John de Ruiter: Shoemaker to Messiah?

John de Ruiter used to be a shoemaker in Edmonton. Now people come from all over the world to hear him preach his New Age gospel or just to be near him. Some even call him the Second Coming of Christ. Native groups call him the “lost white brother.”

“I’ve seen a lot of spiritual teachers,” says Benita von Sass, a follower, “but . . . he’s the one.”

Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta professor who specializes in cults and new religions, accompanied a National Post reporter to a weekend session with Mr. De Ruiter. “This is the beginning of a new religion,” Prof. Kent says. “This is how they start.”

Blue-eyed saviour

Followers of this charismatic guru says he’s the real thing, and Edmonton may be the new Jerusalem.

There are roughly 130 of us packed into a small, shabby room at the Royal Acupressure Clinic on Edmonthon’s Whyte Avenue on a damp and cold Sunday morning.

The crowd is not bothered by the limited supply of chairs and the suffocating odor of wet wool. Those without a seat bunch up their coats and sit cross-legged in the aisles. Everyone chatters excitedly in anticipation of the arrival of John de Ruiter, a local guru and New Age messiah who some have even called the Second Coming of Christ. His followers claim he can look right at the essence of a person just by staring into their eyes.

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“I’ve seen a lot of spiritual teachers,” Benita von Sass, a follower, tells me, “but John’s different. He’s the one.”

There are people here of various religious and cultural backgrounds including native people, Christians, and New Age questers; all are seeking the emotionally healing gaze of de Ruiter. One man has come from the Netherlands specifically to see him, and a few people have come from England. All have heard about him through word-or-mouth. According to some of de Ruiter’s followers, people are emigrating to Canada to be near him.

They meet here every weekend when de Ruiter is in Edmonton, and spend several hours on Saturday,Sunday, and twice on Monday (at the small cost of $2 per session to help with de Ruiter’s travel expenses) probing their teacher for spiritual insight.

De Ruiter, a beareded man with long blond hair, a Charlton Heston smile, and unflappable composure, strides into the room a few minutes early and all heads swivel toward him. He removes his coat and shoes and silently makes his way to a padded office chair on a raised platform in the front corner of the room. He settles in with one foot tucked underneath him and claps on a headset microphone.

For a few minutes he allows his gaze to slide over the crowd, and then he locks him big, blue, soulful eyes on me. He knows I’m a reporter. One of his handlers, a young woman called Gladys, cancelled a scheduled interview I had with him because I wanted to bring a photographer along. Through Gladys, de Ruiter said he wasn’t seeking publicity, but I was welcome to attend the meeting for my own purposes. And now he has me locked in his gaze while he attempts to probe my essence.

He stares me down in silence for 12 long minutes. I feel uncomfortable and my vision goes fuzzy fairly quickly. His stare is unwavering and his face is expressionless. Finally, he shifts his eyes toward my neighbor and then onto someone in the back of the room. This intense staring goes on for 40 minutes in total silence before someone finally breaks through the quiet with a question about the significance of a native ceremony held early that morning to acknowledge de Ruiter as the “lost white brother,” a messianic figure who appears in myths of a variety of native people in the world. (The most famous of these is the white god with whom the Aztecs confused the conquistador Cortez, much to their peril.)

After pausing for several minutes, he finally says in a sleepy, slow voice: “The ritual touched something that is already clear, but in the big picture it doesn’t change anything. The ritual brings awareness into focus.”

De Ruiter was raised in Stettler, Alta. He attended a number of bible colleges and Baptist seminaries until emerging as a spiritual leader in his own right about 15 years ago. He used to work as a shoemaker at European Shoe Comfort in Edmonton, but now his congregation supports him and his family — he is married with three children.

He started out by claiming that Jesus spoke to him, and some of his followers believed he was the Second Coming, but now he avoids any explicity references to Christianity. When he was still working at the shoe store he erected a huge sign outside that read, “Jesus Christ says Christianity is Satan’s masterpiece.” Now he tells his followers to discard their superficial concerns and to follow the “truth.”

Two years ago, he sought out Gordon Dreever, an independent researcher affiliated with the University of Alberta, who specializes in religion. He wanted to know if academics such as Dreever could offer any insight into his ability “to see inside people.” He told Dreever that he was finding it easier to connect with New Age people that with Christians. See how a religion begins

“Many people have been spiritual shoppers and they’re hopeful that John can pull together the disparate parts of their belief systems,” said Professor Stephen Kent, who specializes in cults and new religions at the University of Alberta, and is accompanying me on this weekend. “This is the beginning of a new religion. This is how they start.”

Dreever agrees. “It is [how a religion begins]. Whether it’s still around in 500 years or it disappears when he does, who knows.”

At this point, de Ruiter’s presence is clearly of great concern to the followers gathered to see him this weekend. He has been traveling to India, England, and the United States and is beginning to build a following in these places. The core members of his congregation in Edmonton are afraid of losing him. “Each time you go away, you come back different,” complains one man.

“This is a turning point,” says one sobbing woman to de Ruiter. “I know I have to let you go. It’s beyond my personal ability to keep the group small.”

They ask him if Edmonton is the most important place to him. One suggests that Edmonton may be the new Jerusalem.

De Ruiter tries to reassure them in his calm, slow way. “All there is to do is surrender to what you know is true,” he says countless times with only slight variation.

In the final meeting of the weekend, de Ruiter and Harvey, one of the native people in the group, stare at each other for more than half an hour. Tears roll down their cheeks. Finally, de Ruiter says, “Inside, you feel like a depth of clean, deeply plowed ground.”

Someone yelps, the woman beside me whispers, “That’s awesome,” and Harvey pats his eyes. “My brother here is the missing piece we’ve been searching for,” says Harvey. “I honestly feel now we are complete as a people.”

De Ruiter closes his eyes, nods his head, takes his microphone off, and everyone goes home for another week.

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