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CORALVILLE - On an October night with no visible moon, a group of six women gathered around a dining room table in Coralville and prepared to meditate. They lit a candle, called for blessings from the four directions - north, south, east and west - and closed their eyes for a guided mental journey with a spirit animal, chosen from a deck of medicine cards.
This gathering of the Owl Moon Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) was small and the ceremony simple.
The practitioners were there to find balance on the night of the new moon. The evening's ceremony focused on building positive energy, personal exploration and nature-rooted spirituality.
This was paganism as practiced by a few Eastern Iowan women. Paganism, they emphasize, is not devil worship, sacrificing animals or witchcraft as seen in Hollywood. This is not 'The Craft.”
Self-described 'eclectic witch” and member of the group Cedar Rapids Pagan Community Barb Eople of Marion puts it more bluntly.
'We don't eat babies,” she says.
Group member Bobbi Tulk of Marion agrees.
'We're not bad people, we're not evil, cursing people, doing terrible things to animals,” she says. 'We're peaceful; we care about the world and the people in it.”
What paganism is can be harder to pin down than what it isn't.
'There are many different kinds of paganism. It's an umbrella term, much like Christianity,” says Marsha Cheyney of Iowa City, one of the Owl Moon Covenant leaders.
Just as Christianity includes wide ranging denominations such as Catholics, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and Greek Orthodox - all with very different practices and interpretations of their faith - the term pagan covers a wide range of beliefs.
'Ask 12 pagans what paganism is and you'll get 13 answers,” jokes Cedar Rapids Pagan Community organizer Geoff Johnson.
His is one of a few active groups in the Corridor. Others include the Owl Moon Covenant group, affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City and a CUUPS group affiliated with Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist Society in Cedar Rapids. Such affiliations exist at Unitarian Universalist churches across the country
Deborah Maynard is a leader of the Cedar Rapids CUUPS group. A self-described witch, she made national headlines in April when she gave the morning prayer at the Iowa Legislature, invited by Iowa Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids. Maynard says she was surprised with how much attention her presence garnered.
'I really did not expect it to be such a big deal. People don't consider paganism to be so alive and present - and witches, they think that's pretend, like a Halloween thing, like monsters and demons,” she says. 'There's so much negativity that goes along with it, because people are just taught that way. That stereotype of the Halloween witch - that's not who we are.”
Quite the opposite, she says.
'We are all part of the divine, along with everything that is around us. We honor nature, the Earth, the universe,” she said. 'Our greatest rule is ‘harm none,' and it is a rule that we hold very sacred.”
The term 'pagan” historically was used as a pejorative to describe anyone who wasn't Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Today, believers of a wide range of spiritual practices use it to describe themselves.
Maynard says her beliefs incorporate elements from Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism and other spiritual practices. She also follows the teachings of another witch, Laurie Cabot.
'She owns the word witch. She makes it empowering,” Maynard says. 'She has decided for herself that the word witch is not a bad thing and to take it back and to own it as a positive.”
Not all pagans refer to themselves as witches. And there are many pagan groups that don't affiliate with Unitarianism. Some, like the Cedar Rapids Pagan Community, function more as a social group than a faith community.
That group holds a weekly coffee social in Cedar Rapids. They'll also host a Samhain Gathering on Nov. 7. Samhain - in which Halloween has its roots - refers to an ancient Celtic harvest celebration marking the beginning of winter. At the gathering, the group will have a costume contest, share a potluck and music and collect canned food donations for Waypoint.
Some local pagans, such as Kerri Meyers of Marion, practice more independently. She recently started selling herbs, oils and other items for Wiccan and pagan rituals under the brand Triple Moon Collections out of Marion store ReAlive Metaphysical and Repurposing.
'I love making things, the energy of things,” she says. 'I love making my own recipes and studying the old ones.”
She charges the herbs and oils she sells with energy to give them spiritual power - a process of focusing positive energy and intentions on an item.
Maynard says the phrase, 'casting spells” is accurate, but many people don't really understand what that means.
'Spells are no different from a prayer. That's really what it is,” she says. 'When you say a prayer, you send your intent up to your divine spirit. We get together and send our intentions and requests up to our divine spirit. In essence, a spell is really just a prayer with a different name.”
Back in Coralville, the new moon ceremony ended with the women passing around pumpkin spice-flavored Oreos and gluten-free chocolate wafers. It's important to eat after a meditative journey, group leader Dawn Marshall of Iowa City explains, in order to return oneself fully to the physical world.
'I share with you what has been shared with me,” each woman said as they poured apple cider and lemonade for each other.
There were no spells here, just a small group sharing fellowship and spirituality. They'll gather again for an ancestors ritual Nov. 7.
'Community for me is people who nod when I'm talking about spiritual experiences,” group member Theresa Carbrey, of Iowa City, says. 'That's why I like to gather.”
Cedar Rapids Pagan Community Samhain Gathering
When: Nov. 7, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Where: Red Cedar Lodge at Squaw Creek Park, Marion
Cost: Free; donations welcome. Canned goods or toiletries will be collected for Waypoint.
Click here for more information.
When: Nov. 7, 6 to 9 p.m.
Where: Eastside Recycling Center, 2401 Scott Blvd SE, Iowa City
More: RSVP required by Monday to firstname.lastname@example.org or (319) 321-2307, Click here for more information.