NORMAL — By the time she was 11 years old, Shannon Sweeney had formed some very definite convictions regarding the role of religion in her life.
Chief among them: yes, she wanted religion; no, she didn't want one that was rooted in the concepts of Satan or hell.
As a practicing Catholic, though, she was actively searching for something that did offer spiritual sustenance, but without those components.
Incredible as it may sound, Sweeney's own priest offered her guidance by asking, "Have you ever heard of something called Wicca?"
The accommodating priest was referring to the modern-day pagan religion founded in the mid-1950s by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner, who offered up a melding of ancient and 20th-century concepts, rituals and theology.
There was no immediate conversion, Sweeney says. "I kind of stayed with the Catholic church another couple years, and had many conversations (with the priest) about Wicca and Catholicism."
By age 14, however, she had made her choice to leave the Catholic church and convert to something that aligned with her spiritual view "based on all that I was asking for," she says.
"I wanted to know more, and the more I studied, the more I began to understand the history of the religion."
Her journey led her to a present-day pagan belief system that sees her worshiping an array of gods, she says, that have been purposely chosen to suit her needs.
"My particular gods kind of span the spectrum, and come from a lot of different pantheons," says Sweeney, who moved from Washington, D.C., 10 years ago to Central Illinois.
Prior to the move (she lives in Wapella today), Sweeney had discovered the national organization Pagan Pride Project, which has chapter groups around the country.
"When I moved here, I was really surprised that there wasn't a Project chapter in the community, so I said, 'you know, I know what it's like to be in a town and not know anyone else ... and I started up my own group, Pagans in Touch."
The discussion/networking group, which thrives to this day, revealed to Sweeney that there were others in the area sharing the same beliefs, and, best of all, an event planned Peoria-way to celebrate the annual national Pagan Pride Day, an outgrowth of Pagan Pride Project.
When the latter fell through, Sweeney shifted back into do-it-yourself mode, as in, "you know, if they aren't going to do it, well, why don't we?"
Through Pagans in Touch and other social networking means, Sweeney put out feelers, then went around Bloomington-Normal posting flyers that there would be a pagan-themed cookout/picnic at Anderson Park in Normal.
A modest little group congregated: "A couple who were in their mid-50s, a couple college students."
From that small beginning eight autumns ago, another group, Central Illinois Pagan Pride, was born, this one dedicated to the annual mid-October celebration, which peaked in 2014 with a 250-strong attendance that threatens to outgrow Anderson Park.
A brand new event, designed to raise funds for this year's Oct. 10 festival, will be from 2 to 6 p.m. April 25 in the same location, billed as an Authors & Artists Picnic, and featuring works by local writers and artists, pagan and non-pagan alike, with live music by the folk band River Salt, readings, signings and a raffle.
Among those who've joined is Amanda Valley, who became a part of the group three years ago.
"I would consider myself an eclectic pagan, with Norse leanings," she says of her honoring the gods Thor and the goddesses Skadi and Hela.
"Thor, in particular, because my family is a very large military family, including my husband, who was in the Navy 16 years, and a son who's in the Army," says Valley. "Thor is a protector god, so I look to him to protect my family, basically, and pretty much through prayer."
About her Navy veteran husband: He's a Christian.
And, among her children, there are no pagans.
"Does it work? Well, it takes effort ... and tolerance," she says, and not just from him, but also from me as well," says Valley. "I don't have a problem with the Christian religion at all ... it's just not for me. We both believe that there's not just one path."
Sweeney's personal relationship has a similar schism, in that she is a believing pagan and her boyfriend is an atheist. "He supports me because that makes me happy," she says.
In fact, she adds, "it's not all that unusual at all" to come across couples or families harboring both paganism and other belief systems, be they Christianity, Judaism or Islam. "Quite often we'll see some whose partners will be a little hesitant to join us, but once they get to know the people they become comfortable."
"There are a lot of misconceptions about who we are and what we do," admits Valley, chief among them the assumption that "we are worshiping Satan, doing black magic and that kind of thing. And there are some who think we're evil because they've been brought up with the those misconceptions, like the traditional witch with the green face and the pointed black hat."
The reality, says Valley: "We are normal people who happen to worship different gods, but we're not doing anything bad."
She estimates that within Central Illinois Pagan Pride there around 20 different pagan faiths represented, including witches, Wiccans, heathens and more ... "a great variety."
What they all have in common, she says, is a deep connection to nature and its inherent spirituality, hence the autumn harvest theme of the October celebration, complete with an altar constructed out of the local harvest.
Magic, both Valley and Sweeney say, is a part of their belief system.
"Magic is basically little more than prayer, a method of raising energy and asking the universe to do what you need it to do," says Valley. "There are lots of different ways for raising energy, through dancing, chanting or drumming."
Per the latter, there's a lot of the Norse gods at play in their rituals, "with a lot of drinking and loud and boisterous hailing of the gods and one and another," says Sweeney.
Overall, she observes, "Bloomington-Normal has been a wonderful to us ... a fantastic community, with lovely people."
Over eight festivals, says Valley, only one lone protester has voiced dissent, yanking out a fest sign, tossing it to the ground, then running off. A special space reserved for protesters has remained empty.
The goal of the annual festival, which is open to the public with admission by donation to Bloomington's Western Avenue Community Center Food Bank, is, Sweeney adds, a chance to educate the curious and dispel misconceptions such as those mentioned above.
"Come and talk to us ... we'd love to talk to you about who we are and what we're about. We enjoy having that conversation," she says. "We're just like everybody else ... we work 9-to-5 jobs, we paint in our spare time, we worry about the same things."
Adds Valley: "We're lawyers, teachers, office workers, university professionals, computer programmers or, like me, housewives. We're just like you. We're not trying to convert anyone ... just educate those who want to know."