The Seekers

In troubled times, the search for meaning takes on even more urgency — and it takes many forms. Four photo essays from remote corners of American spiritual life.

Siri Rishi, 47, a Native American yoga and meditation teacher, dances and sings a mantra in a field in Sagaponack, N.Y. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
Story by

A key trait of humanity is our endless desire to make sense of our own being. We’re driven to constantly evaluate what it means to be who we are as we search for a life filled with purpose, love and substance. We seek answers that affirm our relevance on earth, in hopes of strengthening our connection to the omnipotent. There must be a higher calling. A deeper meaning. A righteous road. In one way or another, this quest eventually touches us all. And as turbulence and uncertainty increasingly roil and divide our nation, it’s a quest that has taken on greater urgency for many.

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans believe in God or some higher power. Most exercise that belief through established denominations, attending a church, synagogue or mosque. But there are others who choose to follow a different path to enlightenment, departing from the versions of faith that most Americans practice. For these believers, a less well-trod path to righteousness offers a clearer ticket to salvation.

Siri Rishi, 47, a Native American yoga and meditation teacher, dances and sings a mantra in a field in Sagaponack, N.Y. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

In this series of photo essays, four photographers document individuals or groups seeking divine awareness outside the American mainstream. Whom the photographers decided to depict and the aesthetic they employed was their choice. Some of their subjects find peace solely through a collective celebration of kindness, positive thinking and gratitude — all emphasized in a physical environment where everyone is welcome regardless of faith. A group of nontraditional Christians share Western cowboy culture as a way of reemphasizing God’s word and will. Still others find meaning in what’s often perceived as a darker journey — exploring their own personal power and sense of magic through witchcraft.

Our current social climate is poised to make none of their journeys particularly easy, as displays of intolerance are resurging with formidable frequency. The proverbial “other” is once again becoming less likely to be invited to the cultural table. But most of these seekers are merely looking for divine love and how it manifests itself in them. That will get them through the hour, the day, or the week. Maybe even eternity.

Chapter 1: Spellbound

By Kate Warren

Theistic Satanist conjure witch Janeia Prentiss has identified with goth culture since becoming obsessed with death as a child. She found an outlet through witchcraft, connecting with the hoodoo and conjure practiced by her ancestors, who were slaves in the American South.

Our nation is at a moment of gender reckoning. Women across America are looking to defend their value through the #MeToo movement. Like others, I’ve found that I can no longer ignore my own history of sexual assault. That our society sees the experiences of so many women like me as acceptable fills me with rage. When that rage threatened to overwhelm me, I turned to the witches. I thought they might know how to transform my anger into something productive.

Witchcraft encourages practitioners to tap into their personal sense of power — their magic. That power, a balance of masculine and feminine energy — with special veneration for the feminine — allows them to connect with their intuition, manifest their desires and protect themselves. Throughout history, people have sought witches’ help when they’ve had nowhere else to turn. Today, some young women and LGBTQ people in particular are finding themselves drawn to witchcraft and the occult.

Shamanic healer Alanna Collins administers the Amazonian healing eye drops called Sananga at a full moon goddess gathering in Fairfax, Va.

Through word of mouth and the Internet, I met witch after witch from different backgrounds and practices. The experience was deeply healing. I went to their homes and watched them work. I learned about the various tools in each witch’s kit and the ethics of witchcraft — and also about the ways that social media is changing the community: It’s driving the occult as both a trend and a spiritual practice, leading to an influx of witches who range from consumers to newfound practitioners. Established witches agree there is a “witch wave” bringing new energy to the community.

I watched witches perform magic in front of me and had spooky and moving experiences. I photographed with the intention of allowing each witch to represent the rituals, sacred objects and practices central to their most intimate spiritual self. The project became a spell for all of us, changing the way I viewed myself, my relationships and the world.

Whether it’s an Appalachian hoodoo witch, a multigenerational Brujeria priestess, a hedge witch with her herbs and tinctures, or a go-go-dancing glitter witch casting a spell in a cage at a club, witches light a path for others to walk through trauma and out the other side. The most basic ritual of witchcraft is one from which we can all learn. When witches “cast a circle,” they come together as equals, creating a sacred space where each can speak and be heard, acknowledged and cleansed. They check in physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, building trust as they share their vulnerabilities. In this divisive moment, we should all aim to do the same — to see one another’s raw humanity regardless of race, gender, orientation or culture.

