- Associated Press - Saturday, February 25, 2017

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Wendy Koffer carried a wicker basket full of gloves, clippers, plastic baggies and a ball of string as she strolled through Rock Creek Park.

Koffer’s eyes scanned the landscape beyond the paved pathway, looking for twigs, berries, plants and leaves she could use in spells and magic.

Walking alongside her were six other members of the Magic Valley Pagans. They held fabric bags and wore sweatshirts to protect them from the chilly, cloudy afternoon weather.

When Rachel Arreguin spotted a cluster of tall stems with spiked tops, she ran over flapping her arms with glee to clip off the top. It resembled a thistle, but with sharper thorns. They placed it in a plastic bag and continued down the path, passing by a group of disc golf players.

A spiky item like this, Koffer said, could be used in a spell to keep someone away.

Members of the Magic Valley Pagans gathered for an afternoon of wildcrafting - gathering of natural items to use in spells, magic or for medicinal purposes to make salves, teas and essential oils.

The waters from Rock Creek rushed nearby as Koffer talked how important intent is for magic.

“Most of us believe in the intentions you put into it,” she said. “It can’t go against someone’s free will, and if it’s not working in concert with someone’s higher self, there might be unintended consequences or it might not work.”

When Koffer moved to the Magic Valley, she started searching for a community where she could make friends and build a support system. In conservative Twin Falls, many who follow paganism, a religion whose modern movement includes a variety of practices including nature worship, aren’t open about their beliefs. Groups to foster learning about it were non-existent when Koffer first arrived, reported the Times-News (https://bit.ly/2mmEEMR).

But when there is no community for you, sometimes you have to make your own.

She was homeschooling her 7-year-old son at the time and reached out to a local homeschool group online. At first, they were welcoming and invited mother and son to a get together in a park.

But the group’s welcoming spirit faded once they found out Koffer wasn’t Christian, but pagan. They were uninvited from the event and from joining the group.

“The leader of the group friended me on Facebook and saw my page was not Christian,” Koffer said. “The group sent me a formal message, ‘Do not come to this event you are not welcome.’ I realize this is a different culture here. It’s not Seattle and I will have to work harder here to find my people. Without an established community you have to create your own.”

That was six years ago. Now, Koffer has found a community of like-minded people following and learning more about paganism.

The Magic Valley Pagans group also holds a monthly social gathering the third Thursday of every month at Janitzio Mexican Restaurant in Twin Falls.

“We live in a conservative area here, and it’s hard for people who have alternative views to make friends and form friendships,” she said. “I really want to take out the teeth and the ugly kind of scary ideas that people have about pagans. I don’t think I’ve been discriminated against as a pagan. I think they just didn’t understand. I don’t think they were deliberately trying to be mean.”

Koffer started hosting coffee chats and created an online page called Magic Valley Pagans. Koffer said pagans can be solitary practitioners or members of covens or groups. About five to 25 people attend weekly meetings and the Facebook page has 500 members.

“A lot of times they (new members) will use an event to test a local community,” she said. “To see if it’s scary or if we are made up of normal people. Sometimes they just want to interact online.”

Arreguin became interested in paganism in high school. She and several of her friends are members of the group. Until she met Koffer, Arreguin found most of her information online. She’s been a member of Magic Valley Pagans for a year.

“It’s been an eye opening experience,” she said. “I’ve grown, which is all paganism is about. When you talk to people, and are open to it, you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

Kaitlin Garofano came across Magic Valley Pagans about a year ago and attended a coffee social in the park.

“I was pretty shocked just because it’s Twin Falls,” Garofano said.

“When I got there, there were 12 or so people, and I was even more surprised. I like being around similarly minded people but we also have enough differences to grow as a group and people.”

Garofano said they’ll talk about skills with meditation or discovering a new incense. They have ethics discussions and talk about current events.

“It’s kind of nice to have people to speak with,” she said. “I’ve been kind of interested in similar areas like worshipping nature and being interested in the supernatural aspect of everyday life.”

Garofano, 23, moved to Twin Falls 12 years ago from Boise.

