By Joel Gunz
With earth’s population set to reach seven billion people later this year, you’d think we’d have no trouble making new friends. But for channels and psychics who make their living networking with “the other side,” this world, apparently, isn’t enough. If you’re in the same boat, do what we did last Sunday and look up your local chapter of the Spiritualists’ National Union of the United Kingdom, which has been palling around with voices from beyond since 1890.
The official name of the church we visited this last Sunday was Alice Street Spiritualist Church, but their website is called ChurchOfAlice.com—which got my hopes up thinking that the maid from Brady Bunch finally got her own religion. Sadly, the reality is that the Church of Alice is so named because it operates out of the basement of a home on Alice Street, in Portland’s Capitol Hill district. That’s too bad: after all those years of laundering Jan and Marsha’s training bras, Alice ought to be, at the very least, canonized.
Spiritualism is dedicated to the belief that, no matter how many times your relatives might forget your birthday in this realm, they’ll want to reach out and touch you after they die. To that end, each week, Miriam and Geoffrey Knight, the leaders of the Church of Alice, invite a guest medium to their services. Sometimes it’s a psychic; at other times it’s an energy healer or some other type of clairvoyant. They are almost always women, and they tend to trot out their street cred with such proclamations as “I utilize the energetic patterning by accessing the universal collective present within the grids and auric fields of all dimensional presence.” Uh, come again? Most often, the Knights’ guest is a channel, someone whose dream vacation wouldn’t be complete without a side trip to Atlantis and who counts among her BFFs names like Kryon, Lazaris and Ramtha.
The Knights’ small basement study room was packed with about 40 people jostling for space on the floor and out the door. Although they ranged from their teens into old age, for the most part, the Alicians are women, old enough to remember wistfully when Crystal Gale and Neil Diamond were pop sensations.
And so I was surprised when, after some deep breathing and a bit of silence, Miriam opened the service by unleashing her church lady soprano voice on a traditional Welsh hymn, the kind Laura Ingalls Wilder might have sung:
The spirit has called us in life’s early morning
With spirits as fresh as the dew on the sod…
[You already know where this rhyme scheme is going]
To cast in our lot with the people of God
Silly me, I’d been expecting Yanni.
It was then that I was reminded of the 19th century origins of Spiritualism, that fascinating time when our civilization was emerging into the scientific era with the awkwardness of a pubescent farm boy moved to the city—a period not unlike the Ford/Carter years, when you stop and think about it. During that age, Charles Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believed that the Egyptian pyramids contained hidden messages predicting the return of Christ in 1914; his wife, Maria, compiled a book purporting to be a record of various angels’ conversations with women; and a vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist named John Harvey Kellogg co-founded a breakfast cereal company based on the belief that the cure to our spiritual ills begins with clearing out our untidy colons.
The Church of Alicians are so rooted in 19th century religion that I half wondered why the service didn’t take place in black and white. And so we sat, elbow to elbow, singing creaky old hymnals with their Tinkertoy metric structures until Miriam led us in meditation; for, after all, in meditation we invoke our angels and guides.
We started with a visualization—a salad course of light spiritual attunement. In a voice light as meringue, Miriam directed us to “imagine that you are bathed in golden light.”
“Breathe it in,” she said, “and be filled with the light. As you breathe the light in, you will be lifted up. As you exhale, you will be lifted up higher. You are in a hot air balloon, rising higher and higher. You rise above the clouds to a beautiful land, pristine, bathed in all the colors of the rainbow. And each color of that rainbow tells a story….”
All right. Let’s stop there. Rainbows? Hot air balloons? The celestial sphere Miriam was taking me to couldn’t have been farther from my own happy place (which, I’m the first to admit, resembles Manhattan’s West fifties) and I was insulted that she tried to take me along for the ride. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Snuggles the Bathroom Tissue Teddy Bear wander into our meditative reverie.
After that warm up act, Miriam introduced the channel du jour, Cherry Divine. Yes, that is her actual name. No, she isn’t a transvestite. Yes, she got the idea for the name change from another psychic. No, I don’t have any doubt that other psychic was coming on to her. Cherry is a spunky, five-foot-five strawberry blonde former insurance fraud investigator with a mild Texan accent who counts among her friends a coterie of million-year-old greeting card poets.
