Students Create “Old Faith Community” at University of North Georgia

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, there is small town called Dahlonega. This quaint southern town is home to wineries, apple orchards, antique shops and picturesque views. It is also home to a small college called the University of North Georgia (UNG), which is made up of both a traditional university and one of only six prestigious senior military colleges in the entire U.S.

Downtown Dahlonega [Photo Credit: Gwringle, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

Downtown Dahlonega [Photo Credit: Gwringle, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

Demographically speaking, the college is quite typical for the Dahlonega area. According to, the town is 89 percent Christian. The dominant religious practices are Southern Baptist, United Methodist and Old Missionary Baptists.This is echoed in the makeup of the student body as shown by the represented faith groups on campus. Of the 9 religion-based clubs, all are Christian except for the Interfaith Alliance. Additionally, there is a Secular Student Alliance or Skeptics Society.

As such, UNG is not a place that one might readily expect to find a Pagan or Heathen student. However, not only are they there, but they just earned official status as a formal university club.

The story begins in the fall of 2013 when a Heathen soldier, who is enrolled in the cadet program, applied for admission to the Corps Cadet Chaplaincy training program. At first the program administrators ignored his application. Then he applied again in the spring of 2014 and was informed that, in order to be accepted, he had to be Christian.

This allegedly was not an isolated case. According to multiple reports, other non-Christian cadets have been rejected in the past. While these other cases could not be confirmed, the accusations are plausible considering the program website. The Corps Cadet Chaplaincy advertises itself by opening with a biblical passage and, in secondary document, quotes a cadet chaplain saying, “Keeping the Lord’s purpose as our goal that should be our purpose our drive.”

UNG senior Trevor Graham, a civilian psychology major and Hellenic Reconstructionalist, heard the Heathen cadet’s story in August 2014 after meeting him for the first time. In an interview with The Wild Hunt, Graham said that he was not at all surprised. However, he was surprised to find another Pagan or Heathen on the UNG campus.

Graham, better known on campus as the kilt-guy, spent three years not having any Pagan community. Over this past summer, he decided that it was time to look for like-minds. So when school started back, he placed a letter in the campus non-denominational meditation center. Inside this former evangelical church, students can engaged in contemplative, quiet thought and peaceful correspondence. Graham’s letter, which invited other Pagans to contact him, sat with other correspondance on a desk within the space.

Trevor Graham, UNG Student, co-founder of the Old Faith Community [Courtesy Photo]

Trevor Graham, UNG Student, co-founder of the Old Faith Community [Courtesy Photo]

At the very same time, the cadet had been posting fliers around school with a similar intent. Frustrated by what had happened to him, he made up his mind that it was time to try organizing. Unfortunately, he declined an interview due to complications with his position and pending deployment. However, he did say,”I can’t change anything for myself [being a senior] but maybe I can make this better for the next students and cadets that come in behind me.”

Within hours of Graham placing his letter in the meditation center, the cadet answered the call and the two met. Graham said, “It felt amazing to have somebody to talk to.He may not do what I do but it’s somebody.” Shortly after, the two launched an advertising campaign to build a Pagan club and establish a community. Graham took the lead and began chalking the sidewalks and posting flyers.

Within a week, they had a response. By mid-October, the group had grown to 16 students. It was, and still is, comprised an eclectic mix of Wiccans, Hellenic Reconstructionalists, Asatruar, Naturalist Pagans, Polytheists and others. Graham said that their goal is simply to build a comfortable and welcoming place for any student that practices any of these alternative religions.

As one might expect, the newly formed club experienced some backlash from the conservative religious community. Fliers were removed and chalked signs were washed away. Around Halloween, the group placed a cauldron with candy and a harvest blessing message inside the university meditation room. Within 24 hours, the candy was completely removed and, in its place, were Christian pamphlets that read “Atone for your sins.” Despite all of that, Graham did add that he has yet to experience any real personal backlash or threats.

Although the new Pagan group was formed by mid-October, it was not an official university club. They could only meet off-campus or discreetly on campus. However its goal was ultimately to earn university recognition. Both the Interfaith Alliance and Secular Student Association reached out to offer guidance to the fledgling Pagan organization.

