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The events for the installation of the Dean of the Chapel did not end with the reception afterward.  Oh no, there were activities that evening and then into the next day.  That is right, what was to come next was a great deal of fun… and momentary terror.

After the reception the Dean and her guests (family, close friends, chaplains at Hendricks, and a few special guests) gathered to share a very fine meal and conversation.  In our case, Tim and I were seated with some of the Chapel staff and two members of the Board of Friends of Hendricks.  It was a great dinner; conversation initially was a little awkward but only because the two of us didn’t know the Board of Friends members.  Actually I didn’t even know who they were at all until after the dinner.  But that is neither here nor there.

Tim and I talked and were joined with small conversation with the Chapel staff, but our two other dining mates were somewhat silent.  In order to break the silence I decided to introduce myself and then, well, wing it.  The conversation that ensued was great and I found out that the wife of the couple had noticed, really noticed, Tim’s kilt.  Gotta love a Scot in a kilt – most ladies do.  But we talked about the students and the different things that I do with them as the chaplain.  There were questions regarding my cloak and what the meaning behind it was.  If anything it was pleasant conversation and I believe that is was enjoyed by all those that participated.  But then it happened; the speeches began.  It was two small bits followed by the guest speaker Brad Hirschfield, Orthodox Rabbi and author of “You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right.”

As he spoke he set the tone for the events of the following day: a thought-provoking discussion regarding Sacred Envy. He talked about meeting in the middle and doing good for each other.  It carried into finding the good and was continued in this thought for a bit. His words were profound and struck deep cords with everyone in the room.  When he finished it was silent.  How do you follow him, how do you follow the deep profoundness of what he stated?  I sat there wondering and then it hit me, tomorrow I was one of the panel members to talk on Sacred Envy.  I had to follow this man’s words that were let hanging in the room.  Terror began to set in.

The next day I made my way to the Hillel Center.  This would be where the panel on Sacred Envy would take place.  I was there early and only a few others had arrived.  In fact only the Dean and the staff members that I had eaten dinner with last night were there setting up.  The chairs for the panel members were in place with their name placards next to them letting me know where I was going to sit.  Then I saw it and I really began to panic.  The order of seated members was set.  The moderator was on the far right, then Brad Hirschfield, and then me.  The other three members didn’t matter at that point.  I had asked the question out loud and in my head a dozen times: “How do you follow Brad?”  Guess what I was literally following him on every question and discussion point!  I explained my “panic” to the Dean with a chuckle in my voice and she smiled.  “Mary, we did that on purpose.” Oh my… what does that mean!?  People began to file in and soon we were asked to sit, I was nervous, I was scared.  And then it began.

The questions for the panel were simple.  There were only two of them:

  1. What do you find beautiful in your own tradition, something you are proud of.  And then what do you find beautiful in faith traditions not your own.
  2. What do you find challenging in your own tradition and what do you find challenging in faith traditions not your own.

Like I said simple questions; however, the answers were anything but.  Brad went first and he was eloquent.  His eloquence came from his genuine nature, something that I had been talking with him prior to the start.  This is a man who speaks from the heart and has no pretense about him.  He is real, that is where his power is born.  But it was from his words that I found my calm.  I knew what I was proud of, what I found beautiful in my own faith tradition, in being Pagan.  I find the fact that we are an oral tradition beautiful.  This one fact makes us unique.  But there is more to it than that, it makes us responsible for passing along our traditions and teachings.  It makes us personally responsible for what we pass on to others and that those we give knowledge to are ready to receive it.  It makes our faith personal, so personal that we hold it in our hearts and minds and share it in the most personal way.  We share it through spoken word between two people.  Teachers must find students who must find teachers and in the end who sits in the role of teacher and student is up for debate.  I’m also proud of our perseverance to continue our traditions and to continue practicing our faith.  It isn’t easy being Pagan; it takes courage to face what we face from those that do not understand us or our practices.

The conversation of the panel continued and many subjects were covered.  Both the moderator and the audience asked questions of the panel and in the end of each other.  You see at the end of the “formal” discussion we had lunch.  At our tables we began to talk intimately regarding the two questions of the day.  It was interesting what others had to say on the subjects. 

Then it was time to go. I began to say good-bye to several people and a funny thing happened on the way to the door.  People wanted to talk more.  Pagans had been in the audience and had asked great questions.  People who had not identified their pagan nature to the general public were introducing themselves and letting me know who they were.  And then I found Brad to say my farewell and to my surprise he thanked me.  He thanked me for being on the panel and speaking the way that I do.  The entire day was humbling and it began to dawn on me the immense magnitude of what had just taken place.  A Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, A Muslim, and a Pagan came together to talk frankly about what they loved and didn’t about their own faiths and the faiths of others. 

