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Prison PaganFest in Washington

It's hard to believe that a week has passed since I attended the first-ever prison-based pagan festival held at the Coyote Ridge correctional facility. In fact, this may well have been the first event of its kind, anywhere. It seems a long time ago, now, and at the same time the memories are so fresh it's a little like the event just happened.

In any event, ArchDruid Kirk Thomas (ADF) contacted me several months ago and described a one-day intensive that he and Coyote Ridge's Prison Chaplain Erik Askren were planning. The concept was to provide learning and understanding between incarcerated Druids, Wiccans, and Asatruar as well as among various other Prison Chaplains in the Washington state system. He asked if I would be interested, and naturally I said yes.

I'll be honest - I have never done prison ministry in any setting. I do believe it is an important piece of pastoral work. I also believe one must have the specific calling to do prison ministry. I've never felt that calling, so I left it to others. Why, then, did I choose to sign on for this? Two reasons: one, I believe in the importance of interfatih work, and two, I see the opportunity for understanding and respect not only between our three religions/world view but also between us and the Chaplains. Building on that, Chaplains who understand what we're really all about are better able to assist prisoners who hold alternative religious views.

Four of us were involved in this project: Reverend Kirk Thomas, of course, and also Rev. Ian Corrigan and his wife, Sue, represented ADF. Reverend Ashleen O'Gea represented Wicca generally and her group - which, alas, I have forgotten the name of - specifically. I represented heathenry in general and The Troth specifically. Ian and his wife gave a concert - acoustic folk songs, shanties, and pagan songs which, in the end, all the prisoners ended up tapping their feet to. I enjoyed some of the whispers I heard behind me: "That one was pretty good." "Hey, I liked that one." and also the increasingly loud applause. Ian and I have a very similar approach - get people laughing and they'll pay more attention.

The day itself was just as long as any other festival. We arrived early for a plenary session, then broke into three groups. The Asatruar went outside to do our ritual first. I felt it appropriate to honor our ancestors, and was myself honored that they asked me to bless their stone circle and ve for the first time. It's a lovely circle, too, set out as a sunwheel with the altar-stone (the ve) in the north. After blessing the area and hlauting (apple juice, of course), I called them into the circle to honor our ancestors. The blot went well, and the prisoners really appreciated it. One thing that they had wondered about was the role of women in Asatru, and almost all of them reported a feeling of calm respect that was fundamentally different - not better or worse, just different - than when they did their own blots.

We then went inside while the Druids came outside for their ritual, and discussed the runes, bindrunes, seidh and the roles of women in Asatru traditionally and in the modern setting. I found the prisoners very well-read and articulate, particularly about the runes. Chaplains came and went, too, listening in and asking pertinent questions. I know that the druids came back in, and the Wicccans went out to perform their ritual while we were discussing all things Asatru. We talked a lot about right action, and ways to alter one's wyrd to the positive through action in the here-and-now.

One of the state facilitators, Joenne, came in and asked questions of the men, too, so she could better understand where they were coming from in order to help them at her end of things. Barb Lauderdale, a Wiccan and sponsor for a few different groups in other correctional facilities, also attended the Asatru ritual and workshops, so that she could better understand heathenry. Then came the concert and another plenary session about magic in our different faiths. All in all we were there for about thirteen very busy hours.

The men presented me with a hand-drawn picture of an eagle, rendered in great detail. It is entirely done in pencil, and the men each signed it, as well. I was honored to receive such a gift from these men in thanks for what I provided for them - a chance to learn, and hear the perspectives of heathens on the "outside."

I am glad I went. I am glad I helped. I am glad that, just for a few hours, we were all able to work together within this setting. Joenne told us that one thing people like us give to prisoners is hope - hope that they can change their lives and be accepted fir themselves. I think we did that, too - just by having a "normal", "average" pagan festival for them to attend. Naturally there are a lot of differences - men having to be counted periodically, officers watching their movements, even having to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with spoons - but for a few hours we could provide these men with an opportunity like never before. Having the Chaplains present added a good educational and respectful dimension to the event, and my hope is that the chaplains came away with better understanding just as I did.

All in all, this was a successful event. I can say that I would be interested in attending this kind of event in the future. I still do not feel the calling to do prison ministry as part of my personal pastoral work, but I understand it now. I see the work, and the reward, in ministering to incarcerated heathens and pagans. I can see its worth, and I definitely felt the work, the reward, and the worth in the pagan festival I was fortunate to attend. I think people should consider doing this work, if the calling is there, because it is just that - work, reward, and worth.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 22nd, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
Well, you know...the way I figure it, if they can get some points of view from outside the walls, it can only help.
Jun. 21st, 2011 03:00 pm (UTC)
And thanks, dear, for attending and doing this. I was at the prison yesterday for Midsummer and I heard that everyone was really stoked about last weekend. The men were all grateful and thrilled over the time we all spent with them. One comment I heard was intriguing - some of the men thought it would have been helpful if some of the officers had also attended. Then they, too, might understand what we all do better. If there's a next time, I'll keep that in mind, I think.
Jun. 22nd, 2011 12:47 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting point - involving the officers would help them understnd our various ways better, too. Hmmm, she says. Hmmm.

Thank *you* for giving me the opportunity to do this!
Nov. 4th, 2011 01:57 am (UTC)
I am doing research for my university thesis, thanks for your great points, now I am acting on a sudden impulse.

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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