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Today is the day when I participate in a panel discussion on how the Chaplaincy works. It will be an interesting presentation with me being one of four speakers, an interactive art portion, and a question and answer period on what works well and where are the pitfalls of what each of us four chaplains do in our day to day work.  It will be interesting to say the least but there is much to talk about before that time comes.

I have had conversations with people from all over the world: an American man who at a University in Ghana with only 700 students, a Hungarian woman who works in the Netherlands, multiple Australians and New Zealanders, an Englishman from Sheffield and a Scot from St. Andrews.  There are the Catholic priests from different countries in Africa, a Buddhist monk from here in Bendigo and this is just touching the tip of the iceberg.  The one thing they all have in common, we all have in common, is that we are all Chaplains and we all serve the greater good of the students, faculty and staff that make up are representative campuses.

The last two days I have had open discussions with a Catholic priest who wanted to know if Pagans still harbored resentment for the 2000 years of atrocities that the Church had done to them.  I answered honestly – yes, many do.  He was surprised, truly surprised, but I explained that wounds sometimes heal slowly, but they do heal. I don’t know, my thought is that maybe, just maybe, having a priest ask a Pagan such a question will be acknowledgement enough for some to speed that healing process along.  We talked more through the evening and he and a Lutheran Chaplain who had joined the conversation, were truly interested in the theology of paganism or more specifically my theology and beliefs as a Druid. There was no subject left untouched as they tried to find similarities and understanding between the monotheistic Christianity that is theirs and the polytheistic Druidism that is mine. Sin, salvation, redemption, moral codes, texts, the sacredness of nature, the destruction of groves and so much more was discussed and absorbed.  It wasn’t until we got to the subject of marriage did the conversation end and only then due to a need to leave the restaurant.  At the conclusion I was told “you are the only Druid, the only Pagan I have ever talked to. Thank you.”

The next day found me in workshops on multi-faith, interfaith and dealing with the death of students. In each one the discussion never focused on exclusion but how to have students work together for mutual understanding of each other and how to respect each other’s beliefs and practices.  Lunch found me in another conversation with a gentleman from Helsinki, Finland.  A devout Christian we talked about a few things and I could see that he was struggling with something from our conversation. I didn’t know if it was the topic or language since English was not his first language. Finally it came out, he did not understand polytheism or Paganism and wanted to know more – he wanted to understand.  As he explained there were new religious movements within Finland one of which is called the The People of the Bear. He explained that the bear and the moose are sacred animals in Finland and this is a reconstruction of pre-Christian beliefs. He wanted to know more. So we have exchanged information in order to keep in touch and converse, exchange ideas and help each other understand new and emerging faiths that may be in formation.

Last night found Bill and I at the final dinner, a more formal and altogether fun event.  Wine and beer for those that wished to partake with an amazing dinner and dancing that followed.  We were invited to sit at a table almost as soon as we walked through the door.  The Chaplain from Ghana, Steve, was asking us to join in at their table and as he did so he apologized that they were all Americans. As it turned out the Chaplain from Sheffield joined us and it was an amazing evening.  A young woman from California asked if I was going to another conference in Florida this coming February.  I don’t belong to the association whose conference it is and I informed her of that.  What happened next I can honestly say is the summation of what has happened here in Bendigo.  She told me to join the association and to please come to the conference because “we need non-Christian voices to be heard.” It was at that moment I knew things were different.

Things have changed in four years, I have offers of continued dialogue and true interest from individuals wanting to know more and understand what it is I represent and how does that fit into the landscape of university life, and more specifically beyond university life.  To me that has made this trip more than I could have expected.

The first full day of workshops and discussions is done and I must say that it was what I had hoped for – a wonderful experience of learning, sharing and new ways of thinking.  The overwhelming majority of presenters are local to Australia and New Zealand with others being given by visiting nationalities.  A wonderful mixture that has shown me the international attitude for the most part is one of acceptance and engagement for the benefit of those they are dedicated to helping – their students. From discussions on sacred spaces to walking labyrinths and presentations on newly developed apps for exploring the deep search for belonging, everyone was open to multiple interpretations and understandings of what faith and belief are. The most significant revelations of the day, however, did not occur within in the workshops.  Rather they were during a conversation over tea.

As I sat talking with two gentleman from New Zealand enjoying light conversation and for a moment a third gentleman named Jeremy sat down with us.  As it was, the break was mostly over but the two of us continued to talk on “stuff” which was mainly regarding his earlier presentation.  I had too many good things to go to at the same time and his workshop was one that I had decided to bypass.  So what did I give up? A tremendous endeavor that he and another person have undertaken in order to develop an app/website that helps individuals of any faith tradition navigate the deep questions and shifts that many of us encounter in this thing called life.

As he continued to talk to me about it he explained that his perspective was truly from a Christian standpoint since that was his faith tradition (his words) but had done this work in a very conscious manner so that anyone from any tradition could use it comfortably.  It was at the moment he ask what denomination or tradition I represented and I told him – Pagan, most specifically Druid.  He was/is British and was immediately interested in having a conversation so he could better understand what that meant. So we talked.

The conversation came around to his explaining that he had dated a Pagan-Christian for a while but it didn’t last and it had always left him with a sense of wonder on the topic.  As we moved forward through a couple of questions he asked if there was an unbroken line of tradition that could be claimed by Pagans.  It wasn’t a question asked with the intent of determining validity to tradition or faith, it really was an honest question. So I answered him the only way that I could.  No, there wasn’t one that I knew of, not that was centuries old like he was asking.  I explained that there were many factors that made me come to that conclusion.  First was that many traditions were oral, such as if it was a family based tradition.  Of those I truly would have very little knowledge.  Second that many things were oral and when the history keepers, teachers and such were either killed or converted much of the stories they had to tell went with them. Last, but not least, what was written was often destroyed by the churches and that this was an act of conquering and assimilation.  Now I do have to say that I never eluded to any “central belief” or church or organized faith structure having been present.  Rather, that what different people did , fractured at best multiple times by those that would be their conquers. There was never any chance to have a recognizable and continuous line of history and practice. In other words, no, the church didn’t want us so it did what it could to eliminate us.

