Subash Kharel | @pics.leaks
The welcoming atmosphere of the Gaia House interfaith center is home to various religions/faiths and organizations, one of them being the Southern Illinois Pagan Alliance.
Founded as a discussion group in 1998 by SIU Alumnus Tara Nelsen, it was a group to connect others of pagan beliefs to share their experiences on their spiritual journeys.
“I wanted it to be a part of the community because without the University we wouldn’t be here, but I didn’t want to limit it to that, so we had people from high school to retirement age in that group,” Nelsen said. “From that group, SIPA came out of it.”
Nelsen said she made herself known as the witch of Southern Illinois to get more people, but the fear of a bad community reaction is still there.
“I actually expected more pushback than I got, but I had nothing to lose,” Nelsen said. “ So who better try to start something then somebody who’s not afraid about losing something. But the danger and the fear were definitely there.”
They never experienced any hate from the community towards the group. Only during a holiday parade in Carbondale in 2000 where people questioned them, Nelsen said.
“We had a giant pentagram that we pulled behind a truck,” Nelsen said. “The worst kind of stuff that we got during something like that was people saying out loud ‘How dare you be in a Christmas parade!,’ ‘What are you doing here?’”
Like most other practices/religions, Pagans have holidays mostly based on the seasons with the most popular ones in SIPA being Beltane, which is to celebrate the peak of spring and beginning of summer, and Samhain, which is around Halloween to welcome harvest season and celebrate their ancestors (Sowen), Nelsen said.
Even with being able to celebrate these holidays, the main purpose of SIPA is to have community and share practices, Nelsen said.
“There’s so many different ways to practice paganism,” Nelsen said. “For a lot of people that’s a great thing; for some people, that’s really hard because if you’re brung up in any kind of structured religion, you’re told when to do things, [and] how to do it.”
SIPA is open to anyone of any religious/spiritual beliefs, which has helped bring a lot of solo practitioners to gain a community.
SIPA member Shilo Mortenson joined SIPA in 2018 after meeting Tara Nelsen in Carbondale.
Mortenson said the group focuses more on Wiccan areas, but they’re still able to share their practices and can connect to being polytheistic.
“Community is very important especially for young religious [people] who don’t necessarily fit this major cultural push to become Christian because it doesn’t really sit right with them,” Mortenson said.
Monternson said when others branch into different things like religion, it’s hard to continue your practices when you feel isolated, and SIPA helped them become less isolated even though the group isn’t like other religious groups.
“I definitely feel that it’s made me a lot more open to be more open with my religious beliefs,” Mortenson said. “[It] actually inspired me to get very involved online in paganism and I’m now hosting a cavern based on Hellenic Polytheism and the biggest online pagan community so far.”
Jessica Hendrix who joined SIPA in 2018, was Christian for a long time when she woke up one day and decided to dive into paganism, she said.
“I’ve been a Christian most of my life and I had a lot of bad experiences and I just really felt like it wasn’t for me anymore,” Hendrix said. “I’d been drawn to Wicca and paganism for a long time and I just kinda said you know what I’m just going to dive into this.”
Hendrix said the group’s Facebook presence has been a big help with keeping the members connected during the pandemic.
One of Hendrix’s favorite things about SIPA is it being a judgment-free zone and how the group doesn’t interfere with your personal life, she said.
“The thing about SIPA is they’re no interested in your sex life, they don’t want to dive into your private life, they don’t even want to tell you what to do,” Hendrix said. “It’s about acknowledging that every path has merit and that there are tons of different paths and that it’s ok for people to be different and to believe differently doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong.”
Staff reporter Jamilah Lewis can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @jamilahlewis.
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