The kids—four Cambodian children who lived in my Oakland neighborhood—frantically beckoned me to come quickly.
Having never seen a dancing ghost, much less a standing ghost, I chased them to an apartment upstairs. A dozen youth stood crowded around the front window of Bech Chuom, a Khmer native healer. I peered in, and I saw a ghost dance.
Inside the community leader’s home, a young teenager, Sarah, was dancing by herself in silence. Her hands, cocked at the wrists, waved about languidly, like sea anemone swaying in a current. She circled a room with no furniture, decorated only with a bamboo mat covering the floor.
I stared fascinated for a few moments and then felt self-conscious for ogling. She should have her privacy while dancing with a ghost, I thought.
That evening, Sarah’s mom told me in halting English that we needed to go to Long Beach in Southern California to buy a crown.
“A crown?” I asked puzzled.
“Yeah, a crown.”
I was very confused. Why was Sarah mutely dancing by herself, and why was I being told to drive 400 miles to pick up a crown? Fortunately, another Cambodian neighbor provided a partial explanation: an ancestral spirit had become angry and possessed Sarah because of a family conflict. They needed to offer a headdress—the crown—in order to appease the ancestors. Sarah wasn’t dancing with a ghost. The ghost inside her was the one doing the dancing.
Two years before Sarah’s ghost dance, I had moved into Oak Park Apartments in East Oakland to study Cambodian youth gangs. I was pursuing a graduate degree in sociology. But I was also an evangelical Christian hoping to replicate the work of the Christian Community Development Association, a progressive group that works to transform low-income communities. In their model, Christians go to live among the people they are serving and try to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, empowering local leaders to build economic self-sufficiency.
Our ministry at Oak Park included intentional Christian practices of hospitality and presence. My roommate, Dan, had moved in to the complex two years before me had started a housecleaning business that employed local residents. When I arrived, a Spanish-speaking congregation was using his living room as a food pantry for new immigrants to Oakland. Dan, who had grown up in the white, middle-class San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, wanted to develop solidarity with the poor and welcomed newcomers any way he could.
Since my family had been in California for five generations, I too felt like I was in a position to host and receive others to our state. In fact, we were upwardly mobile beneficiaries of government programs designed to help families like mine. The GI Bill, which overwhelmingly benefited nonblack veterans of World War II, enabled my dad to attend San Francisco State College for free, where he met my mom. He then used his veteran’s benefit to purchase a home outside of Chinatown, enabling my siblings and I to attend excellent public schools. The GI Bill shaped our fortunes.
Just as we benefited from certain racial privileges, we also stood on the shoulders of African Americans who fought for civil rights and political empowerment. I got a job working for Mayor Art Agnos even though I never studied political science. I was a native San Franciscan and Asian American, and he needed a community liaison. Even though I couldn’t speak Chinese, I at least looked the part!
Because of the extraordinary but unearned advantages I had benefited from, I came to believe that I could offer help to my neighbors in Oak Park. I could share the love of Christ by empowering those whom I hosted. I could use my social capital to connect my neighbors to the resources and networks they needed to get ahead.
Sculptures by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
Living in Oak Park Apartments with Cambodian refugees and undocumented Latinos transformed me in several ways. I was accustomed to getting things done my way. At Oak Park, though, nothing seemed to change. Known by local kids as the “Murder Dubs,” the neighborhood had long been a segregated ghetto where poverty was passed down from generation to generation. Newly arrived refugees and immigrant families had no means to get off of welfare or into something more stable than day labor work.
Even though Oak Park kids clearly wanted to learn, they had difficulty in school. Our living room became a mini-classroom, complete with alphabet wall borders. Kids came for tutoring every day. We attended the local school’s open houses to stress the importance of education. Later, my roommates and I received a family literacy grant to teach English as a second language to parents. The rationale was that if students saw their parents modeling learning behaviors, the students would also succeed. We started separate boys and girls groups to mentor them. Since we lived right next door, we figured we could be positive role models.
But despite our efforts, not one of the boys in our group graduated from high school in the eight years we held our informal classes. Meanwhile, in the two years I had known Sarah’s family, 332 people were murdered in Oakland. Only one or two refugee parents were able to land a job that paid a living wage. We saw the cycles of violence and poverty, and the intensification of inequality. These patterns were not just grim statistics that we read about, but dire situations facing our friends and neighbors, who by now had come to feel like family.
But now I was confronted by a ghost, and I didn’t know how to react.
When Chouen, Sarah’s mom, asked for the ride to Long Beach, I immediately protested and said I couldn’t go so far from Oakland. I wanted to avoid this situation altogether. I came to show God’s love by doing community development, not by casting out spirits. I didn’t believe a headdress was going to fix Sarah’s problem, and I said so.
At six the next morning, however, Chouen showed up at my door and said, “Time to go!” Something must have been missed in the translation. The family really wanted to get rid of the ghost.
And it was a family affair. Everyone showed up for the drive to Long Beach: Sarah; her mom; her younger sister; her father, who had been paralyzed by a land mine in Cambodia; her grandmother; and Bech Chuom, who brought along a boom box to play Buddhist chants to keep the ghost at bay. I didn’t feel like I could say no to the family; Sarah, all this time, had been staring blankly and didn’t respond to any of my attempts at conversation.
Of course, I had no experience in dealing with ghosts, except for chauffeuring them around.
Falling Down with Grace by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
Reluctantly, I borrowed a van and we were off. About halfway down I-5, near Los Banos, Chouen told me to pull off the freeway and get the girls and myself some lunch at McDonald’s. When I returned with Big Macs, the family had already spread out a mat in the parking lot and had begun to eat the lunch they’d brought for themselves. Bech Chuom took the boom box from the car and continued to blast the chanting. Meanwhile, locals in cowboy hats parked their trucks beside us. If they had known that—in addition to the bald man in a white robe with a saffron sash, a man in a wheelchair wearing a sarong, and a grandmother eating little rice from an ornate, silver rice-bowl caddy—there was a spirit-filled girl squatting with us on the ground, their uncomfortably long stares might have lasted even longer.
As a Chinese American in California, I don’t often feel like a minority. That lunchtime, I did.
Bech Chuom, the Cambodian healer, looked like the stereotypical Buddhist monk. Yet he wasn’t cloistered in a temple leading Buddhist sutra chanting. He lived across the courtyard from me and acted as a Kru Khmer, a traditional healer and community leader. His tattoos, which lined his arms and crossed his belly, were yantra, Sanskrit geometric figures that protected him from evil spirits. When people had bouts of illness, he would use a technique called coining to “catch the wind” and draw out their bad air. If they had bad luck, he would make flattened rice-dough figures, much like gingerbread men, and call out the spirits from the individuals’ bodies. The hope was that the spirits would enter the dough figures and quit harassing the humans.
Bech Chuom would also bless amulets and spirit strings for protection. Some believed that the amulets could make gang members bulletproof, so that they were emboldened in fighting for turf. One Cambodian young man whom I knew swore that his spirit string around his waist made a bullet miss him by a whisker.
Because Bech Chuom was the most colorful man in our complex and had a huge, brightly lit shrine in his living room, and happily accommodated guests, I would occasionally bring visitors to meet him. One was a student of mine, a 300-pound nose tackle on the Cal football team nicknamed Pee Wee. He had injured his neck in a car accident and desperately wanted to play again, so he asked Bech Chuom for a healing session.
Bech Chuom consented, motioned Pee Wee to kneel before the shrine, and then took a sip of water. I thought the kru was just for clearing his throat so that he could begin chanting. Instead, he began to spit, directly over Pee Wee. I froze, aghast, wondering if Pee Wee would blitz and tackle this eighty-year-old man. Fortunately, Pee Wee took the spitting ceremony in stride. He told me he’d never let anyone disrespect him like that on the football field, but since Bech Chuom was an elder, he gave him his props. The healing didn’t fix his neck, but Pee Wee, a sociology student, had a great experience.
The story around the neighborhood was that Bech Chuom had found his daughter abandoned and tied to a tree in Cambodia during the war, and that he saved her while under fire. I had heard many dramatic, tragic stories about the Cambodian “killing fields,” but this story was one of the few with a happy ending. When I got a chance to talk to Bech Chuom through an interpreter, I wanted to learn more about his heroic act.
“Oh, that story!?!” he guffawed, “That’s just a joke. I tell her that when I’m mad at her. When she doesn’t listen to me, I say I’m going to return her to the bush where I found her.”
Sarah’s family and I made it to Long Beach and back—headdress in hand—in fourteen hours. I didn’t participate in any ceremony or witness any exorcism that evening. But the next day Sarah was back to her sweet self again.
I asked her what she remembered of the experience, and she couldn’t recall any of the entire past week’s events.
The following week, I spoke to a Cambodian American counselor at Asian Community Mental Health Services about the spirit possession. She nonchalantly told me, “Oh, yes, we see that a lot. The girl may have been recently abused.” When refugee youth face traumatic experiences, she explained, they often disassociate from the experience and act in culturally scripted ways.
Sculptures by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
Had Sarah been abused, or was she really possessed by a spirit?
If pressed, I would say yes to both. Abuse is all too common among families dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. But many of my neighbors, Cambodian and not, have said they have seen spirits hovering around the neighborhood. Both explanations are possible.
It was around the time of Sarah’s ghost dance time that I stopped writing about Cambodian Americans for sociological journals, because I knew it would take me years to learn the language and to grasp their spiritual worldviews. Dan, my roommate, and I also understood that if we wanted to really address the “felt needs” of our neighbors, as advised by Christian urban ministry strategies, we should focus less on economic development and more on our neighbors’ spiritual fears, including evil spirits and magic.
Of course, I had no experience in dealing with ghosts, except for chauffeuring them around.
After that week, I never saw Sarah again. I heard that she entered an arranged marriage somewhere in the Midwest. Bech Chuom and I kept busy. Together, we once made the New York Times when we were lobbying against welfare reform.1With Bech Chuom’s support, Dan and I organized two hundred of our fellow tenants and won a landmark housing settlement at Oak Park.
Birth of the Dragon Lady by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
But in the years since, I’ve come to temper my grand ambition to transform the community. In my search to be a more faithful Christian witness in the “Murder Dubs,” I’ve reclaimed my own status as a Hakka.
The Hakka were a landless Chinese underclass that migrated and settled wherever they could—Hakka literally means “guest family.” Local residents resented them so much that war broke out in the 1860s, and more than one million people were killed. Afterward, instead of resettling on a government reservation for the Hakka, my great-great grandparents sailed across the Pacific to build a new home in Monterey, California, in 1868. Four decades later, after establishing one of the largest fishing businesses in the area, my great-grandparents had to move again. Along with the entire Chinese fishing village, they were evicted and driven out of by the white townspeople.
Just as the Hakka are guest families, often at the mercy of those already living on the land, evangelical followers of Jesus are sent out as guests. This identity, as a guest rather than a Christian colonizer and as a lamb instead of a lion, helped me to reconcile my role at Oak Park. My gift was not that I brought upward mobility or resources. It was that I could be a Hakka refugee, too, a fellow nomad in our pilgrimage through California. Our role as guests is not to remake our host community, but simply to receive and reciprocate peace.
Eventually, Bech Chuom would take his settlement funds to retire in his hometown in Cambodia. I’m sure that when he got there, he saw more ghosts dance.
Following the protocols of the sociological research I was undertaking at the time, Sarah is a pseudonym, as are the names of her family members and others in this story.
1Tim Golden, “If Immigrants Lose U.S. Aid, Local Budgets May Feel Pain,” New York Times, 29 July 1996.
California is experiencing a proliferation of public religious celebrations like never before. Processions spill onto city streets. Altars summoning the spirits of the dead are erected at busy intersections. Bands of pilgrims crisscross the state as they make their sacred journeys to holy lands within our very borders. Images of gods and saints, raised aloft by devotees, now claim the urban skyline as their most natural and obvious backdrop. Mantras, chants, and songs of praise, in a cacophony of languages, summon the sacred into our public space and into our life in common. At these festivals, we pray together after a fashion—an unlikely collection of Californians from different places, different faiths—different backgrounds joined for a fleeting moment by the unity of purpose of a shared ritual. The so-called secular cities and towns of California are made sacred by these multiethnic and multifaith public performances.
The authors of this essay are part of an eclectic group of researchers, students and professors, artists, filmmakers, and journalists. We have spent the better part of three years participating in these public events; we have attended dozens of religious festivals. We have thrown colors at Holi with those who have inherited Hindu traditions and those who have adopted them in the United States. We have processed in the streets of downtown Los Angeles with Peruvian immigrants as they sway to and fro under the heavy weight of their penitential andas. We have wept at altars for the dead on Día de los Muertos. We have joined aging internees on their annual pilgrimage to Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp, where we braced against the harsh winds and dust to chant, dance, and pray for forgiveness for us all.
It’s not just that the spirits cannot be contained in buildings—from tent revivals to solemn masses celebrated in sports stadiums, religious practice has brought the faithful out of doors—but that they prefer to encounter us in town centers, in public parks, open-air settings, and city streets. Across the state, Californians participate in all kinds of public rituals under the sun: rituals of re-enchantment and blessing, rituals of repair, rituals of sober ecstasy. Due in part to their public nature, almost every one of these open-air celebrations is a cross-cultural encounter as we look to each other’s cultures, each other’s religions, especially each other’s gods and spirits to discover our shared identity and our shared future as Californians. Perhaps it is through these experiences that the fears and anxieties generated by the inevitability of a truly multiethnic state are confronted and resolved.
Even as these and many other similar festivals simultaneously represent the irruption and interruption of the sacred in the public sphere, these festivals reflect the multireligious character of immigration. What propels us to put ourselves into these shared religious experiences, to throw ourselves into these festivals of spirits, especially when so often we join to celebrate religious cultures other than our own? The public religious festival has become the central nexus for the celebration of ethnic, cultural, and collective identity—identities that demand representation even in so-called secular public spaces. The festival requires that the participants step outside of their day-to-day lives, and venture into the fields of Radha and Krishna’s love play, the realm of the dead, the remembrance of the past, penance for historical sin, and the ecstasies of devotional singing. When the festival is in the open, in public, the shared act of devotion is what binds, not necessarily the shared belief.
