Friday, January 27, 2012

B is for Browncards

It was almost six years ago that I went on my first prison visit with Rev. Patrick McCollum. It was a life changing experience, and I got hooked and I have been going ever since. For five years now I have been providing religious services and assisting prisons with the religious accommodations of minority faiths. While I have spend the majority of my time in service at one particular prison, I have visited quite a few and assisted many more. And a few weeks ago Patrick's compliment came to pass, as I am now a "Brown Carded" volunteer and Corcoran State Prison. And they called me.

When someone wants to become a religious volunteer they must apply for "gate clearance," this is a security background check which allows you to go inside the prison, but only with a supervisory escort. After you have earned they trust of the admin staff, you go through the required training, are processed and receive a state I.D. card, called the Brown Card. Its not actually brown, and no one knows why its called a brown card, but everyone speculates that at one point they were probably brown.

When ever the topic of Pagan prison ministry comes up in conversation, the one question everyone always asks is "How many of you are there?" And for the longest time my answer has always been, I don't know....

But I once knew someone who was going to prisons up north, ......and a heard that there's someone down south...... but I don't know.

Well that answer has changed for a couple reasons, reason #1 is because there are two of us in the picture. A while back a member of my Coven expressed an interest in what I do, and I was ecstatic to hear it. I have the same strict NO PROSELYTIZING or recruiting policy for prison work as I do for Coven membership. We will never bring it up unless you ask. Just like being Wiccan and joining a Coven, prison work is a calling. It's not for everyone, and for those who are, few seem to have what it takes. We're like the Marines: the Few, the Proud, the Pagan Prison Chaplains!

I've spent a lot of time alone on the road, driving to prisons. Which has always been a nice break from a home with six clients, four kids, three dogs, two guinea pigs and one crazy ass cat. I spent most of that time listen to my favorite Podcast, The Infinite and The Beyond with Christopher Orapello. Chris a a Pagan and Freemason, he has a really great show and its very well done!

Its been nice to have a partner, always good company and conversation, and he spits the gas expenses in half hahaha. And now that there are two of us, we're able to go to than just the one prison. The second reason my answer has changed is thanks to Facebook, a while back I started the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains association, (NPCCA) a closed FB group and invited other Pagan chaplains to join and invite anyone they know, and anyone they know, and now we have quite a few of us on there from all other the country. It's so nice to be able to just post a question about federal prisons and get answers and conversation from others who know.

My organization just launched a new website and the NPCCA is branching out slowly into a national registry program, with future plans to grow into the Pagan version of the American Correctional Chaplains Association. I'm a proud member the ACCA and last night I found out I wasn't the only Pagan. The ACCA has a bi-annual conference, which I've never managed to attend. Every year it's a choice between that and PantheaCon. (Who am I kidding, there no question) anyway, last night Carol Garr of Mother earth Ministries told me about how she was given an opportunity to speak about Wicca at the conference, which I found exciting and newsworthy! She has given me permission to post her presentation here:

"Hi! I’m Carol Garr, a Wiccan priestess for 20 years and a volunteer in the AZ state prison system for more than 13. I serve both on the AZ DOC Religious Advisory Committee and as an active volunteer working directly with inmates, and have co-authored a book: Enchantment Encumbered: the Study and Practice of Wicca in Restricted Environments.

Wicca is a nature-based, life affirming, religion with a pantheistic worldview. Deity is ubiquitous. Everything contains its spark; humans, animals, plants, stones. We are all brothers and sisters, all children of our Mother Goddess and the Lord of the cosmic Dance of life, death, and rebirth. Regardless of the color of clothing or skin, or even number of legs, wings, fins or whatever we are each related, and interconnected.

In my years in prison ministry I have seen heartwarming changes in those who embrace this life path, though prison politics sometimes limit expression of their worldview, I have seen inmates learn tolerance, respect, self-control, and personal responsibility. They learn that, no matter what they’ve done in the past, that from this moment on they will make choices for which only they are responsible. No one else is to blame; no one else can take credit.

