The Adventures of a Wiccan Prison Chaplain

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National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association

Gandhi said "Be the change you wish to see in the world," and it has become my own personal mantra. It has been almost six years ago since I first sat across the table from Rev. Patrick McCollum in a roadside diner as he told me the story of how he became the first Wiccan chaplain for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He had a way of telling a story that kept me on the edge of my seat as he recounted the relentless onslaught of religious discrimination he personally experienced trying to provide religious services to Wiccan inmates.

I was shocked to hear that the first time he attempted to enter a prison to provide religious services he was spit on by a uniformed correctional officer. The frustrating irony was that it was institutional staff that had called him and asked for his help. Wiccan inmates had won a legal suit and the prison was required to provide them with religious accommodations, so officials requested that Patrick volunteer his time and money, make the long journey to their somewhat remote location to assist them. But when he did, they did everything they could to stop him.

He warned me about the various challenges of the mission, should I choose to accept it. But I had just moved back home after almost ten years in the United States Army, including a tour in Iraq. So I was more than confident, I was cocky. I remember Patrick saying he thought I had what it took to do services at Corcoran State Prison, I always took that as an enormous compliment and hoped I would someday live up to that impression.

In the following weeks I accompanied Patrick on the first of many prison visits to come. Visually it was very close to what I had expected and reminded me of a military bases I had once called home. But it was the inmates that had left a lasting effect on me. I was instantly moved by their sincere desire to proactively participate in the ritual, and in their own spirituality. It was then that Patrick explained that if he did not make the drive and provide the religious services for them they simply didn't get any at all. I was reminded of the religious discrimination I experienced while serving in the military, and an old flame was rekindled with a new fervor. Years later Patrick's prophetic compliment would come to pass as I now provide regularly scheduled services at Corcoran Prison, and have been volunteering almost weekly for nearly five years.

Pagan Prison Ministry is always a good conversation piece. Whenever the topic comes up one of the most popular questions everyone asks is "How many of you are there?" And for the longest time my response has been "I don't know." I used to elaborate about how I once knew someone up north or how I heard about someone down south, but I didn't know for sure. Over the years I was happy to meet new Pagans who were doing prison ministry, but we are a rare breed, spread out, few and far between. There were lots of websites and a few Yahoo groups, but nothing current, and not much activity. That's when I realized everyone had moved to Facebook, so I started a Pagan Chaplains group. It started out with just two or three of us, but word got out and now we're up to sixteen. I know there are more of us out there, and if you're reading this, come join us.

As it turned out it was one of the best things I could have done for us, and myself. I have loved prison ministry faithfully since I met her in a crowed chapel on yard two so many years ago. Since then I had spent most of that time serving alone, with little or no contact with peers. And that's what I really needed, peers. Because its one thing to speak too someone about what I do, but its another thing entirely to speak with someone about what we do. Who knew "shop talk" could be so therapeutic? But it also benefits us as a whole, as a community. We share and compare notes and experiences. We became a resource for each other, and that's when I realized we were into something great.

Like Patrick, many of us are members of the American Correctional Chaplains Association (ACCA), which really is a great organization, but offers little or no resources or support for ministers of Pagan faiths. While speaking with another Pagan chaplain on the subject I offhandedly said we needed a Pagan version of the ACCA. There was a long pause and mutual smiles as we both reached for something to write with. We took our time researching and developing a constitution, bylaws and a realistic implementation plan, but we did it. We though it would be good to start an important endeavor on an important day, so this past Mid-summer, June 20th, 2012, was the official inception date the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association.

We have started the NPCCA as an affiliate program, a product of our existing organization, Mill Creek Seminary, and have just begun the first in a three phase development plan. Phase one will focus on membership development and organizational growth. We are proud to announce that the NPCCA is now accepting applications for membership from Pagans who actively engage in prison ministry, provide some form of religious service within the field of corrections, or have a strong religious organizations which have a prison ministry program  or who are interested in participating, contributing or supporting Pagan chaplaincy.

Once a minimum quorum for qualified membership has been met the association will move into phase two, which will be to modify the organizational structure, expand its constitution and bylaws, and install officers. The third and final phase will be to sever its affiliate status with its sponsoring organization, Mill Creek Seminary, and move to obtain its own independent non-profit status. The association plans to transition from phase to phase though its annual  meetings, the first of which is tentatively scheduled for PantheaCon 2013, in San Jose, California.

The mission of NPCCA is to organize Pagan correctional chaplains into a recognized organization, develop resources and support, promote professional standards of conduct, provide training and certification, and to assist law enforcement and correctional agencies with religious accommodations of Pagan faiths. After the third phase is completed we have plans to for an organizational chaplain's handbook, a technical reference manual, and to partner with other Pagan organizations in the interest of advancing religious pluralism and the religious freedoms of minority faiths within the field of corrections.

Thank you Lord & Lady for my peers, blessed be.

NPCCA WEB PRESENCE

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Joseph Merlin Nichter is an author, blogger, ritualist, Freemason, Wiccan and co-founder of the Mill Creek Tradition and Seminary. As the first state-recognized Minority Faith Chaplain, Joseph provides Pagan religious services and assists with religious accommodations of minority faiths for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; he has also served the California Department of Mental Health as a religious program instructor. Joseph is the co-founder and current president of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association. Joseph lives in Central California with his wife and four children, where he continues to actively serve his community.

Comments

  • Jackie Moore
    Jackie Moore Saturday, 14 July 2012

    I love that I am the first to comment on this posting. I am jumping and shouting as I write this, as I think it is about time that someone thought of this! I have printed out two copies of this posting, one to send to my son who is incarcerated in Idaho, and one to his only source of spiritual guidance, a minister in Washington State. Thank you so very much for folowing through on your ideas! This NPCCA is a very needed thing and I applaud what you have done and what it means to those who have no where to turn for spiritual guidance. I hope this catches fire and runs National!! Again, Thank you!!!

  • Jackie Moore
    Jackie Moore Saturday, 14 July 2012

    I said my son's only source of spiritual guidance was from a minister in Idaho. What I neglected to say was that he is a Wiccan Minister. You go, Witchdoctor Joe!!!

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