March 23, 2006

Spiritist religion spreads from Brazil to America

By Mark Egan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Troubled spirits come to Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood once a week to seek solace and advice from a man who by day works as a Wall Street bond salesman.

Each Monday a group of about 16 members of the Spiritists Group of New York meet in a building normally used for dance and acting rehearsals to discuss personal problems and work on their spiritual energy. Then they talk with tormented spirits to help them, in what organizers call charity work.

Joao, a Brazilian who asked his last name not be used to keep his Wall Street work and personal life separate, is a counselor at the Spiritist group in Manhattan.

"We ask that the spiritual benefactors be with us," Joao says, invoking the spirits. Almost immediately a middle-aged Brazilian man talks in a voice the group believe is a human spirit speaking from the afterlife.

"Why do I find myself in this miserable situation? Where are the angels and the heavenly music?" he asks, agitated.

Joao tells him, "My friend, we are here and we will help you. Your suffering will end soon."

Sobbing, the man raises his voice: "Why do they call me horrible names? I never killed anybody and they call me killer! Where is God? Where is the light that was promised to me?"

The man is calmed by Joao, who tells him not be afraid. For the next hour, others speak in the voices of troubled spirits.

Others hold pens, their eyes closed, and write in the dark, channeling messages from wiser spirits. "Do not be afraid to give testimony to help others on their path to spirituality," a woman named Jussara reads from one such message.

Joao said that by talking to troubled spirits, "We learn -- just like the way a psychiatrist learns from his patient's problems. And we are also preparing ourselves. There comes a time for all of us to die."


Spiritism melds Christianity with a belief in reincarnation and contends people can be guided to better lives by mature spirits.

Vanderlei Marques, president of Spiritist Council of the United States, said people are drawn to Spiritism to find, "logical and convincing responses to questions such as 'Who am I,' 'Where do I come from,' 'Where am I going,' and 'What is the objective of my existence."'

The U.S. movement typically grows when a Brazilian sets up a group in his neighborhood, attracting other Brazilians, Hispanics and some white Americans.

The Spiritist group in Manhattan is small, with just a few dozen members, but the movement is growing rapidly, especially among Latinos in the U.S. Northeast.

In 2001 there were 116,000 Spiritualists in the United States, up from none recorded in 1990, U.S. Census data shows. That classification includes a variety of similar religions where spirits are invoked, including some New Age religions.

Formed five years ago, the New York group meets several times weekly in a grungy arts rehearsal building on Eighth Avenue. Down the hall young New York women dance in costume in a belly-dancing class. And as they meet, opera singing can be heard from next door.

Norma Guimaraes helped establish the first Spiritist group in New York's Astoria neighborhood in 1989 that has about 200 members today. Now renting a room, the group wants to buy a building, and since last year has saved $11,000 of the $200,000 down payment they expect to need.

"Spiritism is about understanding what life is about and what death is about. It is deep psychology," said Guimaraes, who works as a housekeeper.

On Saturdays in Astoria sick people come for treatments to their energy to help cure their diseases -- something Spiritists encourage to augment medical treatment. "I have seen people cured from cancer and other diseases," Guimaraes said.

Spiritists hold more conventional Sunday meetings with lectures on spiritual life.

The movement has more than two million followers in Brazil, centered in the state of Bahia, where there is a confluence of Christian beliefs and African traditions such as voodoo.

"They have a saying in Brazil; Catholic by day, Spiritist by night," said Anthropology Professor David Hess at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.


Hess, who studied the religion in Brazil, said the blend of Christian and African folk beliefs comes from being raised by Catholic parents with the help of an Afro-Brazilian nanny. But he said in his work he never found what he would call scientific proof of interaction with the spirits.

The movement began in 1857 with "The Spirits Book" by Frenchman H. Leon Denizard Rivail, who wrote as Allan Kardec when a spirit told him that was his name in an earlier life.

Belief in communicating with the dead is part of a religious movement called Spiritualism, which flourished from the 1840s until the 1920s and still exists today. Critics consider seances to be scams.

But Spiritist leader Divaldo Franco said it is inconsistent that the Vatican expects Catholics to accept that Jesus rose from the dead and believe that myriad saints were visited by spirits but that no one else can interact with them.

"The stories of all the saints are marked by communications with the dead," Franco, a 79-year old Brazilian, told Reuters before speaking to followers in Astoria. "It is an incoherence that several branches of Christianity condemn these communications because they happen."

Franco runs schools and orphanages for more than 3,000 children in Bahia, with that work funded by donations and his books. He says he has channeled spirits to automatically write over 200 books selling more than 7 million copies worldwide.

He says channeling spirits brings "a state of euphoria. It is a state of trance that makes it possible to feel ecstasy."

Franco says the advantage in spirits telling people how to practice Christian teachings is that "they modernize the language (of the Bible) for the culture level of each person."

His Astoria speech was attended by more than 300 people and was the final stop on a 16-date U.S. speaking tour.