Pagans party in the park

By Gus Bode

Fourth-annual summer solstice celebration

The spirits have been beckoned, the ground has been blessed, smoldering sage purified the air and two kings stalked each other with weapons in hand. Clash, slash, thud. Within minutes the Oak King was dead, and the Holly King was crowned the victor.

This was the scene at Giant City State Park Sunday as the Southern Illinois Pagan Alliance celebrated the Summer Solstice with the fourth-annual Pagans in the Park picnic.

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The SIPA summer solstice celebration is an opportunity for all Pagans to get together and have a good time without feeling persecuted. The Pagan group is more of a network that consists of Wiccas, Eclectic Egyptians, Druids, and gypsies, to name a few, but is open to anyone.

“This is our church,” said Sean Lilly, one of the event organizers. “It is a way to get together, celebrate our beliefs and have a good time.”

Once the battle ritual ended, the crowd laughed and celebrated. The Oak King got up and brushed off grass from his pants, and the picnic began. The sun was hot, and the Pagans returned to the shaded picnic benches to eat, laugh and to talk politics.

At a picnic table, Lori Kelso spoke to friends as she shuffled tarot cards. Laughing, she recalled an experience in a K-Mart parking lot when a group of little old ladies waited by her car and told her that she was going to hell. The group at the table laughed as they all shared similar experiences.

Kelso’s daughters have also experienced teasing because of their beliefs. Eliza, 18, and Barbara “Bobby” Kelso, 16, remember the attitude of their classmates when they came out of the “broom-closet.” Kids at school would push them into lockers and yell, “Witch! Witch!” as the girls walked down the hallways.

One table at the picnic was dedicated to the I Am Project, a postcard campaign to remind elected officials that pagans exist and vote. Each postcard was signed, “I am free. We are united.” Last year, the I Am Project sent 30,000 letters to government officials, according to Lilly.

To Lori Kelso, the campaign has added importance. As she filled out her postcard, Kelso said that Pagans need more recognition from the government.

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“It is all right to tease a Pagan kid at school,” Kelso said. “But it is unacceptable to tease a child for being Jewish or gay.”

Kelso admitted that things are getting better. The military has finally begun to acknowledge Wicca as a religion. Kelso’s daughter, Bobby, will enlist in the Air Force when she comes of age.

“On her dog-tags, my daughter will have Wicca listed as her religion,” Kelso said proudly.

The biggest disadvantage of their chosen religion is that they are Pagans living in a Christian community, Kelso said. She sees the biggest advantage of her children growing up as Wiccans is that they can be who they are, and the pagan community will accept them as they are.

Acceptance is a signature of the group. Scanning the crowd, no dress code is the dress code. Flowing sarongs, knee-high suede boots, bathing suits, black leather vests, cotton T-shirts and floral dresses are just some of the apparel at the event.

“You can look weird as hell or conservative and normal – anything goes,” Kelso said.

One main misconception that is associated with Pagans is that they are devil worshipers, but the group said this is false. They said Pagans do not believe in the devil, let alone worship the devil.

“The devil is a Christian creation,” said a woman from Carbondale named Muiream.

Muiream remembers her youth as a Christian before she became a Wicca/ Druid follower.

“When I was in high school, I was a very preachy Christian,” she said. “I think it was because I was trying to force myself to believe.”

Now Muiream has found a religion that she has always felt a connection with.

“I’m not anti-Christ,” Muiream said. “I follow my own path.”

Reporter Nicole Sack can be reached at [email protected]

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