Andre Smith – Officer of Avalon
Andre Smith (awarded the Golden Wand Award by the Correllian Tradition in 2009, for acts of bravery) is a member of the South African Police Force and the only member of Officers of Avalon in South Africa. I interviewed Andre in order to get a clearer picture of this organization and to understand the work that Andre and his spouse Lucia are doing in South Africa to promote Paganism publicly.
MF: Officers of Avalon have been active breaking barriers in Australia, Haiti, United States, China, Burma, Canada, South Africa and worldwide, since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. You are the only SA member of Officers of Avalon. Can you tell us more about this Organization? When was it founded and by whom?
AS: I was introduced to the OOA by the then President Kerr Cuhulain (A former air force officer as well as a police officer for many years. He has served on a SWAT team, Gang Crime Unit and a Hostage negotiation team in Canada. He is also a well-known speaker and Author of several books). When I started on my path, his book “The Wiccan Warrior” was the first that I read and I contacted him with a lot of questions. He became my mentor and one of my idols because of what he stands for and what he has managed to do for OOA members and other Pagans. He is my inspiration to do what I do. On 15 December 1999 Corporal Tricia Mullensky of the University of Massachusetts (Dartmouth) Police Department created the Yahoo e-group Officers of Avalon as a “way for Pagan law enforcement and emergency personnel to talk, discuss, vent or ask questions to others of like mind.” In its infancy Officers of Avalon was a small e-group where Pagans in the emergency services could chat. That all changed on 12 May, 2002, when Tim Flanagan (Bogota (NJ) Police Reserves) posted the following on the Officers of Avalon e-group:
” … We are good people, and I know that there are many, many of us across the US who don’t know who to turn to, … This small group can be the start of something big for every Wiccan police officer in the US…”
The initial burst of enthusiasm expanded the membership. OOA set up their first web site. On 11 September, 2003, Officers of Avalon incorporated the organization in the state of Nevada. By the end of October 2003 they had secured their e-group and Officers of Avalon wasn’t just an e-group anymore. It has become a benevolent association for Pagan professionals in the emergency services. They will offer Pagan cops, fire-fighters, emergency medical technicians and rescue personnel a safe place to vent, to share ideas and to disseminate information that affects us. They are a network like the IPA that can offer members contacts and refuge in cities in order to minimize the security risks from people posting hate mail and impersonating emergency services personnel.
MF: What are the vision and aims of the OOA?
AS: OOA is a non-profit relief effort founded by people who are used to responding to emergencies. The members include law enforcement officers, fire-fighters, and emergency medical personnel – but with a difference. Avalon Cares was created by people whose spiritual paths include Wicca, Vodou, Native American traditions, Shamanism, and more. They are looking into ways to support emergency first responders by sending supplies and/or money for direct relief. Their goal is to help communities recover as quickly as possible and to fill in needs not met by larger organizations. The Officers of Avalon is a fraternal, educational, and charitable organization. They seek to provide a community and network for Pagan first responders and to serve as a voice for them. They seek to provide accurate information and improve public perception about Pagan spirituality through education. They seek to defend followers of Pagan spirituality by working against misinformation, discrimination, defamation, harassment and intimidation. They are an outreach to Pagans in the Emergency Services. They also seek to demonstrate that Pagans are a charitable people. To that end, they work on the collection and distribution of donations to communities in need for natural disaster relief.
MF: Is one of its aims fighting misconceptions and evangelical propaganda about Paganism?
AS: Yes, definitely and they manage this with their involvement in the communities that needs serious help.
MF: I find it exciting that Pagans in the emergency services can stand up and publicly declare their religious status, in the act of helping those in need, thereby demonstrating that Pagans come from all walks of life and are upstanding members of the community. Can you perhaps elaborate this statement?
AS: I think that people will be surprised to realize just how many people amongst us are actually Pagans. We come from all walks of life, rich, poor, individuals from every profession under the sun and different backgrounds, but unfortunately too many people are still afraid to be open about their religion. I completely understand why with all the misconceptions out there, but we have to start somewhere and I believe that if I can enlighten one person a day about my religion, it is a step in the right direction. One of the most powerful ways of conveying the message remains through deeds assisting the community. Pagans are usually the first ones in the community to stand up and help when required.
MF: I believe that the best way to fight ignorance is through education: books, music, service to the community, workshops, etc. In your own personal experience how does this change people’s perception of Paganism (if at all)?
AS: I agree that the best way to fight ignorance is through education and in service to the community, but sadly this has not yet made a huge difference in society as a whole. Personally, I have found that the best way to introduce people to Paganism is to show them what we are all about, that we do not worship the devil and that we do respect all around us. People are inherently afraid of that which they do not understand.
