Hands are clasped, heads bowed. In the back row of a one-room community center, a young girl folds a leaflet into a tiny square. Chair legs squeak, a patron coughs. The room falls silent.
“Boa noite, e obrigada,” the night’s speaker says in Portuguese, thanking nearly 40 Brazilians for coming, though she is far from Rio or Sao Paulo.
For nearly 25 years, the Allan Kardec Spiritist Society in Rockville has been holding Spiritist meetings reminiscent of those that unfold across Brazil’s sprawling cities, curvaceous southern shorelines and cloistered mountainside hideaways.
As much as Spiritism — more philosophy and doctrine than religion, according to followers — might seem similar to its practitioners in the United States and Brazil, it is undergoing rapid stylistic changes in the States, where its meetings are often conducted in English and follow more of a question-and-answer format for an audience just beginning to learn the philosophy.
“They have talks like we have [in Brazil],” said Kenia Faria, a native of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. “But here, I think, in the United States we become more involved since it’s a small group.”
Lessons usually involve teachings from the five books of Spiritism. The pillar is the Spirits’ Book, an analysis of mortal life on Earth, the afterlife, and the relationship between the two. Each book is designed to help spiritists learn how to progress spiritually and morally, among other things.
Modern Spiritists credit Kardec, a 19th-century Parisian, with codifying Spiritism, which professes the existence of a spirit in the human body. Kardec claimed that spirits reincarnate in a new body after death, ideally moving toward moral and spiritual perfection with each reincarnation.
Blending the lessons of Jesus Christ, Platonist philosophy and life sciences, Kardec concluded that moral betterment, spiritual evolution, communicating through mediums with disincarnate spirits — those that have not yet been reincarnated in a human body — and the existence of other worlds in which spirits live are all real and made understandable by learning Spiritism.
Kardec’s background as a writer and teacher ensured the doctrine would live on after his death in 1869. His works were later copied and widely distributed.
Emigration from Europe, tolerant intellectual movements and Spiritism’s adaptation to new cultures contributed to its spread in the early 20th century. Its effects were particularly felt in Brazil, where Kardec’s teachings were assimilated into regional cultures.
When Spiritism first gained a measure of popularity in the United States in the late 1960s, it was largely because of Brazilian immigrants. The movement remains centered in Brazil, and is mostly taught and followed in the United States by Brazilians. Its following has diminished in France.
In keeping with Spiritism’s proclivity for stylistic adaptation, Rockville’s Kardec Society has been adjusting the doctrine’s delivery for Americans curious about how it functions.
“In the United States, I feel like there’s more of a desire to engage and really grapple with [Spiritism’s teachings],” rather than simply being told its tenets, said Daniel Assisi, who recently led a discussion at the society. “I think it’s a great way of actually challenging what you know.”
Since the society’s opening in 1986, the leadership has passed from six Brazilian founders, remembered fondly for hosting Brazilian-style dinners for charity, to a networking-savvy board of directors, including society president and Sao Paulo native Sonia Doi.
By the mid-1990s, the Kardec Society’s Brazilian lecturers — all volunteers — were offering sessions in English to supplement those in Portuguese. About 15 students usually come to these meetings, bringing plenty of questions and enthusiasm.
“I see Spiritism as preparation for my next life,” said one American follower who asked not to be named.
Edith Marie, who lives in Maryland, said Spiritism’s lessons are universal. “I think the setting is kind of irrelevant,” she said. “Spiritism still teaches charity, being self-responsible, all in today’s difficult world.”
Many Spiritist centers find support in networking and social media. Last month, Mauricio Cisneros, president of the U.S. Spiritist Council, compiled the first census of Spiritist organizations in North America, surveying almost 80 Spiritist organizations across the country.
But Spiritism’s success, he says, is not a matter of numbers. “We are happy and we feel blessed to speak at a center to five people.”
As the meeting ends, the lights are dimmed, and row by row, attendees are ushered to the back of the room. The society’s mediums and elder members, with minimal flair or noise, administer passes, raising their hands around each member, an action considered to be a form of spiritual energy transfer and healing.
The moment is personal and communal. “I was scared and suspicious,” Sao Paulo native Luciana Tani said of the first time she received passes. “But as soon as I took the pass I felt incredibly serene, in peace, and loved.”
At the end of the night, one might wonder what people take away from the Spiritists’ lessons. But the real emphasis was on what was given.
“You can donate a part of you,” or help others in realizing their spiritual potential, Doi said. “You don’t need much. And that’s what we hope people understand.”