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!

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