Basic Military Training Wicca Faith Group Serves the Faith Needs of Many
A small cadre of dedicated volunteers, working under the auspices of the Sacred Well Congregation (an international Wiccan church and fellowship), is quietly leading the largest weekly Wiccan service in the world. Each week, a volunteer lay leader conducts religious education and services for two to four hundred Air Force basic trainees at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Nowhere else in the world are as many as 400 people sitting down to see a regularly-scheduled weekly Wiccan service performed. It’s really quite remarkable. (For video of the weekly Wiccan service, see this story by a local San Antonio news station.)
The attendees are from multiple faiths and a plethora of backgrounds. On average, of the 300 or so on any given week, approximately 12 to 20 attendees profess to be practitioners of the Wiccan faith. The rest are a menagerie of other faiths – some Pagan; most not. For many, this experience is their very first exposure to Wicca, or any Pagan tradition, for that matter.
Basic Military Training (BMT) is a transformational experience for everyone who goes through it. Most of the trainees are away from home for the first time in their lives. As the trainees begin their military careers, it’s a time of exploration and self-discovery; as such, BMT is the perfect place for trainees to expand their knowledge of their own faith traditions and of others as well. The trainees will likely never have access to as many opportunities to learn about and explore the teachings of other faith groups all in one place. BMT is also a time of great stress and anxiety. The strong support of a faith group is a critical component of the resiliency required to make it through the training program successfully.
The Air Force’s BMT chapel program is unique. The program supports 17 different faith groups each week, providing religious education and services for over 3,000 trainees. And it’s done, primarily, with volunteers. There would simply be no way to support the faith needs of the diverse trainee population with only the assigned corps of Air Force chaplains. There are a small number of Air Force chaplains, primarily Protestant, with one or two Catholic chaplains and a Muslim chaplain who conduct services within their own faith groups and provide oversight for the rest of the chapel program. The rest of the program is supported by volunteers. In addition to the Wiccan program, volunteers come from other diverse faith backgrounds such as Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Eckankar, and the Baha’i faith, as well as a variety of Protestant faiths not generally represented by an Air Force chaplain.
To administer the program, the BMT chapel incorporates a Religious Resources Board (RRB). The board is comprised of senior leaders from each of the faiths represented in the program and is chaired by the BMT senior chaplain. The board meets monthly to discuss issues and concerns associated with running such a diverse religious education and service program. Through the board, the BMT senior chaplain also ensures the requirements for proper documentation and training of volunteers are met. It’s truly a fascinating study in interfaith relationships to watch the workings of the RRB as it goes about its business of getting 17 or more faith groups to work together, but the process works well, and the faith needs of thousands of trainees are met.
The Wiccan group itself has evolved over time. The Circle started more than ten years ago with one local couple from San Antonio who taught each Sunday for years. In the beginning, there were usually ten or twenty trainees who would attend. Ten or twenty turned into a hundred or two and is now regularly 300 or more. The role of Distinctive Faith Group Leader (or DFGL), as the military calls the senior member of each represented faith group, turned over throughout the last decade, with three or four Wiccan Elders filling that role. Volunteers have come and gone. There are currently three instructors in the teaching cadre which means once every three weeks, one of the volunteers leads the service. It’s a daunting task for such a small group, but it’s a commitment they take seriously.
There is movement afoot to garner a contracted chaplain position for the Wiccan group at BMT. The numbers and interest certainly indicate the need. The Circle is also always looking for more volunteers from the Wiccan and greater Pagan communities to volunteer to help.
A contracted Wiccan chaplain and more volunteers would be a blessing, but for now, the small cadre of volunteers will continue the work of the Goddess – serving the faith needs of many at the Air Force’s Basic Military Training program.
Rev. Tony Gatlin is a Wiccan High Priest. He currently serves as the Distinctive Faith Group Leader for the Wicca Faith Group at the U.S. Air Force’s Basic Military Training program at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He is a retired military veteran of 25 years, having served both as an enlisted Marine and Air Force officer. Rev. Gatlin holds three Masters Degrees and lectures internationally on the history of Wicca and the U.S. military.