Tuesday, May 3, 2011

AFA dedicates outdoor chapel for earth-centered groups

Add Wiccans and Druids to the list of faiths that have their own chapel at the Air Force Academy.

A circle of stones around an altar was dedicated on a hilltop above the campus Tuesday with earth-centered prayer and speeches about religious liberty at the academy, a school that has long faced criticism as a bastion for evangelical Christianity.

“This outdoor worship space is something we have created to help people of all religions,” Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the academy’s superintendent, said before a ribbon cutting on the site.

The academy is home to about 10 cadets who regularly attend “earth centered” worship groups. Earth-centered is a catch-all phrase for groups including New Age religion, paganism, Wicca, Druids and ancient Norse beliefs.

“This is very important for us, we didn’t have a place to call our own, to be outside in nature,” said cadet Nicole Johnson, a member of the earth-centered group.

Johnson and others used to meet in an engineering classroom to worship before construction of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, on a 7,200-foot hill top that overlooks the main cadet chapel.

Maj. Joshua Narrowe, a rabbi at the academy, said chaplains signed off the earth-centered chapel and pushed for its construction.

“I think its great,” Narrowe said. “It’s not a big group, but is a religious need.”

The site will be open for use by any religious group at the academy, but earth-centered groups will have priority for its use.

Controversy sparked at the academy last year when a cross made from railroad ties was erected at another outdoor site that was used for Wiccan rites on the 18,500-acre base.

It’s clear that the academy is worried about security at the site. The circle of stones is surrounded by metal poles containing video cameras and signs on the trail that leads to the site warn that the area is under electronic surveillance.

The Rev. David Oringdreff, who heads a Wiccan congregation in Texas, offered prayers at Tuesday’s ceremony.

He said cadets will use the circle of stones to “commune with the divine in this beautiful, natural setting.”
He praised the openness of academy leaders for nontraditional faiths.

“Nowhere except for the United States of America would this be possible,” he said.

Academy chaplain Lt. Col. Daniel Brantingham offered a prayer for the site and those who will worship there.
“We stand here in gratitude for a most precious gift from you,” Brantingham prayed. “The gift of choice.”

Air Force Reserve Capt. Kelly Ihme, an adviser to the earth-centered cadet religious group, prayed too.
“Heart and tree, earth and stone, nothing but good this place be known,” she said.

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