The tea tasted bitter and earthy, but Lorenzo Gonzalez drank it anyway. That night in faraway Utah, he wanted an experience that would change his life. That’s how I found myself in a tent with 20 other people waiting for the psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca to kick off.
Soon, the gentle sound of the guitar was drowned out by people’s nausea.
Gonzalez began howling, sobbing, laughing, and babbling repeatedly. After the Hummingbird Church facilitator laid him down on his stomach and calmed him down for a while, he started laughing and crawling again.
“After seeing these dark veins emerge in this big red light, I saw this image of the devil,” Gonzalez later said. It was only when I touched his shoulder and prayed.
His journey to this town on the Arizona-Utah border tells the story of a growing world of people turning to ayahuasca to treat a range of health problems after conventional medications and treatments have failed. Their problems include eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders, and PTSD.
The growing demand for ayahuasca has led to hundreds of such churches, but supporters say they are protected from prosecution by a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In that case, the New Mexico chapter of the Brazil-based Ayahuasca Church won the right to use the drug as a sacrament, even though its active ingredient remains illegal under U.S. federal law. A lower court ruling ruled that another Oregon branch of the Ayahuasca Church could use it.
“Every major city in the United States has multiple ayahuasca ceremonies every weekend,” said Sean, who represents the church in Arizona in a lawsuit against the federal government after the seizure of ayahuasca from Peru at the Port of Los Angeles. McAllister said.
The growth of psychedelic advocacy has raised concerns about government crackdowns. In addition to the seizure of ayahuasca shipments, some churches have closed for fear of prosecution. There are also concerns that these unregulated rituals may pose a danger to some participants, and that the benefits of ayahuasca are understudied.
Aside from the flickering of candles and the orange glow of heaters, it was dark as the Hummingbird Ceremony kicked off on a Friday night in October. Psychedelic art hung from the walls. Statues of the Virgin Mary and Mother Earth were placed near the makeshift altar.
Participants sat in silence and waited for Taita Pedro Davila, a Colombian shaman and traditional healer who oversaw the ceremony.
Veterans, business executives, thrill-seekers, former members of polygamous sects, the man who made a fortune from game shows, and more all gathered for the $900 weekend. Many were apprehensive about starting the first of the three rituals, but they seemed dizzy.
The brew contains shrubs from the Amazon rainforest containing the active ingredients N, N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, and vines containing alkaloids that prevent the drug from breaking down in the body.
Those who drink ayahuasca report seeing shapes and colors and continuing on a wild, sometimes terrifying journey that lasts for hours. Some say they encountered dead relatives, friends and spirits in this dreamlike state.
“You’ve been invited to a weekend of healing,” Davila told the group before people lined up for tea.
Davila made eye contact with each participant, said a prayer to the cup, then whistled and handed the cup to drink.
Gonzalez and his wife Flor were among the newcomers to ayahuasca.
They had driven from California to wish the 50-year-old Gonzalez relief. He had battled drug addiction for most of his life, suffered the effects of COVID-19, and had been diagnosed with early stage dementia.
“My poor body is dying. I don’t want it to die,” said Gonzalez.
Maeleene Jessop was also a newcomer, but grew up in the Utah town of Hildale, where the ceremony took place. She is a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) and a polygamist of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Hildale was the base of the group. The ceremony was held in a tent on the grounds of a house once owned by a former FLDS member.
Jessop, 35, left the church after church leader Warren Jeffs was arrested for sexually assaulting girls he thought were brides. He is serving a life sentence in federal prison. Jessop struggles to adjust to his new life while battling depression and plagued by the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child.
Ayahuasca’s roots go back hundreds of years to its ceremonial use by indigenous groups in the Amazon. In the last century, churches have emerged in several South American countries where ayahuasca is legal.
The movement gained a foothold in the United States in the 1980s and has seen increased interest in recent times as celebrities such as NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Hollywood actor Will Smith have spoken out about attending the ceremony.
Some spend thousands of dollars to attend a five-star ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon. But in the United States, ceremonies are held in supporters’ homes, Airbnb rentals, remote locations, and fueled by social media and word of mouth, to avoid law enforcement surveillance, and the movement remains largely underground.
Like many of these churches, the Hummingbird cannot be mistaken for a traditional Western church.
There is no written text, relying primarily on Davila’s prayers, chants, and songs to guide the participants through the ceremony.
Hummingbird founder Courtney Close, who credits ayahuasca with helping her overcome cocaine addiction and postpartum depression, said the designation as a church meant that participants were “doing this for religious reasons.” But when it comes to defining it as a religion, Close emphasized that it depends on the experiences of individual participants.
“We try to create a dogma-free spiritual experience and allow people to experience God for themselves,” she said.
Back in California, Flor Gonzalez is convinced ayahuasca is behind her husband’s improvement. “I feel like we have a future,” she said.
https://www.voanews.com/a/psychedelic-churches-in-us-pushing-boundaries-of-religion/6947049.html US Psychedelic Church Pushing Religious Boundaries