These public rituals say something about the pursuit of belonging in California, and in the United States, within an increasingly diverse and multicultural landscape. Those who participate together as intimate strangers are often seeking only a temporary affiliation, perhaps a place for a moment to engage one another beyond the context of the marketplace. In sharing in these religious and cross-cultural experiences, we become enmeshed in the complicated and vibrant diversity of California, up close and personal, as physical as the bodies we encounter there. These collective public celebrations imagine a new kind of citizenship in a way that can assuage our multiculturalist anxieties. By participating in other religious and cultural realities, we break from the mundane and open up the possibility of enchantment. It is the unknown of the festival that beckons to outsiders—the potential for the experience of the ephemeral, the surreal, the transcendent.
Children throw colors at Holi. Photograph by Mario L. Iñiguez.
The Hindu Festival of Colors: Throwing Colors with Hare Krishnas in Los Angeles
Tens of thousands of young adults, mostly in their teens and twenties, clamor toward the stage at the spring Festival of Colors in Los Angeles. From a panoply of backgrounds and cultures and beliefs (or no belief at all), they gather to celebrate Holi, to reenact the colorful play of Radha and Krishna, the supreme Hindu expressions of divinity and the enchanters of the world. Radha and Krishna’s love play is relived and remembered in the crowd’s joyful “playing of colors.” As they throw brilliant, chalky handfuls of the multicolored Holi powder at each other, attendees become disguised in vibrant colors—differences of age, race, and ethnicity, their previous identities, erased. Play that begins in streaks of rainbow effervescence soon turns everyone a purplish brown blend of the colored powders.
The Festival of Colors in Southern California attracts only small numbers of Indian Hindus. The organizers of the event are Hare Krishnas, affiliated with the various temples of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. The Hare Krishnas have had a long and fraught history in the American countercultural movement. Once the poster children for 1960s white hippie sojourns into Indian mysticism, the group became enmeshed in scandal in the 1970s and 1980s, and then became a major source of religious engagement for Indian Hindus living in diaspora.
The Festival of Colors is the brainchild of the guru Caru Das, a Hare Krishna devotee and the founder of a large Krishna community in Spanish Fork, Utah. As the organizer and producer of the festival, his purpose is to change the trend—to reach beyond the traditional Indian community and try something new among new audiences. Caru Das has created an event that is popular with teens and promoted as “good clean fun,” but he never forgets that its primary purpose is to introduce new souls to Krishna consciousness.
When asked, the majority of attendees at the Festival of Colors say that they are there for the fun of throwing colors. But there are many ways to enjoy a Saturday afternoon, and sweating colored powder in the hot LA sun is only one of them. In the murky, colored mist of the orchestrated hourly color throws, the audience of largely non-Hindu teens have their first experience of Hindu ritual and belief. In simple terms that a young California audience will understand, the festival introduces Hindu and Buddhist ideas, practices, and worldviews—all laced with universalistic ideals of peace, love, and unity. The Festival of Colors motions to Hindu religious practices as emblematic of indigenous roots and ancient wisdom. These sentiments echo those of Swami Vivekananda, who famously preached to American audiences in 1896: “When the Occident wants to learn about the spirit, about God, about the soul, about the meaning and the mystery of this universe, he must sit at the feet of the Orient to learn.”
Photograph by Mario L. Iñiguez.
Traditional temple Hinduism is not what these eager and open young people are experiencing. The Festival of Colors in Los Angeles is more like an ISKCON-inspired evangelical tent revival than any mainstream Hindu practice. Amidst color throws and playful revelry, the guru Caru Das takes the stage to focus the frenetic and playful energy of the crowd with the mahamantra, the central devotional chant of the Hare Krishnas: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare!” Caru Das actively proselytizes while playing directly to the desires and social proclivities of teens and young adults.
With music, yoga, food, and a playful atmosphere, the Festival of Colors is a brilliant marketing venture that attempts to erase the fraught political history of the Hare Krishnas and bring them back into the mainstream. There, they hope to vie for a position as the representatives par excellence of modern global Hinduism. Under the clever disguise of colored powders, the Festival of Colors represents the new proselytizing successes of ISKCON.
From the stage, Caru Das bellows to the excited crowd:
The Absolute is non-different from His name! So if you spend this day by singing and dancing the various names of the Absolute, you will be associating with the most wise, the most determined power in the universe. And that power will rub off on you and you will make better decisions and you will be in a better place in the future than you would have had you not tapped into this extra power.. . .
To reinforce his point, the guru jubilantly exhorts the crowd to repeat once again: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.. . . ” Many in the throng are chanting along exuberantly, but others are socializing with their friends and taking selfies of their wildly colorful bodies to post on social media. But to Caru Das, the spiritual impact of the mantra works like fire—it burns whether you believe it will or not.
Pilgrims visit unmarked graves at Manzanar. Photograph by Rea Tajiri.
Catholics carry El Señor de los Milagros in Los Angeles. Photograph by Jonathan Ritter.
The Catrina at the 2015 Noche de Altares. Photograph by Bernard Gordillo.
Support for this project came from UCHRI as part of its Luce-Funded Religions in Diaspora and Global Affairs Initiative.
Editor’s note: In her Alien Apostles series, artist Katie Dorame reimagines the Spanish missionaries who came to California in the eighteenth century as 1950s B-movie space aliens. She writes:
Spanish missionaries and soldiers were only human shells with a deeper squishy green glowing motive: their home planet was in desperate need of cowhides, tallow, wine, and the other goods the slave labor of the missions produced. Or maybe the vast knowledge the Indians had previous to the alien invasion needed to be taken and mutated in order to mine a precious resource found deep within the earth. Whatever the space aliens’ motive was, they needed a unified, purified, categorized, renamed, and rebranded flock of “Neophytes.”
They used baptism as a tool. The glowing green holy water was an irrevocable agreement. Once you were baptized you were visibly and supernaturally branded forever. You were renamed. As a “Neophyte” you were no longer allowed to leave the church. The church owned you and your soul. Those who attempted to leave were hunted down by the Spanish soldiers and flogged.
Through Hollywood and history books we’ve learned a romanticized version of the past. The California mission courtyards today are filled with dewy roses and the graveyards are filled with quaint white washed wooden crosses with no reflection of the horror of a measles epidemic to a non-immune populace—spread by holy water.
Mabel McKay was Pomo, from eastern Lake County. The Pomo are known as the world’s finest basket makers, and Mabel was among the best of them. All of her baskets were derived from her dreams—she was a Dreamer. She was also a “sucking doctor,” traditionally considered by California Indians the most powerful and, hence, most valued of medicine people. When she passed away in 1993, she was the last of these doctors.
Ten years earlier, I accompanied her to a celebration of California Indian culture sponsored by a local community college. It was a spring day, and everywhere booths displayed books and crafts, advertising and selling just about anything to do with Indians. People milled about, but I noticed that most of the crowd had gathered around a group of dancers. I could hear the clapper sticks and singing. Mabel and I edged our way forward so that we could see. But just then, everything stopped. The dancers in their turkey-feather skirts and imitation flicker-feather headbands had grown still, the singers with their clappers silent. In a split second, they turned in the opposite direction and disappeared behind the onlookers. I’m sure the crowd was confused—but not Mabel. Chuckling, she said to me, “They think I’m going to hoodoo them.”
Later, on the way home, or at her kitchen table—we often talked at her kitchen table—she said, “They’re doing it wrong. They’re singing Essie’s songs and they’re not supposed to. They ain’t following the rules. They don’t know the rules.” Mabel was referring to her longtime friend, Essie Parrish, a renowned Dreamer and prophet of the Kashaya Pomo, who had left Mabel detailed instructions before her death on what to do with her Dream songs and dances—what was to be discontinued, what could live on, and, accordingly, the rules for whatever action was taken. Mabel, staring into the distance as if she were seeing Essie, said, “Essie told me—she told me, ‘the false people will come out after I die.'”
“She wanted to make sure you knew what to do,” I said, attempting to appear smart. Certainly, I’d heard as much before.
“Them people,” Mabel said, “they know I know the rules. They know what Essie said.”
“But you wouldn’t poison them.”
I used the word “poison,” the term often used for casting of spells—harmful spells.
Once more came Mabel’s inimitable chuckle. “No,” she said. “But I don’t know what the Spirit will do.”
I feel old, or like I’m getting old. I find myself saying, “They’re doing it wrong.” Mostly to myself, luckily. Growing up in and around Indian homes, I heard about cures and spells—poisoning—even before I met Mabel. It was something I didn’t talk about, particularly among non-Indians, probably because I didn’t understand it, but also because I didn’t want people to think I was strange, believing in as much. Mabel warned against touching things, for instance, picking up a stone that might catch my attention, because “You don’t know what spirit it is, or who put it there.” But then what do you think after you’ve seen her suck a tadpole-like creature out of a woman’s eye? Or when she sucks from each of your temples a pint of fluid that cures your allergies?
Spells and curses as I’ve described them—even cures—might upset the general, and often stereotyped, picture of the California Indian as peaceful, nature-loving. Any attempt on my part to discuss California Indian religion, much less criticize those who might practice it, without thinking about the larger history out of which it comes, would not only put me at odds with that history, but in all likelihood with the religions themselves.
It is impossible to generalize: there are over one hundred tribes in California today, each with its own language and particular history. All of the language families found in the New World are represented in one or more languages in California. The California landscape out of which these languages and respective cultures emerged is itself equally diverse. Ethnographers often divide the Native population into three cultural groups or categories: the northwestern tribes, including the Hupa and Yurok, who had stratified societies; the central tribes, including the Maidu and Wintun of the central valley, as well as my tribes, the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok in the coastal region north of present day San Francisco, who were egalitarian, and organized around a number of secret societies; and finally the southwestern tribes, such as the Chumash of the Santa Barbara coast and the inland-desert Cahuilla, who, similar to the central tribes, belonged to secret societies, but in some cases planted and harvested crops. Still, these divisions are arbitrary, limiting in significant ways what we might understand about a particular people.
What all tribes share is a tie to a specific landscape and a brutal European colonization that worked to break that tie. What can be pieced together from early Franciscan journals, ethnographic descriptions, and indigenous lore that has been handed down by the likes of Mabel herself, is that the religion—and in turn culture—created and maintained for its practitioners a sustainable relationship with not just the landscape, but also with neighboring peoples for eons.
Ethnographers have long asked how so many different people speaking so many different languages and having different customs lived together peacefully for thousands of years. Indeed, at the time of contact, California was more densely populated than anywhere else in the New World, except for the Aztec capital in what is now Mexico City. Some Franciscan padres wondered if the California Indians, seeming to them so simple-minded, were human enough to baptize. Early Americans considered them the most primitive of Indians, because the California Indians, unlike those of the Plains, did not display organized warfare—not at first anyway.
In my region, just north of San Francisco, approximately 20,000 Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok lived in nation villages of 150 to 500 individuals. The Penutian languages of the Coast Miwok in the southern part of the region were as different from the Hokan spoken by the Pomo in the north as English is to Cantonese. Tribal territories were small, often no more than twenty square miles, and while people might speak several languages and trade often with neighbors, it wasn’t uncommon to spend one’s life never having traveled more than thirty miles from the home village.
There were chiefs or headmen, sometimes headwomen, but of equal importance and influence were the spiritual advisors who would inform the chief from their dreams or visions, of the approach of salmon, say, so that he or she might order the people to ready their nets. There were organized ceremonies, dances called by the headman, marking the seasons, for example. Ever present in the minds of villagers were the secret societies.
There were many secret societies or cults, often associated with animals—grizzly bears, birds, snakes—and sometimes with certain places, a cave, maybe a spring, or some other body of water. Societies were often gender-based. Women’s bear cults were considered among the most powerful. Sometimes the societies were inter-tribal, members from one village recruiting potential initiates from neighbors. Always the societies were private, and membership a secret. Who knew that your sister donned a bear skin at night and traveled for distances to locate food, or perhaps to avenge an enemy? Further, it was assumed that regardless of one’s cult status, everyone possessed some protection in the form of a special spirit or song, maybe a secret amulet. People were reminded in this way that they didn’t know everything about others; they were reminded, in fact, of what they didn’t know. Ethnographers have said the cultures were predicated on black magic and fear. But might we not see it differently, predicated not so much on fear, but on respect, even reverence? Regardless of your unique powers, you were reminded of others, that you were never alone, and certainly that you weren’t in any way all powerful. Physical warfare would be considered the lowest form of warfare. If you had to strike or stab someone, you would only be demonstrating your lack of spiritual power. Anyone could poison you without retribution.
All of the natural world was likewise imbued with special power and, thus, demanded the same reverence. A small stone, no different from the mighty grizzly, might share a song with you. Disrespected, misused, the stone could cause harm, bad luck. When I asked a Kashaya Pomo elder why the Europeans were referred to as pala-cha, miracles, she told me: Instead of being punished for killing people and animals, chopping down trees, damming and dredging the waterways, more of them kept coming. If that elder were alive and could see the state of the Earth today, might she not rethink the moniker?
As with many California Indian tribes, the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok saw Coyote as the creator of the universe. Coyote was a magical figure from a time before the present when all animals were human, and he possessed characteristics, both good and bad, associated with human beings. He was smart, creative, and a good storyteller, but he was prone to pride and avarice, which usually got him into trouble. In fact, much of creation resulted from his foolhardy behavior. His greed caused the yellow jacket to grow a stinger. His vanity gave rise to death. The California Indian world then, unlike the traditions of Judaism and Christianity with their benevolent almighty creator and Great Chain of Being, is one made by the most human of individuals, where all life is on equal footing in terms of power and importance, requiring constant attention, an engagement with it that is dynamic and dialogical. Features of the landscape—an outcropping of rocks, the shape and size of a pond—become mnemonic pegs on which hang the stories of creation, as well as other stories, that ask us to remember and reflect. The landscape, thus, is the Native’s text. Congruous with what secret societies remind us, the world is complex and nothing in it can be taken at face value.
