Sunday, January 27, 2013

Heathens in the Military: An Interview with Josh and Cat Heath, Part Two

Click here for Part One of the interview.

Self-portrait of Josh and Cat Heath
KS – What is the Open Halls Project?

JH – The Open Halls Project was a concept that Cat and I came up with, in an attempt to help US military service members. I’d joined the Army with the expectation that I’d never really meet a lot of other heathens. Funny enough, that turned out to be the exact opposite of the truth. I met more heathens once I’d left home and joined the military than I had before that. Even back home, I was getting messages, and – on leave at one point – I got to meet a whole ton of folks that I didn’t have a chance to before that. It was crazy.

The Open Halls Project is a way for heathens to get in touch with other heathens when they move from one duty station to another. That’s its core purpose. The other purposes are running care-package drives for service members that are deployed, advocating for more religious understanding and rights with the Chaplains Corps and making sure that heathen service members are taken care of, in any way we can help them with. Beyond that, it’s Cat and I doing our best with our crazy schedules to make things happen for folks. Sometimes that's easier than others.

CH – I think my husband pretty much covered it.

The doors of the hall are open to all

KS – Why did you decide to start the project?

JH – Cat and I were introduced in South Korea by a person we both sort of knew from the internet. She introduced us, and we also got to meet her. We were three heathens in a country with… three heathens. Our friend was a member of the Troth [a large American heathen organization], a very long-standing member at the time. Over the years of knowing her, she suggested a few times we look into it as an option to join. Honestly, I’ve never been one for joining any groups. I just never saw it as a good idea.

We got talked into joining the Troth because they wanted to have military stewards – folks that do outreach to particular groups. Since we were both keen on the idea of outreach, we decided it was a good idea. We wanted pretty much one thing out of the Troth. At that time, no religious preference was on the books [in the military] for heathens to choose. So, we joined, with the hope that by joining we could build up a program to help military heathens, get Ásatrú and Heathen added as religious preferences and see where that went.

To say we were kinda disappointed is a bit of an understatement. The Troth moves a bit slower than Ents do during a ten-year-long Westerosi winter. It took almost ten months to get the paperwork we needed from the folks in charge of the Troth to make the request to add a religious preference. I have to say that we don’t really agree with the Troth when it comes to how they do what they do, but to each their own. I wish many of my friends in the Troth well, but I’m glad we aren’t members anymore – even though I don’t really have hard feelings towards any of them. We are working with the Troth regarding a few projects here and there, and there is a big project coming up that they might be working with us on. Cross your fingers.

Josh and Cat (on table) attempting to move the process along

CH – Without getting into it too much, another main reason why we set up the Open Halls Project is that from an early stage in our interactions with the Troth and AFA [Asatru Folk Assembly, another large American heathen organization], we realized that some of the inter-org politics and style of working really didn’t fit the ethos that we’d decided to operate by when we came up with the OHP. Our aim was to create something that was grassroots, inclusive and that would be ruled by the principle of “just getting shit done.” For all the good intentions in an org, there is still baggage, history and by-laws to contend with, and we simply didn’t want to be constrained by any of those things.

Being grassroots, we don’t sound as impressive as a 501(c)(3)-status org, but we are certainly freer in how we operate and who we work with. On occasion, we’ve considered looking into becoming a 501(c)(3) org, because – as a grassroots movement – we’re very careful not to take any donations directly, instead facilitating the process between the donor and the service member. However, were we to become a 501(c)(3), we’d end up losing our mobility as a project. Sooner or later, we’d probably also become entrenched in politics, and that would be a pity.

Josh Heath in his work clothes

KS – How many members of the military have registered with Open Halls, and from which service branches?

JH – We have approximately 300 people registered in our official database, 120 in our Facebook group, plus who-knows-how-many website visitors, because we don’t have a tracker. 110 people in the database are active military or veterans. A majority of those are in the Army. We have a decent amount of folks in the Navy and the Air Force – and a very small amount of Marines and no Coast Guard, to my knowledge. These are official registrations, though; the amount of heathens I think would be much higher. Folks might not think these are large amounts of us.

KS – Have you been able to gather any hard data on the total number of practicing heathens serving in the US military?

JH – My hypothesis is that there are at least 300 practicing heathens, Ásatrú, or Norse Wiccans on active duty in the total military. Though this number might be slightly inflated, it's based on my estimates of folks that are on a multitude of groups on Facebook and around the internet that I’m either directly affiliated with or that I’m aware of. Hard data is very hard to get when the US Army Chaplains Corp has stonewalled you in regards to getting more information about the request you put in almost two years ago.

The stone wall set up by the US Army Chaplains Corps
(Illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien)

CH – In other words, it’s not easy to get information on a group that officially doesn’t exist yet, especially when attempts to gain recognition for the existence of that group seem to be going ignored or messed up (seemingly willfully) by the chaplaincy.

