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Chaplain’s faith in crisis ~ Switch to Wicca

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Chaplain’s faith in crisis

Switch to Wicca during Iraq tour ends Army role

By Alan Cooperman

Washington Post

Former chaplain Don Larsen, near the circle where his fellow Wiccans were to celebrate a holiday, suffered a crisis of faith while serving in Iraq.

Wiccans, many of them current or former military personnel, join hands in pagan celebration in Schertz, Texas. Among them is Don Larsen, who was withdrawn from Iraq and the chaplain corps.

SCHERTZ, Texas – The night wind pushes Don Larsen’s green robe against his lanky frame. A circle of torches lights his face.

“The old gods are standing near!” calls a retired Army intelligence officer.

“To watch the turning of the year!” replies the wife of a soldier wounded in Iraq.

“What night is this?” calls a former fighter pilot.

“It is the night of Imbolc,” responds Larsen, a former Army chaplain.

Of the 16 self-described witches who have gathered on this Texas plain to celebrate a late-winter pagan festival, all but two are current or former military personnel. Each has a story. None can compete with Larsen’s.

A year ago, he was a Pentecostal Christian minister at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. support base in Iraq. But inwardly, he says, he was torn between Christianity’s exclusive claims about salvation and a “universalist streak” in his thinking. The Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which collapsed the dome of a 1,200-year-old holy site and triggered revenge attacks between Shiite and Sunni militants, prompted a decision.

“I realized so many innocent people are dying again in the name of God,” Larsen says. “When you think back over the Catholic-Protestant conflict, how the Jews have suffered, how some Christians justified slavery, the Crusades, and now the fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, I just decided I’m done. ... I will not be part of any church that unleashes its clergy to preach that particular individuals or faith groups are damned.”

Larsen’s private crisis of faith might have remained just that, but for one other fateful choice. He decided the religion that best matched his universalist vision was Wicca, a blend of witchcraft, feminism and nature worship with ancient pagan roots.

On July 6, he applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. armed forces. By year’s end, his superiors not only denied his request but withdrew him from Iraq and the chaplain corps, despite an unblemished service record.

Adherents of Wicca, one of the nation’s fastest-growing religions, contend that Larsen is a victim of unconstitutional discrimination. They say that Wicca, though recognized as a religion by federal courts and the IRS, is often falsely equated with devil worship.

“Institutionalized bigotry and discriminatory actions ... have crossed the line this time,” says David Oringderff, a retired Army intelligence officer who is an elder in the Sacred Well Congregation, the Texas-based Wiccan group that Larsen joined.

Larsen, 44, blames himself, saying he was naive to think he could switch from Pentecostalism to Wicca in the same way that chaplains routinely change from one Christian denomination to another.

Chaplain Kevin McGhee, Larsen’s superior at Camp Anaconda, believes a “grave injustice” was done. McGhee, a Methodist, supervised 26 chaplains on the giant base near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. He says Larsen was the best.

“I could go on and on about how well he preached, the care he gave,” McGhee says. “What happened to Chaplain Larsen – to be honest, I think it’s political. A lot of people think Wiccans are un-American, because they are ignorant about what Wiccans do.”

Some spiritual seekers perpetually try new things, never finding one they like. Larsen has sampled many faiths, and liked them all.

Raised as a Catholic, he became a born-again Christian at a Billy Graham crusade and began preaching at a Baptist church in Garrison, Mont., while still in high school. Later, he pastored two messianic congregations, which blend Jewish traditions with a belief in the divinity of Jesus. In church, he spoke in tongues. In private, he read heavily in Buddhism. He learned about Wicca, ironically, from the Army, in a 2005 overview of various faiths at the Chaplain’s Basic Training Course at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Larsen draws freely from many traditions. He meditates daily, concentrating on the seven chakras that Hindus believe are the body’s centers of energy. At times, he tries to free his mind from his physical being, a New Age practice he calls “astral travel.” With his two teenage children, he reads Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. He observes eight major Wiccan holidays tied to the seasons.

This year, Larsen and other Sacred Well congregants celebrated one such holiday, Imbolc, in a circle of stones with an altar and a bonfire behind Oringderff’s ranch house in Schertz, near San Antonio. Eight women and eight men, in fanciful robes, held hands and danced, passing a goblet of wine. There was no nudity. No blood. No mention of the devil. There was a ceremonial dagger, a dish of salt, burning incense and a 35-minute service full of abstruse allusions to Celtic and Norse gods and goddesses.

Some Wiccans believe these rites are truly ancient. Academic experts think they were invented in the 20th century, chiefly by British novelist Gerald Gardner, who claimed he was initiated into a secret coven in 1939.

