Prison Ministry: One Heathen’s Experience
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Prison Ministry: One Heathen’s Experience
Just about every religion you could think of has at least one prison ministry going. The explanation for this is simple: not only do individuals of all religious faiths wind up in the prison system, but many previously “secular” prisoners develop an active interest in religious belief and practice during their incarceration. They make a wide variety of religious choices from the smorgasbord of faiths present in North American society today. The reasons for turning to religious faith are no doubt as varied as the inmates themselves. One factor is the realization that in order to have landed where they are, they have had to have made in most cases a long series of very bad choices, and come to understand that if they are ever to have a better life, they need to make some drastic changes, changes that may lie beyond the ability of their own unaided strength and resources. A rapidly growing number of prisoners, as of this writing (Feb. 2004) eleven thousand in North America alone, have chosen our religion, and usually call it Odinism or Ásatrú.
Many prisoners feel a need to know where they and their families have been in order to chart the way to a better future. This accounts for some of the interest in religions like Heathenism, which are not only very old but also have strong associations with particular ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups. The number of Heathens in correctional institutions is growing very rapidly, and many are reaching out beyond the wire for networking and various forms of assistance.
In some ways, it may be easier to be a Heathen behind bars than in “mainstream society.” The social conformity pressures are much weaker, or at least of a very different order. There is much more time for study and religious practice. In any case and for whatever reason, Ásatrú is perhaps the only religion with at least as many adherents behind bars as in the free world! This sounded really scary to me when I first heard it, but on further reflection I calmed down considerably. For one thing, almost all incarcerated Heathens committed their crimes before discovering Heathenism. I believe that in the long run, one of the criteria that Heathenism in general and Heathenism behind bars in particular will be judged by is how our religion does or does not transform for the better the lives of its practitioners.
Our Way has much going for it in that respect. Much of it is plain and simple common sense. Most of us understand that we are in large part responsible for our Wyrd. We do not offer automatic, easy, and unlimited forgiveness. Christians hand that out in confessional booths or at altar calls, not that it really changes anything. We Heathens must take responsibility not only for our actions but also to the extent that it is possible, for setting right the wrongs that we have committed. For that reason alone, few whiners, excuse-makers, and professional victims come our way and most of those who do find us either change their ways in a hurry or else do not stay for very long.
With us, trust has to be earned, and if one has established a consistent pattern of untrustworthy actions in life, earning people’s trust can be very difficult indeed. We’re not going to say, “Whatever you did in the past is under the blood of Jesus and doesn’t matter any more.” We are certainly willing to help our co-religionists weave a better Wyrd and improve their Orlög, but we take a “show-me” attitude and expect individuals, whatever their background and present circumstances, to put forth their best effort. We are at present few in number and spread widely over Miđgarđr, and we gođar are volunteers. We work day jobs and have families. Our time is therefore very valuable, and we must ration it out in our Heathen endeavors where it will do the most good.
Heathens are not doormats, and consequently we do not advise people to forgive wrongdoers “seventy times seven” as Jesus did. Thus, the individual who embraces Ásgarđr’s Way, whether behind bars or beyond the wire, is either someone serious about growing up and taking responsibility, or else is very stupid indeed. Our Gods and Goddesses are not “safe,” and those who abuse Heathen Troth typically find that the results are very unpleasant.
Since there is little to be gained in social terms from being a Heathen, and there are still many places and situations where it is socially and even economically advantageous to serve the White Christ, I presume that any man or woman who says “I am a Heathen” is serious until that person gives me reason to think otherwise. Religious discrimination, while greatly reduced nowadays and illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is still a problem. In prison, prisoners often get good behavior points toward early release for attending Christian services, but not Heathen ones. All this being the case, I try to help as much as I can, no matter which side of the wire the seeker may be on. One thing that I can do is share as widely as possible my own experiences in working with Heathen prisoners and former prisoners so that both incarcerated Heathens on one hand and those assisting them can have positive, worthwhile experiences.
