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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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