The church sits perpetually in the shadows. Tucked back from Q Street NW, it is eclipsed by grand Victorians, including those of Bob Woodward and Realtor Nancy Taylor Bubes. It’s easy to walk right by this place, with its brick facade in need of a power wash and stained-glass windows so dirty some look monochromatic.
If you did, you might miss what was for me the church’s standout attraction: a small marquee to the left of the Gothic entranceway reading, “The Church of Two Worlds” and advertising Sunday healings and “messages.”
For more than a decade, I was a regular passerby, living down the street without ever having a reason to step inside. But I had always wanted to know more. Like, where exactly is this second world? Were messages received in a seance? And could these healings do anything for my lower back?
More important, I wanted to know how an out-of-place establishment like this could sustain itself, practically unnoticed, in the tony neighborhood of Georgetown. Bubes, who has lived across the street since 1999, has never even been inside. “Are we allowed to walk in there?” she asks.
The Church of Two Worlds was founded here in 1936 by the Rev. H. Gordon Burroughs. It was the only church in the city practicing spiritualism, whose goal is to prove the continuity of life by contacting the dead. Because they believe that spirits are more advanced than humans, spiritualists think that these entities provide followers with practical knowledge about moral and ethical issues, as well as offer insights into the nature of God, whom they often refer to as Infinite Intelligence.
Before settling on Q Street, the church met all over the city, holding services in hotel banquet rooms and, for a time, at the French Embassy. In February 1960, it bought its current property, built in 1906 as a Methodist church, for $43,000 from the Bible Presbyterian Church of Washington.
The Church of Two Worlds is a member of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, which is headquartered in Lily Dale, N.Y., and has, according to its Web site, 84 chartered members (with 11 alone coming from California). It is among dozens of churches in the Washington area that practice what some might call, for lack of a better term, “alternative” spirituality, including readings, past-life regressions, and healing with crystals or energy.
“As a human race, we’re more evolved at this point in history, so traditional religion does not fit everyone,” says Claudia Neuman, operations manager of Pathways Magazine, which promotes alternative health and metaphysical resources in the Washington area and can be found in 400 local stores. “Spiritualism is not an extreme concept at all,” she says, though she prefers to use the term “metaphysics” in reference to practices involving the non-physical world. “Anything that brings you closer to God or the God within, or whatever you choose to name God as, is positive and life-affirming.”
This all sounds pretty intriguing to me. As a High Holidays-only Jew, I don’t really have a strong set of beliefs one way or the other, including a belief in God. Plus, I like weird. And mediums sitting around trying to conjure up the dead qualifies under my definition.
Then again, it’s also weird enough to me to bring along a friend.
“I want to sit on the aisle,” Robin Tricoles says as soon as we walk in for the 2 p.m. healing. “In case we have to make a quick exit.”
At first glance, the church looks pretty standard: a wooden cross above the altar, some fancy Gothic chairs on the chancel, a stained-glass window depicting a white-robed Jesus. But then I notice a huge amethyst geode resting on top of a piano and a framed poster, displayed on an easel, of a male figure surrounded by a rainbow of colors representing the body’s seven chakras, or energy points. As with yogis, these spiritualists believe healing can be helped by meditating on chakras.
But spiritualism took root in this country long before armies of women were running errands in Lululemon Groove Pants . It began in 1848 when the Fox family heard knocks coming from the cellar of their Hydesville, N.Y., farmhouse. Before long, two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed that they could commune with the knocker. By asking yes or no questions, they said, they learned they were communicating with a peddler who had been murdered and buried in their cellar.
The sisters attained celebrity-like status. James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant went to see them perform. New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley was a disciple. Mediumship was so popular that in 1850, Ralph Waldo Emerson listed it as a profession in his journal, along with railroad man and landscape gardener, and it attracted such followers as Mary Todd Lincoln and, a few generations later, Sinclair Lewis. Since spiritualism wasn’t an organized religion back then, it’s hard to say how many followers it had. Estimates from the 1870s ranged wildly from a few hundred thousand to 11 million.
Despite the unmasking of some mediums, including the Fox sisters, who confessed to a hoax in 1888 and said the otherworldly knocks were caused by the cracking of knee and toe joints, spiritualism continued. It even saw a brief revival when World War I and the flu epidemic of 1918 prompted grieving family members to again turn to mediums to receive comfort and closure. Around this time, bones were actually found in the cellar of the Fox home, though no one ever determined whose they were. The whole house, bones and all, was moved to Lily Dale, which had become the center of spiritualism, in 1916. It burned down in 1955, but visitors to Lily Dale can still see the bones on display in the museum there.