Again Mabel’s admonition: “You don’t know what spirit it is or who put it there.” If an ancient sensibility informed Mabel’s words—indeed, her religion—so too must have the history she shared with all California Indians, which began 250 years ago with the arrival of the first Europeans. The Spanish, in a movement spearheaded by Father Junipero Serra, began marching north in the middle part of the eighteenth century, going from San Diego to the far reaches of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties on the coast and as far inland as the Sierra Foothills, claiming land for Spain and souls for a Christian God. They established a string of missions, which simultaneously served as military outposts, where Natives, often having been forcibly removed from their native villages, were made to labor and to adopt a lifestyle and religion that was completely bewildering and, in the end, devastating. Tens of thousands died from European diseases. A rich and varied native diet was replaced by a bowl of wheat or corn. After the Mexican Revolution in 1823, the Mexican government secularized the missions. Large tracts of land, referred to as ranchos, were given to Mexican generals along with their friends and relatives. The Natives who survived the missions fared no better on the ranchos, again being forced to labor, and subject to rape and other abuses from which they had no recourse. The first piece of legislation that California enacted as a state in 1850 was the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which gave landowners jurisdiction over Indians residing on their property, essentially rendering the Indians slaves. The law was not repealed until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War.
By this time, barely 10 percent of the indigenous population in many regions had survived. They were literally decimated. They worked more or less as indentured servants for landowners who would give them a home and a modicum of protection—they were not US citizens and, like all other American Indians, would not be until 1924.
After several years of working in the central valley, sometime in late 1868, perhaps early 1869, an Eastern Pomo, referred to in ethnographies only as Lame Bill, returned to Lake County with a Dream. He was told in his Dream that a great flood would clean the land of white people, and if the faithful Indians gathered in seven roundhouses on the eastern shores of Clear Lake, they would be saved, alive to witness the return of the ancestors and all of the animals, in essence the world as it had been. Mabel told me that Lame Bill was otherwise known as Richard Taylor, and that he was her great-uncle, her grandmother’s brother. While in the Central Valley, he’d met a disciple—perhaps the son—of Wovoka, the Paiute visionary who in the following years preached the revivalistic Ghost Dance religion to Plains tribes.
One cannot say conclusively if Richard Taylor was influenced by the man he met. Without a doubt, his Dream was one of hope. In the winter of 1870–1871, nearly two thousand survivors from the coast region and the Central Valley met and gathered in the roundhouses. It rained for four days and nights. The lake rose. On the fifth morning, the believers discovered not a renewed world, but instead two hundred US Cavalry with guns drawn. The Natives, suspected of an uprising, were quickly dispersed. Though disheartened, they took with them the spirit of revitalization, which in local roundhouses morphed into an impassioned nationalism led by a single Dreamer, often a woman, who organized her entire tribe, sometimes now only a mere handful of survivors, around her Dreams. Co-opting tenets of Victorian ideology, the Dreamer forbade drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex. Long dresses—with long sleeves—had to be worn at all times by women in the roundhouses.
The religion became known among the Pomo as Bole Maru, or Dream Dance; in the central valley, tribes such as the Wintun, called it Bole Hesi, or Spirit Dance. The religion contained elements of older beliefs and ceremonies, but increasingly put more stress on the afterlife. Interaction with white people, outside of necessary work-related situations, was forbidden, and might cost you reunification with ancestors after death. Ethnographers argue that the religion paved the way for Christianity and further cultural demise. Others, myself included, point out that it helped fortify family structure. Individuals with knowledge of secret societies renewed their practices; there would now be a younger generation of potential initiates. What seems most significant here, though, is the transition from a “we” worldview to an “us-them” worldview. You now have an enemy, a devil, pure and simple.
The wide interest today in Indian religion can be traced to the 1960s. Non-Indians disenchanted with established religions sought alternatives. Indians sought a reconnection with their traditions. Many were the children of a generation that attempted with varying degrees of success to assimilate, abandoning Indian lifeways—a generation often referred to as “the lost generation.” In large urban settings, most notably Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Indians from out of state renewed and practiced their religions; the American Indian Movement (AIM) offered Plains-style dancing, seen today at pow wows and elsewhere as part of a larger pan-Indian movement seeking to unify American Indians as a political entity. California Indians, at first in the margins of the larger social movement, particularly in terms of any public display of their singing and dancing, now regularly perform their dances at pow wows and local functions, such as the one Mabel and I attended at the community college. A mandate of the Bole Maru religion is that while a Dreamer might be given certain songs and dances from her predecessor, her tradition—ceremonies, songs, dances—must be derived from her particular Dream, able to address challenges and preserve Indian identity in an ever-changing world. Mabel’s point of view regarding the dancers at the college must have had something to do with this mandate. The dancers were not using the songs of a living Dreamer; nor did Mabel believe Essie had given them permission to use hers.
In 1942, when Essie Parrish first took sway of the roundhouse on the Kashaya Reservation, American Indian men were for the first time drafted into the armed services. She gave each man a handkerchief designed from her Dream to wear in battle. His wife or mother was to dance with a matching handkerchief in the roundhouse. Forty men went to war; thirty-nine returned. They say the war victim’s mother was a “nonbeliever.” By this time, the Bole Maru religion was in great decline, having died out in most other Indian communities during the 1920s and 1930s. Many Indian people had converted or more fully accepted other religions, such as Catholicism. Essie dropped the strict isolationist policies of her predecessors, perhaps out of practical need. Already so many tribal citizens had attended boarding schools and lived in large cities to support the war effort. A majority of the young men had been to Europe or the South Pacific. She saw the advantages of public education both as a means to lift her people out of poverty and to protect their rights. Sadly, by the time of her death in 1979, the influence of Mormons and various Evangelicals, combined with existing tribal political tensions, resulted not just in a splintering of the tribe into factions, but even family member from family member.
Mabel was a Dreamer, but she did not have a roundhouse. Even when she met Essie in the early 1950s, she had few immediate relatives, hardly a tribe, and long before her death she was the last to speak her language. Essie took Mabel into the Kashaya roundhouse. She told Mabel, “my people will call you aunt.” Some of the dancers Mabel and I watched at the community college had turned away from Essie in the past. Watching them, did Mabel feel any animosity?
Most, if not all, of the major world religions today emerged in contexts of colonization, social strife, diaspora, often after people had been displaced from a native home. Think of the Israelites in the desert. The religions sought to provide answers, solace in a troubled world, not unlike the Bole Maru. Like the Bole Maru, they worked to forge unity and revitalize an older culture, often creating, even unwittingly, a nationalism not unlike the one to which they were reacting. Religious texts, in the most narrow of their readings, work to dissolve ambiguity. Here again, we might see a major difference between the Bole Maru and more ancient Indian religions. California Indian creation tales and secret societies worked to maintain ambiguity. Of course, people were safer then. They were already home.
More than in any recent past, California Indians today want to reclaim ancestral lands. We want to be home, but not just in terms of a particular landscape. We want to reconnect with traditions that locate us culturally with the landscape. More than ever, Indians want to dance. It’s not uncommon for multiple dance groups—all using the same songs—to perform at a single event. Dancers claim that what they are doing is pleasing to the Spirit. They say more songs and dances will come, or return. Who am I to say they are wrong? Just when I think their dancing is foolish, nothing more than an instance of final assimilation in the guise of feathers and songs rather than a reawakening to a radiant, awe-inspiring Earth, I spot a face I recognize and stop. Wasn’t it that dancer’s great-grandfather who poisoned my great-aunt? Was it Mabel McKay who told me? Never mind. Be respectful, I think. You don’t know the whole story.
Until I arrived in Berkeley in 1967, I had spent my whole life in the Northeast, apart from one student year abroad. I grew up in Albany, New York, got a BA in English at Columbia University in the era of Lionel Trilling (and just at the end of the era of Mark Van Doren), completed graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard, and then returned to Columbia to teach in the English department. At that early moment of my professional life, I imagined becoming part of the next generation of New York intellectuals. But then, as cultural conditions changed, the next generation never really emerged. When Berkeley made me an offer I couldn’t refuse—promotion to tenure and a 50 percent increase in salary—I had never been west of Chicago.
As I was driving across the country for the first time, I felt a foolish twinge of apprehension that I was heading into exile. Instead, the chains fell off. The intellectually invigorating atmosphere I found in Berkeley was a complete surprise to me. The Ivy League institutions where I was trained and where I had worked were manifestly hierarchical, and they tended to cultivate a certain sense of being “the navel of the world,” as the early rabbis called Jerusalem. At Columbia, I was made to feel subaltern—I shared an office with five other junior faculty—and was expected to fit into the particular academic pigeonhole they had created for me: the eighteenth century and the English novel. (I had written a dissertation on the picaresque novel.) In my spare time, I had begun to publish critical essays on modern Hebrew literature, and this is what attracted the attention of people at Berkeley, where a newly formed Department of Comparative Literature was looking for a comparatist with a literate competence in Hebrew. I am fairly sure that my senior colleagues in English at Columbia looked askance at my writing on Hebrew topics. It was, after all, not what they had hired me to do.
Against this background, Berkeley was a revelation. Almost overnight, I realized that I was no longer subordinate, that I had been brought to the institution because there were distinctive things I had the capacity to teach and to write about that were highly valued. I also quickly came to sense a freedom of interchange between junior and senior faculty, and between students and faculty as well, that was quite different from the rigid structure I’d found on the East Coast. Having a home, moreover, in comparative literature rather than in English meant experiencing a new freedom to explore a variety of areas in the broad field of literary studies. This perfectly suited my own intellectual restlessness. All of a sudden, I could teach what I wanted and write about what I wanted.
During my first years in Berkeley, I offered an undergraduate lecture course on contemporary fiction in which I comfortably inserted the Hebrew novelist S.Y. Agnon alongside Nabokov, the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer alongside Saul Bellow and Alain Robbe-Grillet. On the graduate level, I began giving seminars on modern Hebrew literature, conducted in Hebrew, for a very small cohort. As word spread, however, that one could do serious work in modern Hebrew at Berkeley, students began to arrive from across the country and from Israel. Berkeley has had a major program in Hebrew literature ever since.
It is now clear to me that had I not come to California, I never would have written books on biblical narrative and biblical poetry and never would have become a translator of the Hebrew Bible. This whole turn in my career began through a happy accident, enabled by the academic openness of Berkeley.
In the mid-1970s, I became interested in biblical narrative, having had a good grounding in biblical Hebrew as well as in the modern language. Berkeley graduate seminars on the Bible in those years were exclusively devoted to the Book of Leviticus because the scholar who was then professor of the Hebrew Bible was engaged in what would prove to be a three-thousand-page commentary on Leviticus. He would allow nothing to deflect him from his sacerdotal subject.
My students of modern Hebrew literature complained, and so I devised for them a new course—conceivably, the first of its kind anywhere—on the poetics of biblical narrative. I had a relatively large group, about ten students, many of them quite gifted and with serious literary interests, and together we soon developed an excited sense that, even though this was the Bible, we were exploring new territory. My own work for the seminar and beyond it led me in the next few years to produce The Art of Biblical Narrative in 1981 and to launch a kind of second scholarly career that complemented the one I continued to pursue in writing about the European and American novel.
A dozen years later, again in a wholly unanticipated way, the study of biblical narrative and biblical poetry induced me to begin an experiment in translating the Bible. Since adolescence I had always read the Bible in Hebrew and had been deeply moved by the compact power of its poetry and by the subtlety, elegant precision, and evocative rhythms of its narrative prose. When an editor at W.W. Norton proposed that I might do a Norton Critical Edition of a book of the Bible, I responded, perhaps imprudently, that one could make a fine Norton Critical Edition of Genesis, but that because there was something wrong with all the existing English versions. I would have to do my own translation. After some discussion, we agreed that I would write a new English translation of Genesis instead of the critical edition. But, as I got into the project, I also found that I was producing a commentary.
I have to confess that I harbored suspicions from the beginning that what I wanted to do might be hopelessly quixotic. Given the large structural and semantic differences between ancient Hebrew and modern English, I feared that the attempt to emulate the stylistic features of the original in translation would result in an English version everyone would hate, including me. No translation of a great work is more than an approximation of the translator’s dream, but it turned out that what I had done was a far better approximation than I had thought it could be. My Genesis was widely acclaimed, rather to my surprise, and so I was strongly motivated to do more Bible translation. With several volumes in print and a good deal more in draft, I now hope to complete the Hebrew Bible within the next three years.
Is there anything “Californian” about this project, beyond the openness of the Berkeley intellectual atmosphere? I suspect there may be a certain experience of newness here that encourages a willingness to swerve from the models of the established cultural world. When I began my translation, I found myself unhesitant about discarding the syntactic practices of modern translators of the Bible and embracing the Bible’s parataxis, its love of repetition, emulating in English the rhythms of the Hebrew prose and poetry, even attempting to reproduce where feasible the pointed and ingenious wordplay and sound-play of the Hebrew. All this amounted to starting the enterprise of Bible translation more or less from scratch, with at most an intermittent gesture to the King James version.
Had I remained in New York, I would never have ended up doing this work at all. But if one supposes, counterfactually, that I would have nevertheless done so, I wonder whether a translation carried out in the intellectual climate of the Northeast would have been quite the same. My suspicion, of course indemonstrable, is that it would have been at least a little different, that I would have felt more beholden to the examples of Bible translation done in geographical proximity—most of the modern American translators having been trained in biblical studies at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, and just a few other institutions.
Such thoughts about California’s contribution to my translation of the Bible are necessarily speculative. Yet I think there is a quality of freshness, a readiness to try new things in the intellectual climate on this side of the country that have led to bold innovation in painting, music, film, literature, science, and other areas of creative endeavor. I like to imagine that my own enterprise has at least some connection with this atmosphere of innovation.
Translated by Robert Alter
Isaiah by Salvatore Revelli on the base of the Colonna dell’Immacolata, Rome Italy
Comfort, O comfort My people, says your God. / Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her, for her term of service is ended, her crime is expiated, for she has taken from the Lord’s hand double for all her offenses. / A voice calls out in the wilderness: Clear a way for the Lord’s road, level in the desert a highway for our God! / Every valley shall be lifted high and every mountain brought low, and the crooked shall be straight, and the ridges become a valley. / And the Lord’s glory shall be revealed, and all flesh together see that the Lord’s mouth has spoken.
A voice calls out, saying: “Call!”And I said, “What shall I call?” All flesh is grass and all its trust like the flowers of the field. / Grass dries up, the flower fades, for the Lord’s wind has blown upon it. The people indeed is grass. / Grass dries up, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
On a high mountain go up, O herald of Zion. Raise your voice mightily, raise it, do not fear. Say to the towns of Judah: here is your God. / Look, the Master Lord shall come in power, His arm commanding for Him. Look, His reward is with Him, His wages before Him. / Like a shepherd He minds His flock with His arm He gathers lambs, and in his lap He bears them, leads the ewes.