Witches form a circle at intersectional witch shop Cult Party in Brooklyn.
Brujeria priestess Linnet Caban makes offerings to invoke the orisha, deities honored in Santeria and other Caribbean and South American religions.
Mayan copal incense burns in the Washington home of medicine tribe member Lucinda Ramos.
Clockwise from top: Witches form a circle at intersectional witch shop Cult Party in Brooklyn. Mayan copal incense burns in the Washington home of medicine tribe member Lucinda Ramos. Brujeria priestess Linnet Caban makes offerings to invoke the orisha, deities honored in Santeria and other Caribbean and South American religions.
Garden witch April Ramée, a trained herbalist, prepares to light a fire in her backyard in Washington.
Glitter witch and performance artist Alex D'Agostino performs a tarot reading at his studio in Baltimore.
Elizabeth Autumnalis performs a memorial ritual for the witches executed after the Salem witch trials.
Clockwise from top: Garden witch April Ramée, a trained herbalist, prepares to light a fire in her backyard in Washington. Elizabeth Autumnalis performs a memorial ritual for the witches executed after the Salem witch trials. Glitter witch and performance artist Alex D'Agostino performs a tarot reading at his studio in Baltimore.
Glamour witch and gender non-binary performance artist P. Noir in Washington. Glamour witches see their performances as spells, with magic created between the artist and the audience.
Lucinda Ramos became immersed in Amazonian culture while working with UNICEF and UNESCO. Searching for a deeper spirituality, she turned to ayahuasca, hallucinogenic plant medicine used by shamans in the Amazon.

Chapter 2: A Church for Everyone

By Béatrice de Géa

Retired professor Allen J. Singleton of McKeesport, Pa.: “At Middle Collegiate Church I found truth, love, unconditional love, revolutionary love.”

My first encounter with Middle Collegiate Church in New York was accidental: I was covering for a fellow photographer who was stuck in Europe and couldn’t fulfill a freelance assignment there. I had no idea what I was about to experience.

That first Sunday service seven years ago was transcendent. The congregation felt like a perfect mini-world, with seemingly every race, gender, sexual orientation — even religion — represented. People of the most diverse backgrounds were hugging. Norah Jones was performing. There was a loud, joyful choir, and people were laughing, crying and dancing, hands in the air, as it sang. Pastor Jacqui Lewis’s spirit felt larger than life. I was overwhelmed. I’m used to containing my emotions when on assignment, but I found myself tearing up and applauding loudly after each hymn. I’d never felt such a sense of unity before. These people were moving mountains just by being together.

Graduate student Graham Bridgeman, 34, of New York.: “My journey has been in large part about the ... process of shattering and reconstituting that happens as I grow and discover myself more fully.”
Teacher Kaede Helck, 57, of Japan: “I’ve been in New York for seven years, and I'm struggling. ... I’m sick and tired! Why can’t we just respect each other, instead of hurting? Love, period!”
From left: Graduate student Graham Bridgeman, 34, of New York.: “My journey has been in large part about the ... process of shattering and reconstituting that happens as I grow and discover myself more fully.” Teacher Kaede Helck, 57, of Japan: “I’ve been in New York for seven years, and I’m struggling. ... I’m sick and tired! Why can’t we just respect each other, instead of hurting? Love, period!”

Middle Collegiate, with its 1,000-member congregation, is part of the Collegiate Church, an ecumenical church associated with the Reformed Church in America. It describes itself as aiming “to heal the soul and the world by dismantling racist, classist, sexist and homophobic systems of oppression.” It also places an emphasis on interfaith dialogue. It felt to me as if this church had everything figured out. This, I thought, is how I want to see the world.

In this series of portraits featuring members and friends of the church, I hope to show what it feels and looks like to be on a lifelong search for a higher spirituality. From a transgender Yale divinity student, to a gay black pastor, to a lonely Japanese immigrant in New York and others, these subjects are on different spiritual journeys and find themselves at different stages — happy, sad, angry. In our darkened world, their spirituality can sometimes feel shaken. But all their journeys have the same goal: love.

