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Gimme Shelter: Spirits

I read recently about the sad case of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaxx fanatic who compared pandemic restrictions to Hitler’s Germany — he later apologized — and who recently told a reporter he spoke with dead people, before later amending that one, too. It brought back my own encounter with believers in spiritualism and how I was once compared to a small rodent.

I was assigned by a newspaper to cover a meeting of a Spiritualist Church’s service. Photographer Kirk Condyles, my friend and colleague, would shoot the photos.

Spiritualism was founded in the middle of the 19th century, but really began to attract followers during and after World War I and the world-wide influenza pandemic of 1918, which some estimates say killed 100 million people. Spiritualism believes that “mediums,” or people in touch with the dead, can be used by the deceased to communicate with loved ones.

Research shows that after every war, and during every time of social uncertainty, there’s a sharp interest in psychics and mediums.

One Sunday, after I had contacted church leaders, Kirk and I attended a service of the Spiritualist Church in Smithtown.

At the door leading into the church’s main hall, with organ music groaning beyond, we met the pastor, a bright, friendly woman in her 60s, greeting each member of the congregation, which seemed to be composed of about 40 average-looking Long Islanders.

“We’re not Christians, but our services are similar to what you find in a Protestant church,” the pastor told me. “We believe in karma, what goes around comes around.”

I asked her if that meant spiritualism was New Age before New Age was cool. She laughed and said, “We feel our church is stronger than that.”

After about 60 years of séances, floating tables, strange knocking sounds and non-medical healings, the religion was finally defined in Chicago in 1914 by the National Spiritualist Association. They decided their church was “the science, philosophy and religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World.”

I thought then and still do that no one should mock these people, when mainstream religions depend on a belief in virgin birth and God having a son, or the way to heaven is to lay off caffeine and booze or pork or meat on Friday. Every religion depends on mystery and poetry and the Spiritualists are entitled to be as eccentric as anyone else.

In a wide, low-ceilinged room, the pastor presided in black robes at a stage with a lectern and American flag. There were some cheery hymns and a sermon about fear and faith. Some announcements were read. “After services we’ll all go for a Chinese buffet in that restaurant in the shopping center in Islandia. We have our own room. All you can eat for $10.”

Then the healings took place. Lights faded to yellow flickers, six folding chairs in a diamond formation were set up and healers stood behind seated people.

Wind-chime music floated through the hall. The healers waved their hands around the seated heal-ees. One healer, a tall woman, was really working, pulling unseen things out of an elderly woman and flinging them away. Across the room a young woman was weeping as a friend comforted her.

The lights went up, and three people walked to the foot of the stage and asked individual members of the congregation, “May I come to you?”

They then gave the person advice or counsel that they’d heard from the other side. I thought then how striking it was that some of the dead had such banal concerns. “Watch that snow-shoveling this winter, Dorothy.” “Adam, I’ve heard something … today is the first day of the rest of your life.” “Pat, I see an envelope coming.”

A woman named Alice at the foot of the stage turned to Kirk and said, “May I come to you?”

“No, thank you,” Kirk replied, and after she said, “May I ask why?” Kirk politely gave an answer that reinforced my love for him. “I’m an atheist and it would compromise my principles.”

Alice then turned to me and asked, “May I come to you?” 

“Delighted,” I said. This was striking gold, the story was writing itself. She told me: “You remind me of an animal. A gerbil in a cage. There’s too much on your plate, you’re running in the wheel. They have cages with tunnels now. There is a way out.”

Later, I asked her, was it my scribbling notes that made her think I was gerbil-like? “No,” she said “Vibrations.”

It took me a while, but I was stunned, realizing that Alice’s vibrations about the wheel were 100% on the money.

Driving away, I said to Kirk, “A gerbil? Really? A gerbil?”

“No way, man. That woman is nuts. I’ve always thought of you as more of a … tree sloth?”

Before we left, we said goodbye to the pastor, out on the back steps. I commented on the beauty of a cemetery across the street, serene in late morning sun and shadows. She said, “Beautiful, yes. But there’s no one there, you know.”

I still hear her voice.