Today, the faith is kept by about 400 small churches in the United States, including this one, which was founded long after the movement’s heyday and doesn’t seem to be attracting many new believers.
It’s almost 2 and Robin and I are the only ones in the sanctuary. Soon, a side door opens and Francisco Ryba, a dark-haired man wearing New Balance sneakers and a short-sleeved dress shirt emerges and asks if we want a healing.
“You go,” whispers Robin.
Ryba doesn’t say much. He gestures for me to sit on a low stool facing the altar. After he puts a hand on each of my shoulders, I mostly just hear him breathing for a few minutes. His hands feel clammy, and he doesn’t move them until the end, when he puts them on my shoulder blades for a moment. “Okay,” he says. “God bless you.”
“Did you feel anything?” asks Robin when I return.
“Not really,” I tell her. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe a pair of warmer hands.
At 2:30, there are seven of us, including the healer, in the congregation. The side door opens again and church leaders Martin Davis, Larry Glasgow and Maria Wolf take their places on the altar. Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” begins playing through a small speaker.
“Good afternoon,” says Davis, who, along with Glasgow and Wolf, is a board member. A former Franciscan friar, Davis, now 75 and a retired D.C. Public Schools teacher, says he sought a dispensation from his order after St. Francis of Assisi appeared at the foot of his bed and telepathically told him to take classes in metaphysics. “I know, this sounds Looney Tuney,” he will tell me later.
We pull out our spiritualist hymnals, which is the only book the church uses, and recite the Declaration of Principles, a nine-item list affirming that “the highest form of morality is contained in the Golden Rule” and that “the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death.”
Next, using the poster on the easel as a road map, Davis leads us in a guided meditation of our chakras, asking us to visualize various colors as we travel up from our feet (red) to our crown (violet). There’s no singing, no reciting of scripture, no wafers. After we turn to the back of our hymnals and deliver a prayer for spiritual healing, the collection plate makes the rounds. Then, the messages begin. Each medium uses meditation to get in touch with the other side, and the spirits that show up to communicate are usually boldfaced names that span centuries, from Gandhi to Pythagoras to — one time — Coco Chanel. There are three ways mediums receive these messages, either seeing, feeling or hearing them.
“May I come to you?” asks Maria Wolf, who earlier introduced herself as the church secretary. “The two ladies over there.” She means us.
“I see Asians around you,” says Wolf, who is 78 but looks decades younger and has a heavy Brazilian accent. It’s hard to tell if she’s speaking to us collectively.
Then she looks directly at me.
“May I come to you?” she asks. The mediums always ask permission to give a message.
“Oh, this is wonderful,” she continues. “There are Vikings around you.” She’s smiling like she has just awarded me a prize. She doesn’t say much more, other than these Vikings are ready to rise up and do battle for me.
It’s a long service, with the messages taking up the bulk, and when it ends about 4:30, we don’t stay to mingle in the fellowship room. “That was enough for me,” says Robin, who was instructed by Wolf to go home and meditate on white blossoms (which, we decide, were what the Asians brought along).
I find it less off-putting than she does — strange, but also strangely uplifting. The world that the Church of Two Worlds suggests is far more optimistic and accepting than the one I live in. Gandhi shows up and no one bats an eye.
My friends have a great time at my expense. “Where were your Vikings when you needed them?” asks one, after I take a nasty fall, cutting my knees and bruising both palms. But I continue to return to the church, sometimes alone, sometimes, when she’s in the mood, with Robin. After a while, I have more than enough in my notebook to write a story about the church, but something keeps pulling me back. Or maybe someone.
I continue to try to learn more about this place, which has left only ghostly footprints. “I have a file,” says Jerry McCoy, special collections librarian for the D.C. Public Library’s Peabody Room. “It’s a very thin file.” One of two things contained within is a 1974 Washington Post Style article, a profile on former Church president Kathryn Irwin. Reading it gives me chills. The writer, Emily Fisher, noted the same bafflement from neighbors, the same older-skewing congregation, the same down-and-out vibe. More than 40 years later, the story hasn’t changed. The other item is a 1978 Post piece called “Spiritualist Churches Flourish Here,” but it mentions just one other place: the National Spiritual Science Center (still in existence on Fern Street NW and still promoting spiritual balance through healing, meditation and what it calls esoteric studies).
With rarely more than a dozen people in attendance at a time, with a different configuration of regulars each Sunday, the services have moved from the main sanctuary into the smaller fellowship room, which is dominated by a banner advertising polarity therapy. I learn later that this is an effort to save money on the church’s utilities, which run about $150 a month. The church no longer has a working phone number. It seems to be existing on what it collects on the plate, about $25 to $50 per weekly service, which seems barely enough to cover the utilities.
