By Gustavo Arellano
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By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
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By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
A tall, heavy-set man with shaggy blond hair and straight-cropped bangs stands in the middle of an empty gravel parking lot. He looks around aimlessly, hands shoved in his pockets.
When he sees a car pulling up, he turns, hands still stuffed in his pockets, and hurries over to a small building with a satellite on the roof and a serape covering the door.
"Someone's here," he says into the darkened building.
A minute later, a small, wiry man wearing tight, black yoga pants, a fanny pack and a baseball cap pulled over a graying ponytail appears in the doorway and moves across the lot with a mountain goat's spring in his step.
"Hello, I'm Matthew," he says, a grin touching the corners of his mouth. "Welcome to Peyote Way."
This is Matthew Kent, one of the two primary spiritual leaders of Peyote Way Church of God near Safford, Arizona. On this afternoon, "Rabbi" Kent has just finished an interview with two filmmakers from California who are working on a documentary about his church. The blond man wandering around the property, he says, is preparing for one of the church's "spirit walks."
In the distance, the peak of Mount Graham, a Western Apache holy site, is dusted with snow.
Although not a house of worship in the traditional sense—there's no steeple, no ornate architecture, no flowing robes or pulpit—Peyote Way is, in fact, a church. It was founded based on the beliefs of Peyotism, a Native American religion that uses the hallucinogen peyote as a sacrament and combines the teachings of various other mainstream organized religions—including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism and Islam—in its doctrine.
The church's 160-acre property—where Kent, his partner, Anne Zapf, and two of the couple's three children call home—is largely undeveloped. There are a few rustic buildings, a pottery studio, and two or three small trailers clustered around an empty swimming pool in the main lot. The place resembles a commune or a hostel more than a church.
It's hard to believe that people from across the United States and as far away as Korea, Russia and Afghanistan come to the scrub-brush southeastern Arizona desert searching, as Kent says, for enlightenment, God or simply a reconnection with nature. But they do—maybe because, according to Kent, it's the only place in the country that does what it does.
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Kent and the "Reverend" Zapf are hippies—an endangered breed straight out of the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s. They maintain a vegetarian diet, don't drink alcohol, and are lean and healthy-looking. As 60-year-olds, they easily could pass for people in their early 50s. Their three children were born at Peyote Way and are in their late 20s or early 30s. Joseph, the couple's middle child, lives in Sedona and sells church pottery.
Kent and Zapf say they adhere to their old counterculture's main tenets—peace, love and the use of mind-altering drugs to expand consciousness—to survive in today's consumer culture.
Peyote, one of the most powerful and rarest natural hallucinogens, is key to the church's spiritual practice. The holy sacrament peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a spineless cactus native to the Rio Grande Valley of southeastern New Mexico and Texas, as well as to north-central Mexico.
Anybody who has read Carlos Castaneda's books has an idea of what peyote is. A UCLA anthropology student turned prominent mysticism author, Castaneda documented his experiences ingesting peyote. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was published in 1968. At Peyote Way, visitors get a version of the experiences Castaneda wrote about.
But Kent warns that coming to Peyote Way with expectations is a recipe for disappointment. "It's hard to come here without expectations, but the more you can tamp them down the better," Kent says. "When you read Carlos Castaneda or hear about somebody else's peyote experience, well, that was their peyote experience. Your peyote experience is going to be absolutely yours."
Each year, about 120 to 140 people visit the church, which requires visitors to become members with a suggested donation of $200 to $300 each, including a one-time membership fee of $50. This qualifies new adherents for an eventual spirit walk. (All of this is outlined on the church's website, www.peyoteway.org.) The church's annual income totaled about $60,000 for 2012, and the pottery business brought in about $30,000, Zapf says.
"Essentially, the way it's done here is that [people] make appointments with Anne, and they come here and fast for a day—we sort of get to know them and figure out if they're ready for the experience," Kent says.
Kent says mentally ill individuals are turned away, and people with physical disabilities are required to stay near the compound's main house while taking peyote. Determining a person's physical condition is a judgment call by Zapf and Kent.
Zapf and Kent's children had their first spirit walks when they were 14 years old.
"I figure if you're old enough to make babies, then you're old enough to know the truth of life and spend some time in reflection about who you are and what you want to be in this life," Kent says.