Part two of a five-part series
I spent Sunday morning worrying more about the color of my aura than what outfit to wear to church. If my body projected a white aura—one of suppression and skepticism—then the mediums of The Lily Dale Spiritualist Church would expose me instantly. To the theme of my paranoid nightmares, I’d be subdued, stripped, harvested for sacrificial organs, and fed to their conjured werewolves. Or perhaps they’d dangle me from a tree for spell-casting target practice.
I decided to wear my second-best button-up shirt, so my family would have something nice to bury me in. Since I’m not spiritually attuned enough to see, or suppress, my own aura, going in stylized comfort would have to do. Maybe feeling good about how I looked would displace my spiritual mood ring enough to go unnoticed.
“It’s church,” said John. “Who doesn’t dress up for church?”
To my fortune, my co-adventurer, John McGrath, decided to go with a button-up shirt and dress pants as well. John’s political interests and Massachusetts upbringing gives him a rather frank manner. With our similar outfits, his loud mouth, and his comparatively huskier build, he’d be targeted first for spiritual wrath.
After suiting up, and recording my final confessions, John and I headed to Lily Dale for the Sunday morning service.
The church had a completely white paint job—insane-asylum white. Four white pillars held up the one-story building’s white porch, which covered the church’s only entrance and exit of two white centennial-style doors. The roof and side paneling carried the white tradition, matching the white-posted announcement box. The patches of white snow piled in the dormant gardens didn’t hurt the hyper-pristine visage either.
The message board’s announcements looked innocent enough. Thursday held a medium’s instructional course, along with a meditation class the following Friday. Of course, that could have meant “Demon Summoning 101” with Friday’s course of “Attempting Sanity 102.”
Fifteen minutes early, throat clenched, and aura (probably) a milky tone, I watched John enter the church. A few scream-free seconds passed and I inched in after him.
Flowers, flowers, everywhere, but not a hex to shrink.
An extravagant preaching pulpit covered in all manner of pink, white, and yellow flowers opposed the entrance. The rest of the church looked like some Bravo TV executives redecorated an oversized two-car garage. Behind the pulpit a violet banner cried the church’s name in gold embroidery. Psychedelically swirled stained-glass windows dotted the North and South walls, carrying no angels, demons, or symbols at all. Simple nature paintings hung on the spaces between the windows, adding character to the eggshell walls.
An old woman rose from the sea of folding chairs. She wore her steel-gray hair high to match the volume of her Easter-yellow suit. Her horn-rimmed glasses gripped to her sloping nose, staying firm to her face as she approached with an all-too-comforting grace.
She opened her mouth. I braced for impact.
“Hello, I’m Reverend Sharon. How can I help you?”
A trick. It had to be a trick. If we let our guards down for a second she’d magic the church’s flowers into a version of The Little Shop of Horrors. I clenched my cheeks, put on a smile, and gave our introductions. Sharon smiled in return and gave us a tour of the church.
No death yet.
Casually Sharon introduced each painting and plaque along the walls, taking great pride in the attribution. And attribution seemed to be more important than the actual work. Over the abundant fellowship and literature tables in the back hung two large boards, rowed and lined with people’s names engraved on small metal plates.
“Over here is the testament to the living,” said Sharon. “Residents buy a place on the plaque so they’ll never be forgotten when they cross over. They’re always with us anyways, but it’s nice to have your name up, too.”
Many older women like Sharon started to leak in. The spiritual big-wigs—wig being an appropriate term for some of the ladies. They were confident, brightly garbed women whose dated sense of fashion connected with their distant manner. Their control over themselves and those around them could be tasted like the comforting scent of aromatic candles, which hung heavily with incense in the church’s air.
The remainder of the church’s body was…surprisingly normal. A single mother and her 12-year-old son came in first, both perfectly trimmed and proper in manner. A young goateed man followed, sporting a white hoodie and khaki cargo shorts. A few other middle-aged couples dotted the crowd, and the husbands to the women of plumage brought up the rear.
John and I grabbed a thick blue-covered hymn book and took our seats towards the back.
“The spirit healing is up first,” said John. “You going to get your spirit healed?”
Hopefully nothing would constitute the need for spirit healing. The church’s members seemed too happy, too at ease. And worst of all nobody did anything strange or suspicious. The regular members chatted amongst themselves with the occasional peel of laughter.
The service began and, somehow, my second-best shirt remained bloodstain free.
With all the female authority, it surprised me to see two men leading the healing session. I expected flowing robes, glowing crystals, and Latin chants. The reality: two casually dressed, middle-aged men placing their hands on whoever wanted to be healed. Volunteers sat on a small stools and closed their eyes, remaining perfectly still as the healer went to work.
Though, “work” is a generous label. Healer One looked straight out of a Ron Jeremy look-alike contest, and he’d only close his eyes and grip the patient’s shoulders for five to ten minutes. Healer Two, a pear-shaped fellow, took Ron’s shoulder-grab method and applied it to the patient’s hands, thighs, back, and temples as well.
