On Sunday mornings, Jan Deeds felt like she was missing something but wasn’t sure what. She was raised in the Episcopal Church but had trouble connecting with it.
Then, when she was 12, her family packed into a car and drove to Colorado. She saw the sun rise among the mountains, and the scene was magnificent.
Deeds felt her first spiritual moment.
Now, after years of research and conversations with others who share her beliefs, Deeds identifies as a Wiccan, a sect of paganism. This means Deeds gets her sense of spirituality from nature and the environment.
To help others put a name to what they think and feel, Deeds, also the director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Women’s Center, serves as the advisor for UNL Pagan Life.
The group of 10 to 15 UNL students meets weekly and encourages discussion among pagans and those interested in paganism throughout much of the year, giving a religious minority on campus a place to share their beliefs.
They teach others about their beliefs and hope to put some stereotypes about the religion to rest.
One way UNL Pagan Life does this is by hosting rituals throughout the year.
These rituals usually coincide with changes in the seasons because pagan holidays are tied to nature. As the leaves begin to fall and a wintry wind blows over the plains, the group prepares to celebrate the pagan new year Samhain, which begins at twilight on Halloween.
The group plans to celebrate the holiday by performing a ritual outside the Nebraska Union in the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 25. Members of the group use Samhain to remember loved ones who have died and prepare for the coming year.
But their main goal is to use the ritual to teach students about paganism. Cambria Beirow, the treasurer of UNL Pagan Life, said the group hopes to open the minds of other students by holding the ritual on the Nebraska Memorial Union Plaza, where people can easily observe.
"We can educate people that what we do is just a form of worship like any other," Beirow said.
A sixth-year psychology and English major who began researching paganism when she was 13, Beirow joined UNL Pagan Life to talk to others about her spirituality.
"I come from a very small town where paganism isn’t really something to get excited about," Beirow said. "I thought, ‘Finally, a group of people that I can talk to about this stuff.’"
Beirow said she was glad to be in a place where she could explore her beliefs, away from the pressure to fit in she felt in high school.
Still, Beirow believes there’s a stigmatization that comes with being pagan, which she seeks to fight.
"Sometimes, people will ask us if we sacrifice animals, if we directly identify as witches and if we cast spells on people," Beirow said. "UNL Pagan Life is a support group for pagans, and we want to educate people about the misconceptions of paganism."
Deeds said paganism has been misunderstood for centuries, and she believes UNL Pagan Life is all about education. She also wants people to know the group welcomes all, from pagans to people who just want to learn about the religion.
"I like that people want to know about it," Deeds said. "We are not what the stereotypes say."