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Denomination: Fraternal Spiritualist

Address: 4720 Kensington Drive, Kensington; 619-281-4557

Year founded locally: 1932

Senior pastors: Millie Landis, Chris Christensen

Congregation size: 83 members

Staff: all volunteer

Church school enrollment: no Sunday School

Annual budget: $99,000

Weekly giving: $1900

Singles program: no

Diversity: predominately white, some African-American

Dress: casual to dressy

Services: Sunday worship, 10:30 a.m. Classes throughout the week; call for details

On a bright Sunday morning in the 21st Century, you still get a sense of Fraternal Spiritualist Church’s 19th-century roots. Because our national memory is so short we tend to think the American interest in Eastern religion and the occult began in the 1960s. We forget that by 1850 Americans were contemplating reincarnation and were speaking with the dead. This was a sober, low-key mysticism as much influenced by Calvin as Krishna.

Fraternal Spiritualist meets in a huge, refurbished Kensington home built at the turn of the century. The sanctuary — soft pastels, cushy seating, knickknacks — feels like a Victorian parlor. Off to one side, an older woman plays the piano. People drift in and without much chatter take seats. When they rise to sing, they sing old-fashioned hymns like “Sweet Sweet Spirit” and “Fill My Cup, Lord.” They sing very well, breaking into three- and four-part harmony.

As with other 19th-century denominations — Mormonism, Christian Science — the Spiritualist liturgy is spare. Greeting. Pastoral Prayer. Singing of the Lord’s Prayer. The content is often so generically upbeat that if you weren’t paying attention, you might think you were in a Congregationalist, Unitarian, or New Thought church. Only when you listen closely do you notice something unusual. You hear a lot about “they,” as in, “When they speak to us, we should listen.” You hear a lot about angels, as in, “When you come to Wednesday’s evening service, be sure to bring your angels with you.” You hear a lot about “messages,” as in, “In a message I received last week, I was told to tell you that you should learn to love yourself.”

The odd language, the obscure references, become clear during “Greetings from Spirit” at the very end of the service. The blue- and white-robed men and women sitting behind the podium are not, as you first thought, choir members. They are mediums-in-training. People mastering the art of communication with the Other World. One by one they take the podium, call out to individuals around the sanctuary, and deliver messages from the dead.

“Yes. The woman in the third row. In the white blouse. Yes, you. Would you like to receive a message? They’re telling me something... Did you know someone, a woman, a woman who liked to bake bread? This is someone from your past, perhaps of Slavic origin, I can’t tell. She’s telling me... Well, for people who don’t bake, this might be hard to understand. But when you make bread, it’s not a gentle process. You really have to knead the dough, really work with it. You have to punch it down. And after this very rough and strenuous process, you put it in the oven and bake it, and you have something wonderful and nourishing. And this woman from your past, this woman who loved to bake, wants me to tell you that all the great difficulties in your life, all the hardships, were like the hard process of making bread. They made you into the person you are today. Someone who nourishes and has nourished so many people, so many young people. She wants you to know she’s very proud of you. Does she sound familiar? This woman who liked to bake bread?”

The woman in the white blouse, smiling but stricken, says, “Yes. Yes. That was my mother.”

These messages aren’t delivered in a showy, polished, self-important fashion. And, for whatever reason, they seem to be accurate. After the service, I spoke with Reverend Millie Landis who copastors the church with Reverend Chris Christensen. While she spoke, Reverend Landis, a sweet, grandmotherly woman, took my hand and held it gently in hers. She explained that there were certain rules for “Greetings from Spirit.”

“They will never say anything that you don’t want known. They will never say anything that harms or embarrasses you. We never deliver anything negative. If they wanted you to know about an upcoming negative event, they’d come to you on their own, without anyone’s help. We deliver only positive messages. We deal only with positive messages, with positive energy. You can’t get a plum from an orange tree. You can’t get a negative message from us.”

Reverend Landis fell silent and held my hand a little longer. Suddenly, with no prompting on my part, she told me the name of a friend of mine who died 14 years ago. She told me that this friend still watches over me. Reverend Landis went on to give a great many accurate details — names, dates, specific sorrows — from my personal life. I asked Reverend Landis how she knew these things.

“The dead aren’t truly dead, my dear. They’re more alive than we are. They’re just free from their bodies. We don’t talk with people who are dead. We talk with people who are free.”

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