Somehow the patient and healer knew just when the session concluded. The healer would go to a small bowl of water, rinse his hands, and wait for the next person to come and sit at his station. Meanwhile the other worshipers continued to chat as they did before, paying no attention to the proceedings until Ron and Pear-man sat down.
“That’s it?” said John.
No glowing. No tribal chants for healing. Just two older men giving whoever came up a pseudo massage.
Rev. Sharon approached the pulpit, backed by a jolly, sweat-suit wearing, organist playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Sharon, and guest speaker Gretchen Clark, didn’t preach from a book. No doctrine dictated their service—a fact proudly proclaimed by both speakers. Both Gretchen and Sharon taught that day’s lesson of patience and perseverance through personal experience. The reverend spoke on how she needs both in her daily crafting projects. Gretchen recited a tale of persistently and patiently praying for healing after being fatally injured. She claimed her faith in the spirit repaired irreparable spinal damage.
So, these spell-slingers preach healing and life lessons? Where the hell were the wands? The incantations? Why weren’t John and I turned into toads?
For a flock of assumed-to-be witches they certainly invoked God’s name a lot. Some worshipers used The Divine Intelligence instead, but the monotheistic-spirit-of-forgiveness theme remained the same.
Healing Director Terry Mayer approached the pulpit and settled the matter.
“We are a religion of healing and communication,” said Terry. “Through God, and our ancestors in the spirit realm, we’ve created the most accepting and progressive religion in the world.”
And just before the service “progressed” to the end, the public spirit reading began. The church’s organ, which bellowed through “Climb Every Mountain,” fell to silence. The organist hobbled to her feet, stretching her arm out and over the audience as if searching.
“The spirit tells me to address you,” said the Organist, “the young man in the blue.”
John blinked in surprise and looked down at his navy blue top in disbelief. I readied my audio recorder—scared but prepared to capture the moment the incantations and cries for mercy began.
“The spirit tells me there’s a woman in your life—a relative—and she’s having trouble around here,” said the Organist. John nodded as he watched her identify the trouble area. She circled her quivering hand around her stomach, and continued.
“The spirit wants you to tell her to get help immediately. Do you understand?” said the Organist.
“Y-yes.” said John.
“I’ll leave that with you and say God Bless.”
After one more reading and another song, the service ended with Reverend Sharon blessing the audience and wishing everyone a wonderful day. Terry and a few of the colorful women flocked to the back tables, unwrapping and organizing trays of cookies and brownies.
“C’mon over and have something to snack on,” said Terry.
I didn’t want snacks. I didn’t want a nice cup of hazelnut coffee or one of the delicious looking triple-fudge brownies. I wanted an explanation. I turned to John, hoping the spirits that warned him about his relative had possessed and destroyed his soul.
“Y’know it’s funny,” said John. “My aunt has some problems down there. I was going to tell her to get help anyways, but still…”
Those peace-loving Spiritualists weren’t playing along. The stereotypes I grew up with in a conservative Christian church explicitly stated these devil worshipers destroy the minds of man. Could their cheer be a ruse? Does the façade remain until we’re hooked enough to manipulate into a demonic ritual?
After a few cookies, and some decent conversation about The Simpsons with some of the older members, John and I headed out for the parking lot. A curmudgeonly old man with more hair poking from his nose and ears than his scalp stopped us outside the door. Despite his grizzled face and hunched stance the old man offered a polite front.
“I’m George Mayer. Terry’s husband.” said George. “I wanted to thank you two for coming today.”
We made small talk about the community. George told us that a couple-hundred residents stay at Lily Dale off-season, and there a few hundred more who live here during the on-season—attending to the thousands of visitors.
“If there’s a few hundred still here…why aren’t more at church?”
George stiffened and let the codgerly nature show.
“They’re at The Church of the Living Spirit,” said George. “…they’re nothing but bunch of pagan heathens who serve Satan.”
I uttered a playful laugh to match the light mood within the church, but George wouldn’t have it. He stared glaciers upon ice ages at us, remaining righteous and defiant in his accusations.
John and I exited the angry scene with another uneasy laugh and a swift farewell. If the bastion of Spiritualism’s premier church condemned a fellow church, then there must be something seriously wrong with the other church.
I wore my second-nicest shirt for no reason. Nobody at The Lily Dale Spiritualist Church read my aura or fed on my spirit energy. A bunch of happy-go-lucky companions inhabited the church. Each teaching life lessons through stories, believing together that they can talk to the dead, and loving baked goods.
But The Church of the Living Spirit…
Hopefully I could learn to suppress my aura before attending their service.
Jared VanDyke is a freelance writer and graduate of St. Bonaventure University’s Journalism and Mass Communication program. He is attending Goddard College for an MFA in Creative Writing, in June of 2010, to strengthen his preferred writing style of New Journalism.