Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My AREN Interview

"The Vision of the Alternative Religions Educational Network (hereafter referred to as AREN) is to promote education on the Positive Nature Based Religions devoted to deities of either or no specific gender or attributes. This would include most Pagans or Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, Druids, and many others.

To develop materials to be used for such purposes, including education of the general public and government and law enforcement officials. To sponsor programs devoted to these purposes.

To investigate religious discrimination complaints and, if found valid, try to help in obtaining aid in solving the problems. This includes, most of all, education for the alleged discriminatory persons or agencies and also the forwarding of valid complaints to other organizations, agencies, and legal advisers for direct action if this becomes necessary." (this vision statement taken from their website.)

A while back I was contact by Christopher Blackwell of AREN about doing an interview for their newsletter ezine. I was flattered and excited, who wouldn't be? But what makes this interview different was the topic. Almost everyone wants to talk about the prison ministry and my Spells for Cells (free book) program. But Christopher actually wanted to know about our tradition, which is in fact my favorite subject.

But I don't speak about it often simply because no one ever seems to ask, and talking about it unsolicited smacks of proselytizing or at the very least,
bragging. If and when we do mention our tradition, it's always bragging. But its bragging out of a profound pride we have for our tradition, and a believe that self esteem, even a magical self esteem is healthy. So here is my interview with Christopher Blackwell, and HERE is the link to the whole newsletter, there are five other great interviews in this Samhain issue, please enjoy.

Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary
Interview with Joseph Merlin Nichter
By Christopher Blackwell

A friend suggested that I interview hereditary Pagan, Wiccan Priest and founder of the Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary. So I got in touch and received permission for this interview.

Christopher: Could you give us a bit of background about yourself?

Joseph: I am a happy husband to an amazing women and a proud father of four incredible children. I grew up in central California where I’ve lived most of my life except for my ten years of military service. After Iraq I discharged from service and returned home to California where I now work as a residential care facility administrator. I am very active in the Pagan community and serve as a volunteer Pagan prison chaplain

Christopher: How long have you been Pagan? What variety of paths have you studied & practiced?

Joseph: I was lucky enough to have been raised Pagan; my mother is a gifted Witch and an extraordinary woman, needless to say I had an amazing childhood. But it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, the down side is I never got away with anything, [laughs] Ever.

I am defiantly a product of my mother’s magic; from Shamanism to Rosicrucianism she was always studying something and teaching me. That really fostered my interest in the alternative spirituality and I started getting into indigenous traditions while still very young, so have been study- ing and practicing some form of magic most of my life.

Christopher: How did you come to form the Mill Creek Tradition? How did it start and what has it become? What is unique about it?

Joseph: What is now the Mill Creek Tradition began years ago as a Handfasting. That’s right, I said Handfasting. My wife and I had been practicing together for some time and had developed a nice system for ourselves. We invited everyone we knew to our Handfasting, and it was the first time we ever included anyone else in any of our rituals. Afterwords several people remarked on how much they enjoyed the ritual and suggested that we use that format to do full moon rituals, to which I replied “We do.” Within a month a Coven had formed, centered on our system of Witchcraft, which slowly grew over the years into a tradition. Not long after that our Coven filed for and received our 50c3 church status. Not for taxes, but in order to protect and ensure our religious rights when it came to our activities.

I first began working in the prisons with Patrick McCollum and later started my own Carcer Via prison program at a lo- cal prison; soon after its inception I turned it into another recognized non-profit. I’ve
been going every week for almost four years now. Not only do we provide religious services to Pagan inmates but we assist in the facilitation of religious accommodations’. Simply stated, most prisons don’t know what Paganism is or how to meet the needs of the inmates, and we help them out with that.

In addition to the private Coven and the prison ministry we also host several public community rituals and events each month. When we first started that it was Mill Creek Church, named after mill creek that runs through the entire length of the city.

For those who don’t know, maintaining a 50c3 requires a lot of record keeping and paperwork. And we were running three. So last year we just combined all three of them into Mill Creek Seminary. And the paper work is so much easier [laughs]. So we started out as a Handfasting and have become a Seminary, which is a good word to describe us.
We teach and train our tradition of Witchcraft, ordain legal clergy, we provide a variety of religious services and even have a very successful prison ministry. But I think what makes us unique is our tradition itself, we offer ourselves as a secondary tradition. Meaning whatever you are personally doing alone at home is the best path for you; we are offering an additional system that facilitates group rituals within a diverse group of Pagans.

I have often described us as an “assembly of solitaries” [laughs]. I am very proud of our origin; our tradition is the product a marriage, a divine union.

Christopher: What services can your tradition provide the Pagan community?

Joseph: Our little campaign slogan is “Teaching Traditions of Celebration and Fellowship.” That’s what our tradition is really all about, bringing the Pagan community together in celebration and fellow- ship. I have always been fulfilled spiritually by my path and being a solitary has its benefits but it can be very lonely, and who wants to celebrate the wheel of the year alone? Our tradition prides itself on providing quality religious services to the community that focus on celebration and fellowship.

Christopher: What about the Mill Creek Seminary?

