BARVENFELD, Wis. – The past two Januarys have been bountiful months for Circle Sanctuary.
In January of 2018, Circle Sanctuary, a non-profit Nature Spirituality church,gained acceptance as an endorsing organization from the Association of Professional Chaplains. In that same month, the COMISS Network (formerly the Coalition on Ministry in Specialized Settings) accepted Circle Sanctuary, joining Sacred Well Congregation, who were the first Pagan organization to have gained membership in that network.
This January, Circle Sanctuary can claim another significant achievement toward the greater inclusion of Pagan perspectives in American life.
In a letter dated January 16, 2019, the National Chaplain Center of the Department of Veterans Affairs informed the Wisconsin-based Nature Spirituality church that they had been granted Ecclesiastical Endorsing Organization (EEO) status.
Having EEO status grants Circle Sanctuary the right to endorse candidates for chaplaincy positions at the VA and to have that officially recognized.
“In order for someone to become a VA chaplain they need an educational background, work experience, and an endorsement from an organization with Ecclesiastical Endorsing status,” explained Reverend Selena Fox, who founded Circle Sanctuary in 1974. “I’m very excited that we have achieved EEO status because it contributes to the diversity in the VA corps.”
Fox has been working to increase religious diversity in the military for a long time. She helped to update the US Army Chaplain’s Handbook in 1983. She noted that the handbook was no longer current in large part because of, “the growth of religious diversity within the armed forces.”
According to Fox, Circle Sanctuary had been waiting for a decision on their status for nine months.
“You need to have a viable VA Staff Chaplain candidate in order to become an endorsing organization,” she said. “You have to apply to be a Staff Chaplain and progress far enough in the process to be deemed a viable candidate.”
For Circle Sanctuary, that candidate is the Reverend Tiffany Andes.
Andes entered Circle Sanctuary’s ministerial program in 2012 and was ordained in 2016.
She has a long association with the military.
“I’m an eight-year Air Force veteran,” said Andes, “and once active duty was no longer possible for me, I turned to the VA.”
She has served as a VA Chaplain Resident in the past.
“It’s my job as a chaplain to provide emotional and spiritual care for individuals at VA hospitals and facilities and their families, to go on the spiritual and emotional journey with them.”
Andes’ application is still under consideration. If she is successful in her current endeavor, she will become the first Pagan Staff Chaplain at the VA.
“There are no DOD (Department of Defense) chaplains endorsed by a Pagan organization,” said Reverend Fox, “yet there have been (Pagans), both active duty and veterans, involved since the earliest days.”
Having chaplains who have been endorsed by Pagan organizations is important, “in order for Pagans to truly have equal rights in American society,” says Fox.
As a Chaplain Resident- and, eventually, as a Staff Chaplain, Reverend Andes understands that she can be called to minister to people of any faith. She herself has been contacted by fellow chaplains for assistance with working with Pagan individuals.
The presence of Pagan chaplains will extend the benefit of having clergy who truly understand their faith to veterans and family who to this point have not had that option.
“It’s important to actually have Pagan chaplains,” said Andes, because having someone who understands the intricacies of what they need- it could be prayers or ritual needs- can make all the difference in their time of need.”
Fox stated that Sacred Well Congregation, which also has EEO status, and Circle Sanctuary have collaborated over the years in what she calls, “the Chaplaincy Quest,” and continue to do so.
Events such as the COMISS Meeting bring endorsers, educators, and other representatives from a wide variety of communities of faith together to, as Fox describes it, “share concerns, share information, and collaborate and converge their diversity, enriching the realm of chaplaincy and chaplaincy endorsing.”
Fox and Andes both acknowledge that this kind of long-overdue acceptance is just the beginning.
“It’s difficult being a Pagan when trying to move within predominantly Christian systems,” said Andes.
She has experienced her share of discrimination and hostility because of her Paganism, sometimes from the very individuals she’s been called in to minister to. However, she has also had good experiences and positive interactions on the job with individuals who are just happy to work with someone who cares.
“I have also had cases where (Paganism) hasn’t mattered,” she said. “When the interfaith environment works the way it’s supposed to, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Although the letter from the National VA Chaplain Center that carried the news of Circle Sanctuary’s new EEO status was dated January 16, 2019 it was received on February 1.
The first day of February also happens to be the first day of World Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations.
The week is an annual event established to, “promote harmony between all people, regardless of faith.”
Reverend Fox said that it feels like more than just a happy coincidence to her and, with EEO status in hand, she’s ready to continue working for true equality for Pagans, Heathens, and all of those who find themselves on the outside, looking in.
“As MLK said,” said Fox, “I’ve got my eyes on the prize.”