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Opening the Indigenous Door

Reconciling Indigenous and Institutional Religion

Opening the Indigenous Door

By Paul Chaffee

Full Disclosure – Don Frew and Paul Chaffee have been friends and colleagues in the interfaith vineyard for more than 15 years, and Don has been a TIO supporter from the time the idea first glimmered. However close this association, though, devoting a credible exploration of “Indigenous Traditions in the Modern World” and leaving him out would be impossible. For 30 years Elder Don Frew has been the official interfaith representative of Covenant of the Goddess, the world’s largest Wiccan tradition. Don is a witch, a misunderstood word which can repel those unacquainted with paganism. But his relations with leaders from all traditions, established and indigenous, and within his own community are a perfect antidote to that discomfort. A grassroots bridge-builder with a global reach, he has championed indigenous, Earth and Nature-based traditions around the world, developing ways for them to be in dialogue with the rest of the global interfaith/interspiritual community. If you are interested in pagan and indigenous interfaith relations, you need to know about Don Frew. Ed.

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Don Frew

Don Frew

Don Frew was raised in an up-scale neighborhood south of San Francisco to parents who provided him the means, without job hunting, to devote himself fully to a religious/interreligious study and ministry. He attended his first Pagan coven when he was 12, began a lifelong study of ancient religions (over 25,000 books in his home and garage), and was initiated into Gardnerian Neopaganism.

The scope of his vocation has been remarkable. In the 80s, Don worked with San Francisco law enforcement and the FBI, responding to the public dismay about “Satanism” stories. This two-year collaborative study resulted in a report, Satanism in America: How the Devil Got Much More than his Due, convincing law enforcement that claims of Satanism are typically a symptom, not the cause, of violent behavior in an already disturbed mind. In interviews with 60 Minutes and others Don sought to humanize pagans, to undercut the demonizing stereotypes almost all indigenous traditions have suffered at the hands of dominant institutional religion over the centuries.

From the start though, as a representative voice for Wiccans, Frew’s collaborators largely have been religious, spiritual leaders from interfaith organizations as well as under-represented pagan and indigenous traditions.  In 1985 he joined the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council, one of the first interfaith councils in the nation, and a year later was elected to its executive council. An early self-appointed task was building relationships with Christian Evangelicals, members of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, which opposes “cults” and “the occult.” He tells the story of these astonishing friendships in “When Wiccans and Evangelical Christians Become Friends,” published in TIO three years ago.

Grassroots interfaith organizations became stepping stones for Don’s interfaith career, always joinng as “the first pagan member we’ve ever had.” Covenant of the Goddess (COG) was the first Pagan organization to be welcomed into the North American Interfaith Network, a considerable accomplishment given the dominant attitude towards paganism and witchcraft 15 years ago, attitudes persisting in much of the world. In 1993 Don and colleagues succeeded in having official Neopagan representation at the centennial celebration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, where he made a major presentation titled “Pagans in Interfaith Dialogue.” He has presented at all the modern Parliaments and been invited to the Parliament Assembly of religious leaders which usually meets prior to each Parliament.

Don meeting with URI indigenous interfaith leaders in Peru in 2009.

Don meeting with URI indigenous interfaith leaders in Peru in 2009.

In 1998-99 Don represented Wicca at the interfaith summits held at Stanford to create United Religions Initiative (URI). He worked for months to ensure the capitalization of “Earth” in URI’s official purpose: “… to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.” Everyone finally agreed: it makes a difference every time you see the word.

He was elected to URI’s initial Global Council in 2000 and has served as an officer ever since. URI has grown to more than 650 “cooperation circles” in 85 countries. Don helped create several of the most active, including Spirituality and the Earth Cooperation circle,  and Expressing URI in Music and the Arts circle, which published the first ever interfaith songbook (unhappily, no longer in print).