For free world Heathens, I believe that the following suggestions will be of help. First of all, get a post office box. They are not very expensive. Life is uncertain and difficult enough without your name and home address circulating through the prison system. You will meet some wonderful Heathens in the prison system, but there are some really scary ones in there as well. That little creep that dragged a black man to death in Texas is a self-proclaimed “Odinist.” Be honest and forthright with correspondents about what you can and cannot do. If someone asks for something that you may not comfortable with, such as telephone communication, do not hesitate to say no. Just the fact that you are willing to exchange letters means much. Most Heathen prisoners are eager for contact with Heathens in the larger society and are grateful for anything they get.
Start out small, then work your way up to things like prison visits if you like once you have gotten your feet wet and have a basic understanding of the situation. This is good Heathen practice, as Hávamál advises us to keep a sharp eye out when going into someplace new! Be aware of the rules and regulations of the institutions with whose inmates you are in contact. This will prevent wasted time and money when religious literature, photocopied books, etc. are returned to you because their format and shipping were not “regulation.” These regulations, by the way, are often very obtuse and arbitrary, as well as being subject to change without notice. Ask your correspondents; they will know. Some chaplains are willing to work to meet the spiritual needs of all prisoners in their institutions, while all too many others abuse their position to try to push their own beliefs on all prisoners under their care. Your correspondents will also be able to fill you in on what sort of chaplain they have.
Try to keep an open mind, especially in regard to social attitudes. Prisons are very racist places, and prisoners do what they have to in order to survive. “Peace, love and can’t everybody just get along” can easily get you killed in there. Prison per se will not make someone a racist. However, if an individual already has racist tendencies, and all too many in our society do, then prison will make those tendencies worse. A prisoner with racist attitudes may still have many worthwhile qualities. Almost everybody in my family was a racist until a few decades ago but most were still decent human beings overall. Notice please that I am talking about having prejudiced attitudes. Joining the KKK and burning crosses in people’s yards is quite another matter.
Free world Heathens involved in prison ministry have the difficult but essential task of educating incarcerated Heathens toward focusing more on pride in heritage and less on bigoted attitudes which will prove very harmful to prisoners’ functioning in society once released. And by the way the vast majority of incarcerated Heathens will eventually leave prison. That is a big reason why after considerable hesitation, I decided to become involved in Heathen prison ministry. A huge Heathen community behind bars is a reality; it’s growing every day, and better that those folks should have good information on our shared religion than bad information. I think that we all can at least agree on that.
Homophobia is another potential problem in prison ministry. While it is increasingly unacceptable in mainstream society, the situation in prison is very different. Many inmates were sexually abused by men during boyhood or adolescence, and do not have the background in psychology and human sexuality to understand the difference between pedophilia and homosexuality (most men who molest boys and male adolescents are heterosexual in their sex lives with other adults). Rape, including gang rape, is an unfortunate fact of prison life. What was horrible enough before AIDS is now also life-threatening. Even if the victims are aware that their assailants are devout practicing heterosexuals when in the free world, I doubt that knowledge provides much comfort! My understanding is that prison rapes are very often across racial lines, and that can certainly has the potential of making the victims’ racial attitudes even worse! Once again, slowly and patiently educating people and helping them change their attitudes is needed. A little patience can go a long way. Contrary to what many think, many incarcerated Heathens are neither racist nor homophobic.
In closing this section, I would like to mention some of the areas where assistance from other Heathens can really make a difference to incarcerated or recently released Heathens. Pen pals are always welcome. Letters of course are great. Even better, include something useful printed from the Internet in every letter. It could be a blót, an article, or even a poem. Outside volunteers to come in and hold classes, lead blótar and sumbels, etc. are much in demand. Every volunteer that I have ever heard from reports having had wonderful experiences and having received much appreciation. I hope to do that one day when time and circumstances permit. If you write articles, poetry, book reviews, or fiction, create Heathen artwork or music, please consider submitting it to The Saga, the National Prison Kindred Alliance’s newsletter. They do a fine job getting positive, high-quality Heathen information into prisoners’ hands, and since the overlap between their mailing list and those of free world Heathen magazines is relatively small, they can use things previously printed elsewhere. The NPKA can be reached at PO Box 6493, Napa CA 94581 USA or at www.wyrdsway.com, our online store. Volunteers and donations are always needed and very welcome!