“When I was a little kid we were Christian, but my parents, it wasn’t super important to them. It was about being a good person and being good to each other.”

Garofano said her father was a Buddhist who was raised Catholic. Now he takes bits and pieces of different religions.

“Before paganism I was an atheist,” Garofano said. “It’s easier for me to believe in nature than a singular higher power. We’ve had some people who are completely Catholic but do things that are pagan. We call it pagan adjacent. It’s OK if you are Catholic and Christian as long as everyone understands that respect is the main thing.”

Atheism and humanism

Megan Jacobson, an atheist, is open about her beliefs, but said there are many in the Magic Valley atheist community who don’t share their beliefs.

“Atheists are one of the most reviled groups,” Jacobson said. “There are some people who are in the closet at work because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

The number of Americans who identify as atheist has doubled in the past several years, says the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The same study says Americans like atheists less than they like members of most major religious groups.

Jacobson had a typical Catholic upbringing. She attended church every Sunday and worked in the rectory of her parent’s church in Philadelphia.

When Jacobson was in high school, she decided to stop attending.

“My parents stopped going through the hassle of waking me up for 8 a.m. mass,” she said. “I identify as atheist and humanist. I just believe in one God less than you.”

Jacobson said moving to Twin Falls was “kind of like moving to Mars” because the community is so religiously conservative.

Jacobson is the president Southern Idaho Humanist Alliance, which has a closed Facebook page with 89 members. The group was started last year and is an affiliate of the American Humanist Association. It also works closely with the College of Southern Idaho’s Secular Student Alliance. Jacobson is the faculty adviser of the student group. In January, the two groups brought in filmmaker Chris Johnson to show his documentary on atheism called “A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy & Meaning in a World Without God.” The film was made to challenge the false stereotypes of atheists as immoral and evil. Fifty-three people attended the documentary’s Idaho premiere.

“The way we are portrayed in media, and even popular television characters, we are depicted as miserable and not very likable,” she said. “There are reasons we don’t shout from the treetops but we should because it lets people get to know you.”

Camille Barigar grew up in Hollister and became an atheist soon after stepping away from the Mormon faith at age 17.

“Everybody is pretty accepting because I’m pretty open about it,” Barigar said. “Strangers have been cruel, which I don’t find Christ-like.”

Barigar is a member of the Humanist group online but doesn’t call herself a humanist. She prefers atheist or agnostic, a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

“It’s really rooted in science for me for the most part,” Barigar said. “Gratitude and awe - you use them for your own daily purpose and that doesn’t have anything to do with religion. When I run in the canyon in the morning I have this awe and it’s joy. As I’ve gotten older I am more spiritual than I was. For me, it’s a way to quiet your mind and being kind to other people is the first and foremost.”

Jacobson said the Humanist group operates like a community service group. They have volunteered at the Refugee Center and organized a volleyball tournament that raised $750 for the Twin Falls Senior Center.

They also socialize. During Christmas, they all got together and decorated gingerbread houses.

“It can get lonely, especially if your workplace is very religious or if you are in process of leaving a religious group. You don’t have to be an atheist to be a humanist. It’s really about making the best decision based on what’s best for not just you, but all humanity. It’s based on facts and data and it’s based on kindness.”

Jacobson’s family is made up of members from different religions or none at all. Her cousin is a Methodist minister, one grandmother is Catholic, her grandfather is Jewish and her brother is non-religious.

“You know what?” she said. “We all sit together and talk and get along.”

Jacobson moved to Twin Falls in 2009 to teach chemistry at CSI.

“I feel safe in my workplace,” she said. “But so many atheists don’t. It’s uncomfortable, and they are legitimately worried about it. Humans like their in groups and their out groups. It’s how people define themselves. It keeps us from seeing we are all humans and we all need to take care of each other.”

Someday, there won’t be a need for an atheist group, Jacobson said, but there will always be a need for humanists.

“The Refugee Center is still going to need someone to fold and sort clothes.”

___

Information from: The Times-News, https://www.magicvalley.com

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