For us, the man whom I could not fathom following said: “What I love about the Pagans is their abundance.  Abundance in everything they are and do.  They wish to share their abundance and do so freely, it is wonderful.”

The Dean of Hendricks Chapel was installed to the position on October 25th, 2010.  This was a grand day, a significant day, in the history of the Chapel.  Tiffany Steinwert’s installation marked her inclusion to a very exclusive list.  In the 80 year history of the Chapel Rev. Steinwert is just the 6th Dean and the first female.  I note that she is female only for the record books; her gender has no bearing on her ability to lead, her ability to listen, her ability to understand, nor her ability to move the Chapel to what it will become in the future.  It is only a point of interest to some.

But there was more to the day than the formality of the installation.  Gathered for the event were members of a multitude of religious traditions.  Muslim, Jew, Christian, Pagan, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh sat together to watch the proceedings. On the stage each faith was represented with their clergy robed and seated to exemplify the deep commitment to interfaith/interreligious recognition and dialogue that make up the Chapel.  I was proud to represent the Pagan community.  I was even more proud that in the clergy procession Druid and Wiccan representatives were among those present.  I was also proud that there were many other members of the Pagan community in the audience.  Asatru, Solitary, CUUPS, Wiccan, Eclectic and more – all present, all invited as equals on this day of celebration.  But I am beginning in the middle; I should go back to the beginning of the day’s events. So I’ll go back a bit…

As my friend and I arrived at the Chapel I had no idea where to go or what to do.  I was dressed in my finest pagan garb: a sky blue dress, athame on my hip, deep blue velvet cloak, and labradorite pendant.  When we finally figured out what to do I left Tim upstairs in the main chapel where the installation was going to occur so he could find a seat.  I headed downstairs to gather with others that were going to process at the beginning of the ceremony.  Now knowing where to go I felt the day was finally beginning.  As I entered the Nobel Room I spotted Skip Ellison, ADF Arch Druid Emeritus.  It was nice to see a familiar face.  Soon Gail Wood found us and we all waited for instructions on what to do.  At one point a gentleman from another faith commented on Gail’s cloak, a compliment.  Many of those in the room had most likely never knowingly interacted with Pagans.  To have Pagans in the room as recognized clergy was probably a new experience for them.  Our instructions came.  I was to line up with the Hendricks Chapel Chaplains, all other clergy were to line up in front of us and walk in pairs. I saw another Pagan had joined Skip and Gail but could not see who it was. I had to smile; three individuals representing our multiple traditions just as the triple god and goddess represent the depths of their being – how appropriate.

I was in the second row of Chaplains when I entered the room.  Such grand ceremony and ritual this was, and now to reenter the middle of the story… we entered the chapel, and as a collective representation of the multiplicity of faith that is Hendricks Chapel, we took our seats to witness and give approval to the installation of the Dean.  The ceremony was the usual line up of prayers, short speeches and music that you would find in a church service; one couched in an academic setting that is.  But today there was a small difference – the student speaker was Pagan.  She is a member of SPIRAL, the student Pagan group on campus.  She is also the official face of Hendricks Chapel.  Sierra is the President of the Hendricks Chapel Choir, Vice President of SPIRAL, and member/leader in many other groups.  I consider her a living, breathing, walking example of interfaith. Sierra was giving the student welcome to the new Dean and to the guests in the audience.  As she went through her speech I thought of the discussion we had earlier, she was scared and nervous.  What she portrayed was grace and beauty, gifts from the Goddess that Sierra carries through every part of her life.  Her welcome was inclusive, warm and ended with an unexpected note.  Sierra closed with “Peace be with you and Blessed Be.”  Nothing, in my opinion, was more moving or profound than those two statements being said together. 

As the ceremony ended we processed out, continuing on to the reception that followed.  There I was able to talk to friends old and new from the Pagan community.  Friends of mine who were present wanted to meet the Dean and so I made sure to bring her to them for the introduction.  She was pleasant as always and told us something that was a little surprising.  As far as religious groups were concerned, Pagans had one of the largest representations for the event.  We can be proud; we did not hide from being recognized.