MF: What are your objectives in this country with regards Officers of Avalon? Would you like to see them become more active?
AS: As the only member of OOA in South Africa, I try to promote the organization and what they stand for and I am extremely proud to be a member of OOA. At this stage I try to be a good ambassador for OOA. I am however convinced that should the need arise and we need urgent assistance in South Africa from OOA, that there will be no hesitation. They have not yet failed to assist when requested.
MF: Have you taken part in any international relief work?
AS: No, unfortunately not yet, but I am available to assist wherever and whenever they may require me to.
MF: Are the OOA involved in fundraising? Internationally? And in this country?
AS: Yes, they are involved in fundraising for worthy causes internationally, but not in South Africa as yet.
MF: I believe you would like to become the first Pagan Chaplain for the SAP. Donna Darkwolf Vos tried this a few years back and met with fierce resistance. Do you believe you will succeed?
AS: Donna did amazing work and started changing the mindset. I think the difference is that I have been an active member in the force for the last twenty years. I am trying to start the change from the inside. Not an easy battle, but definitely one that I am willing to fight. I am going to try my best to succeed, if not for myself, then maybe for someone after me. We have a huge task in front of us in educating, and I am under no illusion that this is a full-time commitment and no easy task.
MF: How did you announce to your work colleagues and superiors that you were a Pagan?
AS: I never officially announced that I am Pagan, but through my relationships with others and how I respond in certain situations, questions were raised by my colleagues about my religion and I then explained. Interest grew and by word of mouth it came to be common knowledge that I am Pagan.
MF: How was this announcement received?
AS: I think that I have been lucky so far and have been accepted by my colleagues without any problems. The main thing is that whenever anyone has a question, I try to answer/explain it as best as possible and to make sure that there are no misconceptions. Those who do have a problem, have chosen not to discuss it with me, but the understanding is there that they are welcome to have an open discussion with me about the subject should they so wish.
MF: Did your action encourage others to stand up and be counted?
AS: Yes, actually two officers where I am stationed came forward and are now proudly Pagan. I think that with my open house policy I have also helped a lot of members of the security and emergency services to realize that being Pagan does not mean that you have to stand alone – on the contrary, there are a lot of us and together we can and already does make a huge difference.
MF: Are you ever allowed to open meetings in prayer and are your prayers generic or typically Pagan prayers?
AS: Our meetings are opened with prayer, but no, I have not yet been allowed to open a meeting with a Pagan prayer.
MF: Is Paganism respected in the forces is it still viewed with suspicion as evil and occult mumbo-jumbo?
AS: Unfortunately I have to say that yes, it is still viewed with suspicion. This is where education plays such a big role. In the past, a lot of things have been done to “degrade” the Pagan beliefs because of ignorance and sometimes fear. If you do not understand something, it is easier to shoot it down, than to try and embrace what is different. The majority of the force is Christians and growing up believing that your belief system is the only true religion, makes it extremely difficult to embrace other belief systems. It is something that will never be eradicated totally, but at least we can work towards better understanding. Other religions suffer the same fate.
MF: The South African Pagan Council has several members who are public servants. How many of these could become members of OOA?
AS: Any member of the security or emergency services can apply to be a member of the OOA. I would highly recommend this. This is applicable for active members as well as members who are retired from the services.
MF: What are the requisites to become an OOA? Do members apply or are they elected?
AS: They do have a website as well as a Facebook page where you can learn more about them and what they do. You apply for membership and there is an annual membership fee payable which goes for the assistance of OOA members in need.
MF: Can you describe to us a typical night in the Smith home?
AS: We have a very normal household. We are no different than anyone else. Our day starts very early and ends very late. We have our day jobs, come home and withdraw to our peaceful garden to gather ourselves and discuss our days and spend time with our animals. We make dinner together and after dinner Lucia and myself spend quiet time either together or separately. We are lucky to have a specific room for spiritual work where we spend a lot of time meditating and just pulling ourselves towards ourselves. Because we have an open house policy, we have guests more nights per week than not, but we actually enjoy this. We can however also, like in any other household, have the sparks fly and we have been compared to “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” the movie, a few times. We are lucky however to have a very solid and strong relationship that have weathered many onslaughts from life. We are a team and operate as such – therein lies our strength.
MF: I wish you everything of the best, Andre. It has been an honor doing this interview. May the Gods bless your every effort and may the Officers of Avalon grow from strength to strength.
AS: Thank you for the chance to tell you more about the OOA. This is an Organization that works hard, looks after not only its members, but any community in need. I am proud to be a member and would encourage more South Africans to become members.
For more information on The Officers of Avalon visit www.officersofavalon.com