If you cannot or do not wish to do prison visits, why not correspond or meet with newly released Heathens? You need not do this in your home. You can just as easily meet in public space and treat your fellow Heathen to a hot meal and maybe a little shopping for much needed clothing, etc. Goodwill would be fine. Many are released with no family support and next to no financial resources. A little effort on your part could make the difference between someone making it or not making it in his new life. A newly-released Heathen who contacted me almost exactly a year ago was able through me to make Heathen friends and even found a Heathen lady with whom he is expecting a child, with whom he has just purchased a home, and whom he will soon marry. I couldn’t be prouder of him!
Of course, just like many Christians or Muslims who “get religion” while incarcerated, there is a high “dropout rate” among those released. Also, some people profess and practice a particular religion whenever they are incarcerated but not while free. Having even minimal fellowship and support available for newly released Heathens will not only help improve our retention rate, but as they build solid lives our community can benefit from experienced and talented individuals who have learned much wisdom the hard way. Just for starters, many incarcerated Heathens are incredible artisans, artists, writers and scholars. The NPKA has published a calendar with their artwork.
My advice for newly released Heathens and those who are still incarcerated is of a somewhat different nature. First for individuals who become Heathen behind bars and are being released into the larger society, I encourage you to be open and honest about your background and situation. The individuals who have written me and said something to the effect of: “I just got out of prison, and my gođi there gave me your name and address and suggested that I contact you. I’m serious about remaining an active Heathen and meeting other like-minded folks” have really earned my respect. It would have been much easier to have waited six months or a year until they had jobs, cars, apartments, dating partners, and all the other aspects of everyday life firmly in place and then contacted me without saying anything about where they had been the last few years. Of course, by coming clean with me they gained not only my sympathy but also my assistance as needed to facilitate their continued reentry into society and their integration into free world Heathendom.
Suggest meeting in a public place. Wear your Thor’s Hammer to be easily recognized. Meeting new people can be hard, but it will get easier as time goes on. As a seiđr-worker, I’ve noticed that newly released prisoners carry something with them for a while after leaving prison, a different sort of “vibe”. In prison, you have to be on guard at all times, to project, for your own protection, a feeling of “better not mess with me.” It takes a while for this to die down. If folks seem a bit ill at ease with you at first, this may be why. Be polite, be yourself, and the problem will go away over time. Meditation and relaxation techniques may speed the process.
Of course, if you are not asked about your criminal record or incarceration history when applying to join a kindred, then you don’t have to tell. Just don’t lie if/when asked those questions, and be aware that sooner or later it will probably all come out anyway, and that by being open and honest from day one, and by demonstrating over time your ability and willingness to succeed as a free person, you are making things much easier on those who are released after you. I used to have an attitude of “no convicts” in kindreds I was involved with until I found out that a couple of Heathens I really respected had done time.
Please don’t presume that free world Heathenry is the same as the Heathenry you were involved in behind bars. Of course, the Gods and Goddesses, Runes, blóts, sumbels, and pride in culture and heritage are essential to what we do too, but they are often presented in a different way. Sometimes this can be very subtle. For instance, the “F-word,” in this case “(the) Folk,” can call up very different associations out here. When you say the word, you are probably thinking of your fellow Heathens, people who helped you leave prison alive and sane. The fact that they were of your own heritage helped the bonding in a racially polarized situation. There was nothing wrong with that in itself. However, that very same word can call up for many free-world Heathens visions of Nazism, and even among “folkish” free-world Heathens, Nazis are rightly loathed as perverters and desecrators of our most sacred symbols. For the same reason, avoid the “A-word” = “Aryan” at all costs and be very discrete in the ritual and artistic use of swastikas if you use them at all. We are all too aware that for the foreseeable future we will have to spend untold time and energy making sure, for our own protection if nothing else, that the general public comes to understand that Heathen does not equal Nazi. Neither the prison nor the free world Heathen perspective is wrong; both are right in their own contexts.
Make sure that your initial letter makes a good impression and try not to put your foot in your mouth. One prison kindred wrote a free world gođi bragging about having no gays or addicts in their group. Little did they know that the recipient of the letter was gay himself, and had spent a lot of his very limited free time helping Heathens seeking recovery of from their addictions. When he didn’t answer their letter, they got a free world friend of theirs in another state to write him a nasty note informing him of his “duty” to help out prison kindreds in the state he lived in. Of course, it didn’t get the desired result.