I was also able to meet several others during the reception. People who were both Pagan and non-Pagan that wanted to introduce themselves and begin to invite our voice to other locations, other discussions. Transition is beginning, Pagans are beginning to be seen and heard.  We need to be ready to accept the responsibility of telling our stories and moving forward.  Most will never get the opportunities that have been placed in front of me but that doesn’t mean that my voice is any greater than another.  It just means that this part of my journey has put me in this position.  I will continue to work, talk, walk, yell, scream, discuss, get scared, and move forward.  I hope you do to. 

I know there is no such thing as coincidence.  How do I know that?  Well, if there was such a thing, my life would be nothing more than a gigantic string of outrageous coincidences that started very early in my life.  Skeptical?  That’s okay, humor me a little, there is no such thing as coincidence.  Does that mean that fate takes over and we have only one destiny? No, not by a long shot, free will is never removed from our lives.  But what it means is that we are given opportunities at certain points.  What we do with those opportunities then determines how our future, and future opportunities, is shaped.

I just want to point out that I do say opportunity rather than challenge.  The opportunities in our life sometimes feel like challenges but that is only a matter of view-point.  Yes, we can see the challenge as an obstacle that is insurmountable, or we can see it as an opportunity to work magic and find new ways of being.  Either is a choice; each choice will lead to further opportunities, but not necessarily the same opportunities.  So, why am I rambling on about this?  Well that is simple.  This fall the Chaplains and Chapel staff came together with the Counseling Center on campus.  We wanted to talk to find out how each group can benefit from the work the other does.  More specifically the Chaplains wanted to understand what we could to help in grief counseling and suicide prevention.

This seems like a natural reaction to the recent rise in suicides in young adults.  The strange thing about this, however, is that the request by the Chaplains came long before these recent losses. That is right, a need had been defined a long time ago.  The increase of suicides on campuses across the country, and a feeling of inadequacy in dealing with the aftermath of grief that these deaths leave behind made us think that we needed to do something – to do more.  And so the work began; the challenge of coordinating schedules and to figure out what we needed to discuss and learn about each group and each other.  What did we each bring to the table as a skill or as a need?  We are continuing to work on our abilities to combine our efforts.  We are all here for the students.  For those feeling unable to deal with the grief as well as to help those who feel they can no longer cope with their lives.

Am I a counselor? No, and I would never say that I am nor try to do the work that they do.  But I am someone who individuals can come to if they need to talk or find solace in their lives.  I don’t have all the answers, none of us do.  But like all the Chaplains, I am here to help, to help in ways that I didn’t know that I could.  Working with the Counseling Center to see what we can do is the beginning.  The “It Gets Better” messages are also a beginning – a wonderful beginning.  I am happy to see so many respond to the need of people who are hurting, but the greater challenge is to take the next step, continue the work.  Or should I say that there is an opportunity here; an opportunity to get involved with a group to do more to stop the bullying, to stop the senseless deaths. 

By making the choice to get involved, by seeing that challenge as an opportunity maybe you will make a surprising discovery.  Maybe, just maybe, you find that the outsider that is being bullied is a warm and caring person with a great deal to offer.  Maybe they will be the one individual that will listen to you when you need someone to talk to. Maybe they will be the friend that you need because you became the friend that they needed.  You never know what you will discover when you decide to turn a challenge into an opportunity.  It could be the difference in someone’s life, maybe yours.  So don’t only say it will get better, actively work to help someone see that it does.

Daisy Kahn is the Executive Director for the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA).  She is also the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.  Ms. Kahn and her husband are leading organizers of the Cordoba Initiative at Park51.  This week it was my pleasure to be one of a small group invited to lunch and conversation with Ms. Kahn.

The lunch itself was simple: pizza.  That’s right, just pizza.  But it wasn’t the food that was the draw; it was the ability to converse with a person that is currently at the middle of the debate regarding religious freedom in this country.  How could I, a Pagan, not go? This gathering was intimate with only 20 or so people in the room.  And what people they were: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Pagan, Muslim, and probably faiths traditions that I’m not aware of.  Old, young, middle-aged; student, chaplain, professor, visitor, staff; those who watched 9/11 from afar as well as some who were very personally affected by the attack – all had their perspectives and lives changed that day.  The cross-section of American culture was amazing.  But it seemed that everyone came together for one single purpose: to talk, to listen, and to be open to understanding.

What was said will remain between the participants of the lunch.  There were no cameras, recordings or media allowed.  An environment of open, candid discussion was created with trust among the participants a key component.  What I will say is that we discussed a wide range of topics.  What is an interfaith or interreligious dialogue was the beginning point. From there we broached the subject of anger in America; anger against certain groups and what it is based in.  (Fear of the unknown is my opinion, that and feeling a loss of control in our lives.)  We talked about the Cordoba Initiative/Park51 Center and what steps have been taken to make it inclusive – steps that have been taken from the beginning of the project.  Inclusion and sensitivity towards the 9/11 families in the planning of the project was also brought up.  The discussion in all areas was just what it was intended to be – a conversation.  For me the conversation reaffirmed that most people just want to do good.