I’m agnostic and don’t belong to any organized religion myself, but I feel disrespectful saying that I don’t believe in God. I remember being in California after 9/11 and covering several religious services organized to help people through that time. I felt envious of those who had a religion to turn to for comfort. And I need places of worship like Middle to continue to exist so that history doesn’t keep grimly repeating itself. Perhaps I am a dreamer.

Musician Aly Palmer of the band Betty: “I never intended to be a churchgoing person. ... But I have always yearned for connection.”
Assistant teacher Beth Ellor, 74, of London: “As a Christian, as a human, I’m compelled to stand with others against the destruction of basic human rights and values.”
From left: Musician Aly Palmer of the band Betty: “I never intended to be a churchgoing person. ... But I have always yearned for connection.” Assistant teacher Beth Ellor, 74, of London: “As a Christian, as a human, I’m compelled to stand with others against the destruction of basic human rights and values.”
The Rev. Bertram Johnson, 40, of Yulee, Fla., with fiancé Jason McGill: “As an out, gay, African American pastor it took a long time to get to where I am spiritually.”
Middle Collegiate pastor Jacqui Lewis, right, with political activist Linda Sarsour: “Linda is a no-nonsense, straight-talking brave-heart. ... In a world full of hatred and misunderstanding, her confidence in me, her willingness to trust me, is salve for my all too often broken heart.”
Middle Collegiate Church transgender employee April Alexander, 46, of Sedan, Kan.: “I'm April and always have been, but never called that until now.”
From left: Middle Collegiate pastor Jacqui Lewis, right, with political activist Linda Sarsour: “Linda is a no-nonsense, straight-talking brave-heart. ... In a world full of hatred and misunderstanding, her confidence in me, her willingness to trust me, is salve for my all too often broken heart.” Middle Collegiate Church transgender employee April Alexander, 46, of Sedan, Kan.: “I'm April and always have been, but never called that until now.”

Chapter 3: Country Roads

By Timothy Ivy

Joey Moody, pastor of the Hayseed Cowboy Church in Thaxton, Miss., prepares to participate in a calf-roping event at the church arena.

Drive down a country road in Mississippi and you’re sure to pass any number of small churches serving Christians who live in the nearby communities. As the youngest son of a country preacher, I was once part of such a community, faithfully attending church services on Sunday mornings to please a God I couldn’t see and whose will I often couldn’t understand. As I grew older, I began to question the traditional teachings of my parents’ faith. Returning to Mississippi in 2013 to settle their property after my mother’s death, I wrestled with the meaning of life and the thought of my own mortality — and began a quest for my own truth. This photo project is a continuation of that journey.

Always eager to encounter different cultures and traditions, I wanted to learn what others have discovered on their journeys. This led me down a long country road in the hills of north Mississippi to the Magnolia Grove Monastery outside Batesville. This Buddhist monastery is a local attraction, drawing visitors from the area who come to learn about alternative paths to spiritual enlightenment.

A Hayseed Cowboy Church member carries his cowboy Bible to Bible study.
A barrel race is run during a rodeo in the church arena.
Pastor Moody talks with young rodeo riders.
A church member shows off his Christian-themed stirrups.
Clockwise from top left: A Hayseed Cowboy Church member carries his cowboy Bible to Bible study; a barrel race is run during a rodeo in the church arena; a church member shows off his Christian-themed stirrups; Pastor Moody talks with young rodeo riders.

Driving down U.S. Highway 278 in Thaxton, I was attracted to a red metal building with a sign that read “Hayseed Cowboy Church.” The members of this congregation practice a nontraditional Christianity. Meals are served before each Wednesday-evening and Sunday service. Jeans, dirty boots and cowboy hats replace the traditional church attire. Next to the church is a rodeo arena, offering an opportunity not only to engage in cowboy culture but also to proselytize. The parking lot is full of pickup trucks, some pulling horse trailers. Members told me they left traditional Baptist churches to attend Hayseed because of its more welcoming atmosphere.

A drive through Holly Springs brought me to an old wooden house converted into a Nation of Islam mosque. Like other branches of “the Nation,” the congregation sees itself as a source of hope in a small, predominantly African American town suffering from economic decay. At a store, I noticed a woman in a black hijab covering everything but her eyes. She told me she considers herself an amalgamate, someone who incorporates practices from various beliefs, including Islam, Buddhism and Satanism.