KS – How does the number of heathens compare to members of other minority faiths in the military?

JH – I’m doing some research and will put this into perspective. There are 1,456,862 people in the active US Army. As of 2009, 367 have chosen Wicca as their religious preference. From personal experience, I bet thirty to forty of these folks are really heathens of some sort showing solidarity because they didn’t have their own option. 280 Hindus, 40 Salvation Army, 85 Orthodox churches, 41 Quakers (I thought they were pacifists, but anyway…), 2 Magick and Spiritualists – and 46,890 Unknown.

We did get the US Army to add a heathen religious preference: the Troth. It isn’t what we wanted, and our second request to have Ásatrú and Heathen added has been largely stonewalled. Until we added the Troth [as an option], I was one of those folks that was Unknown. The point is this: there are a ton of random religious preferences, and we would not be the smallest of them by a long shot – if we were really counted the way we should be.

CH – To be honest though, the addition of the Troth as a religious preference really didn’t shock me. When Josh was deployed, I decided to go to the chaplaincy to ask if any others with similar beliefs had made themselves known to the chaplains there. The first thing I was told was that the post we were on was one of the most fundamentalist [Christian] posts that that particular chaplain had ever been on and that he’d never come across anyone else professing Ásatrú. He discouraged me from posting flyers because of the reactions from the community and then proceeded to tell me about a man he knew with tattoos that originally didn’t want to come to church but now really enjoys it. He also asked me multiple questions about how I was coping with my husband being away and recommended some Byron Katie and church stuff, even though I’d told him that I was working two teaching jobs on the German economy and was doing fine.

Historically, Christian leaders have had a complicated
relationship with interfaith outreach. In 742, the man
who became Saint Boniface reached out to heathens
by chopping down Thor's holy oak with an axe.

In the end, I left my number behind and asked him to please direct anyone that came asking about heathenism to me, but I got the distinct feeling that Post-it was just going to end up in the trash by the end of the day. Through a lot of that meeting, it was almost as though he couldn’t believe that I could really cope without Jesus, and that – in spite of my work and smart casual attire – I was just deluded that I was. I think this interaction and the way that that chaplain tried to work on me was pretty representative of how many in the chaplaincy function when confronted with another belief system. If nothing else, it soured our view of the chaplains on-post.

I know it sounds like I’ve just allowed one bad experience with the chaplains to affect my view of the whole chaplaincy. However, I’ve heard far more bad about them from other heathens than good, including one tale of how a suicidal soldier went for help and was told by the chaplain that he couldn’t help him unless he converted to Christianity. Which is a pity, because it’s definitely not in the remit of the chaplaincy to propagate one religious belief over another. They’re supposed to support and facilitate the expression of religious beliefs for all in the military community, regardless of what those beliefs are.

KS – Multiple soldiers have told me that, when they were asked their religion for official military records at induction and answered Heathen, their answer was changed to Other or No Religious Preference. Have you had experience with this or been contacted by others who have?

I want YOU to properly fill out religious preference forms

JH – Yes. I’ve heard of the second one happening, but the first is more common. The US military, until recently, did not have an official religious preference for heathens. The Troth is still the only one that they actually have. Honestly, the option of Other provides a lot of leeway for the military. The system of having specific religious preferences is important and is mandated by regulation. In a lot of ways, it seems like a useless system designed to cause problems. However, what it does is require the Chaplains Corps to have some level of understanding of each faith and to legally provide for the religious requirements of those faiths that are within their system.

It’s tiresome and often difficult to get additions to said list. However, in a lot of ways, it protects real religions from folks that would put random things they don’t truly believe in place. Any person is allowed to have whatever they want in the religion space on their dog tags. I had Ásatrú put on mine before I deployed, and before the Troth was added. This meant that anyone finding my dog tags would have at least something to research. Having a religion added to one’s other paperwork is helpful for requesting holidays, specific requests for religious exemptions (having a period of time off to give offerings, for example) and allowances for books and religious items that might not be authorized normally in places like basic training. I had my copy of the Poetic Edda with me during basic, and having a religious preference would mean that any heathen would, de facto, be allowed to have such a thing and could bring a lawsuit if they were restricted from having it.

Josh's companion for his world travels

The option of Other was designed to show that a person had a religious preference, not that they didn’t have any. Other as an option means that those members of smaller faiths can show that they have a religious preference and that they deserve to have some allowances made for their religious needs. None or No Religious Preference is different, but still valuable for those atheists and others that choose it. I don’t really know how frequently it’s a problem that heathens have their religious preference changed to None. Normally, it’s to Other, and there are regulations that recruiters have to follow that say they must choose Other, if there is nothing that fits a recruit’s religious preference.

Part Three of The Norse Mythology Blog interview with Josh & Cat Heath will focus on the quest for a heathen military chaplain and for allowing Thor's hammer as a religious symbol on veteran grave markers.

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