CASSADAGA, Fla.--Kit Hoffman-Dittner dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as the tears started to fall. Her cousin Helen was telling her it was time to make a change in her life, and it wasn't easy to hear.

Helen recalled the time Kit fell off a horse at age 11, though the details were sketchy. Now, Helen saw her 48-year-old cousin's life at a crossroads of sorts.

It was almost as if Kit were on that horse again, but nervous about tearing out of the starting gate, Helen indicated.

But Helen was not in the room. She was "in spirit." She died years ago.

In this Central Florida hamlet, messages from people like Helen are entirely normal. In fact, they are what built this town and continue to draw curious pilgrims by the thousands each year.

A sign near the entrance to this 105-year-old village pretty much says it all: "Welcome to Cassadaga. Certified psychic mediums. 5 on duty."

Cassadaga is a community of Spiritualists, individuals who believe messages from the souls of the deceased are proof that life continues after physical death. Spiritualism is built on the belief that communication with the souls of the departed is not only possible but enriches the lives of those remaining on "the earth plane."

That's what drew Kit Hoffman-Dittner to the hamlet to "communicate" with a cousin she never actually new--at least on the earth plane.

The message about the horse stemmed from a childhood incident when Hoffman-Dittner was thrown from a horse that galloped into a clothesline. Perhaps her continued fear of horses represented her hesitation in making a major life decision? she said.

Helen's message--translated through medium Nick Sourant--was accurate enough to make Hoffman-Dittner think that there just might be something to Spiritualism.

"I feel as though we all tap into that spirit source," she said. "And (mediums) can tap into it in a different way, and when they do, they're tapping into my spirit. The spirit speaks to us so clearly, if we are open to hearing."

A walk through this 55-acre community nestled between Daytona Beach and Orlando is a stroll through Florida's past. Quaint Cracker homes from the 1920s dot the rolling hills and quiet streets of Cassadaga. Clumps of Spanish moss loiter in the branches of grand oak trees like ghostly apparitions of those "in spirit."

Most of the village is owned by the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association, a group of Spiritualists whose predecessors founded the camp in 1894 as a winter retreat for Northern mediums. The group owns the land and allows only Spiritualists to live in Cassadaga to maintain "the ecclesiastical integrity" of the area.

At the entrance to the camp sits the Cassadaga Hotel, housed in a old-style Florida building with the Lost in Time Cafe. Across the street is the Andrew Jackson Davis Building, the group's social hall and meeting facility. It houses the camp's bookstore and offices.

About 400 people call this small town home. It would be hard to distinguish a medium from anyone else in town, except for small signs that swing gently from the mediums' porches. Few make the readings a full-time job, although at as much as $80 an hour it can be profitable.

Many are retired, but many others hold regular jobs. Steve Adkins, the group's current president, is a utility electrician in Orlando. "If I had to rely on this for a living, I'd lose a lot of my love for it," he said.

It's that love for the supernatural that draws most of the people here. They say they failed to find the answers they were looking for in traditional religions, and Spiritualism was big enough for their questions, and sometimes their doubts.

They are people like Oy Geeringh, a Florida woman who still can't swim at age 41. Maybe her fear of swimming stems from a bad experience with water in a previous life? she thought. She came to Cassadaga to find out.

Raised a Buddhist in Thailand, Geeringh said America's heavy Christian influence stifles alternative paths to God and discourages asking questions. In Cassadaga, she said, there is a different spiritual energy.

"For some reason this feels welcoming to me," Gerringh said as she circumnavigated an American Indian medicine wheel laid out with stones in a small park. "If we can remember what our past lives were, we can fix it so that the next life won't be so hard."

Past lives, mediums and crystals may sound like some Shirley MacLaine New Age mantra, but Spiritualists insist they are anything but new. After all, they've been doing this for more than 150 years.

Modern Spiritualism began in 1848 in upstate New York when two teen-age sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, claimed to communicate with unseen forces living in their house. Though initially rejected, the sisters gradually developed a following and incorporated their beliefs into the doctrines of Spiritualism.

Spiritualists believe in a God, but not the God of Judeo-Christian traditions. God is "Spirit," not a person or being, and can be different for each person. Jesus is not worshipped as divine but is respected as a great prophet and teacher. Spiritualists do not believe in God as savior or redeemer.

Additionally, the concept of heaven or hell is not found in Spiritualism. People determine their own destinies and are accountable only to themselves for their actions. Heaven and hell can exist on Earth as a result of a person's behavior.

Mediums are people who, either through training or natural talent, are attuned to the vibrations of the Spirit and use that ability to rely messages from deceased relatives.

In many ways, Spiritualists are not much different from Unitarian-Universalists, the liberal denomination that offers a self-conforming spirituality, except for the belief in mediums.

"Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell," said Leslie Mednick of Daytona Beach, a Spiritualist who was raised as a Jew. "Spiritualism is for people who have already been there."

For years, Kathy Groseclose was convinced she was right and everyone else was wrong. A member of the mainline United Church of Christ, Groseclose said she "was always running around, trying to save everyone I knew."

Bit by bit she started to question her Protestant view of God.

She couldn't reconcile a God who would save Christians but condemn non-believers to eternity in hell. She says she couldn't swallow the concept of a "narrow-minded" God.

"Who am I to say that you won't be saved?" Groseclose, 52, said as she organized a shelf of books at the camp's bookstore, where she works.

In 1995 Groseclose abandoned her Protestant upbringing and embraced Spiritualism. She says she's a lot happier now that she isn't wallowing in her failure to meet the standards of institutionalized religion. She still believes in Jesus, but not as her savior.

She lives outside Cassadaga. At the bookstore she sells everything from oils and candles to books on alternative medicine and bumper stickers that say things like "The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality."

Her spiritual journey is not unlike that of many other Spiritualists. For one reason or another, traditional religion wasn't answering their questions, or was providing answers they could not accept.

Spiritualism offers believers a hands-on faith with the chance to touch the divine in everyday life. God is not sequestered in the heavens but moves in and through the lives of those in tune with the spirit.

That was part of what drew the Rev. Jerry Frederich to Spiritualism.

Frederich, the pastor of Cassadaga's Colby Memorial Temple, dabbled in a number of Christian faiths, including Seventh-day Adventism and Mormonism. He grew disillusioned when his teachers said there were gifts of the spirit, but they were available to only a certain few.

In Frederich's church, there's something available for everyone.

Spiritualist services are divided into three parts and follow the form of many Protestant Christian services. The first section features a healing service for members. On a recent Sunday morning, eight certified healers, including Frederich and Jean Sourant, gathered at the back of the church to place their hands on those needing healing.

Rotating speakers lecture on a number of topics, and then a medium provides messages from the spirit world to the audience. Nick Sourant, lecturing recently, told a family their infant daughter had an American Indian girl as a spiritual guide, and told a man named Robert that someone named Roberto was telling him to take up pottery.

Sourant, with wiry gray hair that matches his energetic personality, told the 70 or so congregants on hand that Spiritualism was much like the old gospel hymn they were singing, "I Love to Tell the Story"--except that in the Spiritualist hymnal, "angels and their love" had replaced "Jesus and his love."

"We as Spiritualists have just begun to break ground in the understanding of who and what we are," Sourant said with all the enthusiasm of a preschooler. "We like to tell the old, old story, but this is just the beginning of what we can do and what we can know."

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