Husband and wife, Josh and Cat Heath, who have long been the operating force and co-directors behind the Open Halls Project have announced that they are shutting down. For those unfamiliar with the Open Halls Project, Josh Heath was on active duty in the US Army from 2006 to 2011 (deployed 2008-2009 In Operation Iraqi Freedom). He saw a need and decided to act upon it. He wanted to make it easier for military heathens to find heathens wherever they might be posted, both civilians and other active duty or veteran military heathens. That included penpals, care packages, connecting heathen clergy, kindreds and other believers. It evolved into making resources for military chaplains available. It had been an over decade fight by others (including the Heaths) to get pagan and heathen symbols approved for veteran tombstones. There was a national rally on the Washington mall in DC on July 4, 2007 towards this end. The pentagram was added in 2007, and the mjollnir added in 2013. (You can view the symbols at the official Veteran’s Affairs emblem database).
The Heaths decided that they wanted to tackle getting the religion added to the US Army. On June 16, 2011 they put the call out seeking US Army soldiers (past and present) who identify as asatru or heathen, as they were working with other organizations to get heathen/asatru added to the religious preference list for the US Army.
(They first started in 2009, but the bureaucracy misread the organization the Troth as a religion (when it’s a religious organization), and while the request was approved, the bureaucracy refused to correct their error in conflating an organization with a religion and forced them to resubmit, so they had to start over). At that time I was writing for Patheos with a regular column. I decided to spread the word there and mentioned their efforts and call. That story was picked up and then spread to a range of other news and media outlets. The Heaths decided to make a statement that while my actions were well intended, they weren’t happy because of my affiliation with my sister. Basically we don’t want any association with you. I merely shrugged, they’re entitled to their opinions and who they wanted to associate with, I was more focused on the end result: that those who may be called to lay down their lives for the freedoms of others in our military had the religious freedoms and support that they so deserved (one of the reasons I give away Sigdrifa’s Prayer Bookmarks). I have no ill will towards the Heaths, but based on that previous interaction, figured it was best to make it clear here and now they consider me persona non grata, and my presence unwanted to their work. But I believe good works should be called out, period.
In August 2011 they updated the community and said the application had been sent in to the Army, and then waited, and waited. Things were slow moving with the Army, but some media coverage in January 2013 at the Norse Mythology blog caused an unexpected dividend, Master Sergeant Matt Walters reached out to the Heaths and started a similar process with the US Air Force. Resulting in Asatru and Heathen being added to the recognized religious preference list of the US Air Force in 2014. The Air Force (at the time the youngest branch of the US military), would be the first to adopt it. In 2015 the US Army request was still dragging. In January 2015 there was communication it was approved, and then in March the US Army seemed to backpedal, which was covered in the Army Times. This led to a large call for a letter writing campaign directed to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board (Department of Defense), Army Human Resources Command, Army Public Affairs Officer, and the Chief of Army Chaplains complaining about the limbo status of the request for the Army. Finally resulting in 2017 with it added to the Department of Defense Faith and Belief Codes for Reporting Personnel Data of Service Members a reference created to be shared between all branches of the US military. It took individual soldiers to make those requests to get the religion added, those military service members who worked with the Open Halls Project to get the religion of Asatru and Heathenry added were the afore mentioned Matt Walters, as well as Omar Bailey, Daniel Head, Christopher Gibat, Andrew Turner, Blaine Morton, and Daron Regan. So the efforts paid off not just with it being added to the US Army list, but ultimately added to every US military branch. They were joined in their efforts by a veritable army of other supporters, including Vince Enland of the Asatru Alliance, those within the Troth, and an array of other heathens and pagans too.
There are many in the community at large who have benefitted from their work, and many more who won’t even know who they are, nor what they did. Yet still they will benefit from it at some point in the future. Every single US heathen soldier (active-duty or veteran) benefits from their efforts, and as a result their families. They helped to lay the ground work, work through the bureaucracy and never gave up. So to Josh and Cat, you may not care for me and my affiliations, but kudos are in order. You’ve done work that will in the end benefit so many, and have furthered religious freedom for the wider community at large. Thank you.
Their farewell statement is quoted in it’s entirety below (preserved for posterity):
It is with a lot of conflicting emotions that we announce that The Open Halls Project is shutting down all operations. We’ll be sunsetting our Facebook page, Facebook group, and we will no longer be doing any activities moving forward. Our email and website will stay up for now, but when we’ve determined the best way to shut those down, we will do so.
We’ve come to this decision after a lot of soul searching, attempts to get reenergized, and attempts to find a new element of heathen military support to focus on. Our original mission to connect heathen military folks with a community when they move from one place to another never went away. Still, it fell behind the goal to get our religious preferences added to the Department of Defense lists. We continued to provide other support, including care packages, community events, book donations, and at times documents of support for various religious needs of our community. With the reduction in deployed service members and the successful culmination of our mission to get Heathen and Asatru added to the religious preference list, we never really consolidated behind a specific goal or project for us to work toward.
At the same time, the military heathen community chose to embark on various quests that ran counter to our goals. We were asked repeatedly to support beard requests, which we just never wanted to get behind and we feel ultimately detracted from things we believed in more strongly as being important. On top of that, we had started the Open Halls Project as an organization that tried to be free of specifically heathen political points, because the organizational politics of the heathen sphere were occasionally detrimental to the needs of heathen service members. But, that has become more and more distant from our needs and goals as individuals. There are bad actors in the heathen world and the heathen military world in particular. We’ve occasionally taken a stand against specific bad actors but our stated goal of being there for all military heathens put us in a moral bind more than a few times and we’re just… done trying to thread that needle.
This isn’t to say we don’t think military service members, veterans, family members, and the various people in the heathen military space don’t need support. We believe that is still true and will continue to be true moving forward. We just can’t do so any longer as this organization. We had already divested ourselves of our 501c3 status several years ago, we are no longer a licensed corporation, and we have no funds on hand any longer.
If you want to belong to an organization that is doing good things, that is creating a good future for heathens as a whole, we recommend joining The Troth. They have a strong military support function, they are inclusive, and they match our personal values. The Troth was the first heathen organization to support us and our mission all those years ago when we were starting the request to add religious preferences. Are they perfect? No. No organization of human beings is, but they are trying to do better and be better and provide a growth mindset to heathen religion and culture moving into the future.
There are hundreds of people who have supported us over the years. We thank you for the care packages, the donations, the shares, the discussion, the various ways you’ve stepped up to help heathen military folks. To our heathen military folks, we did this for you and we thank you for being there for us while we’ve been there for you.
May your ancestors watch over you and the gods bless you.Josh & Cat Heath, Open Halls Project Co-Directors
For further reading, The Wild Hunt has an overview on the history of pagans and heathens with the US military here.