Are you 'spiritual but not religious'? There's a church for that

Reverends and followers of the the Spiritualist Church of New York pose for a photo on Monday, July 1, 2019. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Reverends and followers of the the Spiritualist Church of New York pose for a photo on Monday, July 1, 2019. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

NEW YORK — A bright pink mist coats all of nature. The light moves toward you. The physical pain in your shoulders and the emotional suffering from finances or relationships flow toward the vibrant haze. An organ plays in the background with the same clinking bells as Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination.”

The light fuses into every color of nature, carrying all sadness, fear and anger into the sky. Suddenly, light shines throughout the chapel, and every member opens their eyes, still somewhat dazed from the meditation.

At the Spiritualist Church of NYC, sermons consist of uplifting messages and focus on the pineal gland, commonly referred to as the third eye. The Rev. Renée Descartes describes imbalances in the gland and the effects of a well-balanced one. She explains how people should avoid toxins, such as fluoride, and should sun-gaze, meditate or even place a crystal over the gland, centered between the eyes. “By developing our third eye, we may be who we truly are,” Descartes says.

The National Spiritualist Association of Churches, a separate organization with churches across 27 states, defines a spiritualist as “one who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the communication between this and the Spirit World by means of mediumship...”

In the spacious St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church, an average 50 people gather twice a month for an hour-long Monday night service. With a focus on the afterlife, members of the congregation offer a seance after each service. The seance lasts an hour and costs $20 per person.

Lisa Marie Basile, a self-titled “witch of nature, of intuition, of the magic in not-knowing, of guided energy,” published an article called “I Went to a Seance as a Skeptic & This is Why I Left with Shaking Hands” in 2016. At the Spiritualist Church of NYC, the medium gave Basile a message regarding her witch powers. The seance appeared genuine.

Founding Member and President of the Spiritualist Church of New York, Rev. Janet Hariton, poses for a photo. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Founding Member and President of the Spiritualist Church of New York, Rev. Janet Hariton, poses for a photo. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Others participants remain skeptical of the afterlife. Eric Grundhauser attended a seance in 2016 and felt disconnected to the message.

“The message revolved around wanting to let me know that I had the skills to do something I’ve been thinking of doing but have been avoiding because I thought it was too hard, or was afraid of failing,” Grundhauser says. “Try as I might, I had trouble relating the message to anything that had been pressing on my conscious, but I nodded in understanding all the same.”

A study by the Public Religion Research Institute estimated in 2017 that 30 percent of adults in the U.S. consider themselves spiritual but not religious. With religiosity defined though church attendance and religious priority, the research shows that 18 percent of people identify as spiritual, compared to the 22 percent of people considered religious. The spiritual percentage claims to experience a connection “to something larger than oneself.”

Another survey by the Pew Research Center found that the spiritual movement continues to grow at a rapid rate. In 2017, 27 percent of American adults identified as spiritual, yet just five years earlier, the group totaled only 19 percent.

How Spiritualists pray

Halfway through the service, eight women and men sit with closed eyes in front of the congregation. The healers, the term for people with special powers, hover above the seated guests and whisper in their ears, “May I touch you?” With approval, they stroke the guests’ arms, legs and feet. Some healers interlock hands with the guests, and others flail their arms in the air like some sort of ritualistic dance. The room stays silent, and one by one, new people settle into position to be cured of any ailments. The setting is public, yet the experience is extremely intimate.

Spiritualism adapts this style of healing through the alternative medicine of Reiki. According to the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, research suggests that Reiki provides better results than placebo. The healing therapy “activates the parasympathetic nervous system” and may eventually progress in the medical field.

The Rev. Eugene brings out a prayer book where people can write requests for family, friends or personal intentions. “We encourage people to write prayer requests inside,” Eugene says. He delivers a blessing over the congregation as the members sit in silence with their heads bowed.

Volunteers and elders of the Spiritualist Church of New York City pray over the tithes and offerings collected during service. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Volunteers and elders of the Spiritualist Church of New York City pray over the tithes and offerings collected during service. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Following the prayer, a small basket for donations travels across the pews. “Small children, pints of blood or cash are welcome,” Eugene smirks. “No IOUs though.” After the collection, the congregation repeats a short prayer for prosperity, hoping their donations return threefold.

The service continues with a Prayer for Spiritual Healing—“I ask the Great Unseen Healing Force to remove all obstructions from my mind and body and to restore me to perfect health. I ask this in all sincerity and I will do my part. I ask the Great Unseen Healing Force to help both present and absent ones who are in need of help and to restore them to perfect health. I put my trust in the love and power of God.”

What Spiritualists believe

Throughout the service, the congregation addresses a higher power as the “divine parent,” a “Great Unseen Healing Force” and sometimes, “God.” Janet Harrington, the president of the board of trustees, provides a vague description for the congregation’s higher power. “Well, I’m not quite sure who we are addressing,” Harrington hesitates. “I don’t think of a separate entity. It’s the great internal intelligence.”

The reverends hardly mention the Bible and instead, use their own set of instructions called The Declaration of Principles. The one-page document describes the congregation’s belief in nature and its ideas on morality.