Joseph: We as a seminary provide a large variety of services; as I mentioned before we’ve been hosting public community rituals twice a month for about two years now. This includes Sabbats, usually held in the park complete with a barbecue and potluck. You can’t have celebration and fellowship without food! In addition we also provide rites of passage services such as legal Handfastings, the Carmenta which is a baby blessing, puberty rites, and The Nenia which is last rights, funeral and memorial services. Sadly, we’ve done them all.

We also consider the prison ministry to be a community service, to the free world, the inmates, as well as the state agencies. We do a annual lecture at Fresno State University, Pagan Orientation classes for the uninitiated as well as orientation classes for people interested in prison ministry.

Christopher: Don’t you have a book of shadows available?

Joseph: Yes we do, it’s called “The Auguris: The Mill Creek Book of Shadows.” Our book of shadows is just as unique as our tradition. There are no pages numbers, instructions or narration, just five sections. Our system is known as the Five Labors of Witchcraft; purification, adoration, observation, divination and incantation. We work our way though these labors in the process of our ritual. Each section begins with the portion used in ritual and is accompanied by additional information relevant to that labor, such as rites for the wheel of the year and a large collection of original spells by our Coven. You can order it on Lulu and remember all money goes to fund our Spells for Cells program were we send books and materials to inmates for free.

Christopher: Do you have any upcoming events?

Joseph: Oh yeah, we’re Pagans, we’re always celebrating something [laughs]. We just did Central Valley Pagan Pride and MCS was one of the primary sponsors.

It was a huge event that included Pagan communities from three major cities and drew attendants from as far as San Francisco and Los Angeles. After that event the organizers from the three primary cities are planning Wheel of the Year Ritual events to be as large as Pagan Pride Day. In addition our Mill Creek group has started a Border Morris Dance group; we’re still in formation but plan to be performance ready by Beltane.

Christopher: Where can people learn more about the Mill Creek tradition?

Joseph: Ah good question. I wrote a book that we provide free to inmates, “Carcer Via: An Inmates Guide to the Craft,” which teaches the fundamentals for our tradition through the ritual journey. But other than that we really don’t have any material available online or through correspondence. But I am working on another book and we are considering developing a correspondence program. Until then, you just need to come visit us. Link

Christopher: What work are you doing California Prison System and the California Mental Health Department?

Joseph: I do a lot! [laughs] The State of California only hires religious representatives for the five majority faiths; Protestant, Catholic, Islam, Jewish and Native American. So if you’re not one of those religions there is no one to provide your religious services or even speak on your behalf. This really complicates things for inmates trying to pursue rehabilitation through a spiritual path because in prison you can’t even order religious supplies of materials without a chaplains’ approval.

So I’ve been a volunteer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for about four years now. I do weekly visits to local prisons where I conduct Pagan interfaith rituals and assist the CDCR in facilitating religious accommodations for minority faith inmates. This includes advising staff on those spiritual purchase requests and explaining the need and use of various religious items, serving on religious review committees and providing resources and materials to help educate staff on different minority faiths. I have even given Pagan Sensitivity classes during new employee orientation in an effort to expand awareness and understanding of minority faiths. That’s what Mill Creek Seminary’s prison ministry is all about.

I began doing the same thing for the Department of Mental Health, but then my supervisor there suggested I submit a proposal for a 2 week Pagan religious program. I did and although I am probably the most optimistic person on the planet, I never expected it to get approved. But I was happy to be wrong, my course was added to the curriculum and I taught for six semesters until I took this summer off to focus on my kids while they were out of school.

Christopher: Don’t you have some interesting extra pastoral training?

Joseph: No, but you should [laughs]. I know some Pagans who have rolled their eyes at the term pastoral training, but being a Pagan chaplain requires a lot more than candle colors and directions.

I personally have gone through great lengths to acquire proper training. I have taken many classes at Cherry Hill Seminary, including Patrick’s Chaplaincy course. I’m a graduate of the Law Enforcement Chaplains Academy and I am back in college, nearly finished with my degree in religion.
Early this year I was even allowed to at- tend the annual state chaplains training. I was the first and only volunteer Pagan chaplain ever allowed to attend, it was educational and insightful as well as a huge honor.

Christopher: What can you tell us about the Crystal Barn?

Joseph: The Barn is our local meta- physical shop; but it’s so much more than that, it’s the hub of the community here in my town and we are lucky to have such a place. People come from Fresno and Bakersfield to attend our rituals and first timers are always blown away by how huge the store is and the large volume of products and services they provide. I have been to hundreds of shops and the Barn is definitely the biggest and best of them.

We have a large meeting room there and I can’t express how amazing it is to have a dedicated ritual space for the Mill Creek community.

Christopher: Does it have a web page?

Joseph: Yes they do, but it doesn’t do them justice! You can find them online at http://thecrystalbarn.com/

Christopher: Is there anything else that you might like our readers to know about?

Joseph: Yes there is, thank you for asking. Earlier I mentioned the Central Valley Pagan Pride event we were involved in. At that event I finally got to meet Crystal Blanton, we had been friends on Face- book but never met. She had driven all the way down from the Bay Area with her family to be a presenter at our event.

We shared booth space and talked shop while we tried to sell some our books. Not only is she a great person but she’s a great writer, and her book “Bridging the Gap” tackles the tough issues we all experience within the Pagan community. I would like to strongly recommend her book to everyone, especially those Pagan community leaders and organizers. We all need to read this book.

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