We are in the midst of a major transformation in the way Americans practice—or don’t practice—religion. Old paradigms are losing their relevance and sometimes disappearing altogether. Religious institutions once at the center of American life have gradually drifted to the margins. It’s not that spirituality matters less to our contemporaries—even famous “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris emphasize that they are deeply spiritual people.
Religions are like living organisms, constantly finding new ways to be meaningful by deconstructing and reconstructing practice. Religious movements can’t be understood from a distance. They must be observed in action and judged by the deeds they inspire. They can only be understood fully from the inside, on their own terms. Many people think of California as secular—even post-religious. But they are mistaken. For decades, California has been at the forefront of transformation in religion.
California Zen, the ethos of the hippies and the antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s, the first women’s studies classes—which quickly expanded across the country—the uniquely Californian evolution of transpersonal psychology at the Hutchens School of Sonoma State College: each has articulated a worldview, has urged its members to change the world and themselves, and is rooted in a spiritual connection to people and place. We might even consider plays and musicals—whether traditionally religious such as Godspell, or California-inflected such as Hair, with its proclamation of the Age of Aquarius and its naked call to “Let the sunshine in”—as part of this tradition. Film, art, and architecture could each demand their own separate studies.
I’d like to look at just four California spiritual movements and their leaders in this light: Lonnie Frisbee’s Jesus People, Michael Murphy’s Esalen, Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement, and Starhawk’s neo-paganism. Each movement reveals a central spiritual dimension, and each leader functions as a sort of prophet for his or her followers, moving out in front of the rest, casting a new vision of better ways forward, breaking out of the mold, and re-creating something new, something with religious dimensions. With all four stories as examples of California religious phenomena, the concept of religion itself begins to bend, grow, and become more interesting. By the end, religion, California-style, may emerge as a new and intriguing area of study, breaking free of old ways and challenging traditional definitions.
I write with a particular love for this topic and with no claim to neutrality or distance. As a religion scholar and fifth-generation Californian, I draw deeply from my own experiences as a participant-observer. My route through these stories is also unashamedly autobiographical: I was born in Berkeley, joined the Jesus People in high school, spent years working with Michael Murphy in research conferences at Esalen, was a colleague and friend of Mario Savio at Sonoma State University, and came to teach environmental ethics through the influence of Starhawk and other ecofeminists.
Reverend Chuck Smith founded the immensely successful Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, which, for a time, was a leading fellowship within a larger “Jesus movement” in the 1960s and 1970s. “Jesus People” (or “Jesus Freaks” as even members called themselves) were the product of a California marriage between elements of the hippy counterculture and mainline Protestantism. Calvary Chapel grew slowly at first. Chuck Smith was too straight-laced to build a movement of Jesus People by himself. He needed someone who could give testimony to the transformative power of Jesus for the lost young souls of the 1960s. He needed someone like Lonnie Frisbee. Everything about Frisbee—well, almost everything—suited him perfectly for the role: his long hair, effeminate voice, and Jesus-like appearance; his intelligence, poise, and voracious memory for scripture texts; and above all the simple sincerity of his testimony. As one biographer wrote, “Lonnie Frisbee put the ‘freak’ into ‘Jesus Freak.'”1
Lonnie Frisbee spoke as prophetically for the religious side of the hippie movement as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others sang and spoke for its secular side. The Jesus People spread from beach baptisms in Orange Country across the United States, and then overseas.
But Lonnie was John the Baptist to another major cultural development as well. In an age (and a religion) that was homophobic, Lonnie was gay. He would party with the underground gay community of Laguna Beach on Saturday nights and preach the gospel to huge crowds of Jesus People on Sunday mornings. When confronted by Chuck Smith and other Calvary leaders, he was upfront about his homosexuality. The leaders of the movement stripped him of his leadership roles and finally cut him out of the movement and its historical narrative altogether. Lonnie later died of AIDS in 1993.
Today, the Calvary Church’s website embraces Frisbee’s hippie ethic but credits it to Chuck Smith: “With a sincere concern for the lost, Pastor Chuck made room in his heart and his home for a generation of hippies and surfers; generating a movement of the Holy Spirit that spread from the West Coast to the East Coast, and now, throughout the world.”2Note the reversal of that quintessentially American doctrine, Manifest Destiny: in the California mind, the Holy Spirit spreads from West to East, not the opposite.
The advancement of gay rights in today’s California would have been unthinkable in Chuck Smith’s Calvary Church half a century ago. Lonnie Frisbee was a prophetic figure for a rainbow of sexual diversity some fifty years before his time—not only in secular but also in religious context. As it was for ancient prophets, being marginalized and ostracized was part of Frisbee’s prophetic experience. Frisbee envisioned a spiritual community to come, even if he himself never fully experienced it.
Photograph courtesy of Pam Portugal Walatka.
No part of the California landscape more aptly expresses the geography of California religion than Esalen in Big Sur. Esalen’s founder, Michael Murphy, had already become part of America’s mythology before he even reached the age of accountability, thanks to his father’s friendship with John Steinbeck. Murphy once told me that Steinbeck based the central characters in his classic American novel East of Eden on Michael and his brother, using Michael as the model for Aron, the good kid, the Abel character, of course. Michael dropped out of Stanford in the late 1950s and went to live on the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in southern India. When he inherited his father’s coastal property in Big Sur a few years later, Michael formed Esalen. Founded in 1960, Esalen quickly became a hotbed of religious innovation, meditation, drug experimentation, and theorizing about human potential—in short, all things California.3
Jeffrey Kripal’s history, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, puts the Esalen phenomenon in perspective.4In one sense, no retreat center has ever been as inwardly focused, as practiced at navel gazing as Esalen. As Michael Murphy describes it, Esalen’s history brought endless ego battles as different resident leaders sought to “capture the flag.” Esalen remains a place where the impossible happens. I have watched intellectuals transformed by psychic readings, wizened scientists accepting the laying on of hands for a disease, “psi” skeptics bending spoons, and uptight East Coast conservatives luxuriating naked in the baths. Rarely has the quest for inner enlightenment been so closely tied to sexual pleasures and psychedelically induced states of the mind.
But throughout it all, the quest—”to explore into the undiscovered country,” as Murphy put it in the documentary Supernature—remained spiritual.5 The same film also describes the goal in psychological terms: “We all have a second kind of consciousness; that subliminal self is also in touch with the cosmic reality around us.” But repeatedly, today as much as in the past, they are also drawn to use theological terms as well: “There is what Meister Eckhardt called a Divine Ground of Being underlying all reality. So everything in the world lifts up out of this Divine Ground of Being, the way waves rise up out of an ocean.”6
Esalen is about transformative experiences of body, mind, and spirit—and also about the theologies to which they give rise. For most of the half-century since Esalen opened, Murphy has had his finger on the pulse of an emerging California spirituality, which has spread, like the message of the Jesus People before him, eastward across the continent. Through Esalen, Murphy has been a prophet, even while Esalen itself, which remains a vibrant retreat center, has evolved into something of a more stable, not as surprising place, like so many once groundbreaking California institutions.
I gratefully acknowledge the knowledge and research of Elizabeth Singleton, who helped draft the section on Starhawk. My students at Claremont School of Theology, Sinnamon Wolfe and Carmen Moorhadian, located the images and arranged for permissions.
Making sense of religion in California is a daunting task. California’s religious extravagance is fascinating—Heaven’s Gate, the Crystal Cathedral, Synanon, Starhawk, Harold Camping’s end-of-world predictions, Aimee Semple McPherson, Esalen, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Grateful Dead. Everything is here, it seems, and then some.
Yet, we have to ask, does California really matter in the study of religion? Is there anything special or specific about religion in California? Is religion in California indicative of broader trends in religion? Does what happens in California pose challenges for religion? Does it present opportunities?1I’d like to offer a few suggestions as to what we might think about when we think about religion in California.
All of California is sacred space.
Ahwahneechee, Chumash, Chilula, Cupeño, Esselen, Hupa, Karok, Maidu, Miwok, Mohave, Mono, Ohlone, Patayan, Pomo, Salinan, Shasta, Wappo, and Yana are just a few of precolonial California’s 200 tribes. An estimated 300,000 indigenous peoples lived in California before European contact in the late 1700s. By 1860 that number had plummeted to 30,000, mainly due to disease.2
Given the great diversity of tribes, too many generalizations about indigenous religions shouldn’t be made. Broadly speaking, however, indigenous religions reflected relations with natural local landscapes and animals, yielding practices, rituals, cosmologies, and myths.
Morro Rock is sacred to Chumash and Salinan. The Medicine Lake Highlands near Mt. Shasta is a site of healing energy for Shasta, Wintu, Modoc, Pit River, and Karuk. Creation took place at Mt. Diablo according to the Miwok, who also consider Mt. Tamalpais sacred.
Rapidly changing social, cultural, and religious landscapes are the norm for California.
A “sacred expedition” of Spanish military and priests was charged with settling Alta California and converting Native Californians in 1769. But Spain had little real interest in colonizing California until Russian fur traders established Fort Ross near Bodega Bay in 1812. By 1833, twenty-one missions had been founded, nine of them by Franciscan Junipero Serra.3Mexico secularized California’s missions in the 1830s. The Mexican-American War eventually resulted in the 1848 surrender of California to the United States. California’s composition changed dramatically once again with the Gold Rush, its population growing 410 percent between 1850 and 1860 as people from all over the world rushed in.
The point of this abbreviated history is to note how populations and religions change dramatically in very short windows of time. California went from indigenous in 1769 to Catholic by 1833 and to predominantly Protestant by 1860.
The mix of religions in California doesn’t look the same as other states.
More than a decade ago, I began a research project that transformed my relation to California, the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, my academic career, and my life. The Pew Charitable Trusts had charged our research team with analyzing religion’s role in the civic incorporation of new migrants to the Bay Area. We quickly realized that cultural and religious diversity made California a rich field for the study of religious life.4Roughly 13 percent of the US population is foreign born, and 25 percent of foreign-born people in the United States live in California.5In 2011, 27 percent of Californians were born outside the United States—53 percent from Latin America and 37 percent from Asia.6
California’s mix of people from around the world is reflected in its religions. Forty percent of all US Buddhists live in California, as do most Hindus and most Muslims—70,000 Muslims in Los Angeles County alone. California is 28 percent Catholic, 20 percent Evangelical Protestant, and 10 percent mainline Protestant. This is in contrast to the United States as a whole, where 70 percent of Christians are Protestant.7
To study religion in California is to study the world’s religions.
Each group of new arrivals has left their religious mark on California as religious traditions, objects, and practices migrated with laborers. The Tin How temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown dates to the Gold Rush. Cameron House, a vibrant social service agency, started as a Presbyterian women’s mission to combat the indentured servitude and coerced prostitution of Chinese women. The San Francisco Buddhist Center is a Japanese Pure Land Buddhist temple founded in 1898. Stockton’s Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded in 1952 when Stockton boasted the largest Filipino population outside the Philippines. The state’s large Latino population has revitalized both California Catholicism and Pentecostalism.
The patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is present in churches, and on candles, murals, and tattoos. Lesser-known saints such as San Toribio Romo (the Mexican patron saint for immigrants) and Jesus Malverde (patron saint for drug traffickers, migrants, and the poor) live here, too. Our Lady of La Vang resides in Vietnamese Catholic Churches throughout the state. Los Angeles has twelve temples devoted to Santa Muerte, a rogue Mexican saint. Veneration of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Guanyin and the goddess Tianhou/Mazu flourishes. San Lorenzo Ruiz, the Filipino saint, can be found in churches, Catholic schools, and homes.
As goes California, so goes the nation.
California’s present is the nation’s future. Where migrants once moved to gateway cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, they now head to rural areas and smaller cities in new destination states—South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Delaware, North Dakota. Fourteen new destination states experienced a 49 percent growth in foreign-born population between 2000 and 2009, twice the national rate.8
California is a place that makes us rethink a religion’s place.
If 27 percent of California is foreign born, what is the “place” of theology and religion? Our globalized world radically changes the meaning of “place” and our experience of it. Religions transported to California change as they migrate; they are not static reflections of practices in countries of origin. Deemed transnational or diaspora, religions change as they become multi-sited.
Followers of Mazu, a goddess bound to a particular region and temple in Taiwan, demonstrate a creative response to leaving one’s place. Pilgrims from San Francisco’s Ma-tsu Temple accompany the statue of Meiguo Mazu (American Mazu) to the “mother” temple in Beigang, Taiwan. The American Mazu regularly needs her spiritual energy replenished by the mother goddess in Taiwan. The pilgrims allow her to remain a territorial goddess by returning her to her place of origin. Yet they also deterritorialize her by replacing her in San Francisco.9
People, religions, and cultures are deterritorialized and reterritorialized in California, often in unexpected ways.
Venerable Master Hsua Hua came to California in 1962 to reform, not replicate, Chinese Buddhism. Monastic training in Taiwan had shifted from large training monasteries to smaller temples resulting in lack of discipline, according to Hua. In California, he founded what eventually became known as the Dharma Realm Buddha Association, headquartered in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas monastery in Ukiah. A traditional, orthodox, and disciplined Chinese Buddhism is taught and practiced there, and most monks in residence are Chinese-speaking. English speakers are encouraged to learn Chinese. Thousands have been trained and prepared for ordination, both Asians and Westerners. The City also offers bilingual education at its elementary and secondary schools. Taiwanese students, American students, and students from around the world study in this remote section of northern California.
The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas sits on more than five hundred acres of meadows, orchards, and forests. Peacocks roam freely and streets bear names such as “Boddhi Way” and “Mindfulness Way.” In our migrant study, we concluded that the transnational activities of the City’s monks and congregants have contributed to an “altogether unique cultural and religious identity.”10The City of Ten Thousand Bhuddas is a paradoxical transnational phenomenon. The Venerable Master left Taiwan for the United States to establish a place to teach pure Chinese Buddhism. Students from Taiwan travel to northern California to prepare for a traditional Chinese Buddhist ordination. For Chinese immigrants, the City does and does not remind them of “home.”
Religious migrations can also mean political migrations.