Prisoners are prone to embracing their crime as their identity. It affects the way they view themselves, hurting their chances for a positive change. Wicca teaches them to embrace that spark of deity within, to fan that flame to a light that will guide their path. What they have done cannot be undone. We have no means to absolve them of the karmic balance that is a natural law of cause and effect. We can, however, counsel them to add positive things in their karmic ledger, whether offering a smile instead of a curse, treating others with fairness and respect, or just seeking to promote harmony and goodwill as best they can. When one truly honors all life it’s a lot harder to re-offend.

I encourage them to speak of their offenses only in the past tense. Wicca believes words have power, so to say “I am ???” will help make it so. Make those positive aspirations! They set personal goals, make plans to improve themselves, and look to the God/dess within, and Their manifestations all around us, for guidance and inspiration. Positive affirmations are common in many faiths, including ours.

I have seen men cry as they apologized to the spirits of murdered victims. I experienced the peace that a lifer showed as he embraced impending death during a passing rite we did just after he stopped dialysis. I feel blessed. One of our releasees was once on death row, but his sentence was commuted to life with the possibility of release. I worked with him inside for years. He spoke of what a nasty and hateful person he’d been, and how he deserved his sentence, but that he was no longer that same man. And the energy he gave off supported that. After being incarcerated for 32 years he was granted parole. Now, out almost 3 years, he’s had the same job for most of that time, has a vehicle, a stable living arrangement, and is a contributing member of society. It can happen. Learning to find the sacred within, living with the heartbeat of Mother Earth as one’s guide, can affect positive change.

Wicca describes the way we look at life. Our connections with the receptive (feminine) and projective (masculine) forces of Nature, and our intimate communication with the powers of Air, Fire, Water, Earth, and Spirit are the essence of our worldview. Yet we are polytheists, so it is silly to think that our pantheon is the only valid one. Therefore we teach that whatever spiritual path makes one a better person, which speaks to an individual’s soul, is the right faith for that human being. Followers of all religions, or of none, are all our kin.

And that’s where we come in. A good chaplain is a haven in the storm of inmate lives, aiding them in their search for, and study of, their faith of choice. We offer hope, comfort, and acceptance through the love of the Source of Life in whatever form a prisoner sees Him or Her. We promote positive change, self-respect, and fairness to all. May the powers of life guide each of us, in brotherhood, in this vital task."

I am so happy that the sword Patrick McCollum picked up so many years ago is still being carried by so many of us today, the battle is not yet won, but we're gaining ground the good old fashion way, we're earning it.

Thank you Lord & Lady for all the Brown Cards

Blessed Be!

Friday, January 20, 2012

B is for Biopsy

One of the fives virtues of our tradition is intuition. Something that I have always felt lacked emphasis in much of modern Witchcraft. I consider myself a hereditary Witch because I was blessed to have been raised by a very gifted one. I was raised in an environment where meditation, creative visualization, astral projection and intuition where highly valued spiritual practices.

If you look at it from the Nature Vs. Nurture view, I believe intuition to be part of natural human potential, we're all born with the seeds, it's just a matter of whether or not those seeds are watered. If you grow up in an environment where those concepts are a product of the devil they lay dormant and perhaps wither away with time. But if you are raised in an environment like I did, those seeds can be watered and nurtured to unknown potential.

One of the mysteries of our tradition is the Susurri, which is Latin for whisper. It's a mystery because we recognize its presence, yet don't completely understand how it works. Just like the Deja Vu, we recognize it when we experience it, and if you have, it's often difficult to express or explain it, that's why they gave it a name. And that's why we have given the Whisper a name.

