Dead... And Not So Dead > The Dead and the Undead



Gloria Nye discovered spiritualism 30 years ago when her brother said he had found the perfect religion for her. "They kind of believe what you do - that ghosts talk," said Nye, recalling her brother's words.

Years of study, training and practice have led Nye this spring to start Inner Light Spiritualist Church in Portland. Part prayer and song, part communicating with the dead, the weekly service draws 20 to 35 people on Sunday nights to a chapel borrowed from Williston-West Church.

The service has hymns and a talk that in some ways is like a sermon in a Christian church, Nye said. But the end of the service sets spiritualism apart: Church members who are mediums communicate with the dead to prove life continues after death, she said.

"I think everyone is looking to find out if there is life after death. . . . Spiritualism is the only (religion) that proves it continues," said Sharon Snowman, executive secretary of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.

The belief in an afterlife is one of several areas in which spiritualism intersects with other religions. Spiritualists believe in a higher being called God. A central part of their faith is the rule of doing unto others as you would want done unto you. The national association has a formal structure that includes ordination of pastors and Sunday school materials.

Spiritualists say they do not believe in a hell. Their belief about Jesus is that he was a great teacher, healer and medium, but not a savior. They believe in personal responsibility, not salvation.

Marcus Bruce, a religion professor at Bates College, said the concept of "crossing over" can be very comforting. The knowledge there is an afterlife with friends and family is reassuring, he said.

The Portland church joins about 150 spiritualist churches in the United States that boast an estimated 2,500 members. There are several splinter groups that describe themselves as spiritualist but are not association members.

Maine has five other spiritualist churches sanctioned by the national association, including one in South Portland. The oldest, and only one with its own building, is the Augusta Spiritualist Church, which opened in 1924.

Church officials say they see spiritualism gaining respect from mainstream Americans because of the television program "Crossing Over." On it, a medium says he connects with dead relatives or friends of people in the studio audience.

"I feel that has helped out the religion quite a bit," said Earl L. Wallace, pastor of the Augusta church.

Church members meet skeptics who dismiss their ability to communicate with the dead. But they add that once a person witnesses a medium working, it is hard for them to continue their denial.

Spiritualism seems to walk a line between traditional religion and a modern movement toward psychic networks and spiritual healing, said Elizabeth Pritchard, a religion professor at Bowdoin College.

The religion is based in the Second Great Awakening of the 1840s. Modern spiritualism began when the Fox sisters in upstate New York communicated with a peddler who was murdered in the family cottage. From there, the idea of mediums and their ability to communicate with the dead has been debated and researched.

A more modern aspect of the new Portland church is its plan to have mediums speak with the dead in front of an audience as a way to raise money. Nye also performs therapy sessions in which as she contacts spirits of ancestors to help people work through problems, for which she charges a modest fee.

For the Rev. Eric Kelley, pastor of the Williston-West Church, which is part of the United Church of Christ, the decision to allow spiritualists to use the chapel was easy. He described the two religions as "very, very different," but said various religions do not need to agree.


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