Massive internal migration has also altered California’s religious and political landscape. During the 1930s, between 300,000 and 400,000 people from Dust Bowl states arrived in California, with a third moving to the San Joaquin Valley and half to cities.11Roughly 95 percent of the new migrants were white.
Darren Dochuk analyzed the migration of evangelical white Christians from the 1930s to the 1970s. He argued that they transformed Southern California, and led to the growth of the Christian Right.12 Primarily from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, these mostly conservative migrants established churches, schools, courted politicians, and gave birth to a politically active evangelicalism that promoted links between conservative politics and conservative evangelism. “We are at Ground Zero,” noted political scientist James L. Taylor.13
African American migration to California in the 1940s overlapped with the westward migration of Southern evangelicals. Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles had a combined African American population of 50,200 in 1930. By 1950 it was 254,120.14The first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in Los Angeles in 1872. Its membership grew with the influx of new Californians, and new churches were started. Church leaders such as Reverend Cecil Williams and Reverend Amos Brown became active in San Francisco politics. Williams became pastor of Glide Memorial Church in 1963 and was an early supporter of the Black Panthers, organizing protest rallies with other supporters like Angela Davis.
California is a border state, and religions minister across borders.
California is a border state and home to the largest volume border crossing in the world. Fifty to seventy thousand people cross legally between Tijuana and San Diego every day. Ours is also the world’s most militarized border between non-warring countries. As Senator John McCain has noted, it is the most “militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”15Over six thousand migrants have died trying to cross the border since 1998.
The border concretely symbolizes global inequality. Religious groups on both sides of the border minister to migrants in transit—providing shoes, food, and shelter; tending to battered feet; and helping organize documents. Summer 2014 witnessed an influx of Central American migrants, many of them young children. The St. Joseph Church in Fontana, in Southern California, provided food and shelter.
Religion and politics are no strangers in California.
Cesar Chavez cofounded, with Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Association (now United Farm Workers). Chavez blended religious practices with political activism, consciously modeling himself after Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi.
In September 1965, the National Farm Workers Association met in Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Delano and agreed to join Filipino grape workers in their strike against deplorable conditions, including harm created by pesticide use. Chavez organized a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, with a large banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe leading the way. He deployed religious terms like “pilgrimage” and “penance” to describe the march. Some scholars call this Chavez’s “political spirituality,” claiming la causa was a religious movement.16
Marginalized religions are not marginal in California.
In Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited, photographer Rick Nahmias collected photographs, testimonies, and texts exploring faith communities that might be considered marginal elsewhere, including a transgender gospel choir, a San Quentin Buddhist community, a deaf Mormon congregation, Cham Muslim survivors of Cambodia’s genocide, Miwok and Pomo Indians reinstated as a tribe in 2000, and a Jewish congregation of recovering addicts. Less visible does not mean marginal.
Experimental religions work wonders in experimental situations.
Religion scholar John Nelson writes that experimental religions share five characteristics: positionality (how an individual views her life in complex gender, ecological, and economic social networks); agency; negotiation with a religion; grounding religious practice in daily life; and continual reinvention.17
I was introduced to one of California’s experimental religions, Santa Muerte, known affectionately as the Bony Lady, the Skinny One, and the Powerful Lady, during fieldwork with undocumented Mexican transgender sex workers in San Francisco. Although the press sensationalizes her as a narco-saint, she is the chosen saint of marginalized peoples in Mexico and those who find themselves on the cusp of violence. A skeletal figure, she often holds a glove in one hand and a pendulum in the other. A loose robe hangs from her wrists, exposing her bony arms. A halo adorns her skeletal head. La Santa Muerte, a symbolic representation of death, draws from Catholic beliefs and practices. Santa Muerte was the chosen saint for sex workers in our study. She accepts them as they are, unlike their experience in the traditional church, and protects them.
Worship of Santa Muerte reflects characteristics of experimental religion. Santa Muerte worshippers consider themselves good Catholics. Their practices are similar to traditional rituals, prayers, and altars. Santa Muerte devotees are creating religious practice through an experimental method related to their own lives and problems, which reflects their precariousness. Santa Muerte is a saint relevant to their daily lives.
Santa Muerte “helps me in the street, to stay away from risks,” one worshipper told me. “She exists, she exists, of course; we are all going to die. Death exists and she protects me from all of the dangers around me.”18
Celebrity, consumer culture, and religion come together in California.
Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Pentecostal International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, brought Hollywood glamor to religion. McPherson was not just a religious superstar, she was a superstar period, as famous in her day as any movie star today. Large crowds flocked to her rallies and faith-healing events. Her church, Angelus Temple, held 5,300 people. Services were held three times a day, seven days a week.
The Church of Scientology has self-consciously courted celebrities since founder L. Ron Hubbard initiated Project Celebrity in 1955. Celebrity Centre International was created in Los Angeles in 1969 and has centers in major cities around the world. According to their website, they cater to “individuals upon whom society depends the most. . . the artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world.”19
Celebrity culture goes hand in hand with consumer culture. Consumer culture is not unique to California, yet the state pioneered prosperity theologies and the related theology of self-esteem promoted by the late Robert Schuller. Before its bankruptcy, the Crystal Cathedral, former home to Schuller’s ministry, was a monument to religious celebration of affluence. The cathedral’s soaring opulent glass structure forsakes Max Weber’s austere Protestantism, which encouraged capitalism through sober investing. This is brash, flashy capitalism in a religious guise.
California manufactures new deities.
Celebrity also helps launch new religious movements. Actor Andrew Keegan (Party of Five, 10 Things I Hate About You) cofounded Full Circle Venice as an “open source spiritual community center.”20Journalists Shyam Dodge and Shanrah Wakefield write, “The shift in Keegan’s ambitions—from stardom to spirituality—shows how the culture of celebrity is not all that far off from religion. Hollywood is an industry focused on manufacturing deities.”21
Keegan says of Full Circle Venice, “We have a creed. We do believe that everything is an expression of the creator and that we coming together create our own destiny, our own path.”22 Keegan and his inner circle see themselves as being “standard bearers for an updated brand of ecstatic California spirituality.”23Daniel Paul, the group’s operations managers, traces Full Circle’s spiritual lineage to the Esalen Institute, which he visited growing up. “We’re doing something that borrows from what our parents taught but also innovates in a significant way.”24
California saw nontraditional religions emerge from the 1960s counterculture and hippie subculture. By the end of the 1970s, New Age was a big tent that included a range of spiritual practices and beliefs. Difficult to define, it is a decentralized, heterogeneous spiritual movement that includes beliefs in divine energy, pantheism, auras, healing, alternative medicine, and the idea that social change requires deep psychic and consciousness change. Practices include channeling, crystals, meditation, astrology, divining (through runes, tarot cards, the I Ching), holistic healing, and music. Multiple roots or resources for New Age philosophy include Wicca, neo-paganism, Theosophy, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
New religions generate new sacred landscapes.
Mt. Shasta has become a sacred mountain and pilgrimage destination for many New Age groups. Legends exist about the mountain as one of the only homes to the Ascended Masters (enlightened beings who used to be human). St. Germain, an Ascended Master, appeared on the mountain in 1930 to a hiker, Guy Ballard. Ballard and his wife formed the I AM foundation to introduce followers to St. Germain and the teachings of other Ascended Masters. Since 1950, this foundation has held an annual pageant depicting the life of Christ, without a crucifixion.
Mt. Shasta is also believed to be home to Lemurians, beings from the lost continent of Lemuria, who live in a hidden city beneath the mountain. Lemurians occasionally emerge from the mountain and interact with humans. Numerous testimonies and stories can be found in bookstores in Mt. Shasta City, which has become a hub for New Age retreats, workshops, bookstores, healers, and pilgrimages.
Religions can go very wrong.
Thirty-nine members of Heaven’s Gate killed themselves in 1997 in Rancho Santa Fe. Founded in the early 1970s by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles (aliases “Bo and Peep” and “Do and Ti”), Heaven’s Gate mixed New Age concepts with Christianity. They believed the Earth would be “recycled,” that is destroyed, and that human bodies were mere vehicles to be shed in order to reach the “Next Level.” Applewhite convinced the group that a spacecraft trailing the comet Hale-Bopp would pick them up. Mixing phenobarbital with vodka and covering their heads with plastic bags, thirty-nine people killed themselves in order to leave their bodies and enter the spaceship.
To my knowledge, California is the only state that has been home to groups that ended in religiously motivated mass suicides. We’ve had two, including one of the largest mass suicides in modern history.
The other has alternately been called a mass suicide or mass murder. More than 900 people died in the agrarian commune “Jonestown” in Guyana in 1978, all but two from cyanide poisoning. Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ in Indiana but relocated to California in the late 1960s. During the 1970s, it was located in San Francisco’s largely African American Fillmore district. An interracial congregation, it prided itself on its progressive politics. Jones preached a Christianity that was egalitarian, emphasized social justice, and believed the church could embody a utopian socialist vision on Earth. In the early 1970s after prominent Temple members defected, the press began investigating allegations of fraud, kidnapping, beatings, and misuse of funds, Jones fled to Guyana to create an agrarian, utopian socialist community with full racial and economic equality. In the years that followed, hundreds of Temple members joined him there.
After a group calling itself “Concerned Relatives” brought media and government attention to Jonestown, claiming that all communication with the outside was cut off, an investigative team led by Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana in 1978. Several Jonestown residents asked to be taken back to San Francisco. As the group started to board two planes to return, Jonestown security guards appeared, shooting and killing five people and wounding ten more. Jones then gathered the community together, informed them that Ryan had been killed and claimed they were about to be tortured, raped, castrated, and killed by the Guyanese Defense Force; 907 people drank a cyanide-laced drink and died.
Religions can go bad without ending in mass suicide.
Charles E. Dederich started Synanon in 1958 as a drug rehabilitation program. By the 1960s it became a utopian community. Dederich allegedly coined the phrase, “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life,” which adorned millions of posters, cards, and coffee mugs from the 1960s to the present. The early iteration of Synanon fit with the 1960s hippie and New Age ethos, but soon took a darker turn. A form of group therapy, called the “Synanon Game,” involved intense and often brutal criticism, in hours-long sessions.
Synanon petitioned to become recognized as a religion in 1974, but the petition was never granted. The more religious Synanon became, the more violence increased, including the physical abuse of young people. In 1977, Dederich declared that men should get vasectomies and women, abortions. In 1978, Synanon members assaulted Phil Ritter, a man who was trying to remove his daughter from the Synanon property in Marin County, putting him in a coma for a week. Imperial Marines (Synanon’s militia) Lance Kenton and Joseph Musico placed a rattlesnake in the mailbox of Paul Morantz, an attorney who was prosecuting Synanon. Kenton and Musico received jail time; Dederich received five years of probation. Synanon closed its doors in 1991.
The University of San Francisco, where I work, generously sponsors writing retreats for faculty at the former site of Syanon, the beautiful Marcone Center overlooking Tomales Bay. As I relish the beauty, the calm, the peacefulness of writing with colleagues and friends in a lovely environment, I sometimes feel haunted as I roam the tranquil grounds.
Gender, sexuality, and religion come together.
In 1979, three men in traditional nuns’ habits appeared in San Francisco’s Castro District. The following year they were joined by twelve others, naming themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters perform street theater, organize protests, and are a charitable organization designed to combat sexual and gender intolerance. Currently, there are orders in all parts of the United States, as well as in Latin America, Australia, and Europe. The Sisters’ website proclaims, “We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency, and guilt that chain the human spirit.”25
Highlights from over thirty-five years of creative political activism include a public exorcism of Pope John Paul II in Union Square during his 1987 visit to San Francisco; Sister Vicious’s posting of demands on St. Mary’s Cathedral doors with her press-on nails (“Martin Luther would have been proud!” she said);26 and the Sisters’ Queer Army’s “holy wars” against homophobia in which pink-camouflaged army members invaded the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, to distribute condoms after being invited by students. The sisters were quickly escorted off campus by police.
Rev. Troy Perry was kicked out of his Pentecostal church due to his homosexuality. After years of struggling to reconcile his sexual orientation with his Christianity, he founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC) in 1968. From small beginnings—the first group of twelve met in a living room—the church now has at least three hundred congregations in twenty countries. Perry and MCC have challenged “clobber texts” in the Christian Bible that are used to justify gay-hating attitudes and practices. Currently, UFMCC is the largest religious group in the world serving the LGBTQ community.
I’m not claiming California is the only place with LGBTQ-friendly religious groups. It isn’t. There are branches of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Metropolitan Community Church around the world. Yet MCC, the Sisters, and other groups like the Transcendence Gospel Choir began in California.
Religion is embodied and disembodied.
Religion is an embodied phenomenon, a thing people do, in part, for and with their bodies. Meredith McGuire asks us to consider postures, ways of focusing attention, food, eating, food preparation, and healing rituals. The Ecstatic Dance movement is possibly a too obvious example of California embodied spirituality. Although originating in Hawaii, its popularity took off after Ecstatic Dance events began in Oakland in 2008. Now considered a global movement, California still has more ecstatic dance venues and events than anywhere in the world.
Paradoxically, California has been on the forefront of embodiment and disembodiment. If San Francisco has been a capital for exploration of gender, sexuality, and embodiment, Silicon Valley could be considered the center for disembodied reality. Samuel Loncar writes that the “religion of Silicon Valley” has “a more-or-less orthodox theology, and plenty of rites and institutions to keep its priestly caste employed and relevant.”27He looks to futurist Ray Kurzwell’s 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, as one piece of evidence supporting the existence of a religion of technology. Kurzewell predicts that by 2045 technological progress will be so great that humans will no longer be able to comprehend or direct it. In the process, humanity will be transformed and no longer limited by biological bodies. According to Kurzewell, “Humans will become functionally immortal as spiritual machines, no longer dependent on our embodied condition.”28Kurzewell and Peter H. Diamandis founded Singularity University in 2008 “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges. SU is committed to creating positive global impact through the billions of people who benefit from our programs and activities.”29
Nature is religious.
Manuel Vasquez asks how “our embeddedness in a particular physical landscape, a bioregion, is linked with our religious ideas, practices, and institutions” and “how do religious narratives and practices shape our lived landscapes?”30California is blessed with spectacular, extravagant nature. John Muir called Hetch Hetchy Valley a “sacred temple” prior to its damming. Numerous environmental groups and movements began in California including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Rainforest Action Network, Earth Island Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund, and more. It is no surprise that nature religions and “green” religions also found homes here.
