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Spotlight Iowa City: UI senior is paging all pagans

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | DECEMBER 03, 2009 7:30 AM

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The mention of the term “pagan” often connotes thoughts of the dark arts, ritual sacrifices, and any number of Goth stereotypes.

But for UI senior Kirk Cheyney, it’s not about any such thing. It’s more about nature and a deep personal spirituality that he can share with his family.

Cheyney serves as the president of the Society of Pagans Invested in Reviving Ancient Lifestyles, which bills itself as the UI’s pagan student union.

And for the 32-year-old, paganism isn’t something to hide.

“I’m very out,” he said, showing off his light blue T-shirt advertising Lammasfest, a pagan harvest festival he and his wife help organize. “I don’t mind everyone knowing.”

Cheyney hopes to use the group to educate more people about paganism and to provide a meeting place for pagans who may or may not be open about their faith with their friends and family — or “out of the broom closet,” as he calls it.

Paganism can mean any number of things, he said, though “pagan” usually denotes someone who believes in numerous gods.

Traditionally, pagans worship at least one god and one goddess. Other gods, including Greek or Native American or even Christian deities, can also be worshiped. Groups dedicated to the religion exist, or have existed, at the UI and other Iowa schools, including Grinnell College and Iowa State University.

Cheyney has been a devout pagan for 18 years. After going to church sporadically with his family, he found that Christianity did not answer some of the questions to which he sought answers.

“The blind faith thing didn’t work for me,” he said. “So I looked for something that explained itself in a more natural way. Paganism does that.”

As he searched for a new religion, Cheyney studied several books on paganism before getting involved in it.

“He has a lot of knowledge about pagan things,” said pagan-group Vice President Johanna Burdinie.

His parents approved of his decision. In fact, though his father doesn’t really practice, both of his parents have since converted to the religion.

Paganism also helped Cheyney grow a family. He met his wife, Marsha Cheyney, when they were on the committee for a pagan festival. They have a 16-month-old daughter, and they are expecting another child in April.

While his wife works to support their family, Kirk Cheyney plans to return the favor when he graduates so she can go back to school to get a doctorate (she has a master’s degree in public health).

Cheyney’s interest in natural answers has shown itself not just through his beliefs but in an unlikely major as well. He is a biomedical engineering student, and he hopes to one day work on designing more natural prosthetic arms that use biofeedback, an approach that connects the brain to prosthetics.

“He has a great sense of duty. He likes to take care of people,” Marsha Cheyney said. “He likes to build and create things.”

He originally went to school to study theater and art but dropped out to work before enrolling at the UI at age 28 to study engineering.

“I didn’t have the grades, and I wasn’t good at math and science,” he said. Few of his credits from his previous studies transferred, so he essentially had to start from scratch.

In addition to being a full-time student with a family and running the pagan group, Kirk Cheyney also organizes Lammasfest annually.

“He does a stunning job of keeping all of his fires burning,” Marsha Cheyney said.

Kirk Cheyney also hopes that finishing his studies will give him more time with his family. When at home, he enjoys being with his daughter, who danced and played around him as he discussed his work and his beliefs on Monday.

“Sometimes, we don’t get to spend all of the time together we’d like to spend,” Marsha Cheyney said. “We’ve just acknowledged that as the way it’s going to be for now.”


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