Larsen shares the scholars’ skepticism but says Wicca is “as close as you can get to the standing stones and sacred wells and river spirits” of pre-Christian Europe.

The Sacred Well Congregation, which has about 950 members nationwide, prides itself on being an intellectual group. Ron Schaefer, a retired lieutenant colonel with a 26-year Air Force career, says Wicca “meshes perfectly with string theory.” Dea Mikeworth, wife of an Army sergeant wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, says it reflects “archetypes in the collective unconscious.”

But Larsen is unabashed about the faith’s central appeal.

“What Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion,” he says. “We don’t need more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery. We need horizons. We need journeys.”

The widely respected American Religious Identification Survey shows the number of Wiccans in the United States rose 17-fold, from 8,000 to 134,000, between 1990 and 2001. The Pentagon reports 1,511 self-identified Wiccans in the Air Force and 354 in the Marines. No figures are available for the much larger Army and Navy. Wiccan groups estimate at least 4,000 followers are in uniform but say many hide their beliefs to avoid ridicule and discrimination.

More than 130 religious groups have endorsed, or certified, chaplains to serve in uniform, but the Pentagon repeatedly has denied efforts by Wiccan organizations to join the list. Lt. Col. Randall Dolinger, spokesman for the Army’s Chief of Chaplains office, said the Sacred Well Congregation has met all requirements to become an endorser, except one: It has not presented a “viable candidate.” Its previous nominee was turned away because his eyesight was not correctable to 20-20.

In Larsen, Sacred Well’s leaders thought they finally had someone the military could not possibly reject: a physically fit clergyman originally ordained as a Southern Baptist minister with a master’s degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

But Oringderff said they underestimated the institutional resistance: “Each time we advance to a scoring position, they change the rules.”

Once chaplains are accepted into the military, they are paid, trained and deployed by the government. But they remain subservient to their endorsers, who can cancel their endorsements at any time. That is what happened to Larsen, according to unclassified military e-mail messages obtained by the Washington Post.

When the Sacred Well Congregation applied on July 31 to become Larsen’s new endorser, the Army initially cited a minor bureaucratic obstacle: It could not find a copy of his previous endorsement from the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, a Dallas-based association of Pentecostal churches.

The following day, a senior Army chaplain telephoned the Chaplaincy to ask for the form, disclosing Larsen’s plan to join Sacred Well.

Within hours, the Pentecostal group sent Larsen an urgent e-mail saying it had received a “strange call” from the Army Chief of Chaplains office. The caller “mentioned that a Donald M. Larsen ... was requesting a change-over ... to Wiccans,” the e-mail said. “Please communicate with this office, as we do not believe it is you.”

In his reply, Larsen pleaded that the Chaplaincy not cancel his endorsement until he could complete the switch, but the Chaplaincy immediately severed its ties to Larsen. The Sacred Well Congregation could not renew his papers because it was not yet an official endorser. Lacking an ecclesiastical endorsement, Larsen was ordered to cease functioning immediately as a chaplain and pulled from Iraq.

Dolinger, the Army Chief of Chaplains spokesman, denied any discrimination: “What you’re really dealing with is more of a personal drama, what one person has been through and the choices he’s made. Plus, the fact that the military does have Catch-22s.”

Retired Army Col. Jim Ammerman, president and founder of the Chaplaincy, acknowledges that there is a longstanding agreement among endorsers not to summarily pull the papers of a chaplain who wants to make a valid switch.

“But if it’s not a valid thing, all bets are off,” Ammerman says, adding that Wiccans “run around naked in the woods” and “draw blood with a dagger” in their ceremonies. “You can’t do that in the military. It’s against good order and discipline.”

That description drew a laugh from Brig. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force’s deputy chief of chaplains. “He’s right, we can’t have that in the military, but I don’t think we’ve had any of that in the military,” Richardson says.

Richardson says there are simply too few Wiccans in the military to justify a full-time chaplain.

According to Pentagon figures, however, some faiths with similarly small numbers in the ranks do have chaplains. Among the nearly 2,900 clergy on active duty are 41 Mormon chaplains for 17,513 Mormons in uniform, 22 rabbis for 4,038 Jews, 11 imams for 3,386 Muslims, six teachers for 636 Christian Scientists and one Buddhist chaplain for 4,546 Buddhists.

Larsen has since gone home to Melba, Idaho. Divorced since 2004, he is living with his children and serving as an artillery officer in the Idaho Army National Guard.

“It’s not my place as a little captain to challenge the decisions or policies or motives or actions of my superiors,” he says.

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