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The Chaplain, The Witch, and the Warden: Pagan Prison Ministry

Author: Arianthe [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 25th. 2012
Times Viewed: 2,978

We all have our own prisons [that] we build.
We accept perceived obstacles,
limitations [in] what we can and cannot do.
These become our walls.
-Rev. Jerrie Hildebrand

Like many other Pagans I consider myself a philanthropist, and an activist. I participate in Blue Star's Kiva.org community, and I'm keenly aware and concerned with the fair treatment of Pagans by public institutions.

Fair and equal treatment, the ability to seek access to one's spiritual and religious needs, is the benefit of living in a nation where religious freedom is a right. However, having a right to access, doesn't guarantee its availability.

Rev. Jerrie Hildebrand is a seasoned voice of the Pagan prison ministry. She has trained volunteers and staff at facilities nationwide, worked with a number of Pagan organizations such as the Lady Liberty League, and is an ordained minister of Circle Sanctuary. According to her, lack of volunteers is the greatest burden facing Pagan prison ministry.

“We need more trained volunteers working together to build active Pagan ministries. One or two people supporting ten to twelve facilities is difficult. In the past, I would go to three facilities a day, for two days straight, for the Sabbats, ” says Rev. Hildebrand. “I burned out within a year and needed to reformulate how I served. Pagan ministry is almost exclusively done on a volunteer basis nationally. So, volunteer burn out is a huge issue.”

When Blue Star 3rd, Rev. Barbara Dove, heard that there was a need for Pagan prison ministers, she answered The Call. She joyfully relates her experiences and progress with the inmates with her coven, and larger Pagan community. Sadly, few are even remotely interested in undertaking the job themselves.

If we're to be honest, it is probably safe to say that the idea of worshipping, or leading rituals and study groups with inmates is intimidating for most. However, according to those who do the work, the inmates aren't a problem. A ritual with no altar, a Full Moon with no sky; those are the kinds of problems prison ministers spend their time fretting over and devising solutions for.

“Stepping behind the walls of a physical symbol, such as a building called a prison, reminds me to reflect and continue to look beyond the way humanity, and [I], buy [into] our own stories about what stops us in life.” says Rev. Hildebrand.

Pagan faiths stress personal accountability, self-improvement, and a deep reverence to the earth and all it's inhabitants. As such, for those incarcerated, attuning to the Pagan way helps maintain connection to all that they have been removed from, and provides a stepping stone towards creating a new life.

“The inmates are very grateful for the opportunity to gather, worship, pray, and celebrate their religious beliefs and they are hungry to learn. To date, most administrators and staff are grateful to be able to fill the need also.” says Hildebrand.

Dove has found that few inmates go into prison as Pagans. Hildebrand has some seasoned Pagans in her groups who were raised in a variety of nature-centered traditions. However, incarceration seems to act as the womb of the Great Mother, a place of confinement that gives the soul a chance to grow, change, and be reborn. Apparently, a lot of people are being born-again, Pagan.

It is a compassionate spirit and an innovative mind that moves those who volunteer in prison ministry programming. A Priest or Priestess working in prison ministry is constantly redefining what is necessary to worship the Gods, work The Craft, and finding new ways to make do with less.

According to Rev. Dove, often rituals play out like the old story Stone Soup. Participants bring in items from their limited personal belongings, and together, they build a sacred space from practically nothing.
Like the tools, words take on whole new shapes and meanings when working within the prison walls.

“I get a knot in my throat, ” Dove says, “whenever we reach the Elemental Affirmation and they all say 'I am Free.”

Indeed, freedom takes on a whole new meaning in a place where one must stand on their tip toes to get a glimpse of the outside world from a window the size of a shoebox.

“The men and women behind the walls are human beings who have made mistakes. We all make mistakes, some more crucial and critical than others... It is not up to me to judge someone else's errors in judgment or how they may have compromised themselves. My only job is to serve those interested in honoring the ways of the Ancient Ones and our Earth. That is my gift, given and received.” says Rev. Hildebrand.

Becoming a volunteer prison minister isn't an overnight process. It involves red tape and regulation, training and personal development. There's time required to act as a shadow to an experienced prison minister, people to talk to, and get help from. For those who are willing to undertake the challenge, the resources are there to guide you, and there's never a better time to start than the present.

For those who want to help Pagan ministries be more effective, but know that they are limited to working from the outside, donations of books, blank journals, and tarot cards (sans any nudity) are always appreciated.

There is one more way that Pagans can assist the ministries. Prison ministers are prohibited from associating with inmates after their release, so ministers cannot aid in transition of reintegration, yet having a community on the outside that is supportive of the individual and their family is imperative for success.

Once outside the walls of the jail, former inmates begin life anew. They face formidable challenges such as repairing bonds, obtaining a job, and finding a place to live. Many struggle with guilt and shame of their past, and they do not suffer alone. In most cases their loved ones also share the pain of social judgment and ostracism.

“We need to develop ways to welcome folks back into our faith communities after they have served their time, ” asserts Rev. Hildebrand. “We need to learn and develop within our communities, how to create a healthy welcoming of inmates into our worlds [and] our groups, [so] all are cared for and honored.”

When inmates are released, the walls that separated us from them, cease to exist anywhere but in our hearts and minds. As they begin the path to reintegration they become part of our Greater Circle; and whether or not we chose to assist them while they were behind the prison walls, on the outside, they are no different or less deserving than any other person who comes to us in need our help to find a spiritual place to call Home Again.

For more information about how you can get involved and assist Pagan Prison Ministries, send an email to circle@circlesanctuary.org





Footnotes:
Self Conducted interview with Rev. Gerri Hildebrand and Rev. Barbara Dove


Copyright: Written by Lyric Dove, March 2012



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