At the end of the lunch I smiled, we all came together to listen to one woman, Daisy Kahn, talk.  What had happened was very different.  A conversation that allowed questions, thoughts, opinions and maybe an answer or two to be brought forward had taken place.  No, not what I expected but definitely what I was hoping for.  Start your own conversation.  You never know what new place of understanding it will take you to.

Compassion and understanding, sometimes we forget to practice these two virtues.  I’m as guilty as the next, but I do try to put both in my life every day.  I say this because on occasion I get reminded of how important these two things can be to those around us and how often we forget to practice them.  This really comes into focus at the beginning of every year on campus.

Each year there are new students.  We are, after all, at a University; we hope that there will always be new students coming to learn.  What they learn will in the long run truly be up to them, but they come with the hope that we will give them knowledge that will be useful after graduation. As the new students arrive to the campus a few find their way to the Chapel; ultimately some find their way to SPIRAL (our student pagan group) and to me.  This is the time when students, on their own for the first time, begin to explore their education, including their spiritual education.  This, for me, is what it is all about: helping others figure out who they are and what the next step on their path might be.

Grounding and centering, the essential building blocks to everything else; this is where we begin.  The older students can help, and they do.  It is always my goal to have the older students work actively with the new.  Seeing that peers have been able to learn the skills helps the newer students understand that it just takes time and practice.  It also helps instill with the older students that we have an obligation to give back, that it is the job of those that have gone first to help those that come afterwards. If we don’t help each other, teaching and learning along the way, who will? 

A little energy play, they get excited; a little more energy play, and they learn to feel; a little more energy work and they understand that this isn’t necessarily easy or play.  But what they learn is whether or not this is something that they wish to pursue.  What is a direction? Why are elements associated with them, why those elements with those directions, are those things all you can have for that direction, what etiquette is there that I must follow?  Is there only one kind of energy? Are dragons and fairies real? What is a journey? All are questions that get asked every year.  It is a repeatable cycle, the academic Wheel of the Year.  And this is where compassion and understanding are necessary – when someone new comes to the pagan traditions and wants to learn we need to have both compassion and understanding.

Remember when you were new?  Maybe you do or maybe you don’t, but everyone has to be new at some point.  We all come to our path knowing nothing, or at least knowing nothing outside of our intuition.  We know what calls to us, we know that this might be the path we need to be on, but understanding ritual construction, element direction (think neo-pagan designations), energy work, casting circles, spell crafting, the Charge of the Goddess (or God), that there are multitudes of traditions, are not innately understood things.  We have to be taught, we have to learn, we have to teach, and we have to practice patience.    

So reach deep down inside of your memory.  When was the last time you were engaged by someone completely new and excited about a pagan path?  Was it yesterday or was it years ago?  When it happened, how did you respond to the questions, or were you even open to them?  Answering the questions that seem silly can be tiring but it can also be a barometer to how society views Pagans in general.  It is an opportunity for us to educate and to be educated.  Trust me there is nothing more rewarding that helping someone see who I am as a Pagan while assisting them in finding their own path.  And so compassion and understanding: Compassion for the need to know “stuff” and to know it all right now; to figure it all out so that “I know how to do everything that the experienced crafters do.”  Understanding that we were like that at one time as well, eager to learn and not understanding that this is a life time pursuit of knowledge and skill.  They figure it out eventually, but it is a tough road to travel at times.  And like all of us, they reach a particular point. That moment when the older student approaches me with a single question:

                “Was I that much of a pain?”

My answer,

                 “No, you were worse. Be patient, they are new and you were once as well.”

So today think about where you are.  Are you the new and excited student fresh on your path and a sponge for information and continuously asking questions? Are you the one a little further down the path that helps to show that it just takes some practice?   Are you the one just far enough along who is tired of answer the questions and not wanting to bother with newbies?  Are you the one much further on their path, charged with guiding people around the “cosmic pot holes” that you fell in to and had someone there to help you out? Maybe you are a little bit of all of these.  I know that one of my great sources of learning is new students.  They ask questions that I have either not thought of or not thought of in a long time.  They make me think, they help me not be stagnant, and they teach me to remember that compassion and understanding are there to help all of us.

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