The Adventures of a Wiccan Prison Chaplain

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Spells for Cells part three

Years ago I started a little blog called The Ink Blot Tarot, and most people know me from that blog as WitchDoctorJoe (all one word, please just humor me.) It started as a publicly-private journal of one of my second degree CraftWork projects. I may not a good writer, but I know I'm not very good at writing. I'm very self-aware that my spelling is a borderline disability, that I am punctuationally impaired and that I drive the grammar Nazis completely insane. Mostly because I tend to make up my own words, which I enjoy, because somehow you always know what I mean when I do it. My favorite thing is to take a few words, capitalize them, and then smash them together into one word like CraftWork. Regardless of how bad of a writer I may be, I am in fact extremely comfortable writing.

Or at least I was until I realized how many people were reading my blog, then I became nervous, uncertain and uncomfortable. I became very careful and very guarded with my words and feelings; and my interest began to wane. I am simply not the guarded type. I have no problem spilling my guts, sharing my intimate thoughts, feelings and fears. For example, I love chick flicks like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and I wet the bed until I was almost ten.

So being a little Wiccan fish in a big Pagan pond, I was very honored and excited to be ask to write for Witches & Pagans. But I've hardly written much here, until recently. I haven't written much here because I again felt myself become guarded, because for me, this is the big time, and I really need to bring my *A* game. And because everyone will see it, so I really need to be careful about what I say and how I say it. Right? But I was invited to come and contribute here in this space for a reason, and I suspect that reason may possibly have something to do with what and how I was writing back at the RattleBone. So I'm going back to doing what got me here in the first place, just being me, unguarded.

As promised this third installment of Spells for Cells will be aimed at the whole "They don't need chaplains, they're their own priests and priestesses" yarn, which I like to call Sovereign Repudiation. Sounds so official doesn't it? I made it up myself. I picked up a few things in seminary, a vocabulary for one, and I've learned to frame my own definitive terminology, like this. I was even considering changing the title of this blog to "Incantations for the Incarcerated," but thought it sounded too booshie.

So lets take a look at sovereign repudiation. The argument has been made by many, even by some Pagans, and I believe by the state of California; that Wiccans do not need full time paid chaplains because, based on their own religious doctrine they are their own clergy. While I'll be the first to admit on the surface that argument might sound legit, their are critical contextual issues laying beneath that surface. Let's explore that context with some fun examples.

Example #1, for three of the five years that I have been a religious volunteer, I was going on a weekly basis. Every Friday I would take a scheduled trip, to a scheduled yard, at a scheduled prison. I did this for two reasons: 1. I love it, and 2. I was able to do it. I had the time, money and resources necessary to engage in a consistent ministry of presence. That was until my oldest daughter received her drivers license. Anyone have any idea how much it cost to add a fresh new teen age driver to your insurance and what it does to your premiums? How bout more than one? Let's just say, there went my gas money. And, she tricked me unto giving her my truck with those sad-puppy-daughter eyes and the pouty lip thing (I'm such a sucker for my girls).

So it was a few weeks before I was able to resume prison visits, and even then they were few and far between. I had finally made it back to a particular yard and was setting up the altar in the chapel when a few inmates commented on how glad they were to finally see me again. They mentioned how long it had been since I had been there last and how they hadn't done anything at all since that last visit.

Epic fail, and I'll tell you why in a moment.

Example #2, one of the things I do for the inmates and the institutions is assist in religious accommodations. One of the ways I assist is by providing experienced and informed explanations and guidance to prison staff on matters of minority faith practices. (I will explain more about those experienced and informed explanations in a near future post. For now rest assured I am not speaking as an expert on all matters.)

When an inmate wants to order a book they go through the proper channel. When they want to order hobby and [non-Witch]craft supplies they go through proper channels, and so on. But when those supplies are for spiritual activities it becomes something entirely different. The proper channel becomes a "Special" purchase request, which must be approved by a chaplain. Usually it's an Disinclined to Assist Type Chaplain, but not always. Many times it's a I Have No Idea What This Is Type Chaplain, and those that fear what they don't know, usually avoid it. So I help out with those special purchase requests forms, explaining the legitimate religious significance of Tarot cards and how Divination is one of those Five Labors we Wiccans are always breaking a sweat over.

Another way I assist in religious accommodations is by Facilitating. Because while inmates may in fact be their own priests and priestesses, they can't engage in a group ritual without approved consent and supervision. A chaplain must be there, other wise it can be suspected of being,and is considered, a gang related activity. While there's no gang in "congregation," there is an epidemic of gang activity and violence in the prison system, and the CDCR takes no chances. Safety and security trumps all in a correctional environment. So for some groups, all I do is show up and sit in on their ritual. I am not the Be-All-End-All Grand Poobah High Priest of Prison Paganism. I am the low priest of the temple of dirt, all I do is sit there and facilitate my butt off.

The point I'm trying to make here is this; everything they are allowed to possess is controlled, everything they're allowed to obtain is controlled, everything they're allowed to do is controlled and everyone they're allowed to do it with is controlled. As it should be, let's not forget for a second that it's a prison. But, by default all clergy who are incarcerated lose their religious status, ability and authority. Over both the members of their faith and over themselves. Because every move that make must be pre-approved by a full time employed state chaplain.

Except for one. The epic fail.

No one can stop stop them from practicing Speculative Spirituality (that one's mine too!). The CDCR cannot stop them from praying. They cannot stop them from meditating. They cannot stop them from practicing Introspective Divination (also mine). So yes, we are in fact our own priests and priestesses. Each of us is responsible for our own beliefs and practices. Each of us has a responsibility to validate our beliefs and practices through virtuous conduct. And each of us much step up to the altar of CraftWork and build our own theology.

But if you're in prison, someone's got to hold the lighter for you.

I've seen some feedback on what I've offered here recently, and based of that I will be writing more about the Five Labors, the term Minority Faith and more on Qualifications (everyone seemed to love that one).

Thank you Lord and Lady for teaching me the difference between Operative and Speculative Modes of Spirituality, and showing me their Divine Union. Blessed Be.

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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

  • Trine
    Trine Thursday, 07 March 2013

    Thank you for this series, I found it very informative and though-provoking. I'm not sure we have that kind of chaplain opportunities in the country I live in (the Netherlands, maybe Elani Temperance knows), but I hope so. I think it's great what you do for these people, and I hope you get the opportunity to do it more often.

    On a side-note, I know what you mean about becoming guarded. I hope you feel this is a place you can write openly - I enjoy it very much and I look forward to reading more from you.

  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter Thursday, 07 March 2013

    Thank you!

  • Jackie Moore
    Jackie Moore Friday, 03 May 2013

    Hello Witchdoctor Joe! I am wondering when you will finally finish your "Spells for Cells". The whole thing was to be four (4) articles, and so far you have written 3. Will we get the fourth one? I am very interested in your opinions.

  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter Thursday, 09 May 2013

    Jackie, life is what happens while we're making plans; I simply got busy and fell behind. I will be writing quite extensively in the next week or so. Thank you for your interest, it encouraging to know that someones reading!
    Blessings.

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