Pagans in Prison – Ritual and study helps inmates make peace with their past
By MELANIE JEFFS
I’m attending a pagan ritual, held in a circle of standing stones in a Garry oak meadow. The ritual, a celebration of the season, is about trees. And, in a way, about responsibility.
A member of the Wiccan group gathered for this celebration has made a large oak box. It will be used for storing the group’s supplies, and he has written the ritual we are celebrating today. We bless colourful scarves before using them to wrap candle holders and decorative bowls, then place them ceremoniously in the new box.
Once the box has been filled, we sit on the grass and close our eyes. A member of the group leads us in a guided meditation, and we imagine ourselves as the seeds of an oak tree, nestled in the dark earth. We travel upwards as the shoot breaks through, and grow with the tree as a native village, and then explorers, populate the land. We see immigrants from many lands pass the tree, and then feel the storm that killed the tree. The meditation has been a celebration of the life of the oak tree used to make the box.
I join hands with the others, and we dance in a circle, singing, “We all come from the goddess and to her we shall return.” The dance is meant to charge the box with positive energy from the ritual.
When the ritual is finished we gather around a fire for food and conversation. As we roast marshmallows and toss jokes back and forth, it is hard to believe we are in a prison.
But that’s how pagan rituals are celebrated at William Head, the medium-security federal institution in Metchosin, known for its creative approaches to prison life and rehabilitation.
The group, which has been meeting for the past six years, has included about 20 inmates and a dozen volunteers from the community outside the fence. It’s led by Michele Favarger, who holds the title of Right Reverend in the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, an organization that sponsors the study group. They meet regularly to discuss and practice Wicca, a religion based on the cycles of the earth.
Perhaps just as important as the religious aspect is the social aspect, which allows for interaction between the inmates and members of the community. “It’s human contact without judgment,” says Favarger. The inmates can talk with volunteers knowing that what they say is not going into a file somewhere.
It is obvious, from their conversations and jokes, that inmates and volunteers value this meeting. The volunteers, who also practice Wicca with Favarger outside the prison, enjoy knowing that the time they spend is meaningful.
Leo Blanshard, the volunteer coordinator at William Head, says that meeting with members of the outside community is good for inmates, many of whom don’t function well in groups.
After the ritual, however, the group dynamic is relaxed and easy. The inmates are eager to talk about their involvement with the Wiccan group, but not so eager to give me their full names. They tell me that they appreciate the opportunity to focus on spiritual growth, and to develop friendships with the volunteers.
Many of them had also considered themselves Wiccan even before they got involved with the ATC group.
For Bruce, who has participated in the group for two years, the seasonal celebrations are a way to feel separate from the routine of prison life. He started attending because his friends were going, but found that the Wiccan reverence for nature reflected his own values.
“When I’m down here I’m concentrating on the positive aspects of life,” he says.
With round glasses and a bandanna covering his head, Tazz looks like a stereotypical Gulf Island resident. He says William Head is the perfect setting in which to practice Wicca because the institution’s location offers a connection to nature in a way that other prisons don’t. Before he arrived at William Head, Tazz had spent 10 years in other institutions, and says he hadn’t been able to touch a tree in that whole time.
Rick, clean-cut, quiet and serious-looking, was the one who invited Farvager to found the ATC group after she officiated at a wedding in the prison, back in 1993. The Wiccan demand that everyone take personal responsibility for their thoughts and deeds has been an important lesson for him. “I used to blame others for my circumstances,” he says. “I needed to take responsibility for who and what I was.”
That focus on personal responsibility is integral to the group, says Favarger. It allows inmates to come to terms with their crimes, accept responsibility for them, and move on. She adds that the crimes committed by many of the inmates were responses to circumstances, and that in teaching Wicca she stresses that “it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond.”
Learning to accept responsibility for their own actions enables inmates to set a positive path for their future. This has certainly been the case for Rick. “I went from taking a life,” he tells me, “to trying to promote the betterment of life.”
– Article from Monday Magazine.