In 2000 he was also elected to the board of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio (ICP) in San Francisco, a consortium of interfaith groups from around the Bay Area that manage a beautifulformerly military interfaith sanctuary. Here, in a local grassroots setting, Don helped secure funding for and lead a variety of imaginative projects. An annual “People of the Earth” event, an ecumenical gathering of global indigenous leaders, is held at the Presidio Chapel, bringing together people who share a great deal but hadn’t known about each other.

Can you design sacred space where everyone is comfortable? – 160 beautiful answers were submitted.

An “Interfaith Sacred Space Design Competition” attracted 160 submissions coming from architectural/design teams in 17 countries. The challenge? To design sacred space where all traditions will feel comfortable and at home. A magnificent exhibition was held in the Presidio. ICP published a book that Don edited, Sacred Spaces, containing images from all 160 submissions. A 30-minute video telling the story is on the right.

Perhaps most ambitiously, inspired by the 2000 Cape Town Parliament’s focus on “Gifts of Service,” Don created the Lost and Endangered Religions Project, with half a dozen sites around the world. A nonprofit hosted by the ICP, it works with marginalized religious communities in several countries to preserve religious traditions in danger of being lost forever. Religious treasures on European and American university shelves that can be copied – and which have gone missing in their culture of origin – are copied and returned to those who had lost them. Don tells the story of this happening the first time when he managed to return sacred texts to Yezidis he met in eastern Turkey who had lost their Black Book.

Don, in purple robes, participates in an interfaith ritual 20 years ago in Berkeley.

Don, in purple robes, participates in an interfaith ritual 20 years ago in Berkeley.

Don Frew has the body of a linebacker and is gentle as a dove. Though ever calm in meetings that can get animated, he is a tiger for accountability and following institutional bylaws, often to gnashing of teeth by peers who want to cut corners for all sorts of ‘good’ reasons. Typically he accepts the role of secretary at meetings, a scribal role he extends to all his interfaith work. Covenant of the Goddess members get detailed narratives from all the trips he makes to interfaith gatherings near and far. This accumulating narrative is perhaps the most comprehensive record existing of the modern interfaith movement.         

Within his own Wiccan community, Don is recognized as a scholar who has written extensively and made dozens of presentations about Gardnerian Craft. He and his wife, Anna Korn, have written a commentary on Gardner’s work, noting and evaluating the hundreds of variances in the many editions around the world, a massive scholarly task. And he reaches out to non-pagan thinkers in discussing “polytheistic, panentheistic monism,” referencing pagan texts from classical antiquity, as a way to describe how he understands his own tradition. Wikipedia records many more of Don’s accomplishments than can be included in a short profile.

A Foundational Interfaith Commitment

To know Don well is to know his abiding commitment to interfaith relationship. Writing to his COG family about the Declaration of War against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality, he shares a revealing story:

“I was at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago at which members of the Lakota read this statement. The Lakota hospitality suite was on the same floor of the Palmer House hotel as the joint Covenant of the Goddess/Circle/EarthSpirit hospitality suite. After the Declaration was read, we walked over and engaged the Lakota in conversation. We explained many aspects of the spiritual practices they felt had been ‘stolen’ by Neopagans – addressing four directions, ‘sweat lodges,’  and more – had actually been a part of the spirituality of our ancestors as well. We shared their disapproval of appropriating material from other cultures.

“Over a few days, friendships grew. They held a sunrise pipe ceremony outdoors, to which they invited the Neopagans. We held a full moon ceremony in a nearby park to which we invited the Lakota and other Native Americans, and they came and participated. Significantly, our ceremonies were the only two ceremonies held outdoors at that Parliament.”

A surgeon’s slip of the knife on a nerve to his left arm has meant Don lives in considerable pain most days. He’s doesn’t hide it, but never complains and rarely slows down. As this is being drafted, he is in Cairo, Egypt for 10 days, studying mid-level hieroglyphics. Then home to Berkeley and his wife, Anna, a scientist who co-sponsors their coven with him. Here’s a prayer for his long life and the hope that his lasting influence will be as strong as his bridge-building achievements have been.