Fight over dances and drugs tearing S.F. church apart

From rhythm and blues
San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 4, 2003
http://sfgate.com/
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

St. Johns is a small Episcopal parish, a little gem of a church in a tough corner of the Mission District. For two decades, it has been a predominantly gay congregation that sees itself as “a community of faith welcoming all colors, cultures and sexual orientations.”

But that has not stopped a bitter fight between the old pillars of the church and the Divine Rhythm Society, a group of mostly young and straight seekers with roots in the ecstasy-fueled rave scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

For six years, the society’s All Night Dance Celebrations have packed the church with hundreds of young people seeking connection and community. They have grown so fast that its members now far outnumber this congregation of some 80 Episcopalians.

Officially an outreach program for the church, the rhythm society grew into a semiautonomous wing of the congregation, with about 20 folks formally joining both the dance group and the Episcopal parish.

They all peacefully coexisted until last summer, when a nonfatal drug overdose and alleged coverup by the church rector sparked a bitter battle for the soul — and the real estate — of St. Johns.

The young rector, the Rev. Kevin Pearson, supported the rhythm society and attended most of the All Night Dance Celebrations. That prompted some members of the parish to call for his resignation, charging that he cared more about the pagan revelers than his own Christian flock.

“They are trying to take over,” said parishioner Ed Specht, a member of the church for 27 years. “Kevin let all these young people in here. I don’t know what he is teaching them.”

Others say it is the Divine Rhythm Society that is being used as a pawn.

Ron Siegel, who is both a parishioner and a member of the rhythm society, said the drug issue is “being used to get Kevin out as rector.”

“The core issue is a split in the congregation with the traditionalists and people who want some change,” he said. “There’s a dynamism and energy in the rhythm society, but some people feel the influence of the rhythm society is pernicious.”

Over the last two months, Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Diocese of California, based in San Francisco, has held a series of peace-keeping meetings to try to bring the parish together. But last Thursday night, it all came flying apart.

After three days of intense negotiations, Pearson agreed to resign, and so did the entire parish vestry. The rhythm society agreed to leave the parish, and a new vestry will be elected this coming Sunday.

But the resolution leaves much unresolved.

Nicholas van Aelstyn, a San Francisco lawyer and vestry member who led the crusade against the rector and the ravers, says the remaining parishioners face “a difficult time of healing and reconciliation.”

“There are no winners or losers,” he said. “Everybody’s losing.”

A number of church members may leave St. Johns, and no one knows where or when there will be another All Night Dance Celebration. The parish is short on cash, and it’s unclear who will pay for the rector’s severance package.

“It will take a little while for everyone to get their brains around this,” said Michael Lazar, the spokesperson for the rhythm society. “We were part of the life of that church. A lot of life has gone on in that space. I met the woman I live with there. Other people have gotten married there.”

In an interview after the Thursday night meeting, Swing said he was especially concerned about parish drug use in light of the recent deaths of two participants at an unrelated New Year’s Eve dance party at the Cow Palace.

At the same time, Swing said he has no objection to people dancing the night away in the churches of the Diocese of California.

“People all over the world dance to commune with God,” Swing said. “Some people kneel, some people dance. The Episcopal church is not against dancing.”

“But to have it drug-enhanced,” he added, “is to risk the terror and agony of drug abuse.”

In many ways, the beginning of the end came last month, when van Aelstyn sent Swing a lengthy report on the activities of the Divine Rhythm Society and the job performance of Rev. Pearson.

In it, van Aelstyn charged that a “significant number” of the participants at the all-night events take the drug MDMA, popularly known as ecstasy.

Ecstasy is among a family of drugs known as “entacogens,” which translates as “touching within.” They produce feelings of euphoria, empathy and increased energy. Unlike LSD and other psychedelics, they rarely cause users to hallucinate or to lose control of themselves. They are also illegal and potentially dangerous.

Some users of ecstasy and similar drugs consider these substances to be “entheogens” — a chemical door to greater spiritual or psychological awareness.

Van Aelstyn quoted several parish members who said Pearson admitted that ecstasy helps fuel the All Night Dance Celebration.

Pearson reportedly said, “We use entheogens to reach for God, not to get high.”

Pearson declined to comment on the specific allegations in van Aelstyn’s report.

“There are bigger issues than this,” he said in a brief interview before his resignation. “There is a split in the parish, a conservative/liberal split. “

Pearson, who is gay, said conservatives inside and outside the parish are using the unorthodox nature of the rhythm society to attack him and Bishop Swing, who has ordained many gay and lesbian clergy.

Van Aelstyn’s charges were first reported in the Jan. 17 edition of the Christian Challenge, a conservative Anglican publication in Washington, D.C., that regularly attacks what it sees as a liberal drift in the Episcopal Church.

“We are a progressive parish that is predominantly gay and lesbian,” Pearson said. “They are opposed to all that.”

Auburn Traycik, who edits the Christian Challenge and co-authored the article on St. Johns, concedes that their interest in the story was linked to bigger issues.

“Homosexuality is a front-line issue, but this is really about authority in the church,” Traycik said in an interview. “There are people out there promoting drug use for religious purposes in an Episcopal parish.”

While the rhythm society has a written policy against drug use at its events, many of the parish members suspected that something more than coffee was fueling the hip, all-night parties.

Not so, said Pat Perry, a member of St. John’s parish since 1995, and a rhythm society devotee.

“This is not about drugs,” she said. “Young people who may have danced in warehouses where drugs are readily available don’t come here for that.”

Perry was 48 years old when she went to the first celebration in the spring of 1996. Most participants are in their 20s and 30s.

“I told myself I’m probably too old for this,” she said. “I can’t stay up all night.”

Since her initiation, Perry has been to all 28 of the subsequent All Night Dance Celebrations.

Many of the events have had special themes or distinctive party favors such as mirror ball necklaces on New Year’s Eve 1998 or a seed planting ceremony in the Spring of 1999. There was a “WombRoom” in the summer of 1998 and “alchemical transformation” on New Year’s Eve 2001.

“I’ve never had any chemical assistance to dance through the night,” Perry said. “We are experiencing rhythm, which is a way to reach the divine. There’s a wonderful feeling of inclusion and support. People are unself-conscious.”

But that is not the feeling on Sunday mornings.

Over the last few months, the bitterly divided congregation went through the motions of gathering together for Sunday worship. Pearson and other clergy would don green and gold vestments and walk down the aisle, lead prayers and offer communion.

But another spirit was at work inside St. Johns. Leaflets were passed out by one side or the other. There was gossip, backbiting and lots of whispering in the pews. Intrigue ruled the coffee hour.

On Jan. 26 — the Sunday before Pearson resigned and the rhythm society agreed to move on — the 11 a.m. service began with blinding light, clouds of smoke and a piercing sound on high.

Signs from an angry God?

Perhaps, but there was also that white-robed acolyte with too much incense in his swinging silver censer. Billowing clouds of sweet smoke could have set off the fire alarm.

Whether it was holy smoke or the holy spirit, neither faction could turn it off.

In a few minutes, windows were opened and order restored. But the future life of St. John the Evangelist and the Divine Rhythm Society are still up in the air.

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