people seem more likely to describe themselves as eclectic pagan than Wiccan, lately, too. The “pagan = Wicca” confusion, I think, is thoroughly over, at least within the community. Do we really expect the public to go through another twenty, twenty-five years of trying to figure that out for themselves, while we continue to put out FAQs that, even for the community itself, would’ve been inaccurate for a good half of the community about fifteen or twenty years ago?

          • Indeed. The (non Pagan) public’s knowledge is only as good as the information we give them.

            However, this will inevitably lead us back to the quagmire of how to define Paganism in a succinct manner that is inclusive enough to please people whilst still being exclusive enough to maintain a solid definition. Which I think we should agree to avoid, since we all know that is not getting resolved any time soon and bringing it up again is pretty futile.

            What I would ask is whether there has ever been a serious interfaith council/parliament set up exclusively for the Pagan umbrella?

          • Well put. I’ll put this to rest by just pointing out the general case I made: People are lazy when it comes to language and usage. Our lexicon shifts reflect that, for the most part. It wasn’t the original examples I was touting, it was the general laziness.
            We can govern or motivate it. I spend almost as much time reminding fellow Pagans that Heathens deserve the respect of the proper use of their chosen label as I spend trying to explain modern Paganisms to non-Pagans. I absolutely acknowledge that this is a major investment of time and energy, and that it must be a person’s choice, not any sort of mandate. If my assertive tone here suggested the latter, I regret giving that impression.
            Maybe I should take lessons in tilting at windmills, but “openness to science” looks like a worthy start on a list of common values in our community. I’d add a strong ethic of personal responsibility, a rejection of the practice of proselytizing, and informed consent. 🙂

          • I don’t see a problem with proselytism.

            I’d expand informed consent to simply being informed. Ignorance is hardly a virtue.