Rhythm and Blues

St John’s 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 colours, 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-fuelled 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 semi-autonomous 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 cover-up by the church rector sparked a bitter battle for the soul – and the real estate – of St John’s.

Calls for resignation

The young rector, the Revd 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 revellers 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.’

Swing for it

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. ‘There are no winners or losers,’ said Nicholas van Aelstyn, a San Francisco lawyer and vestry member. ‘Everybody's losing.’

A number of church members may leave St John’s, 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.

Dance, dance wherever you may be

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 Revd 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.

Entacogens and entheogens

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. 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 fuelling 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.

On Jan. 26 – the Sunday before Pearson resigned and the rhythm society agreed to move on – the 11 am 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 is still up in the air.


San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, February 4, 2003, Page A - 15, Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

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