Ever have someone pop into your head just before the phone rings? Or have a need or action occur to you, which you ignore only find out later, you should have. One of the most difficult things about a Susurri is recognizing it for what it is. One of the red flags is a stray thought that pops up while you're actively engaged in something else. Those are the best. If you find your self arguing with it, don't, its a Susurri, an incoming message from the Big Giant Head.

Like Deja Vu, the Whisper has always been a commonly understood thing in my family, we grew up with it, its normal. At critical times it has changed the course of my life, and while in Iraq, it saved my life as well as others. But my wife is Mexican, therefore she was born Catholic and raised in an environment where everything was the devil. So she could never acknowledge those those alternative spiritual practices she had always been drawn to. Sound familiar? But the natural potential was there and the force has always been strong in her family, they just don't seem to know it.

A few weeks ago my wife received a Susurri and tried to ignore it. But it wouldn't go away and she found herself arguing with it. She mentioned to me that the whisper in her ear told her to go get a pap smear, which was something she really didn't want to do. I told her not to argue with it, and that the fact that she was arguing with it only confirmed that it was important. So she made the appointment and went.

We received the call early one morning about two weeks later, asking her to come in that day. The doctor explained that they had identified some bad cells and needed to do a biopsy. This past Monday we returned to hear the results of the biopsy and the doctor explained that pre-cancer cells have a number system of 1-3, four being cancer.

My wife is at stage three.

The doctor said she's very lucky that we caught it in time and that after the scheduled procedure she will be just fine. After I threw up I went and bought a pack of cigarettes, it's an old habit I enjoy from time to time while in places like Iraq and the doctors office. I admit I find it humorously ironic that I'm smoking tobacco to deal with the possibility of my wife having cancer, but we humans are weird and stupid like that and I look forward to quitting very soon.

She reluctantly posted the news on her Facebook status and people started talking. Many friends came out of the woodwork to share their stories, to confirm that the procedure is very successful and that she will be ok. It also seems to have raised awareness as her friends are now talking to their friends and relatives and some of them are now making appointments to get their paps done.

Thank you Lord and Lady for the Whisper.

Blessed Be.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A is for Almandola

Last year my friends in Fresno picked up the sword and led the charge for Central Valley Pagan Pride Day. I was very happy to hear the news and eager to contribute to the cause.

One of the first tasks was raising funds and the first event was a yard sale. I collected books from my local community and showed up early that morning to deliver them. It was nice to see everyone again after such a long time.

People came by in a slow but steady trickle most of the day while we sat in the yard and socialized. A few nicely dressed men with nicely dressed smiles came by, but seemed more interested in all of us than any of the items being sold. When we saw the pamphlets we immediately knew that they had come to save us.

As prothletising goes they were very respectful, but being Pagans we're all seasoned veterans when it comes to declining such invitations. More than one friend said, "Oh no thank you, I go to St. Brigid's Academy."

I very much enjoyed that approach because of how polite, effective and honest it is. I myself have also found it be enjoyably effective. The statement is always interpreted by any mundane person as "oh she's Catholic," and no one ever goes around trying to convert the Catholics. I've noticed that no one goes around trying to convert anyone from the other mainstream monotheistic religions, but we Pagans always seem to be fair game. But the irony here is that St. Brigit's Academy is a Wiccan religious organization, and I can find no fault with allowing those men to leave with their false assumptions. Many times it's the best way to avoid conflict.

Last Ostara I rented a Bunny costume for our community ritual, and base on the date requested the lady behind the counter with the rather large cross around her neck asked, "why so early this year? Easter isn't for another few weeks," to which I replied, "Oh it's for a pre-Easter celebration," and I left with her best wishes.

Although the men moved on to the the next house on the block they remained in our conversation. We talked about the assumption that St. Brigid's is Catholic and how I often use Mill Creek Seminary the same way in similar conversations with similar people. Slowly the conversation of reciting accounts of attempted conversion swayed into experiences related to openly wearing a Pentacle. At a time when I felt it was appropriate to contribute to the conversation I pulled out my Almendola pendant, another reason some people assume I'm Catholic, from a distance.