As he sat there and thought about it I went a little further and explained that what had been done, however, was that the good Christian monks would write down the tales and stories as folklore without credibility so there were enough references and points of common knowledge save that many of the customs could be reconstructed and that is what modern pagans do well. At that moment I could the see the light bulb go on.  He smiled and said that makes sense.  How could anyone have an unbroken lineage if we kept trying to destroy you?  He got it.  He made the analogy of new traditions in Christianity begin considered cults until they gained enough following to be “real” but explained we have a right to claim validity more than anyone and we should.  The system was created to steal that right away.  He told me he appreciated the conversation, probably one of the most insightful one he had had to that moment, and that he had new perspective on his own religion as well as others.

It really was amazing to be understood rather than trying to converted.  This truly is a wonderful experience and it just keeps getting better

I have a confession to make – I got scared and hid.  I’m not talking about in the last few days or on my arrival in Bendigo.  No.  I’m talking about four years ago at the Global Conference that took place in Yale. The last Global Conference for Chaplain in Higher Ed.  Yes, I got scared. I was hit by a ton of rocks created out of ignorance in such force and magnitude that I did what many of us do.  I hid, I retreated, I stepped back into the closet, kind of, hoping that my wounds would heal and the world would be right again. Or at least it would go back to what I remembered and that meant familiar ground.  Well the wounds did heal, but the world didn’t go back to what it was; it can never go back. The experience changed me and in the process I stopped writing which is horrible.  I love writing, but by not writing this blog and exposing my vulnerabilities I was able to stay in the “closet” a little longer. But a curious thing happened. A gentleman named Rob Lingard read a paper where I let all of my feelings out and promised me that things would change. Rob is not Pagan, he is a Christian and he is also a man of his word; a man of honor.

Yesterday we arrived in Bendigo after approximately 34 hours of travel time and in a slight state of exhaustion.  My husband Bill came with me this time as the support system that I didn’t have last time.  We decided that we would go straight to the conference venue since the opening ceremony and dinner was starting within 40 minutes of our stepping off of the train.  I was happy to get our name tags and to just sit without being in motion.  We were greeted warmly by the conference staff and I asked for Rob.  He was the one who had encouraged me to come, asked if I would be on a panel of speakers, and with whom we are sharing a house while we stay here.  It wasn’t long before we spotted one another and hugs ensued.  As his duties quickly took him away, he is one of the organizers, we were left to begin meeting people on our own.  A little tea and quite for just the two of us, however, is what we took in most.

I watched the room, it WAS different this time. This was a smaller, more intimate gathering than the last conference and I thought that might be what it was. This was a better place to get to know one another, to make connections… but there was more. Bill had found the evening’s outline. The opening event was a ceremonial greeting by the indigenous Dja Daj peoples of the land.  We were taken outside and the smoke we ran into was amazing.  We were being told of the tradition of smoking off the evil spirits to allow good to come in so that our works would be positive and of a good nature.  We were being smudged by eucalyptus leaves – the indigenous tradition of the land – and being told of the honoring of the elders and ancestors and how it was important to remember them always as they are the ones that teach us how to live and how to be.  It seemed ironic in one way that this was being talked about.  We had just met a gentleman from St. Andrews in Scotland and had been talking about Pan Am Flight 103 and the connection that Lockerbee and Syracuse have due to that tragedy. This week he is giving a talk on how we honor students that pass.

As this cleansing concluded we were invited back in to hear the initial greetings and I quickly understood that Rob had truly kept his word.  The four directions were explained as the people of the four directions were called to come forward to take their place we found out that we were the people of the four directions – Americas to the East, Asia and Europe to the North, Africa to the West, and Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Isles to the South – and as we spoke the words in the familiar call and response manner an energy was laid down.  We were asked to take a stone from the center table while we moved to our designated seats and to hold it to our hearts with one hand to place in it what we brought to give others. It was then we were asked that the other hand be open in order to receive what others had to offer. Our third task was to contemplate how we had prepared for being here – a triad of inquiry and responsibility for all of us.  It was then that I knew that true change had taken place these last four years.  We were asked to come forward and to place the stones we had selected in the center, a created space symbolic of all of us coming together to agree or not, but to be community together. We received a blessing of hope and understanding which ended in three times stated Blessed Be… Blessed Be… Blessed Be. Amen.

We were then asked to talk and share until dinner and share we did.  I met friends of our new Catholic Priest at Syracuse, a Chaplain from the south that wants to go out for drinks, one from the Gold Coast of Australia, discussed politics with one from the Netherlands and ate dinner with the wife of our Chaplain from St. Andrews.  There are so many more that I haven’t mentioned but I can say things are different. Pagans mentioned in the opening statements alongside Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Humanists and others. Yes things have shifted, especially when Rob asked me if I felt as if I had been included and respected within the ceremony.  He was sincere in his question and I could not feel more welcome than I did at the moment.

I hope that this shift in attitude towards the “other” begins to move outward and touch more than just those who are here. This world needs to be as inclusive as this conference has become. It is proving we can change, we need to, and that it can be positive.

Oh… and the kangaroo was delicious!

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