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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM MOUNT HOREB, WIS.

Wiccan Chaplain Brews Storm

Religion: Some taxpayers want the Rev. Jamyi Witch removed from her state job counseling prisoners.

January 07, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOUNT HOREB, Wis. — It started out as a simple job search. But it turned into a witch hunt.

Make that a Witch hunt. For the person hired last month as Wisconsin's newest prison chaplain was the Rev. Jamyi Witch--who said she long ago chose that last name "because I am one." Witch is proud to be a witch and the first Wiccan priestess in the nation to serve as a full-time state prison chaplain.

Yet her appointment has put some taxpayers in a tizzy.

A state representative--from, of all places, West Salem--is leading a drive to yank funding for Witch's $32,500-a-year post, saying taxpayers "shouldn't be forced to accept this hocus-pocus." Two other lawmakers have joined him in outrage; one called Witch's appointment "morally dangerous." Meanwhile, callers have swamped the prison switchboard, the state Legislature and radio talk shows with pro-Witch or anti-Witch tirades. And they've contacted the new chaplain directly too: One day she came home to 76 phone messages and 432 e-mails.

"It's been off the Richter scale," state Rep. Scott Walker, a Republican who is lobbying to boot Witch from her post, said with a sigh.

Walker said his constituents are fiercely opposed to Chaplain Witch. But Witch said she's received mostly supportive calls. Aside from a few death threats, she said, "the overwhelming consensus has been: 'You go, girl. We're behind you.' "

She has cried, at times, in the tumult of the last few weeks. But mostly, Witch has managed to keep her chin up. And no, there's not a wart on it.

Witch, 43, is accustomed to people looking around for the pointed hat and broom when they meet her. To her, however, "witch" is simply a religious description--like "Protestant" or "Jewish." It denotes a practitioner of Wicca, a pagan religion that sees the divine in every element of nature. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but religious scholars estimate there are at least 50,000 Wiccans in this country and perhaps as many as 200,000.

Wiccans--and Witch--do practice magic. But it's not eye-of-newt abracadabra. Witch's brand of magic involves focusing psychic energy on a worthy goal, using meditation to achieve good. It is, she said, just another word for prayer.

And it can be used only for healing. Wiccans are absolutely forbidden to use magic to enact curses.

That prohibition disappointed some of the inmates Witch counseled as a volunteer minister in several prisons before she got the chaplain job at maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution in southeast Wisconsin. "I lost a lot of men when I explained it. If they didn't have the power to melt prison bars, they weren't interested," she recalled with a chuckle.

Still, several inmates--sometimes a dozen or more--stuck with Wicca at each prison she visited. "Those who felt the calling of Mother Nature and Goddess Earth stayed," she said.

Witch stayed too, drawn to the volunteer work, feeling a "sacred duty" to help the prisoners find a path to a better life. Although she changed her last name (from Welch) in part to spark conversation about her faith, Witch insists she never proselytizes. She works only with those who come to paganism on their own. "I'm never out to convert, just inform," she said.

Her critics, however, don't trust her. And they have nightmares of her using her chaplain's post to suck criminals into the "cult" of bizarre ritual that Wicca represents to them. In their view, a chaplain should be showing inmates that they're accountable to an almighty God, not showing them how to sprinkle herbs as offerings to the goddesses of Mother Earth. "There isn't one study that I'm aware of that shows that witches have reformed any prisoners," said Republican Rep. Mike Huebsch, the lawmaker from West Salem.

Stung by the brouhaha that Witch's appointment has stirred, the warden at Waupun declined requests for interviews. Last month, however, he defended Witch as the best of nearly a dozen candidates he had interviewed--with the character to do the job well. "Jamyi is an outstandingly approachable person, somebody that I wouldn't mind approaching on spiritual matters myself," Warden Gary McCaughtry told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In addition to her volunteer prison ministry, Witch has worked with battered women in shelters and dying patients in hospices. A mother of two, she is a Girl Scout leader and school volunteer here in Mount Horeb, an artsy town that bills itself as "the troll capital of the world" because the main street is lined with carved wooden trolls.

Witch earned her ordination as a Wicca priestess from a nearby congregation called Circle Sanctuary. There is no formal theological curriculum--no seminary for pagans--but High Priestess Selena Fox said Witch spent years studying the Wiccan faith and counseling pagans in crisis in preparation for ministry.

"I'm a good person. I really am," Witch said, rubbing the ears of a sick old greyhound she rescued after his racing career ended. "I have earned this position."

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