American Culture

Lily Dale: A spiritualist by any other name…

By Jared VanDyke

Part three in a five-part series

“(The Church of the Living Spirit is) nothing but bunch of pagan heathens who serve Satan.” — George Mayer, Lily Dale Spiritualist Church attendee

I decided not to bring John this time. Since our first trips to Lily Dale I’ve contacted dead relatives, survived entering a spiritualist’s home, and learned to suppress my aura. Even with the fear of exposure subdued, it seemed extreme to bring a sacrificial target. And blending into the ‘pagan heathen’ church would reap more answers than agitating the mass.

My selection for a replacement traded class for subtlety. Joseph Anderson stepped from the car wearing rip-off Adidas gym pants, a waffle-knit sweater, and a pair of cheap lounge loafers with no socks to speak of. It’s the best I could have hoped for from a guy with only two priorities: working out and blacking out. Finding a friend willing to waltz into a Satanic church proved difficult.

“Hey, this sweater is much better than a polo, or whatever you’re wearing,” said Joe. “I’m comfortable and I’m gonna stay that way. Don’t expect me to sing or dance, or whatever. I’m just your ride.”

Rain slicked my hair as I took in the scenery. The Church of the Living Spirit looked like a southern plantation. A wide wrapping porch encompassed the first floor with an identical, but shorter, porch encasing the second. A wooden stopper held open the doubled entrance doors for sprinting attendees. And, fitting to every spiritual institute at Lily Dale, an all-too-white paint job covered every inch of the building.

A crowd full of friendly faces scurried towards the church’s door. Nuclear families huddled under shared umbrellas, aging couples strolled in bliss, and the scream of a baby rang among the pitter patter of raindrops. Besides the child, most of the crowd offered polite hellos and welcoming smiles as we passed by.

“Are you sure we have the right place?” asked Joe.

I checked my map four and twenty times. Joe and I found the right place: The Church of the Living Spirit.

It must be family morning in the hell hole.

I couldn’t expect anything else but hell. When you’re lied to your entire life, believing a small offshoot of Lily Dale residents sacrifice chickens isn’t a stretch. Even with the stereotypes aside, when a seasoned member of a strange community tells you this gathering worships Satan…you expect a little more than family fun day.

Disenchanted but curious, we waded through the crowd towards the church—most members still standing in the rain to catch up with each other. A well-dressed usher offered a welcome, presented us with a hymn book, and seated us as esteemed guests.

Flowers, flowers, everywhere and not a…wait a minute.

I saw this before. Flowers consumed the main alter, community paintings hung on the walls, the stained-glass windows carried psychedelic swirls, and the church even used the same black-metal chairs. The Church of the Living Spirit looked, and felt, the exact same as the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church.

We sat in a crowd three times the size of the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church. And even though the LDSC boasted diversity, the attendees at this pagan-heathen hoopla covered more of a range. A biker in full leather sat in contentment, two or three homeless men and women clung to their chairs with dull smiles, and children, from the smallest baby to the most angst-ridden teen, waited in patience for the service to start. There wasn’t a brightly plumed flock of women controlling the mass, just a regular crew of normal looking people in need of spiritual fulfillment.

There’s no Satan in this church.

Maybe I haven’t been trained to see him properly.

Trained or not, why would George lie to me? What has him so addled that he’d badmouth another church of the same belief as his?

“Welcome spirits, new and old,” said Reverend Judith Rochester. “And welcome newcomers and members to the Church of the Living Spirit.”

Both churches, in service and guidelines, claim to be part of the most open and accepting religion around.

Are they sure?

* * * * *

I asked the leaders of the Lily Dale Spiritualist church why two churches existed for one community. Lily Dale’s off-season and on-season populations tally at roughly 300 and 600, respectively—not counting the thousands of visitors. Even with the on-season’s swell, two churches might not be necessary…especially with the six-figure revenues the little community generates.

“Technically,” said Reverend Sharon. “(The Lily Dale Spiritualist Church) is the only Spiritualist church in Lily Dale.”

The difference being certification. The Church of the Living Spirit lacks the blessing, and paperwork validation, of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, as of 2008. The NSAC is a modern Spiritualist powerhouse that regulates over 5,000 professionals of the spirit world, and 200-plus churches. Since 1893 the NSAC has been fostering the growth of modern Spiritualism, and the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church wears their certification like a kindergartener wears a gold star.

So, why doesn’t the Church of the Living Spirit just get their plaque and be done with it?

“Well,” said George. “They’re nothing but a bunch of pagan-”

Having heard that argument, I addressed George’s wife instead. Terry Mayer, a distracted gray beauty of purple suit and perpetual smile, led the healing session when I attended the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church.

“Our beliefs differ,” said Terry. “(The Church of the Living Spirit) believes in different things—like reincarnation.”