Bron Taylor coined the term “dark green religion” to describe beliefs or ways of life that “resemble” religion, primarily considering groups and practices in North America and Europe emerging since Earth Day 1970.31The July 2008 Surfing magazine featured Taylor’s ideas in a special issue, “Nature=God It’s Official: Surfing is a Religion.” Here’s a description of surfing as “Aquatic Nature Religion” from the issue’s foreword:
From our first whitewater to our final curtain call, surfing works in mysterious ways. It can serve as a gateway to eternal life (just ask Doc Paskowitz, who will still paddle circles around you). Our daily baptism (“The only thing that washes my troubles away,” says Matt Archbold). Our confessional booth (Nothing is more honest than a 20-footer on the head). And, of course, it can serve as our sanctuary, our church and our connection to the Supreme Being itself.32
Hollywood also entertains this dark green picture. In the movie Avatar, the indigenous Na’vi of paradisiacal Pandora hold ecocentric worldviews and worship their planet as the goddess Eywa. Taylor writes, “I suspected not only that Avatar was a reflection of the global emergence of dark green religions but that it might even effectively advance such spirituality and ethics.”33
Is there anything special about religion in California? As a teenager in northern Minnesota, I fantasized about California a lot; I knew it was special. I wanted it, the mountains, the oceans, the freedom, the diversity, the tolerance, the experimenting. Did I romanticize and essentialize? You bet! But now I am a Californian, with an ongoing love/hate relationship with this place. An academic, I’m still unsure about the answers to the questions I posed at the beginning of this essay. I have concluded, however, that California matters a great deal when we think about religion.
The title of this essay was inspired by Rick Nahmias’s book Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited.
Photographs by Kevin McCollister.
1 These questions were posed to me by organizers of a 2014 conference held at University of California, Berkeley, sponsored by the California American Studies Association, UC Berkeley’s Religion, Politics, and Globalization Program, the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture Project, the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, and the Graduate Theological Union, organized by Edward Blum, Lynne Gerber, and Jason Sexton. Conference details are here: http://religionincalifornia.org/ [accessed 15 August 2015].
3 Serra was canonized 23 September 2015 by Pope Francis in a mass in Washington, D.C. The canonization remains controversial given his pivotal role colonizing California and converting native peoples, considering them “heathens.”
4 Study findings were published in Lois Ann Lorentzen, Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III, Kevin M. Chun, and Hien Duc Do, eds., Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana: Politics, Identity, and Faith in New Migrant Communities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
9 For more, see Jonathan H.X. Lee, “Creating a Transnational Community: The Empress of Heaven and Goddess of the Sea, Tianhou/Mazu, from Beigang to San Francisco,” Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana, 166–183.
10 Lorentzen, Gonzalez, Chun and Duc Do, “Preface: Advancing Theory and Method,” in Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana, viii.
16 Luis D. Leon, The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 123.
17 John K. Nelson, Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2013).
18 Quoted in Cymene Howe, Susanna Zaraysky, and Lois Ann Lorentzen, eds. “Devotional Crossings: Transgender Sex Workers, Santisimat Muerte, and Spiritual Solidarity in Guadalajara and San Francisco,” in Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana, 27.
30 Manuel Vásquez, More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 73.
31 Dark green religions, according to Taylor are ecocentric rather than anthropocentric, stress interconnectedness among human and nonhuman nature and believe in the intrinsic value of the natural world. Bron R. Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009).
32 For a broader theological account, see Robert S. Covolo, “From the Beach Boys to Surfer’s Chapel: A Theology of California Surf Culture,” in Fred Sanders and Jason S. Sexton, eds., Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Surf Culture (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 139–62.
33 Bron R. Taylor, “Prologue: Avatar as Rorschach,” Avatar and Nature Spirituality, Bron R. Taylor, ed. (Wilfred Laurier University Press: 2013), 5 [accessed 15 August 2015].
The sounds of the Grateful Dead rang out through the clear summer evening sky during another magnificent show at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheater. It was the early 1990s. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, academics, businesspeople, teachers, Gen-Xers, Boomers, old hippies, and all kinds of folks from the Bay Area mixed in the concert, and many more out in the parking lot, all having a good time or looking for one. On the minds—and tongues—of many was Purple Jesus blotter acid. Often referred to simply as “Jesus Christs” or “Purple Jesuses,” this was the LSD people wanted to trip on.
This acid was made possible by San Francisco–based art collector and printer, Mark McCloud, well known in California’s psychedelic community. The Jesus acid was personal for McCloud, a way to display his own theology in the form of something that both was and was not religion properly defined. It reflected a lifestyle. Perhaps this is what happens with ordinary and extraordinary artifacts in California, religious or not, but treated as religious in some respects, ritualized in ways that enjoy varying degrees of success and sustainability, innovation, and meaning. The art didn’t originate in California, but was reappropriated and reconstituted in California as something else. And California is where it popped, took on a life of its own, and then went out from here in a quasi-religious fashion inasmuch as acid has been taken in communities seeking to enjoy its religious benefits, inducing religious experience, and affirming religious sensibilities.
The art on the blotter paper was created by the psychedelic artist Alex Grey, whose work is familiar to West Coast artists from Venice to North Beach. At one time employed by Harvard Medical School’s anatomy department to prepare cadavers for dissection and, later, as an illustrator, Alex Grey’s fascination with the body and his new age sensibilities informed his art. They combined in his Sacred Mirrors project, which developed images of the human body that represent both physical and metaphysical anatomy, which for Grey embody deeper connection to astral bodies.
Purple Jesus by Alex Grey.
In 1976, Grey had a psychedelic vision of Christ going up in an atomic mushroom cloud towering over a burning city. Four years later he painted Nuclear Crucifixion, a 114-inch by 124-inch representation of that vision, which he later interpreted as signifying that “Christ stood for what is good in us, and that same brutality and ignorance that murdered Jesus could someday be responsible for a nuclear war.”1
More Jesus paintings followed. Part of his twenty-one image Sacred Mirrors series, Alex Grey rendered Christ (1982–1985) in oil on linen, drawing from the Gnostic Gospel tradition to depict a Yogi-like Jesus as mystical teacher.2Later, he painted the Cosmic Christ (1999–2000), a 50-inch by 102-inch oil on wood with gilded wood frame, meant to show how Christ transcends nature yet exists in every part of it together with the planet and collective story of humanity.3Grey, who was Jewish, continually came back to Jesus in his art because he saw Jesus as one of the first Western teachers to realize the truth that he was “the Word made flesh.” Grey saw in this a direct channel for the love and healing energy of God to all of humanity.4
The 20-inch by 20-inch oil on wood Purple Jesus (1987) may be the most successful of Grey’s Jesus paintings, both for its simplicity and for the popularity it achieved throughout California’s underground psychedelic community. With green, magenta, and blue droplets representing LSD transferred onto blotter paper surrounding him, Jesus hangs suspended on the cross—eyes closed, countenance resigned, bowels and skeleton in full view, bones and circulatory system visible, crucified surrounded by a flowering halo of blotter acid.
The humanity of Jesus juxtaposed with astral glory radiating from his body and shining through his heart, along with the explicit connection of Jesus to LSD and the psychedelic community, a psychedelic communion, made Purple Jesus emblematic of a particular time in California. The image came to prominence in the early 1990s when California—especially its youth—was in serious trouble, with increasing violence and a ballooning prison population jam-packed with adults and minors. The so-called “war on drugs” was at its peak.
Mark McCloud, who has been called the “father of blotter art,” was responsible for getting Grey’s Purple Jesus on blotter paper. He first saw Alex Grey’s work at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery show Retrospectacle, curated by Carlo McCormick in 1987, which celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Summer of Love. The gallery hosted psychedelic art from artists old and new, including Purple Jesus, which Grey painted for the show. McCloud paid $1,000 for the painting—more than the asking price—as a gesture of kindness and respect to Grey, and gave it to his mother, who was living in Argentina’s Patagonia region. The original painting is still there.
McCloud grew up in a Catholic family in Argentina. His father was knighted by the Pope in the Order of St. Gregory (Mark possesses the sword from the knighting ceremony). In 1966, amid ongoing political unrest in Argentina, McCloud’s parents sent him at age twelve to Webb School, a boarding school in Claremont, California. At a hotel in Santa Barbara the following summer—as the Summer of Love flowered in Haight Ashbury— McCloud took LSD for the first time with a friend. The acid-infused sugar cubes came from the Timothy Leary–associated, Laguna Beach–based Brotherhood of Eternal Love.5About his first trip, at the tender age of thirteen, McCloud has said, “I was blind, but then I could see.”
The winter after graduating from Webb, McCloud took 300 micrograms*, an ordinary dose, of Orange Sunshine LSD while a student at Santa Clara University. During this trip, McCloud fell out of a window from the seventh-floor of his dorm room. When describing it later, he said he experienced “rapture” and an ontological change, in which the “basic fabric” of his existence changed. McCloud left Santa Clara the following year, continuing his education at l’Ecole du Louvre in Paris before returning to finish his undergraduate degree and then an MFA at the University of California, Davis.
After graduation, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, worked as a curator and an artist, lecturing from time to time at Santa Clara University, and became immersed in the Bay Area art scene. A two-time recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, McCloud served on a number of boards and became a noted art collector.
After buying Purple Jesus and sending it to Argentina, McCloud turned the painting into a print. The print was reproduced on 7.5-inch-square blotter paper (a special kind of absorbent paper), which was then perforated so the paper could be torn into 900 small square tablets. McCloud printed around 3,000 sheets and distributed the perforated prints far and wide.
This yielded another San Francisco invention, in effect a new kind of communion, when an underground chemist put the LSD liquid substance (the “alchemical presence” or the “Holy Ghost,” in McCloud’s terms) on the back side of the blotter paper. The paper was then sold, broken along the perforations, and distributed for consumption. The chemist who worked with these particular sheets was arrested and sent to prison in the mid-1990s and his LSD-activated sheets became government evidence in the case.
Grey found out about this alchemical transmogrification of his art after giving a lecture in Boston in the mid-1990s, and a young attendee later showed a sheet of Purple Jesus blotter to the artist. Grey was upset at first that McCloud had transformed his art into a commercial vehicle for the delivery of a drug, but he eventually forgave McCloud. He later numbered and signed 500 copies of the blotter sheets, and included images of McCloud’s blotter sheet—one signed by Timothy Leary—in published volumes of his work.6
Purple Jesus blotter was very popular in California in the early 1990s. Jesus was not a new presence in the California psychedelic community. In fact, the community had a lengthy relationship with Jesus.7LSD played a role in the birth of Jesus Freaks.8It was at the center of the early Calvary Chapel, in which Lonnie Frisbee would sometimes carry on about Jesus and flying saucers after tripping on acid.9
Another well-known psychedelic artist, Rick Griffin became a born-again Christian in the 1970s. Having illustrated for Surfer magazine, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead, Griffin started illustrating for groups associated with Calvary Chapel. In 1973, he released his classic Surfing Jesus, and over the next seven years he worked with pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa to illustrate The Gospel of John.10
McCloud’s current collection contains a copy of Griffin’s Surfing Jesus as well as The Gospel of John. He has images on perforated blotter paper of Jesus and Judas—two of which bear markings indicating they were confiscated by the FBI at some point—and a Berkeley Bonaparte print by Griffin called “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” depicting a Jesus-looking Zig-Zag man smoking a joint while standing next to a Native American also smoking a joint. The same Indian is found in a ’66 Family Dog poster with a banner offering a prayer, “May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind.” Jesus was somewhere in Griffin’s mind even before he converted to Christianity. McCloud remarked, “If you take acid long enough, you’ve gotta’ deal with Jesus.”
McCloud’s gallery, “The Institute of Illegal Images,” boasts the largest private collection of blotter art in the world, tucked inside his Victorian home in San Francisco’s Mission District. “Illegal” is a misnomer, because the prints are no longer illegal; any LSD residue remaining on the framed blotter sheets became inactive long ago. But the collection does show the role Jesus played in the psychedelic community. The Jesus in this collection stands on the edge, in the way of danger, a Jesus of and for freaks.
McCloud sees his own role as participating intentionally in a movement, facilitating in a small, artistic way what acid could do for people. In the process of dispensing acid to Californians, McCloud developed his own liberation theology with LSD as the host. His people were trapped and looking for meaning. LSD could help them see and set them free, as it had done for him. On the perforated paper, a sheet of acid looks oddly like the “host” in many other congregational settings—like Jewish matzah or Christian communion cracker sheets. But in McCloud’s theology, it only assumes this special property when properly activated with the LSD, similar to the actualizing of the miracle in Roman Catholic theology, when a priest consecrates and gives thanks during mass, and an inert substance miraculously is transformed to become the divine host.
One gram of LSD is broken into ten thousand hosts when applied to blotter paper. McCloud calls this “the new currency.” One host equals one unit. As such he views his role, as a “Roman Catholic,” as having the duty of “bringing Jesus back to Catholics in full-fledged state, which is the honor of anybody.”
Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD, once said that “psychedelic substances are best used only with proper sacred or psychological guidance and support.” He hoped that “in the dawn of this new millennium people will use the full range of spiritual practices to help transform the worldview of our materially fixated culture.” Hofmann went on: “Such a change in values will lead us toward a greater feeling of interconnectedness with all of God’s creatures and a deeper appreciation for the infinite richness and wonder of the cosmos and the equally infinite inner realms of being.”11 He noted, “given the proper set and setting, a vast panorama of mysterious archetypal beings and highly articulated heaven realms become accessible.” In a similar vein, psychedelics have been renamed “entheogens” by scholars who consider them to be “sacraments for voyaging into the Godhead.”12
According to McCloud, art displayed on the blotter sheet, including the tiny fragment on a partitioned hit of acid, affects one’s trip. Even if the effect is subconscious, the “premise of alchemy” remains: any experiment can achieve any desired result. Bad trips happen, too, breeding fear, hellish, and sometimes demonic experiences, which have destroyed some people. I’ve strangely never heard anyone talk about having a bad trip on Purple Jesus. But “be careful with Jesus,” McCloud warns. He “came to correct an injustice.”