There are only four dues-paying members, all of whom are also on the board: Davis, Wolf and Glasgow, and the church president, Michael Gallion, whom I don’t meet for weeks because he divides his time between a home in West Virginia and an apartment on Connecticut Avenue NW. Gallion wears a necklace made of bear claws and, at 72, still looks like a professional football player (he played for the Continental Football League ).
Like Davis, Gallion is a former teacher; he taught sex ed and coached track and cross country at Cardozo High. Unlike Davis, it wasn’t St. Francis who guided him to the Church of Two Worlds. It was saucers, he will tell me. And because at this point I’ve just come to accept the weirdness, I’ll just nod my head and think, “Why not?” Is a belief in UFOs any stranger than believing in a burning bush?
It can be hard to bring the church leaders down to earth. All around them property values are rising. A few churches have decided to leave Georgetown. Realtor Bubes estimates the value of the building, owned by the church headquarters in Lily Dale, at $3 million (“There’s no parking,” she scoffs). Rather than commuting from the chapel to the fellowship room, I suggest to Gallion that church members could probably sell this place, buy a smaller building somewhere nice and have lots of money left over to spread the word about spiritualism.
“We are not impressed by that,” Gallion says after I tell him about a $7.5 million price tag on another church in the neighborhood. “We are not materialistic people. We’re given this place for a mission: to give people a place to go for spiritual development. It might not look like that if you only see a few people here, but we are on a specific mission.”
From my foldout seat in the fellowship room, I’ve been hearing rambling lectures (they aren’t called sermons here) that never seem to come full circle, with messages that seem too general — “you think with your gut,” “people wear a lot of masks” — to convince me that anyone is speaking to me from the beyond.
I continue to undergo the healings, though the only thing I feel is an occasional buzzing in my shoulder. Is it Ryba’s energy? I never tell him what’s hurting me, and he never asks. Like my unspecific messages, I figure I must have unspecific pain as well.
And then, my mother dies.
Though she had been suffering from a rare form of dementia and lived in a nursing home, her death is unexpected. Why didn’t I get a message about that?
Home in Connecticut, I sit with my father, who would have celebrated his 52nd wedding anniversary the day after burying my mother. I tell him about the story I’m working on and wonder out loud if my mother is on the spirit plane I keep hearing so much about at church. My father, not one for these sorts of musings, says something that startles me in its directness. “That’s the funny thing,” he tells me. “The only people who can tell you what happens after you die are all dead.”
I avoid the church for a few weeks after the funeral. I am both afraid that I will get a message from my mother and afraid I will not.
When I return, the service is being led by Gallion, who, in the span of 20 minutes, talks about etheric doubles, Atlantis and the caste system. “Your home is in the stars, but you’re not going home anytime soon,” he tells us toward the end. “That’s why people like watching ‘Star Trek.’ It reminds them of home.”
As usual, I’m listening but having a hard time following. I snap to attention when he gives me my message, however. “You have to take care of your mind,” he says. “Start taking B6.”
As if that wasn’t unsettling enough, Wolf tells me that she sees an angel with big black wings around me. “She’s so beautiful,” she gushes. “Her wings are so long! And covered in sequins.” All I can think of is the angel of death.
After the service, I tell Gallion about my mother’s passing, her plummet into senility and the unremitting fear that I will suffer the same fate. He reaches for my hand. “Don’t worry, honey,” he says. “You know more than your mother.” He pats my arm and smiles. “You’ll be fine.”
Still, I buy a bottle of vitamin B6 at CVS on my way home, pondering Wolf’s dark angel all the way.
Then it hits me. My mother was a 6-foot-tall beauty who wore black and never met a BeDazzler she didn’t like. When I was home for her funeral, I spent an unsuccessful afternoon looking for a black T-shirt she had made with “Elvis” studded in rhinestones across the front. It was, I had told my father, the one item that truly reminded me of her.
After weeks of feeling unmoored, I finally start to feel better.
I’m still not sure what I believe, but I’d like to think that those we love most in life never really leave us in death. And as long as I’m sitting in my foldout chair listening to lectures about Saturn return and astral projections, anything seems possible. This church has taught me that. And if this church can keep on going, secure in the faith that people will continue to show up, take a seat and accept what it so graciously provides, the real lesson here is the resilience of the spirit.
Cathy Alter is an author and freelance journalist in Washington. Her most recent article for the Magazine was about the textile conservation of Lady Astor’s coronation outfit. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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