With one of the area’s first NSAC offices right in Lily Dale, the structures the association sets for Modern Spiritualist churches are tight. The NSAC expects Spiritualist churches to keep their all-accepting belief close to Christian traditions. They turn gospel favorites like “Amazing Grace” into prayers for healing. The single divine being they worship is called the “Infinite Intelligence,” or God depending on the practitioner. Even the stand-up-sit-down nature of Catholic churches, and the over-physical healing sessions of Evangelical churches, is felt in NSAC services.

But, the Church of the Living Spirit just had to borrow a Buddhist prayer, some reincarnation ideas, and some cosmic balance philosophy. They just had to go and add a few more beliefs to the cauldron of originality and acceptance.

“The Spirit is progressive. It grows,” said Sharon. “To say we start over (reincarnate) contradicts the idea of a spirit realm.”

Who’d be in the spirit realm if nobody stayed there? I suppose that could be bad for business. If mediumship is real, then they wouldn’t be able to find much in the spirit realm if people keep spending 1-Ups.

“We welcome (The Church of the Living Spirit) in our summer activities,” said Sharon. “They’re still a part of this community.”

But, as George reminded me, they’re still heathens. Heathens who attract part of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Lily Dale generates to sustain its community members, but heathens nonetheless.

Even “the world’s most accepting religion,” as Terry said, can make room for a cash-drawing bastardization of their ghost-centered beliefs.

* * * * *

“Think I should go get healed,” said Joe.

And Joe took his own dare when the healing portion of the service came about. A large Texas-looking fellow sat Joe down, placed his hands all over his body, and said a short prayer. Once again, no glowing occurred or divine chorus of healing played, but the healer accomplished a greater feat. The four minutes of spiritual healing turned the stiff and uncomfortable non-believer into a considerably relaxed non-believer.

“Not sure if anything worked, but I feel relaxed,” said Joe. “They put so much belief in (spirit healing) working that you have to believe it yourself, I guess.”

Despite his new-found relaxation, Joe remained attentive. Past the healing session, the service mirrored the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church. Private healing led to a public healing session. A guest speaker, Jim Barnum, preached a message of hope—not too different than Gretchen Clark’s message of patience and persistence.

Gretchen attended the Church of the Living Spirit that day. She sat with the patience she taught, wearing a warm smile and a violet aura of spiritual enlightenment—if my auric sight training served me correctly. No other attendee seemed to notice or care. Gretchen did not receive a single glance or hateful gasp for attending the other church. She just sat. Cheerful and attentive.

Jim Barnum called on Gretchen during the public reading.

“I’m getting something about a man,” said Jim. “And he has something about his throat. Like he needed to say something outside the spirit, but couldn’t.”

Gretchen stiffened and nodded in anticipation.

“Wow. Well, I’m going to say it like this,” said Jim. “You know his message and he wants you to carry it out for him. Understand?”

Gretchen replied with a soft series of happy sobs and confirming nods. The audience turned and reflected her joy with smiles for miles. Nearby congregation members placed assuring hands on Gretchen’s shoulders.

“I’ll leave that with you and say God Bless,” said Jim.

God Bless. You could feel God…the Infinite Intelligence…or whatever you want to call it…in their assembly.

The following readings fell flat, but the audience kept good humor. Though some of the workshops Reverend Rochester announced—like “An Evening with the Elementals”—sounded too high fantasy for my taste, the spirit remained strong.

“(Spiritualism) is a religion of being a good person,” said Joe. “It’s kinda weird that they talk to dead people, and that they borrow a lot from other religions, but everything else is right. I’d come here if I were raised different.”

What of a religion or a church? Does one need certification from a nationally recognized organization to spread peace, hope, and love? Does a strict doctrine, tested against centuries of manipulation and warfare, have to back your messages for any inspiration to be credible?

Joe and I entered the church as honored guests and left as friends. My hulkish associate found peace from the stresses of his party lifestyle. I found a renewed hope in seeing a widely misunderstood group rise and prosper. We didn’t believe in talking to the dead, but we still managed to find a place in their service—all thanks to a warm congregation, a simple yet potent message, and an open mind.

The Church of the Living Spirit lived up to its name by fulfilling a pair of skeptics with ease. They satisfied their roll as a place of worship and enlightenment—as churches strive to be.

Acts prove a service’s faith, and not certification.

Just as anything’s worth is proven by experience, and not assumption.


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.

11 replies »

  1. two or three homeless men and women clung to their chairs with dull smiles

    Really? How do you know they were homeless? I don’t know of any homeless people attending our church. Did they come with you? Again, why the negativity? Why the need to give us a few shots before making nice? If anyone ever needed to come here and stay awhile, it’s you.
    We are an independent Spiritualist church. We do not forbid the belief in reincarnation. We have nothing against the NSAC, we all believe in God and the communication with those whose spirit has moved on.

  2. One of the things I like about Jared’s series so far is that he’s not afraid to challenge his own assumptions and stereotypes. That he’s a little ferocious in the way he articulates them might come across as negative, but honestly, I don’t know that he’s any more cynical than anyone else of his generation. He just has a better ability to articulate that cynicism. The fact that he ends up changing his perspective by the end of each experience, and learning something about the community and about himself, is pretty interesting to me–and I think gutsy on his part to admit he was wrong in his initial assumptions. A lot of people would gloss over that.

