For a religious movement known as Spiritualism, communing with the dead is a daily occurrence

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If you’ve been thinking about the dead more lately, you’re not alone.

This week is a traffic jam of religious and cultural events celebrating loved ones. From the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos and the Christian celebrations of All Saints and All Saints Day to the pagan commemoration of Samhain, many hearts and minds will be set on the afterlife this Halloween and the next two days.

But for a religious movement known as Spiritualism, communing with the dead is a daily occurrence – and a cornerstone of faith.

Spiritualists believe that not only does life continue beyond the death of the physical body, but that these spirits can communicate with the living, providing guidance for today and for the future.

“Our loved ones are in spirit and they are only a thought away,” says Reverend Lorina Pyle, pastor of the First Spiritualist Church of San Diego, whose roots go back more than a century. “We are never alone and spiritual help is available upon request.”

Pyle, who was raised a Christian, “accidentally bumped into” First Spiritualist in City Heights about 20 years ago. “Everything I had been taught told me it was wrong to be there, but there was something that fed my soul,” she recalls.

She began taking classes, eventually becoming one of the church’s ministers, as well as a certified medium, trained to help convey messages from the spirit world through “readings.”

More on that later. First, let’s start with two young girls who history credits with helping start it all.

Knock Knock

In 1848, Maggie and Kate Fox, aged 14 and 11, announced that they had communicated with the spirit of a dead man who once lived on their farm in Hydesville, NY.

After showing how they decode the series of mind raps into tangible messages, the girls became local celebrities. Led by an older sister, they hit the road, demonstrating their newfound skills to large audiences and inspiring waves of others across the country to do the same.

Never mind, 40 years later, the sisters confessed that it was all a hoax, then recanted a year later. Be that as it may, modern Spiritualism was well on its way to becoming part of the American religious landscape.

“There were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who believed they were genuine and that their confession had been coerced,” says Phil Stevens, a retired cultural anthropologist from the University at Buffalo who has studied the spiritualism.

The sisters, and the movement they helped spark, had managed to harness two powerful beliefs: that a soul survives after the body dies, and that these souls are interested in communicating with the living. Both beliefs, Stevens says, are universally human and as old as humanity itself.

Where the sisters lived may also have contributed to their success. In the early 1800s, this area of ​​upstate New York was the Silicon Valley of religious fervor, having already spawned two other new religious movements – which we now know as Seventh-day Adventists. and the Church of Jesus Christ of the last days. Saints.

Sittings have become all the rage, with high-profile attendees – like Mary Todd Lincoln, who is said to have held them in the White House after the death of their 11-year-old son. The Civil War, with anxious family members searching for sons gone to war, further fueled popularity.

During this time, the true believers began to organize.

The San Diego Spiritual Society, precursor to the First Spiritualist Church, was formally organized in 1885 for religious, benevolent, and social purposes. Eleven years later, Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association held its first camp meeting on land west of Escondido.

Before the end of the 19th century, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC), as well as a teaching academy, were founded. But if anyone had any hope of uniting the diaspora, it was not.

Common concepts

Spiritualism has no central authority, such as a pope or a presiding prelate. Demographics are also elusive, although an outside survey estimates adherents to be less than half a percent of our population.

While the NSAC has about 2,100 members among its more than 80 churches and camps, it also notes that there are several associations today. Additionally, many congregations do not belong to any of them, choosing instead to be independent. An online list compiled by a Spiritist church in Kansas lists eight groups in San Diego County, none of which are part of NSAC.

However, spiritualists tend to share some common concepts, says Reverend Stacy Kopchinski, who sits on the NSAC board and is the trustee of the Morris Pratt Institute, the training academy established in the late 19th century.

Do they believe in God? “Absolutely,” says Kopchinski from the institute’s headquarters in Milwaukee. “We just don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God. It is more of a consciousness or a source of energy.

Paradise? “We embrace the other side, the spirit world.” She balks at literal hell, but concedes that “how we act here will have consequences for our next destination.” Some spiritualists describe this spiritual world as having several spheres, like rungs on a ladder. The better you perform in this life, the higher the sphere in the spirit world.

Jesus? “Jesus was the master teacher,” says Kopchinski, who was raised a Catholic but became a spiritualist as a young adult. “He just knew his pure purpose was to prove that we live forever and we have to be good and we’re all children of God.”

Golden Rule? This is a big problem for spiritualists. “If there is a goal, this is it,” she says.

Mediumship 101

Perhaps the most discussed aspect of spiritualism is its belief in mediums as messengers between this world and the spirit world.

Harmony Grove’s training program requires the education committee and its director to approve its psychics, as well as healers and ministers, says Reverend Glenn Haddick, who is the former director of education there.

“Part of our certification process includes feedback from our congregation and the public in the form of written affidavits attesting to the effectiveness of the student’s skills,” says Haddick.

But there is no single formula for connecting with spirits. Some mediums, for example, may use prompts like a pendulum or tarot cards.

Haddick, an ordained pastor and third-generation spiritualist, says he will often get metaphorical imagery while doing a reading for someone. Other times, he’ll receive “a paragraph of information that suddenly comes to mind and I’m able to describe it and talk about it for a few minutes, and then something else eventually comes up.”

Pyle, the pastor of First Spiritualist, talks about learning to tap into the electromagnetic energy within each of us and all around us. This energy emits different levels of vibration, she says. “It’s like becoming a radio station and learning to tune your frequency with those you communicate with.”

Psychics say they focus on beneficial messages.

“Our goal as psychics is to help them connect to their higher selves so they can make positive choices,” says Reverend Kimberly Hicks, pastor of Fraternal Spiritualist Church in Kensington. “The point is that you want to make it easier for them.”

What if it was bad news? “I think you have to be very, very careful about releasing what you think is bad information,” Haddick warns.

Hicks, who grew up in a non-denominational Christian church, points out that no matter what advice is offered, psychics realize that each person ultimately has agency. “And they can make their choice themselves.”

Heresy versus acceptance

More traditional religions are not fans of spiritualism.

Critics denounce it as heresy and occultism, citing verses from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament that condemn trying to speak to spirits as “detestable” and an “abomination to the Lord.”

While spiritualists offer their own Bible verses to reinforce their calls for acceptance, they would also like to see more education about their faith.

“Amazingly, many people don’t even realize that Spiritualism is a religion,” Hicks laments.

From her office in Wisconsin, Kopchinski says she’s seen the looks of other clergy when she talks about her beliefs.

“Any true spiritualist would admit that yes, there is cheating and yes, there are bad things,” she acknowledges. But she points out that there are also bad ministers and wrongdoing in other religions. “Don’t settle for Wikipedia’s definition, because there is so much more to our movement, our religion, our science, our philosophy than anyone ever imagined.”

Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune and former president of the Religion News Association. Email: [email protected]

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