About the same time, that same gođi got a letter from a newly released Heathen who had just moved to his city. After several letters were exchanged, the new guy finally got up the nerve to tell the gođi that he was gay and asked if he would still work with him. The poor man soon afterward got a letter from his former prison kindred “outlawing” and “cursing” him for being gay. They had found out about his sexuality after he had been released and thought that the “Gods of the Aryans” would curse them for having unknowingly had a gay man in their kindred! The man was beside himself when he got the letter and was relieved to learn from his free world gođi of non-discriminatory Heathen groups he could belong to and that the "outlawry" wasn't worth the paper it was written on!
In that case of course the letter was particularly offensive, but even if they had reached “straight” Heathens, those people would almost certainly have had gay friends, relatives, and neighbors that they liked, and known people struggling to deal with addictive disease. The self-righteous tack doesn’t work, not even in the free world, much less in prison. Let the fundamentalist Christians keep it!
Please enclose a stamp or two when you write someone for the first time. It’s a courteous gesture, since you are the one initiating contact and seeking something. However, enclosing a stamp is not and should not be seen as a guarantee of a response. Answering a letter takes a half hour at least and some folks may not be in a position to do that. In a very real way time runs differently out here. I have to continually monitor my life to make sure that my Heathen ministry work doesn’t thrive at the expense of everything else I need to do. In any case, some free world Heathens have had bad interactions with incarcerated co-religionists and are understandably concerned about it happening again. Some opt to henceforth stay away from prison Heathenry altogether. Hasty and unfair, you say? You are probably right, but no one is perfect and “once burned, twice shy.” Heathens seek to avoid unpleasant circumstances and to enjoy and benefit from the time they spend with other worshippers of the Ćsir and Vanir. Anything you can do to make associating with you worthwhile helps not only you but every other Heathen prisoner in the future who reaches out. A poem, a piece of artwork, even a few words of heart-felt gratitude can go a long way. As a wise modern Heathen once said “no one is so rich that he will not welcome thanks for a gift given,” and your correspondent is giving his or her time.
Also bear in mind that “you” may very well outnumber “us”! Many Heathens out here cannot or choose not to be involved in prison ministry. Please don’t do anything that will give them a reason to never reconsider that decision or that attitude. Those of us who are involved can easily get spread too thin and we need all the help we can get. I’ve had to write people telling them I simply couldn’t take on more pen pals or spend my grocery money copying materials for indigent prisoners, or even my free time copying materials for those who could reimburse me. Thank the Gods for the NPKA and all the other groups and individuals helping Heathen prisoners in any way they can! I could at least refer them there, knowing that they could find help. Of course, from time to time I still copy a few things for a few people who are really in need and have not found another option. I’ve had to tell them “not a word to anyone. The last thing I need is ten letters in my box next week from folks in just as big a bind as you are. It breaks my heart to have to say no and disappoint them, but sometimes I have no choice.” As I’ve grown older, I’ve had to accept that I can’t do it all.
Please don’t push correspondents to do more than they can or wish to do. Let them set the terms for the correspondence. Take no for an answer and move on when need be. Be patient and I truly believe you will find someone to work with. And in any case, I’ll let you in on a secret: most of the time you can do just fine being a Heathen all by yourself. A few basic texts and a cup of liquid to offer are all you really need. A Dixie cup of water will work just fine in a pinch. The Ćsir and Vanir can and will teach you the rest. Of course, a kindred, ritual tools, outside correspondents, etc. are all wonderful enrichments but are not strictly necessary. Remember that “Self-Reliance” is one of the Nine Noble Virtues!
Whatever happens, while there is life there is hope. Even if you are on death row and by your own admission deserve to be there, you are still a child of Askr and Embla, given gifts by Ođin and his brothers and helped to evolve by Rig himself! If you can see where you went wrong, with their help you can grow into a better and more worthy you. Who knows what a hero you might become, if not in this life, then in another? Our Gods and Goddesses are with you, and in a very real way so are all the Heathen Folk, past and present. Grow with us and help that which is coming to be to be something we can all be proud of!
last modified 02/05/2004