  3. The writer stated we had homeless people in our church. Not nuanced, not implied. Stated. I don’t care if we had or have homeless people in our church, the fact is, we didn’t that day. So, is the reader supposed to be smart enough to realize a statement (not an assumption) presented as factual isn’t factual at all? If so, color my ass dumb.

  4. I wonder if Jared VanDyke will ever see my note here, but in all my life, I’ve never been called “a distracted, gray beauty with a perpetual smile.” I’m not gray yet, but thanks for the beauty part!!! Tourism helps Lily Dale to survive and does not bring about a “bastaradization of our ghost-centered beliefes”. Ghost-centered? I came to Spiritualism for healing – nothing to do with ghosts – and I’ve received it. Our religion is about so much more than just readings with mediums. We try to live by the Golden Rule, helping one another, giving comfort to those whose loved ones have passed on, and most especially about healing, which works. I wish Jared had come in with an open mind, and not carried pre-conceived ideas about a place he’d never been to before. I hope that he gets a chance to see this feedback.

  5. I found Jared’s approach hostile and rather presumptuous, even if he may have ended up in the right place by the end. But the reader could fail to reach that end, and be stuck believing his initial comments and point of view, which is certainly a disservice to Lily Dale as well as the reader. If this is his attempt at “new journalism”, whatever that is (I’m but an old journalist), it needs work. At the very least he should check his spelling. The Church of the Living Spirit does not serve bread products to my knowledge, so “rolls” are not involved. The role of spell check may be.

  6. I too practice Spiritualism, although I don’t like to put a label on my faith. I attend a NSAC accredited congregation as well. I want all of you to go back to the day when you started your spiritual journey. Where was your mind at? Were you depresesed, alone, lost, confused, happy, joyous, scared, content? What thoughts or beliefs did you have the day you made the choice to change or expand your mind? The very first day I attended a Spiritualist church I had no idea what to expect. I had stereotypical senarios running through my head and tons of preconceived notions. As soon as I stepped foot in that church though I knew that I was someplace special and I could feel my mind opening up like a blossoming flower. Can you really tell me that not one of you had that same experience, that you didn’t have one closed-minded thought about Spiritualism before entering that church, just like Jared? I mean he was entering a church that talked to spirits, and we can all admit how weird that sounds to someone who doesn’t experience it weekly. Instead of attacking Jared, we should be thanking God for sending inquisitive minds into Spiritualist churches like ours. It allows us to get a different perspective on the whole experience, and with new perspectives comes new understanding. I know you would all cringe if you knew that you had discouraged a courageous man from admitting that he had doubts about something. We all of doubts about something, whether it be faith or who we should root for in the next Superbowl. Show Jared the same acceptance we feel within our churches, and the same acceptance we feel through God’s love. Much love to all.

  7. It is not unusual to read what from one less enlightened. One hundred sixty-eight years have gone by since the founding of Modern Spiritualism in March l848. The pioneers dream was for Spiritualism to be the Light of the World. And all this time, it has met with hard criticism for those who choose not to find out what the Science, Philosophy and Religion of Spiritualism is all about.
    I would like Mr. VanDyke and others to know that Lily Dale (as well as Camps throughout the U.S.) and the Spiritualist Churches would be considered Pagan by Christians who coined that term for anyone who did not believe ‘their’ way. Spiritualism is not Christian. It is a bona fide religion registered in Washingon, D.C. in 1893. Its practice reveal that termed God by others is termed Infinite Intelligence being far beyond a comprehension of an anthropomorphic being. Its Science studies the unseen and the ability for a person to demonstrate Mediumship — NOT talking to the dead. Yes a physical body dies but the spiritual being- the Soul or Spirit, if you would goes on in a continuity of life forever. Spirit functions in mysterious way to those who haven’t taken time to study it. This communication has soothed the grieving, has lifted a broken heart, has given hope! It is sacred. The Philosophy of Spiritualism is a way of life taught through the eons of time “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”. The Philosophy has as its basic foundation the Natural Laws of the Universe, including the Golden Rule. The Laws created by the Source–Great Unseen Spirit termed God by many. It is a “WAY OF LIFE”. The Religion is that Philosophy and is needed because humankind needs a reminder of Who they are as well as Why they are here.Healing is a major function of Spiritualists. I offer the suggestion to read the book by H. Gordon Burroughs entitled “Becoming a Spiritualist.” H
    Both churches and their services are erroneously described by VanDyke. It matters not if of one major organization or another (by the way Christian denominations have many diverse groups). Both churches SERVE humanity. Both churches OPEN their doors to anyone – one’s status in this life makes no difference. It is my humble suggestion that anyone who has read VanDykes article, set it aside, and with an Open Mind visit several Spiritualist Churches and witness for yourself the golden strand of love, knowledge and understanding — a basic showing we are all “One!”

    • I don’t know what do think? I am not Patsy Klein or a Sacraficial lamb.