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Heathen Sunday: not a place for negativity, hate

By Paul Christiansen
On January 14, 2014

When most USU students first hear about Heathen Sunday, a lot of misconceptions and negative ideas get attached to the gathering, according to Nick Virgil, organizer of the social gathering. But for those individuals who participate in the weekly event, held from 12-3:30 p.m. each Sunday at the Quadside Cafe in the Merrill-Cazier Library, a feeling of acceptance and camaraderie can be felt.

ìWhen I started the group I had one goal in mind, and that was for this to be a welcoming place with welcoming conversation for anyone who wanted to participate,î said Virgil, a senior majoring in recreational resource management. ìIf you wanted to bring a topic, we would talk about it. No one would judge you. No one would give you harassment. Thatís something that I have kept on ever since.î

Virgil said the present incarnation of the Heathen Sunday group came together in the spring of 2011, shortly after USUís Pagan Alliance stopped holding its social gatherings ó known as Witchís Tea ó at the now out-of-business coffee shop Citrus and Sage.

ìWhen that group disappeared, I kind of just took that idea and held it on Sunday to see if anyone would show up,î he said. ìI didnít know if it would be Mormons, post-Mormons or anyone. It ended up being a few of us coming together, but by the end of that spring semester in 2011 we had about 15 regulars circling through.î

Heathen Sundayís numbers have continued to grow, with nearly 30 attendees taking part in the most recent meeting. But even as more and more people come out each week, Virgil said, there are still negative connotations attached.

The group and its members are often misconceived as strictly atheist, Virgil said, but ìnothing could be further from the truth.î Each week finds a mix of Catholics, Mormons and members of other religions join with atheists and agnostics to discuss a bevy of topics.

ìWe have a conversation normally about something intellectual or about the news ó hardly ever about religion,î he said. ìI wanted a group of people with diverse backgrounds to get together and just share their opinions about things or talk about things they know about.î

Virgil said the term ìHeathen Sundayî partially comes from the groupís openness to discussion on some of Utahís ìsocial taboos.î

ìWe do talk about taboos that many of these folks are not able to talk about with the rest of their friends ó tattoos, for example,î he said. ìWe talk about piercings; coffee, obviously. Drinking is another common conversation ó the good and the bad, whatís responsible drinking, whatís a good way to keep from drinking at all if youíre underage, the importance of designated drivers. Weíve covered sex, specifically education.î

While Virgil acknowledges the importance of these issues, he continues to embrace the groupís original purpose.

ìWe still hold true to our core values of being a social gathering that has random conversations about anything,î he said. ìWe have literally had whole Sundays where weíve talked about dogs or cats ó how to groom them, how to train them, the cuteness factor, favorite breeds. Itís not all serious topics.î

While the group welcomes anyone to take part in the weekly get-togethers, Virgil said, it will not tolerate any negative or hateful speech toward any individuals or groups, especially aimed at religions.

ìSome people who may have recently left a religion can often be very angry, and we want to take that anger and get rid of it when we get together with the group,î Virgil said. ìWe donít want people to harbor any of that attitude. Itís not healthy for a lot of folks, but for some, itís just a stage they have to go through. Hate in general is about the worst thing you can have because that leads to fear, and if you fear a religious institution that youíre not a part of anymore, thatís not good for anyone. ì

Virgil said while some members of the group may be able to empathize with those transitioning out of a religion, the meetings arenít meant to serve as a therapy group.

The group helps most members feel like theyíre ìnot a weird loner for not being in church on Sunday,î which is something a lot of people deal with regardless of their personal religious affiliation, according to Willem VanZeben, a sophomore majoring in law and constitutional studies.

ìItís really more of a social group than a chance to get up on a soapbox,î VanZeben said. ìFor me, itís nice to just have someone to go hang out with on Sunday because many of us donít go to church that day because we donít identify with a religious group.î

Timo Patterson, a junior majoring in civil engineering, said the meetings provide students with the sense of belonging that people need to survive ó something he and many members of the group believe can be achieved without the influence of a certain religion.

ìI havenít really made it a habit of asking people what their religious views are,î said Patterson, a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. ìI want to be beyond Mormonism and religion. Itís not something I typically like to bring up in conversation.î

Most of the universityís individual colleges are represented by those in attendance and include students majoring in engineering, sociology, history, psychology, natural resources, English and business, Virgil said. Members of the Cache Valley community used to frequent the meetings when they were held at Citrus and Sage, Virgil said, and he hopes to attract more of these people to the Quadside Cafe gatherings.12

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