During the final weeks of October, the group prepared paperwork on its structure, constitution and mission. Due to club diversity, it was renamed The Old Faith Community of UNG. Then, with the support of faculty member Dr. Michael Bodri, Graham presented its application to UNG administrators on Oct 31. Several days later, the Old Faith Community was awarded its official student club status. The UNG Pagans, as they are still known, have become both the first Pagan group on campus and only the second official non-Christian religous club.

UNG Campus [Photo Credit: Hermione1980, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

UNG Campus [Photo Credit: Hermione1980, CC lic. via Wikimedia]

But the story doesn’t quite end there. While the group was preparing its application, Graham decided to reach out to the Corps Cadet Chaplaincy program. He asked the administrators if they would consider accepting a student from the fledgling Pagan club. To his surprised, the Chaplaincy agreed and the aforementioned Heathen cadet was finally accepted into the program. He was able to walk into his first training meeting openly without compromising his own Asatru beliefs.

Why did the chaplaincy administrators change their minds only six months after rejecting the Heathen candidate?

During this period of time, UNG came under fire from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an advocacy group that seeks to “ensure that members of the United States Armed Forces receive the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.” According to UNG school newspaper, The Vanguard, the Secular Student Alliance invited MRFF’s Mikey Wienstein to speak at the school. On Aug. 18, he addressed a large crowd about the problems with school-sanctioned prayer at Corps Cadet events, saying:

We were asked to come here …We want to express in no uncertain terms that we do have a constitution. This is our founding document of this country. In this country, unlike North Korea or Saudi Arabia, we do separate church and state. It does not mean you cannot have your religious faith.

On Oct. 1, the MRFF sent a letter to UNG after learning that the state school had allowed a Christian prayer during a mandatory Corps Cadet 9/11 memorial program. The letter’s intent was to “to make the University aware of its’ “illegal actions.” As an aside, MRFF also did note that the college was only allowing “Baptists into the chaplaincy program.” On Oct. 29, MRFF announced “plans to take litigious measures against the university.”

logo_interior800x600In response, school President Bonita Jacobs stated:

There is no substance for a complaint against the University. MRFF has provided the University with supplemental information regarding their concerns, and the University is examining those claims.

Jacobs also stressed that administrators respect MRFF’s opinion, saying that “the university should not endorse religion” but that ” it is equally important that we strike a balance that also protects the constitutional right of genuinely student-initiated speech afforded by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.”

While Graham and the other members of the Old Faith Community had absolutely no involvement, or even knowledge, of the mounting tensions with MRFF, it is not insignificant that these two situations happened simultaneously. It may very well be that the attention brought to UNG by MRFF helped facilitate the acceptance of the UNG Pagan club. It may have also spurred the Chaplains into finally accepting a non-Christian cadet.

Regardless of that influence, the work done by the UNG Pagans cannot be attributed simply to opportunism or luck. The club’s beginnings, including the dream behind it, began long before MRFF ever came to campus. When we asked Graham what he might tell other students facing a similar environment, he said, “You are not alone. We are all a community.” He specifically wants that message to be heard by any other UNG Pagans or Heathens that have yet to find the Old Faith Community.

As for the cadet who was unable to be interviewed, we asked if he would be willing to, at the very least, offer a few words of wisdom to other Pagan or Heathen cadets or civilian students who may feel alone. He said this: “If there is no local community, be the local community. If you aren’t going to do it, who is.”

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15 thoughts on “Students Create “Old Faith Community” at University of North Georgia

  1. “If there is no local community, be the local community. If you aren’t going to do it, who is.” -YES! So glad to see grassroots activity, and, by college students at that! Thank you for reporting on this. This kind of work is encouraging.

  2. Thank yo Heather for this great and inspiring article!

    The idea of standing up in a mostly christian environment is a great, courageous and important things to do and reading about those guys in a tiny Georgian town I feel inspired to do something on my own.

    Just yesterday my gf and I attended the opening of a new exhibit in the local town museum of the little Norwegian town i live. There were actually two exhibits, a photographic about a priest in a tiny coastal community and another one dedicated to the religious makeup of the town.