Here McCloud’s story takes another strange turn. In McCloud’s theology, Jesus came to correct the “mistake” of his father, God, who McCloud says was incorrectly forcing people into hell, hence the injustice. McCloud preaches this gospel as a member of the so-called Church of the Little Green Man. McCloud claims Jesus was also part of this church, which meets in New York. The Church of the Little Green Man has two requirements: trip with the brothers and sisters once a week, and turn someone on who hasn’t tripped. Here, again, McCloud sees the host returning to the people, carrying the people through a tunnel, journeying to heaven through hell. An oft-quoted phrase among the psychedelic community, and one used by McCloud is this: “If you want to soar angelic, take a pinch of psychedelic.” But, again, McCloud warns of potential danger taking LSD: “Do you want a one-on-one with your Maker?”
Duke ethicist Luke Bretherton has argued that the desire to engineer an ampliative experience may not entirely be about drugs (like LSD) at all, but perhaps a more fundamental longing for the eschaton, which people might truly feel, even if they’re only willing to pay five bucks for it, searching for the transcendent but in a banal, cheap way.13
The cost of a hit of acid may be quite discounted considering the goal—a new way of seeing the world and a new way of existence. But the dealer, still, makes the participant pay for a hit of the host in order to experience the trip. It doesn’t come free, which is the price of the living substance Jesus promises in Revelation 22:17.14The significance of Jesus’ relevance remains on display precisely at this point. When the Grateful Dead end their electrifying Shoreline show, friends go home. The trip is over. But Jesus remains, the same first century figure from the Gospels, the one identified by the church throughout the ages as the mystery of God incarnate, who has scandalized and brought hope to all kinds of people in every age in churches of all kinds throughout California and the world.
*An earlier version of this article said that Mark McCloud took 300 milligrams of LSD, instead of 300 micrograms. Thanks to Zane Kesey for bringing the error to our attention.
Photographs by Hannah Chu.
I am grateful to John Fox and Marisa Thornburg for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
1 Carlo McCormick, “Through Darkness to Light: The Art Path of Alex Grey,” in Alex Grey, Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1990), 24.
2 Alex Grey, “The Sacred Mirrors,” in op cit., 37–8, 64–5.
8 See Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10–53.
9 Ibid., 33, 73.
10 See the more recent hardcover reprint, Chuck Smith and Rick Griffin, The Gospel of John (Costa Mesa: The Word for Today, 2008).
11 Albert Hofmann, “Foreword,” in Grey, Transfigurations, vii.
12 Stephen Larsen, “Transfigurations” in Transfigurations, 39.
13 Luke Bretherton, “Consuming the Body: Contemporary Patterns of Drug Use and Theological Anthropology,” in Public Theology in Cultural Engagement, ed. Stephen R. Holmes (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 94–130.
14 “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life” (NIV).
The postcolonial cosmopolitan future of evangelism
Saturday mornings, as the sun rises over the master-planned streets of the city of Irvine, a fleet of dusty pickup trucks bearing peaches, carrots, tomatoes, bok choi, and other farm-fresh produce trundles into the parking lot of one of California’s largest evangelical megachurches.
Therein lies the future of American Christianity.
The farmers in the trucks set up stands for the Irvine Certified Farmers Market, staged weekly by the ninety-eight-year-old Orange County Farm Bureau. The market—the largest in Orange County—moved to the church in December 2014. Before then, the farmers had leased a shopping center parking lot across the street from the nearby University of California, Irvine, where for two decades well-heeled customers “in everything from burkhas to bikinis,” as market manager Trish Harrison put it, stocked up on produce grown on local farms. Harrison said the shopping center welcomed the market in the 1990s, when the city was half its present size. But the market grew and the city grew until “people were saying, ‘I can’t find a parking space, I’m going home.'” Merchants complained. The shopping center complained. “I knew we had to move,” Harrison told me.
The farmers couldn’t afford to move. “It’s a high-rent district, let’s be honest,” Harrison said. She tried the university. “So much bureaucracy.” She considered a nearby high school. Too small. Then, one day, Harrison thought of a parking lot that “looked like Disneyland.” The 2,100-seat space, tree-lined lot sloped gently from a fifty-acre landscaped campus of glass and steel buildings arranged around a lake, a stream, waterfalls, and a playground with a climbable Noah’s Ark and a smiling life-sized whale opening its mouth to swallow little Jonahs. The lot belonged to Mariners Church, one of the most influential evangelical megachurches in the United States, with more than 13,000 members, four worship centers in Orange County, and a network of global church partners in Kenya, Uganda, Congo, China, Egypt, Haiti, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Germany. Harrison checked out the lot one Saturday morning and noticed something else. “They have tons of bathrooms.. . . We [wouldn’t] have to wait to pee.”
Harrison told customers that she was thinking of calling the church. “They said, ‘You will not get an appointment with them. They will not speak to you.'” Harrison called the church. A few days later, she was touring the parking lot with senior pastor Kenton Beshore and some other staff members. “You want this lot?” they asked. “I said that would be perfect. They looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I almost fell on the floor.”
There is nothing outwardly remarkable about a farmers market in a church parking lot—not even a Southern California farmers market, with its requisite nonsectarian kaleidoscope of aging hippies, Persian soccer moms, skate punks, Vietnamese restaurateurs, immigrants in minivans, and real estate flippers in Audis. Mariners Church doesn’t profit from or proselytize at the market, although church volunteers do run a free miniature train ride for kids. What is remarkable in this scenario is the chain of events that led to Kenton Beshore’s casual “Let’s do it.” A few years ago, no one at Mariners would have seen the point of welcoming a secular institution onto its grounds. But that was before the missionaries arrived, and before Mariners, once dubbed by a Los Angeles Times reporter “the Dallas Cowboys of churches,” began modeling itself on a thriving, social-service-oriented megachurch in a middle-class neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya. The story of that unlikely transformation—which happened to prove fortuitous for Trish Harrison and her farmers—is a California story, a story of America’s immigration bellwether showing the nation’s churches a possible path forward in a rapidly secularizing nation. “God is throwing a global party, and it’s in the southern hemisphere,” Beshore told me when I asked him about the immense changes Mariners has undergone since the day eight years ago it hired a young Kenyan pastor to help with missionary work. Actually, the global party has been coming to California for years. That an evangelical megachurch noticed and decided to throw open its doors to the multitude might give the rest of America’s beleaguered Christians something to celebrate—and emulate.
By evangelical megachurch standards, Mariners is a venerable congregation. It began in 1963 as a Bible study group in a Newport Beach tract house. The study group grew, expanded to other nearby houses, and then hired a full-time pastor in 1967. The church took its name from a local elementary school where early services were held in an auditorium. The congregation was classic Orange County—white, well-to-do, informal, fond of worship services at the beach, and prayer breakfasts with the mayor and city officials. The church remained medium-sized until 1984 when Kenton Beshore, a native Southern Californian who had arrived at Mariners six years earlier as a college pastor, was promoted to lead the church. Beshore, who at the time looked and talked like the star of a 1960s surfing film, transformed Mariners into a magnet for spiritually seeking baby boomers. The church joined other notable innovators—including Saddleback Church, also in Orange County, and Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago—dubbed by a 1996 Atlantic magazine story as exemplars of an emerging “Next Church” movement. These churches, super-sized with thousands of members, had experienced spectacular growth by sweeping aside fusty church traditions to make way for up-tempo music, sleek sanctuaries, and a seven-day-a-week menu of activities and programs designed, in Beshore’s words in the Atlantic, to give people “what they want.” By the early 2000s, Mariners had more than 10,000 members and a multimillion dollar budget.
It was then that Christian Mungai, born in a village in Kenya and raised near a Nairobi slum, appeared in Mariners’ 3,400-seat worship hall as part of an African gospel group called Milele. The five-year-old group, modestly successful on the African gospel circuit, was touring American churches to sing and, in Mungai’s words, help American evangelicals “learn how to do missions” in twenty-first-century Africa. Mungai had recently returned to Nairobi after earning a divinity degree at Claremont School of Theology in California. His time in America, he said, had solidified his view that many American evangelicals’ understanding of contemporary Africa was woefully out of date. “It’s a form of neocolonialism,” he said of some Americans’ approach to missionary work. “For someone to come and think they can bring the gospel and God—previous generations of Western missionaries already did that. They did their job and raised up leaders. We don’t need people coming to do that anymore. Why not support the leaders already there?”
After their concerts, Milele’s members—Mungai and three childhood friends—sat down with host pastors and urged them to shift the focus of their church’s missionary work toward supporting African-led efforts to ameliorate the continent’s problems. The message was not well received. “It’s hard for Americans to learn from other people,” Mungai said. Mariners Church was the last venue on Milele’s 2003 tour. Given the chilly reception the group had just received at nearby Saddleback Church, Mungai said he was not surprised when Mariners’ pastors politely told him they saw no need to alter their approach.
Mungai returned to Kenya discouraged but unwilling to give up. He remained in contact with American pastors and booked more concerts, including a 2004 reappearance at Mariners recorded live for a music video. As before, Milele’s music was more warmly received than its post-concert lectures.
Then, in 2006, Mungai learned that Mariners had hired a new director of international missions, a thirty-three-year-old pastor named Matt Olthoff. Mungai emailed Olthoff to ask if he’d like to meet. Later that year, the two sat down in Olthoff’s office. To Mungai’s dismay, even this new, young pastor was uninterested in pursuing partnerships with African-led Christian social-service initiatives.
Walking out of the meeting, Mungai wondered whether he was partly to blame for his lack of success. “I went in with an agenda just like the Americans do,” he said. “I needed to lead from a place of relationship.”Impulsively, he called Olthoff back and asked to meet again—no agenda, just to get to know one another.
Olthoff, it turned out, had just gone through a divorce. “I was broken, feeling isolated,” he said. Mungai, thirty-two at the time and single, was and remains an ebullient personality, with a ready smile and a head sometimes shaved, sometimes topped with finger-sized dreadlocks. Sitting in the Mariners’ campus café, Olthoff found himself telling Mungai the story of his divorce. Mungai, in turn, shared his frustrations about American missionaries.
“Who else talks like you, about a new Africa?” Olthoff asked.
Mungai mentioned the pastor of his church, a rapidly growing Nairobi megachurch called Mavuno, which had expanded in part by encouraging its members to become what the pastor, Muriithi Wanjao, called “fearless influencers of society”—people who solve local problems by harnessing the resources of the church. Mungai said he wished more American evangelicals were willing to learn what churches like Mavuno were already doing and join them in that work. “Americans offer strategy and resources,” he said. “But Africans offer a sense of resilience. They are the most resilient people in the world. They love music and culture and dance and family and community, things that in America are breaking down.” Mungai said to Olthoff: “I can help you. Come to our church and see what we’re doing.”
A few months later, Olthoff was in Nairobi. He spent time with Mungai and met Wanjao. Taken aback by the size of Mavuno Church and the number of members who had committed themselves to social service projects, Olthoff impulsively offered Mungai a job. “I’m like, what if we brought Africa to Mariners?” he recalled. “We’re always sending people to Africa. But that person would change our church forever. I remember thinking I was new on the job and I was going, ‘I don’t know how to do African ministries. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring someone who knows the culture? Wouldn’t that make sense? Maybe this is crazy.'”
Mungai said yes. “I literally went home and cried,” he said.
Mungai started work at Mariners in November 2007 as coordinator of missions to Africa. Soon after, Muriithi Wanjao, pastor of Mavuno Church, invited Kenton Beshore and other senior Mariners leaders to visit Kenya and learn more about how Mavuno worked. A group of Mariners pastors, including Kenton Beshore and his wife, Laurie, traveled to Nairobi in early 2008. Arriving amid widespread violence following a contested election, the pastors were as struck as Olthoff had been by Mavuno’s size, rapid growth, and level of spiritual commitment. They were even more surprised when the Kenyan pastors delivered a blunt lecture about the changing power dynamics in global Christianity. “Churches in the western hemisphere are dying,” one of the pastors said. “But in the global south they are growing. Shouldn’t it be that we should be the ones sending people your way and revitalizing your churches? Your world is post-Christian. We are growing.”
Oscar Muriu, the Kenyan pastor who delivered that message, was in fact not from Mavuno, but rather was the leader of another even larger church called Nairobi Chapel, which had spun off Mavuno as one of numerous start-up congregations a few years earlier. Beshore and the other Mariners pastors realized that the megachurch they had come to visit, growing faster than their own, was just a small part of an even larger and more rapidly growing Christian network.
“Kenton felt like Oscar slapped him,” Mungai recalled. “He says to me, ‘I have never heard anything like this.'” The Mariners pastors attended raucous worship services at Mavuno. They met church members who had started a micro-finance loan network in a nearby slum. Beshore said he realized Mavuno thrived not by giving its members what they wanted, but by demanding from them a total commitment to Christian life, especially Jesus’ call to serve others. “They have things we don’t have,” Beshore told me. “They’re killing it doing what they’re doing.” At the end of the visit, Beshore invited Muriu to come to Mariners to show him how to make his church more like Mavuno. “It’s so arrogant to say we’re the best country in the world,” he said. “It’s so unattractive. And it’s not true.”