When invited to take the floor, Cherry at first giggled and apologized self-deprecatingly for having nothing prepared to say. Earthy and vivacious, she introduced herself and opened the floor for the gathered Spiritualists to ask her questions. Someone mentioned Pastor Harold Camping’s failed rapture, which occurred—or, more precisely, did not occur—the previous day. Suddenly, she froze on her feet and was overcome with a faraway look in her eyes. Her former expressive mannerisms were replaced with the willowy, stilted gestures of a powerful but benevolent movie alien:
Cherry’s voice dropped an octave and she said in an otherworldly voice: “Though there was no rapture, there was a shift. A vibrational shift in the earth. Those steeped in fear, steeped in fear, see the end of a time as the end of the world.”
The repetitious phrasing, the intense, unblinking stare, the bid for the undivided attention of her audience looked like one thing: hypnotism. (What was less clear was, who was she hypnotizing — her audience or herself?) For the next hour or so, Cherry flipped back and forth between her exuberant look-how-normal-I-am act and her E.T. trances. At first, I thought she was merely a kook. But then she started referring to herself in the first person plural:
“We would ask that you slow down and be more quiet within yourself…. Are your hearts open? Do you believe there is enough? To believe there is a lack is to create lack. There is clear water always. There is food always.”
“Do you really think you were always in these dense bodies? When you dream, isn’t your body lighter than air? Do you not float? And how can you tell between that which is a dream and that which is reality? Isn’t life itself already a dream? Hmmm? Yes is it. We want you to know that as your mind expands, it will become easier, easier, easier.”
That’s when it hit me. She was channeling! I’d sat there for a full 45 minutes before I realized it. Dammit! I wanted a do-over!
The obvious next question, then, was, who, or what, exactly, was she channeling? (Yes, you have my permission to read that sentence like Captain Kirk.) In telling her story, Cherry explained that she’d gone to a Reiki practitioner for an auric cleansing and a little psychic surgery on the side. I’m not sure what took place, but I take it that the procedures didn’t exactly involve Water Pics, lab coats or accountability to a board of ethics. During her psychic surgery, she experienced a strange phenomenon. Her voice hit a bass note so low it was undetectable to human ears (begging the question, how did she know it happened?) and declared herself to be an ancient soul. From that time forward she has pretty much been in constant contact with a band of spirits she refers to alternatively as extraterrestrials, interdimensional travelers, angels or just her buddies. Apparently they interrupt her a lot when she’s talking. After umpteen zillion years of existence, you’d think they’d learn a few manners.
You’d also expect them to be a bit smarter. I mean, maybe they could throw us a bone with some news we could actually use, like how to effectively get wine stains out or how to guarantee that you’ll get laid on the first date. Instead, the sum total of what they have to say can be found in the inspirational section of a Hallmark card shop.
This is a common theme among religionists who claim to get their knowledge from outer space. Strip away L. Ron Hubbard’s whack job science fiction and you have a cobbled-together amalgam of midcentury-modern pseudopsychology. Flip through the Book of Urantia and you’ll find page after page of Jesus-themed gobbledygook. Skip that nonsense and go pick up a used copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
I shouldn’t knock the Spiritualists too hard. After all, although 80 percent of the world’s population believes in life after death, the Spiritualists are among the few doing anything about it. And I have to call the spirits themselves to task. In theory, they are eager to share their ancient wisdom with us, but in practice, they’re a rather reclusive bunch. As far as I can tell, they prefer to communicate with the living via middle aged cat ladies with Cabbage Patch doll addictions.
I want to believe in spirits and extraterrestrials. To find out that spirits walk among us would be the coolest thing ever. Last Sunday, I really tried to get into the spirit of the occasion. Unfortunately, Cherry Divine brought me not one inch closer to becoming convinced. I’m sure she believes she’s got some very, very old friends. But it strikes me as delusional and rather self-aggrandizing. If she’s hearing voices, I’m sure there’s a pill that can cure it.
So much for the Alice Street Spiritualists. With apologies to Ernie Kovacs, now I know why psychics and channels are also called mediums. It’s because they aren’t well done.
Well, what do you think? Have you had any uncanny experiences that you’d like to share? Join the conversation in the comments section.