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When The Spirit Moves Us

In the search for divinity along nontraditional paths, San Diego seems to draw diversity


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THE HOSPITALITY SEEMS SINCERE when the Reverend Mary Kay Ducey bounds from her desk to greet an unknown visitor with a shout. It’s a cold, overcast, cheerless afternoon, but the basement offices of the Midtown Church of Religious Science feel like a cozy kitchen.

The nondescript building sits on the Hillcrest border, behind a small parking lot and a chain-link fence. Ducey, the youth and community outreach minister, says she found Religious Science at a time of personal upheaval.

When the Spirit Moves Us “I had created this world of success and business success,” she says. “But there wasn’t any meaning. What I was yearning for was a connection to the Divine. I reached a point where all the structures created for me, and by me, fell away. I was going through a divorce. It was a dismantling of everything I’d known. I wondered, ‘How can I express spirituality in my world?’ ”

She’s not alone in that quest.

San Diego may have sprung up as a Catholic outpost in the 1700s, but the city has a long history of religious diversity. In 1900, as interest in spiritualism was spreading around the world, the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society moved to Point Loma, where Point Loma Nazarene University stands today. (The headquarters later moved to Pasadena.) “They were trying to establish a utopian community,” says Rebecca Moore, an associate professor in the department of religious studies at San Diego State University. “In California, we have this big history of utopian communities. The Theosophists were committed to education and its reform. They felt children could realize their full potential if they studied music, art, dance and drama.

“San Diego should also be understood within the history of religion in California,” she says. “The West Coast is the most unchurched part of the U.S.—California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington have the lowest formal church attendance.”

Religious Science (not to be confused with Christian Science or Scientology) is part of the New Thought spiritual movement, one of the more prominent “alternative spirituality” philosophies in America—and one that’s powerfully represented in San Diego. The Reverend Kevin Bucy founded the Midtown Church of Religious Science four years ago and is its senior minister.

“The idea of New Thought comes from the idea that God is within us,” says Bucy, who once studied to be a priest at a Roman Catholic seminary. “There’s nothing to be baptized into or saved from, i.e., original sin. The idea of sinners doesn’t work for us. We are all born as expressions of God.” Rebecca Moore

THE UMBRELLA TERM “alternative spirituality” has a very large canopy, but most adherents share a belief that the major world religions don’t address their thoughts and concerns. “I hold the traditional churches somewhat responsible for the need that people have to look for alternative religions,” says Reverend Scott Eric Richardson, dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Midtown San Diego. “But I would have a hard time rooting myself in some of [them]. It’s boring .. . when people are going through the motions but are not attached to the deepest edge of the Jesus tradition.”

In the 1980s, Religious Science in San Diego got a boost from a charismatic leader, Terry Cole-Whittaker, who became the pastor of the La Jolla Church of Religious Science, then with 50 members. As the best-selling author of several books—including What You Think of Me Is None of My Business and How To Have More in a Have- Not World —Cole-Whittaker had a mind-over-matter approach to success that appealed to privileged San Diegans at a time when “greed was good” and many people were turning to self-help gurus like Del Mar– based Anthony Robbins.

In no time, attendance at Cole-Whittaker’s church grew by an order of magnitude.

“It was quite something,” says Steve Hays, publisher of the local New Age guide The Light Connection, “because she’d draw 800 to 1,000 people.” Hays produced events for Whittaker, who hosted a TV ministry and began speaking up and down the coast, selling out venues like the L.A. Civic Center.

The yuppie priestess was even roasted by local celebrities at a charity event. Clark Anthony, then a news anchor at KGTV, was on the panel. “I attended one of her services once,” he quipped. “And I was really impressed. It was the first time I ever saw the congregation send back the wine for a better year.”

In 1985, amid a small scandal over church finances, Whittaker held her last service at Easter. “People filled Golden Hall, which holds more than 4,000,” Hays says.

 In retrospect, Whittaker’s church was a training ground for many of today’s local Religious Science leaders. “Terry was like the pod that scattered the seeds,” says the Reverend Kathy Hearn, who joined the church in 1980. “She was a very good teacher of Science of Mind—sound and principle-based. Those were the days of high heels and silk dresses and fancy cars, but Science of Mind has been around for a long time, at a deeper level than the self-help movement. That’s the outermost expression, which has to do with taking responsibility for your consciousness and your life.

“The God is living its life through us,” she says. “It’s really about our oneness, or spirit, coming into alignment with that entire process.”

Hearn, who was seen as Whittaker’s successor, founded the Pacific Church of Religious Science, in Mission Valley, and was senior minister there until 2000. Now she’s the “community spiritual leader” of the United Church of Religious Science, a network of 200 member churches or communities.

Reverend Wendy Craig-Purcell is another New Thought powerhouse who began a ministry in the 1980s; her 1,500- member Church of Today, part of the Unity movement, is in the Miramar area.

She is also on the leadership council of the influential Association of Global New Thought, “an organization dedicated to planetary transformation,” where she rubs shoulders with Michael Beckwith, nationally known minister to the stars. Beckwith’s church, the Agape InternationalSpiritual Center in Culver City, is something of a phenomenon, attracting 7,000 followers.

IT WAS ONLY NATURAL that San Diego, with its near-perfect weather and public beaches, would be a magnet for such nontraditional spiritual folks as Deepak Chopra, sage of alternative medicine, and Louise Hay, founder of the New Age publishing company Hay House.

“Because people have come to the West from all over,” SDSU’s Moore says, “we see people either losing their religious connections or being distanced from their religious background, and seeking new avenues of the religious expression.” From bookstores like Lady of the Lake in Vista, which hosts psychic readings, to the Clairvoyance School in Escondido to the mystical artwork for sale from the Triskelion Crafters in North Park, New Age businesses do well here. Recently, two independent films dealing with alternative spirituality, What The Bleep Do We Know? and Indigo, have made a splash in San Diego, with extended runs and soldout dates.

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