Psychedelic churches pushing boundaries of religion in small but growing U.S. movement
Ayahuasca ceremonies part of a global trend of enlightenment-seekers turning to psychedelics
The tea tasted bitter and earthy, but Lorenzo Gonzales drank it anyway. On that frigid night in Utah, he was hoping for a life-changing experience, which is how he found himself inside a tent with two dozen others waiting for the psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca to kick in.
Soon, the gentle sounds of a guitar were drowned out by people vomiting into buckets — a common downside of the drug.
Gonzales started howling, sobbing, then laughing and babbling.
Facilitators from Hummingbird Church placed him face-down on the grass, calming him momentarily before he started laughing and crawling away, only quieting after his wife touched his shoulder and prayed.
Seeking enlightenment, relief
"I seen these dark veins come up in this big red light, and then I seen this image of the devil," Gonzales explained later.
Gonzales's journey to this small town along the Arizona-Utah border is part of a growing global trend of people turning to ayahuasca in search of spiritual enlightenment and an experience they say brings them closer to God than traditional religious services. Many hope the psychedelic tea will heal physical and mental afflictions after conventional medications and therapy failed.
Their problems include eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders and PTSD.
Across the U.S. there is a growing push to decriminalize the use of psychedelics. Colorado has passed an initiative to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms for people 21 and older. It joins Oregon in establishing a regulated system for the hallucinogens found in some mushrooms.
The rising demand for ayahuasca has led to hundreds of churches which advocates say are protected from prosecution by a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In that case, a New Mexico branch of a Brazilian-based ayahuasca church won the right to use the drug as a sacrament — even though its active ingredient is illegal under U.S. federal law.
But with the growth of pro-psychedelics movements has come increased scrutiny.
No real understanding of risks
Shipments of ayahuasca from South America have been seized and there are concerns the unregulated ceremonies could endanger participants, as ayahuasca is not well studied
"Our knowledge is kind of limited," said Anthony Back, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.
"There is not as much information about safety," said Back.
It was dark — except for the flickering candles and the orange glow of heaters — as the Hummingbird ceremony began last October. Psychedelic art festooned the walls; statues of the Virgin Mary and Mother Earth were positioned near a makeshift altar.
A mix of military veterans, corporate executives, and thrill seekers converged for the $900 weekend.
They sat silently, awaiting Taita Pedro Davila, the Colombian shaman and traditional healer who oversaw the ceremony.
Ayahuasca's effects can last hours
The brew contains an Amazon rainforest shrub with the active ingredient N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, and a vine containing harmala alkaloids that prevent the drug from breaking down in the body.
Those who drink ayahuasca report seeing shapes and colours and going on wild, sometimes terrifying journeys that can last hours. In this dreamlike state, some say they encounter dead relatives — one woman saw family members who had died in a car accident — as well as friends and spirits who talk to them.
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"When you were invited here, you were invited for a weekend of healing," Davila told the group in Spanish through a translator, before people lined up for shot glass-sized-doses of the thick, dark tea in plastic cups.
Davila, wearing a fedora, a boar-tooth necklace and beaded chest plate with a jaguar image, locked eyes with each participant, uttered a prayer over the cup, blew on it with a whistling sound and handed it over. After everyone drank and was settled on mattresses, Davila strolled through the tent as the drugs took hold, shaking a bundle of leaves and playing a mournful tune on the harmonica.
"We are going to turn off our minds and open our hearts. If you feel like you are dying, die. This is going to allow you to be reborn," he said.
Last hope for many
Gonzales and his wife, Flor, drove here from California, hoping for relief. They were among several ayahuasca newcomers. Gonzales, who battled drug addiction for much of his 50 years, had been diagnosed with early-stage dementia, likely related to past concussions. He rarely sleeps and is prone to angry outbursts.
Flor Gonzales, 48, had grown weary of doctors and the pills, with side effects, they prescribe. None of it worked and she fears losing Lorenzo.
"If he's already sick ... What do we have to lose?" she said, adding, "It might help him … accept things more without the anger."
Ayahuasca legal in South America
The roots of ayahuasca go back hundreds of years, used by Indigenous groups in the Amazon. In the past century, churches sprouted up in South America where ayahuasca is legal.
Some Brazilian churches are a mix of Christian, African and Indigenous influences. The movement found a foothold in the the U.S. in the 1980s, intensifying recently, as celebrities like Hollywood star Will Smith and Britain's Prince Harry talked about using it.
Some people spend thousands of dollars taking ayahuasca at five-star retreats in the Amazon. In the U.S., the movement remains largely underground, promoted by social media and word of mouth.
Courtney Close, 42, Hummingbird's founder, credits ayahuasca for helping her overcome cocaine addiction and post-partum depression. Asked about its religious significance, she says, "We just try to create a spiritual experience without any dogma."
Close has seen a change in who arrives to ceremonies since starting the church five years ago. She says it's shifted from young hipsters, and now more older working-class people desperate for mental health treatment.
But Close says ayahuasca does come with potential risks.
To improve safety, Hummingbird has brought doctors, nurses and CPR-trained staff to ceremonies, encouraged participants to stop taking certain medications before they arrive, and created an intake process that weeds out those with severe mental illnesses and some heart conditions.
They also implemented a no-touching policy during ceremonies.
Back in California, Flor Gonzales says the experience changed her husband.
Lorenzo has stopped taking medications for depression, PTSD and insomnia. His still struggles with memory issues, but says he now sleeps through the night, with no screaming fits.
"I feel healthier," said Lorenzo.
"I feel like a dark force has been taken out of my soul."
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