Despite their differing practices, what all these groups have in common is a spirituality antithetical to the conservative Christianity that still prevails in Mississippi. Its dominance, however, is not what it once was. Like me, many have questioned traditional teachings and are seeking their own paths to truth.

Sister Patricia Muhammad, coordinator of the Nation of Islam Study Group in Holly Springs, Miss., founded in 1978.
Buddhist monastics at the Magnolia Grove Monastery near Batesville, Miss., engage in a walking meditation.
Monks at the monastery meditate in silence for one hour.
Monks and nuns enjoy a game of basketball.
A monk rings the Great Bell, an important evening prayer ritual at the monastery.
Clockwise from top left: Buddhist monastics at the Magnolia Grove Monastery near Batesville, Miss., engage in a walking meditation; monks meditate in silence for one hour; a monk rings the Great Bell, an important evening prayer ritual; monks and nuns enjoy a game of basketball.
Monastics prepare for a walking meditation.

Chapter 4: Rules for Living

By Astrid Riecken

Joseph Obermayer, 58, left, and Nicolas Rutherford, 71, outside the Water Mill Community House in Water Mill, N.Y., where they run the New Thought Spiritual Center, fondly known to its members as the No Church Church.

This photo essay is intended to show how the subjects I met exercise — or better, live — their spirituality day-to-day, with a strong focus on following such universal spiritual principles as honesty, community, acceptance, humility, kindness, positive thinking and gratitude. I firmly believe that if every one of us followed these principles, the world would be a better place.

My first two subjects, Joseph Obermayer, 58, and Nicolas Rutherford, 71, are two of the founders of the New Thought Spiritual Center in Water Mill, N.Y., fondly known to its members as the No Church Church because it adheres to no formal religion. Every Sunday, the diverse 100-member congregation celebrates universal spiritual principles during their worship service and the community meetings that follow. Everyone is welcome at the New Thought Spiritual Center. It’s a place of no judgment. Instead of looking at what differentiates them, members focus on what they have in common. The emphasis is on inclusiveness, peace, caring for one another and showing compassion.

Chaplains of the New Thought Spiritual Center gather before Sunday service.
Chaplain Adele Kristiansson hugs a member of the congregation.
At the end of the service, the congregation joins hands for a final prayer.
Clockwise from top left: Chaplains of the New Thought Spiritual Center gather before Sunday service; chaplain Adele Kristiansson hugs a member of the congregation; at the end of the service, the congregation joins hands for a final prayer.

Obermayer and Rutherford are recovering alcoholics. They were already embarked upon a spiritual quest, but it was in Alcoholics Anonymous, they say, that they found the structure that enabled them to form their community. Today, after decades of sobriety, both believe that social illnesses can be combated through spiritual principles. By building and nurturing a community, members learn that they are not alone in the world.

Siri Rishi, a 47-year-old yoga and meditation teacher in New York, is my third subject. A Native American, she has been practicing meditation since her father gave her a book about it when she was 19. I photographed her in Sagaponack, N.Y., as well as during a gong meditation session at the RA MA Institute for Applied Yogic Science and Technology in Manhattan, where she teaches Kundalini yoga, a form of yoga that connects students with their own energy.

Siri Rishi holds a gong meditation session at the RA MA Institute for Applied Yogic Science and Technology in Manhattan.

Kindness, compassion and love are fundamental principles in Siri Rishi’s life. How does she adhere to them? Every day, she says, she focuses on selfless services: “I speak to people in the subway, I make eye contact, I smile.” People who are suffering need to be seen and acknowledged, she says. “One morning I saw a woman crying on a train. She was sobbing. I reached out to her, touched her shoulder and said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ The woman just looked at me and smiled. She stopped crying.”

Siri Rishi drums and dances on the beach at Sagaponack, N.Y.

Kate Warren is a photographer in Washington. Béatrice de Géa is a New York-based photographer. Timothy Ivy is a photographer based in Oxford, Miss. Astrid Riecken is a photographer based in Washington and New York.

Credits: Story by Dudley M. Brooks. Designed by Michael Johnson. Photo Editing by Dudley Brooks.