Spreading Religious Tolerance

Article excerpt

Gayl Edmunds wears two hats: he's the lead volunteer of Native American activities at the El Dorado Correctional Facility (EDCF) in El Dorado, Kan., and he's director of Indian Alcoholism Treatment Services, a community drug and alcohol treatment organization, in Wichita.

Edmunds began volunteering at the facility in 1994, at which time he led a group of volunteers in the establishment of a sweat lodge at EDCF's North Unit. A sweat lodge is a small building with a pit in the center, usually built in a private area, in which Native Americans worship together. The ground is always blessed by a spiritual leader.

"This has been a big deal because Native Americans have not always experienced religious tolerance, particularly in correctional facilities. In fact, we were not considered American citizens until 1924," says Edmunds. "Now with the assistance of understanding administrators, Native Americans can practice the ceremonies and rituals of their religion in Kansas facilities."

The sweat ceremony consists of prayer, reverence and purification, and includes fire, air, earth and water, which are the primary components of life. "Here, native people pray and celebrate the circle of life. It's a connection between the spiritual and physical worlds," says Edmunds.

After the lodges were built, Edmunds provided workshops for staff to help them understand the Native American religion. Since then, Edmunds also has assisted in the placement of sweat lodges at four other correctional facilities.

"Gayl is a workaholic," says Ron Dow, senior clinical chaplain at El Dorado. "We have worked very closely and he has been very valuable to the practice of the Native American faith - not just through resources such as opening sweat lodges - but with helping us to understand the theology and customs. …