While we’ve always been told never to bring up money, politics or religion at the dinner table, sometimes it’s these subjects that can lead to the most insightful discussions. Our perspectives on spirituality and religion are as different as the backgrounds and stories we carry with us. This column will showcase students and their relationships with faith and religion in hopes of celebrating the many ways in which we philosophically, mindfully, and spiritually make sense of the world around us.
Senior Biology and Environmental Science major Kelsey Kaufmann has always found their roots in the outdoors, whether it be through hiking or gardening. As they have grown, these roots have found cultivation through Kaufmann’s Pagan and Wiccan beliefs. Not only does Kaufmann find stronger connection to the natural world through their beliefs, but they have also found empowerment in their identity as well as a place where spirituality can be light, fun and joyful.
“Paganism is such a broad umbrella term which works for me because my beliefs tend to shift around,” Kaufmann explained about their religious beliefs. Kaufmann described their own take on this further as they stated, “I ultimately think that it doesn’t matter what religion you are as long as you’re doing your best to be a good person. For me, nature-related spirituality is what I find most fulfilling. I don’t even know how to explain the connection I see between nature and spirituality. Growing up it bothered me how people see the world as something to use and not to respect. I was raised with this deep sense of respect for nature.”
While Kaufmann has not always practiced paganism, they have always held a lot of Pagan values. Kaufmann stated, “I grew up in a Christian household and in a lot of ways this created conflict with what I actually believed and how I wanted to treat people. I started to look for religious alternatives around sophomore year of high school after I came out. I was looking at more queer-friendly religions and stumbled upon Wicca because I’ve always been attracted to this value of respecting the earth. It all really vibed with me. I’ve only been ‘officially’ practicing within the Pagan community for four years but I think I’ve always held their ideologies and just didn’t have a name for it.”
Paganism encompasses a wide breadth of understandings, but generally people who practice in the Pagan community believe in the cycles of the Earth. Kaufmann explained this as they stated, “All energy drawing from the earth goes back to the earth. Our holidays are on the wheel of the year based on the solar and lunar calendar. In Wicca, a revered cycle is the cycle from youth to motherhood to old-age. This cycle also follows the calendar year. Winter to spring represents the maiden, Summer into Fall represents the mother and Fall is the crone. All these parts of the natural cycle of life are equally important. Because of this equality, oftentimes I think the older adults I’ve met in Pagan circles tend to be very self-assured with who they are.”
One achievement Kaufmann has under their belt is starting the Lawrence University Pagan Society (LUPS), where they have served as president for three years. Kaufmann stated, “Leading the group is definitely interesting because you have to strike up a balance in how you encompass all the different Pagan traditions. This can be a little difficult sometimes because some holidays are associated more with certain traditions than they are with others. You do not want to include one person’s deities in a particular celebration and exclude someone else’s. We try to keep everything pretty non-denominational while also providing space for specific holidays from specific traditions. We try to have one person from each tradition serve as an informal sort of contact for that tradition.”
As president of LUPS, Kaufmann aims to create a welcoming environment for everyone. Kaufmann explained how they achieve this as they stated, “Spirituality is a really heavy topic and sometimes it can be so heavy that it can push people away. We like to keep it open where people don’t feel like they have to come in and answer questions like, ‘What do you believe is the nature of life?’ Sometimes you don’t want to do that! Sometimes you just want to sit down and have a cup of tea with friends. We like to be able to provide a space for both.”
Starting a Pagan Society was not a total breeze, as paganism carries its own misconceptions. Kaufmann spoke to this as they stated, “I think a lot of misconceptions about paganism come from the media. Paganism isn’t related to Satanism—I don’t know why people think that’s the case. This assumption leads to a lot of hostility and it can be hard to convince people that we’re not up to no good. The label ‘witch’ is also an important and loaded term in paganism because it was tagged on to pagans in the middle ages to vilify them, but now pagans have reclaimed the term and use it to identify. The association made through pop culture that pagans are being sneaky around a fire is just wrong. We’re actually around a fire a lot but nothing sneaky is going on.”
Kaufmann loves the joy they find in their Pagan community. They stated, “A lot of our holidays are so celebratory, even the ones meant to be sadder. We have a holiday called Beltane which is one of my favorites. For Beltane our group goes to a circle sanctuary where there is a maypole and we learn how to do the traditional maypole dances. I like that you can come to a celebration and participate in whatever you want. You can sit by the side and no one’s going to judge. My favorite thing is how much of it is about the individual finding what they need out of it. There isn’t a sense of responsibility to show up to do a certain thing. There isn’t really a lot of central dogma in Pagan communities. I think that’s what attracts a lot of people to it.”
Whether they are at Beltane or having tea with fellow LUPS members, Kaufmann seeks openness in all their spiritual experiences. They stated, “I feel like I get a sense of peace from my beliefs. I don’t have to strive for a standard someone else has set for me. Growing up, it never really sat well with me that the fate of people’s lives and after lives were all essentially dependent on where they were born and the families they were born into. I don’t see that in the Pagan community—people tend to be open. I like that openness. There is so much encouragement to just embrace who you are.”
For Kaufmann, paganism is about this openness, their connection to nature, and the wonderful people they meet. Kaufmann stated, “The variety of people from all different stages of life who come together at celebrations is so welcoming. People are able to relate to complete strangers in a way that I’ve never felt in a community before. Everyone gets accepted with no strings attached. You go and they invite you to the table, and when you’re a part of the table you’re a part of the family too. It’s such a varied community with so many people in the group from various queer identities who are doing what they want. People aren’t worried or restricted. It’s wonderful to see these adults just being happy in who they are with each other.”
If you’re interested in learning about more Lawrentians and their spiritual journeys, come and read their stories that will be on display outside Stansbury hall throughout the production of Bernstein’s Mass, scheduled to be performed Feb. 14-17. This opera tells the story of religion, doubt and spiritual journeys. Make sure to come and see it.