    In practice, our town’s museum had actually become an establishment of state-backed christian propaganda. The worst was the second exhibit which was 85 per cent christian (evangelist, state-lutheran, catholic nuns and an orthodox priest). To make it “diverse”, the museum had also added quite a bit about the local muslim communities (represented only by testimonies or really conservative ones), had a little bit about an odd, monotheistic “Hindu” girl and two pictures of local Buddhists.

    Obviously my gf and I left the museum rather disgusted and unnerved. One the way back home we started discussing how we should respond and after a short while we realized that we should start our own group. Just like in this little Georgian town, despite the ambient conservatism, there must be a couple people out there who must feel like us and share at least some ideas with us. T’might be hard to get things started and we still don’t at all how this will go or even what will be (my guess: eclectic something) but reading Heather article inspired me! So thanks again to TWH and all those who have the balls to do something where the alternative spiritual landscape seems so bleak !

    • Good for you dantes! I wish you all the good fortune possible on the adventure in forming a group in your town/area. And that it be eclectic is a good way to start.

      • Thanks man ! I have to admit I have no idea what I’m doing (the gf has much more Pagan experience than me) but I think I’ll learn on the way.

    • dantes – you might be able to do some networking here: The Pagan Federation doesn’t list a specifically Norwegian chapter but rather one for Scandinavia in general. I also don’t know how active the Scandinavian chapter is, but I’ve worked with some folks in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands before who were both friendly and responsive to my inquiries.

      Good luck!

  3. ” it is equally important that we strike a balance that also protects the constitutional right of genuinely student-initiated speech afforded by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.”Interesting that the school came up immediately with the well-worn fallback position of those trying to evade the Establishment Clause of the same Amendment.

  4. Excellent news. I remember the days back in the 70s when forming gay groups was pioneering. Student groups at Universities and Colleges can do so much to change the ground truth of their communities. In small ways perhaps at first. But the sense of empowerment and freedom being in such a group carries with it – out, visible, and actively speaking – brings these young students the very experiences that will make them future leaders and conscious citizens. We need them, and those experiences, to build the bridges to a more equable future for pagans and polytheists in all our myriad forms.

  5. Recently there has been discussion on this blog about whether the pagan community really exists and whether reconstructionists, Heathens and various others have enough in common with Wiccans and eclectic neopagans to make it worth to identifing with such a community and participating in it.

    This article is a perfect illustration of what pagan community can do. Cooperation and joining together is sometimes more effective than going it alone. It also shows the benefit of contact with the interfaith community.

    • You know, Deborah, I was thinking the exact same thing! It’s one thing for online practitioners of the variety of reconstructed or modern Pagan and/or polytheistic religious paths to quibble about what word to use for this or for that, or to try to count how many deities can dance on the head of a pin.

      But when someone is surrounded by often-hostile practitioners of the majority faith in this country, suddenly the idea of an umbrella makes very clear sense. There’s a practical value to community that sometimes gets lost among our armchair experts. Sometimes, having a few companions along the way is beyond price.

      • Most of the people who have been doubtful of a “Pagan community” have repeatedly acknowledged the need for non-Christian religions to unite in support of religious freedom issues (though while sometimes asking what specific value allying with people of other Pagan-umbrella religions brings over and above, say, allying with Hindus or other religious groups facing similar discrimination). The problem isn’t and hasn’t ever been allying over religious freedom issues but whether there’s commonality between the religions of the Pagan umbrella above and beyond that.

  6. It’s gratifying to see the MRFF inspired someone in the college administration to aggressively apply some boot leather to the backside of the leadership of Corps Cadet Chaplaincy training program for setting the school in the gun-site of an expensive law suit they’re destined to lose in such a way that they got the message quickly. Fundamentalist Christians are usually way more stupid and obstinate, requiring a good rogering by a civil rights lawyer to get the point.

  7. not sure if links are allowed but we have a free on-line spiritual magazine that is a mix of wicca, asatru, spiritualists, new age whatevers, etc. there is no distinction between the faiths (as it should be). here is the link. would love to have feedback on what people would like to see in the mag going forward as we strive to keep it as organic as possible.

  8. I’m actually familiar with Weinstein’s work, having been on his emails’ list for a couple of years now. He gets the most amazing guff from officers and politicians who fail to understand that separation of Church and State thing.