Beshore’s—and Muriu’s—assessment of global Christianity is correct. Roughly 60 percent of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of the world’s religious populations.1That share is forecast to grow to nearly three-quarters by 2050. Meanwhile, in the United States, Christianity is steadily contracting. Just two-thirds of Americans are expected to be Christian in 2050, with a quarter of the nation claiming no religious affiliation at all. Already 35 percent of Americans born after 1980 are nonreligious. The unchurched are America’s fastest growing religious demographic.2
American Christianity is changing as it shrinks. Smaller, older churches, especially those affiliated with once-dominant Protestant denominations such as the Southern Baptists and various Presbyterian groups are struggling. Catholic dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest are closing parishes and schools. Only two kinds of churches continue to grow: those that attract immigrants, such as Pentecostal congregations and Catholic parishes in the Southwest; and megachurches, whose big budgets and robust programming have drawn Christians fleeing smaller, dying congregations. Studies by Leadership Network, an evangelical research organization specializing in large churches, show that over the past decade megachurches have grown and remained financially stable even as smaller churches shrink and struggle to make their budgets.3
The trend toward consolidation has been good for megachurches but not for Christianity as a whole. Megachurches have proven adept at wooing Christians dissatisfied with traditional forms of religious expression. But like evangelicalism itself, megachurches mostly have not adapted to America’s rapidly changing demographics and cultural mores. More than four-fifths of megachurches are majority white, according to a 2011 Leadership Network study.4Hispanics and Asians—America’s fastest-growing demographic groups—are underrepresented in American evangelicalism by wide margins.5Millennials are the least likely of any age group to be Christian.6
At a time when America and Christianity are globalizing, most evangelical churches are organized to meet the needs of an older, whiter population that, in a few decades, will no longer be the American majority. “The West has the money, but the numbers are in the non-west. That’s our context,” said Ryan Bolger, professor of intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
A decade ago, Mariners Church was mostly indistinguishable from America’s other successful megachurches. The budget was big, the programming was robust, the worship services were high-tech, and the congregation was mostly white and financially well-off. Mariners differed from other megachurches in supporting a robust array of local community service initiatives both at the church and in four church-run community centers in low-income areas of Orange County. The initiatives were largely overseen by Laurie Beshore, wife of Kenton, the senior pastor. They were popular in the congregation but not central to the church’s agenda. “The irony is, my husband doesn’t have a big heart for the poor in the community,” Laurie told me. She meant Kenton’s focus at the time was on bringing people to Jesus, not solving Orange County’s economic problems.
When Oscar Muriu arrived at Mariners with several other pastors from Nairobi, he brought with him an approach to Christianity that is difficult to categorize in American terms. According to historian Philip Jenkins, who has written extensively about the global shift in Christianity’s center of gravity, African Christians combine beliefs and practices that straddle—and sometimes transcend—Western churches’ often debilitating divide between liberalism and conservatism.7
African Christians have supported repressive anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda and practiced forms of spiritual healing that, to Western observers, verge on witchcraft. But churches in Africa also have played prominent roles in struggles against colonialism, and they continue to view themselves as engines of social and economic development for their communities. The unifying thread is their wholehearted response to the Bible—to Scripture’s traditional sexual mores, its call to redeem the world, and its assumption that God is powerfully active in everyday life. That unreserved embrace of faith as a means of both personal and social liberation has contributed to explosive growth in non-Western churches.
While visiting Mariners, Oscar Muriu immediately asked why the church’s community outreach initiatives were not center-stage. “Why do you have Laurie where you have her?” he said, referring to Laurie Beshore’s social service ministry. “She should do things at an all-church level.” (Laurie now serves as a senior pastor alongside her husband.) Muriu preached at Mariners’ weekend services, telling the assembled Orange Countians what he had told Kenton Beshore in Nairobi: “There’s a global party, and the American church has not been invited.” Beshore warned the congregation to expect changes. “I want to be part of this global party,” he said. “I don’t want to be left behind.” Muriu received a standing ovation.
Change in the church world, especially at large churches, is generally slow. Churches are inherently conservative institutions, run by governing boards of longstanding members often wary of innovation. By these standards, the changes at Mariners following the arrival of Christian Mungai have been rapid and far-reaching. A year after Muriu’s first visit, Mariners implemented a spiritual development program pioneered by Mavuno Church called Mzizi, a Swahili word meaning “rooted.” For ten weeks, Mariners members met weekly in small groups to help one another discern how they were being called by God to serve their community. The goal was not simply to produce a new crop of soup kitchen volunteers. Mungai said Mariners wanted its members to “become known for their radical generosity. You give and there are no strings attached to people who never give to you or don’t have an ability to give to you. We want people to say, ‘I’m a fearless influencer of society wherever I am.'”
The church began offering no-strings-attached money and volunteers to local nonreligious service organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, a local public continuation high school, and a nonprofit called Women Helping Women that helps formerly drug-addicted or incarcerated women find jobs. Two Mariners members, one a former Muslim, formed a group to visit local mosques and forge ties with Muslims. The group helped to stage a series of forums about Islam at Mariners and at a mosque in Mission Viejo. Mariners then partnered with mosque members to feed the homeless in downtown Santa Ana. When the pastor of Templo Calvario, a Spanish-language megachurch in Santa Ana, asked Laurie Beshore if she and Kenton would consider joining a national group of evangelicals to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform, the Beshores said yes, breaking a longstanding vow Kenton had made to himself to keep Mariners out of political debates. “It’s a dangerous subject, no doubt about it,” Laurie told me. But conversations with the Kenyans had changed the Beshores’ view of advocacy work. “Our strategy is to serve, starting with the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten,” Kenton said. “In this church, there are lots of wealthy people. I tell them, ‘You need the poor more than the poor need you. You’re poor in spirit.’ People who come to this church think money and power is the solution to everything in this world. Jesus said by being willing to get down and serve, you’re transformed.”
Mungai began taking groups of Mariners members to visit Mavuno Church. Some were initially confused when Mungai told them they would not be bringing money, food, school supplies, or any of the other donation items typically offered by American evangelicals traveling to Africa. “I had to say, ‘This is not just what you’re going to do. You have to ask what is God going to do in you?'” The Mariners visitors attended services at Mavuno, learned how the church worked, and met laypeople who had started successful community service initiatives. Bob Drobish, a technology startup CEO and member of Mariners’ board of elders, recalled his surprise meeting Daisy Waimiri, a Mavuno member and mother of three who had started a thriving community-based micro-loan program in Kibera, Nairobi’s—and Africa’s—largest urban slum.
“Isn’t she a force of nature?” Drobish said of Waimiri. The loan program, called Maono (“Vision”), grouped local businesspeople—hairdressers, coal sellers, sweepers—into accountability groups who borrowed and repaid collective loans together. Waimiri said she conceived of the program after attending Mavuno’s Mzizi classes. “My church has this thing. . . they take you through trainings, and at the end they expect you to go to the community and do something,” she told me via Skype. Waimiri’s first investor was her husband. When she met Drobish, she told him she needed more investors to expand the initiative. Five years later, with help from Drobish and other Mariners’ members, Maono has loaned roughly $100,000 to more than one thousand businesspeople in Kibera. “They haven’t imposed anything on us,” Waimiri said of her Mariners partners. “They don’t tell us what to do. Even when they give the money they say, ‘You’re on the ground, you know better.’ Which is very rare with Western donors.”
Robyn Williams, a forty-three-year-old former corporate publicist who attended Mariners as a child, said she remembered returning to the church after college in the 1990s and thinking, “Everyone here drives a Mercedes. . . they’re not really doing much for the poor.” Williams was one of thousands of Mariners members who signed up for the Rooted spiritual development program, inspired by Mavuno Church’s Mzizi program. In her Rooted meetings in 2011, Williams began “exploring what has God created me to do and how am I going to make an impact on other people’s lives in the community?” She joined Christian Mungai on one of his trips to Nairobi, where she met a Mavuno member named Ken Oloo, a marketing executive who had helped children living in Kibera earn money as videographers by supplying cameras and teaching the children how to use them. Suddenly, Williams said, her work for a mid-sized Orange County public relations company seemed disconnected from social justice by comparison.
Returning home from the Nairobi trip, Williams began looking for a new job. Through a banking client, she met the CEO of Women Helping Women. A few months later, Williams was hired as the nonprofit’s program director, working longer hours for less money but feeling “at the end of the day, what brings me the most joy and reward is that I’m making a difference and helping someone else become who God created them to be.” She has returned several times to Nairobi, where she says she now hopes one day to start an equivalent of Women Helping Women. Earlier this year, Williams was in the Women Helping Women booth at a clinic in Anaheim where mostly Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq were offered free medical care and job assistance. The clinic was a partnership between Mariners and an Anaheim Arabic-language church. “My friends tease me and say I’m half Kenyan,” Williams said. “What’s exciting is, it’s not just happening in Nairobi. It’s happening in Newport Beach.”
Encouraged by the results of exchanges between Mariners and Mavuno, Mungai sought out other international church partners. Those partnerships—now with nine churches on three continents—are not structured like traditional missionary relationships. Mariners’ members visit partner churches and help with local service initiatives. But the partner churches also send members to Mariners. A residency program Mungai started two years ago invites pastors of partner churches to live and work at Mariners for one year, mostly for the purpose of broadening Mariners’ international perspective. It was one of those visiting clergy residents, a Mexican pastor named Daniel Nuñez from a church near Tijuana, who happened to remark one day last year, “I can’t believe the grass at Mariners is always so green.”
Puzzled, Mungai asked what Nuñez meant.
Nuñez said that in Mexico, no church lawn stays green for long because it is always being trampled by “people playing, eating, and doing community.”
Mungai gazed with embarrassment at Mariners’ immaculately landscaped grounds. “What he was saying is that to have green grass means it’s not being used,” Mungai said, “Whereas to us it means beauty. It’s a totally different mindset. We realized we have to use our campus for community.”
Not long after that exchange, Trish Harrison from the Irvine farmers market called looking for a parking lot.
Mariners has lost some members since it began its Nairobi-inspired transformation. Volunteers have left the missionary program because “they’ve resisted working alongside African leaders. They want to be the leaders,” Mungai told me. Kenton Beshore said “a few hundred people” walked out of the church when an evangelical immigration-reform activist was invited to preach. Three years ago, when Beshore and other Mariners pastors joined the national evangelical immigration-reform movement, enough Mariners members withdrew financial pledges that the church ended the year with a $500,000 budget shortfall.
And yet, the changes continued. Today, bolstered by new members offsetting the departures, Mariners is larger and more ethnically diverse than it was a decade ago. (The church does not track the ethnic identity of members. Pastors I spoke to estimated the church’s nonwhite population at anywhere from 20 percent to 35 percent of the congregation.) Church staff members speak Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Swahili. Mariners remains a leading partner in the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national coalition of evangelical churches and para-church organizations advocating comprehensive immigration reform. “We got crazy tight Republicans to change their views,” Beshore told me. While volunteering at Mariners’ outreach centers, “They get involved with kids and the kids grow up and their parents get deported and they say, ‘This isn’t right.’ They’ve had a change in their world view.”
It is a change that could happen anywhere in America but was most likely to happen in California. Orange County today, like neighboring Los Angeles and California’s other major immigrant landing zones, is a spiritual gazetteer, one of the most religiously diverse places on Earth. The county is home to one of America’s fastest growing Catholic dioceses, where three-quarters of parishes celebrate at least one mass in a language other than English; one of the nation’s largest mosques; Buddhist temples and a Buddhist university; Korean- and Spanish-language megachurches; and a predominantly Asian megachurch, called NewSong in Irvine, started by a half-Korean pastor who envisioned a Christian community that transcended race entirely. The ideas brought by Mungai and his mentors from Nairobi felt revolutionary when they arrived. But, really, they were inevitable. What historian Philip Jenkins calls the “Next Christendom” has been taking shape in Orange County for years. The Kenyans simply helped the rich, white Christians at Mariners Church wake up to their new demographic reality.
Now it is Mariners’ turn to help. Three times each year, the church hosts a conference teaching other congregations how to implement their own Mzizi spiritual development programs. To date, roughly fifty churches, some from Southern California, others from as far away as Wyoming, have attended the conference. Mariners’ partner churches abroad also have adopted Mzizi programs. Last year, inspired by Mariners’ example, Concordia University, a conservative Lutheran college in Irvine, began hosting annual gatherings of international clergy and scholars to teach students how to minister in a globalizing America. Christian Mungai, Pastor Wanjau from Mavuno Church, and historian Philip Jenkins headlined the inaugural gathering. This year, speakers included the director of research for the Southern Baptist Convention, the pastor of one of Orange County’s largest African American churches and the director of faith formation for the Catholic Diocese of Orange.
“Our engagement with the global south has taught us that we don’t have all the answers, that there’s much to be offered by the rest of the world,” Mungai said. “It’s not from west to east. It’s from everywhere to everywhere.. . . The vision for the church starts with the vision of a lost world, and the church is not for the church but for the world.. . . The Kenyan way of looking at discipleship is a lifelong process. It’s not a few weeks and you’re done. It’s a whole life transformation.”
Photographs by Matt Gush.
1 Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050,” 2 April 2015.
2 Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 12 May 2015.
3 Warren Bird and Scott Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States,” Leadership Network, 2011; Warren Bird, “The Economic Outlook of Very Large Churches: Trends Driving the Budgets and Staffing Activities of North America’s Biggest Congregations,” Leadership Network, 2013.
4 Bird and Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches,” 7.
5 America’s evangelical population is 76 percent white, 6 percent black, 2 percent Asian, and 11 percent Hispanic (Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 52). By comparison, according to the U.S. Census, the United States as a whole is 62 percent white, 13 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 17 percent Hispanic.
6 Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 70.
7 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), especially chapters 1 and 2.
“Getting Religion,” the winter 2015 issue of Boom: A Journal of California, features three articles on Muslims in California, their diverse backgrounds, daily lives, education, religious beliefs, and practices. The print edition will be out over the holidays. We offer this triptych to our readers in advance online as a contribution to deepening our understanding of each other in the midst of a powerfully important, sometimes troubling, and moving conversation in our state, our nation, and our world.
‘‘Really?’’ Khadija, an elderly Muslim woman in Los Angeles, looked up at us when she heard that California may have more Muslims than any other American state. We were interviewing Khadija for a research project documenting American Muslims’ experiences of shari’a—roughly translated as ‘‘Islamic law.’’ Unconvinced, she probed, ‘‘Even more Muslims than in Michigan?’’ We nodded in reply. Khadija paused, her eyes relaxed, and her lips parted to reveal a smile.
If the American Muslim community has a tendency to isolate itself, to retreat from the rest of American society, Zaytuna College is where that insularity comes to die. At the only accredited Muslim college in the United States, students spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be American.
One Friday my Christian girlfriend joined me for prayers at the mosque and asked me why she found a watering can in her bathroom stall. The Prophet Muhammed instructed us to clean our anuses with water, I told her. To me, growing up around Muslim families in Southern California, a watering can evoke a bidet, not plants. The conversation led me to consider all those objects that I, and other Muslims in California, have repurposed for shari’a—which literally means ‘‘the path to water’’ (although is usually translated as ‘‘Islamic Law’’).
“Getting Religion,” the winter 2015 issue of Boom: A Journal of California, is guest edited by Jason S. Sexton, a lecturer in the honors program of California State University, Fullerton, and a visiting fellow at University of California, Riverside’s Center for Ideas and Society.