The Almandola is the official emblem of Veritas Wicca, our Mill Creek Tradition and our organization. The Vesica Piscis is a very old symbol used by nearly all cultures or faiths in some fashion. The fish bladder or "pocket" happens when you overlap two circles. To us, these two circle are the physical and the spiritual realms, and the vesica piscis is the product of their union. The Chalice and Blade of course represent the God and Goddess, their masculine and feminine energies, and their union and balance. The Pentacle rest upon the chalice which also represents the procreative womb, the cradle of life, wherein the five elements are interwoven to produce form.

I'm quite proud of this piece, I designed it myself and we have them custom made for members of our tradition. I like being able to wear something I made, something very spiritually meaningful to me, openly without fear, and without any of the negative reactions, attitudes or feedback you experience with wearing a Pentacle.

Before handing my pendant back to me, my friend stared at it for a moment and said "Woah you wear the Great Rite around you neck! that's so cool." Yes I do, and I'm quite proud of that too.

Thank you Lord and Lady, for your Divine Unions. Blessed Be.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A is for Auspice

I first started blogging in 2008, it was what I considered a pretty radical advance in a personal spiritual project I was working on. I started out as a fairly faithful blogger, posting nearly every day. But after a few years I slowed down considerably, and now post on a remote and random basis.

I remember reading about the Pagan Blog Project a few weeks ago and thought I'd really like to do that. I am true to the classic Aquarius persona, I Like things neat and tidy, and I love a good system. So the schedule of the project and the alphabetical theme were very appealing.

But, being the busy guy that I am with all the projects I have on all the back burners I have, and considering I can easily be distracted by a piece of string or anything shiny, I forgot.

But, I saw the first "A" post on Doing Magic by old friend, Holy Idiot and Grand Blogger Robert of the Blue Hand. And Have just jumped on the bandwagon just as it started rolling away.

My first "A" post is for Auspices.

I am a Veritas Wiccan. Veritas is Latin for Truth, not to imply that we're the "true" Wicca, but from our motto, "Veritas Pro Re Natura." Truth through (or according to) Nature. One of the Axioms of Pagandom is that we share no universally accepted sacred text, not in the context of a Bible, Torah or Koran. But we do share what we call the "Gospel of Nature," nature itself being our sacred text.

Just like the ancient fraternity of Freemasonry operates under the speculative theme of the older operative stone masons, our tradition operates under the theme of the ancient Augurs of Rome and Greece. The Augur was a public official who would perform acts of divination based on the appearance, activities and behaviors or birds, animals and even the clouds. These acts of divination were called Auspices. Although our scope may be a bit broader, our contemporary practice and application is not too much different.

For years now I have been going to the same special spot near the river to take auspices. Sometimes I receive valuable insight or come to some incredible revelation. But not always, many times I have gone and spent hours opening all my senses to interpret the Gospel of Nature and got nothing. It's a crap shoot.

But one of the coolest auspices I ever realized only happened because of the years of visitation to the same spot. As I've gone several times a month, every month, for many years, I've experienced all the seasons there. I see the river full and flowing through the summer, I see the river slowly wane to a tickle through the winter months, and I see the river overflow in the spring.

One day a hiker stopped to speak with me and made quick conversation about the low water level. I remarked about how quickly it will change, soon flooding the parking lot and even cover the gate with over 50 feet of ice cold freshly melted snow.

As I began to explain the rhythm of the river, I realized that if you sped up time or watched a few years of time lapsed photography you would see the river pulse to the rhythm of a heart beat, like an artery or vein.

It was there that I really understood that the earth is alive, that the Great Mother is a living breathing thing, with a breath, a heartbeat and blood running through its veins. Most of us are just too chronologically impaired to see it.

Thank you Lord and Lady for the random conversations with strangers about the weather.