“We believe in infinite intelligence. We believe that the phenomena of Nature, both physical and spiritual, are the expression of Infinite Intelligence,” the congregation reads collectively. “We affirm that a correct understanding of such expression and living in accordance therewith, constitute true religion. We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death.”

The principles acknowledge the church’s belief that people can communicate with relatives and friends after their human body dies. “We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism,” their Declaration of Principles state.

The church’s core belief is a common saying: “We believe that the highest morality is contained in the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Elders held a group discussion, talking about their spiritual experiences and answering questions. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Elders held a group discussion, talking about their spiritual experiences and answering questions. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Other declarations elaborate more on connections with spirituality and openness.

“We affirm the moral responsibility of individuals and that we make our own happiness or unhappiness as we obey or disobey Nature’s physical and spiritual laws. We affirm that the doorway to reformation is never closed against any soul here or hereafter. We affirm that the precepts of Prophecy and Healing are Divine attributes proven through Mediumship.”

While the church does not use the Bible in its service, The Rev. Francis discusses the Bible in one of her encouraging messages. Through a story of her bad breakup, she shares the underlying positive effects that resulted from her traumatic experience. “In the Bible, the word sin is mentioned over 400 times. Sin in Hebrew translates to missing the mark,” she explains. “But the universe gave me that experience, so I could learn from missing the mark.”

Francis shares her belief that pain, learning and growing as a person all go hand-in-hand. “This is the time when nature is waking up from a long rest,” she says.

Francis shares a metaphor on how in the spring, trees are trimmed and the branches grow back even fuller than before. “It’s been proven that plants actually feel pain and grow two stems from the site, therefore making the plant fuller.”

While this may be painful for the trees when they are trimmed, they grow fuller, bigger and more beautiful through the process. This translates to humans and how they learn and grow from experiences, she explains. “The greater the lesson, the greater the pain. The greater the pain, the bigger the growth.”

Talking to the dead

The lights come up, and the service ends with another prayer. The congregation breaks up, with half staying for the seance after and the rest leaving until the next service. At the seance, congregation members stay to try and communicate with specific people they know that have passed.

However, this is not the only way the dead can communicate at the Spiritualist Church of NYC. In place of the healing ritual at another service, three mediums gather at the front of the church to deliver messages from people that have died and “passed over.” The mediums address different members of the congregation.

A medium walks over to a member of the congregation. “May I come to you with a message?” the medium asks. The person gives their permission, and the medium begins to describe a person –allegedly related to the parishioner in some way– and offers a message from the person who has died.

Congregation members respond with mixed reactions, with some laughing in disbelief as they confirm and describe to the medium who the person is, and once confirmed, the mediums elaborate on the message. Others stay less responsive and do not seem to connect with the medium’s message or to know the person the medium is describing.

The Spiritualist Church of New York City holds bi-monthly services at St. Paul & St. Andrew Methodist Church. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

The Spiritualist Church of New York City holds bi-monthly services at St. Paul & St. Andrew Methodist Church. Photo by Wesley Parnell.

Francis acknowledges Kassidy Vavra (reporting this story), asking if she may give her a message. Vavra nods.

“I’m seeing a woman with red-orange hair, about this long,” Francis says, holding a hand to her shoulder. “She seems like an aunt figure, very fun and just full of life. She’s holding a book and flipping through the pages,” she continues. “On all the pages are pictures of different men. She’s telling you that when you date, you seem to go very quickly from one person to another.”

“She says you need to slow down, and really consider each person and each relationship. She’s telling you that you don’t need to move so quickly through all these people,” Francis says.

“May I leave you with that message?” she asks Vavra.

“Yes, thank you.” Vavra says.

The person Francis described was not anyone that was descriptive to Vavra. While the message made sense, it seemed like a message that could apply to most twenty-something single girls in New York.

Dr. Robert Carle, professor of religious and theological studies at The King’s College, believes spiritualist churches practice the supernatural benefits of religion without the moral elements. While the congregation’s healers may not purposefully be manipulative, he considers their revelations “diluted.”

Occasionally, when a medium describes a mother figure to a person, the parishioner says their mother and grandmother passed. The medium then says there is not one, but two people standing there. The mediums’ messages seems to adapt to how the person responds.

After the service, Francis speaks with Vavra to elaborate on the message. “I didn’t want to get too personal and tell your life story,” she says, referring to the message from the person who had passed over. “She just wants you to not move too fast, and really consider what each person is teaching you.”

“Don’t focus so much on what went wrong on the date, or what could have gone differently. Think about what you could have done differently, what he could have done differently and how the whole situation could have gone differently. Really consider what lesson each person is teaching you,” Francis says.

Francis then speaks more on the nature of the church and how it is welcoming to all people–but not forceful. “We have all different kinds of people come here,” she says. “We don’t force people to become members or anything, we just want them to feel welcome.”

While there are aspects of the church that may seem foreign to Christians or to those who practice other religions–like communicating with the dead–many of the core values align with Christianity.

The Spiritualist Church believes in doing good to others and in being thankful for what a person has. Communicating with the dead through seances and mediums may be widely different from Christianity, but overall, the nature of the church attempts to create a sense of internal healing and peace.