Church of the Spirit

Modern Mediumship is Kept Alive by Chicago’s Spiritualist Community

By Elizabeth Elving

Dr. Kenneth James stood behind the pulpit at Church of the Spirit and smiled at the congregation. It was one of the first Sundays of the year to feel like spring and the crowd was sparse; about 40 people had trickled in during the morning meditation. “When you talk to someone about Spiritualism,” James began, “a lot of times they’ll say – ‘Isn’t that all about talking to dead people?’” He paused, letting the crowd chuckle at his remark. He asked what was wrong with that question and the answer came quickly from one of the front pews: it’s impossible to talk to dead people because there is no death.

Spiritualism is based on the concept of a “continuity of life,” in which death is only a transition to another state of being. Spiritualists believe that intuitive people known as Mediums can receive messages from the spirit world and deliver them to people in this one. This idea captivated Americans in the 19th century when the sisters Leah, Kate, and Maggie Fox of Hydesville, New York, traveled the country showcasing their apparent ability to commune with the dead through mysterious knocking sounds. The Fox Sisters were widely discredited in their lifetime, and for most people their legacy is a dim historical footnote. But not everyone believes they were frauds.

“In our lives today we’re so rushed and everything is so immediate. Everything has to be ‘now’ so we become outward oriented.”

– Dr. Kenneth James

Today, in a society flooded with information, where a sharply rising number of Americans are forgoing religion entirely, Spiritualism survives. There are four Spiritualist churches currently operating in Chicago, according to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. Chicagoans attend services to receive readings, connect with lost loved ones, and become Mediums themselves (“We believe anyone and everyone is Mediumistic,” says Cher Dyle, 64, assistant pastor at Church of the Spirit.) In Chicago and elsewhere, prominent Mediums give workshops on how to become more sensitive to the spirit world. These workshops encourage people to reflect and look inward for answers – a feat that was surely easier in the 1800s when there wasn’t a barrage of multi-screen media competing for their attention. For the people who faithfully attend these churches and events, the disruption of modern technology only proves how vital the practice is.  But it’s unclear whether that faith will be enough to sustain the religion through its third century.

Chicago’s Oldest Spiritualist Church

The Church of the Spirit occupies a modest brick building no bigger than the houses on either side of it in Logan Square. A passerby could mistake it for a house itself were it not for a tall stained glass window and a sign planted in the front yard. The window depicts Jesus Christ holding a lamb, a holdover from the building’s past life as an Evangelical church. But the sign spells out what it is today: “Chicago’s Oldest Spiritualist Church.” Established in 1897, the church has been in the Logan Square building since 1915.

“People recognize it within themselves. They’ll have those experiences that make them think, ‘I want to know more’ and here’s a church that embraces that.”

– Cher Dyle

Spiritualism is its own religion, but a look inside the chapel at Church of the Spirit reveals strong ties to Christianity. The pews are equipped with hymnals containing Christmas classics like “Oh Holy Night” and congregants recite the Lord’s Prayer during services. Even Jesus is not entirely out of place on the stained glass window, as some believe he was a Spiritualist Medium. “For us, Jesus is an example. We call him our brother,” says Dyle, who like many of today’s Spiritualists was raised Christian. Twenty-two years ago Dyle was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and faced surgery. On a friend’s recommendation she went to Church of the Spirit for a reading, which she said gave her confidence to go into the surgery unafraid. She became a member, took “unfoldment classes” to develop her mediumistic abilities and six years ago began teaching them herself.

Many of the church’s roughly 100 members migrated to Spiritualism after an experience that their previous religion could not explain. Some interpret an intuition or gut feeling as a sign of budding clairvoyance and come looking for answers. “People recognize it within themselves,” Dyle says, “They’ll have those experiences that make them think ‘I want to know more,’ and here’s a church that embraces that.”

“I recognize there’s something special about me. It’s a daily acceptance,” says Paloma Webster, 53, a hospice nurse who has been going to Church of the Spirit for 10 years. Webster says she started having visions at a young age, which frightened her at times. She says being part of the community at Church of the Spirit has helped her come to terms with her own abilities, which have in turn helped with her chosen line of work. “You have to be a special kind of person to work in hospice,” she says. “You have to believe in something bigger than what you see.”

Church of the Spirit Sign
Chicago’s Oldest Spiritualist Church was established in 1897 and holds services every Sunday (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)

Developing Your Spiritual Potential

Outside of Spiritualist churches, well-regarded Mediums give unfoldment classes like entrepreneurs give motivational talks.  The Rev. B. Anne Gehman is a Medium and clairvoyant known for applying her skills to secular pursuits like helping police solve crimes and locate missing children. She is the subject of a book The Priest and the Medium, by Suzanne Geisemann, which begins with an anecdote in which a young Gehman predicts the JFK assassination while working as a dental assistant.

On the weekend of April 18 Gehman, now a youthful 79, led a workshop, Developing your Spiritual Potential, at the Unity Church on the North Shore in Evanston. About 100 people attended the event, some clutching worn copies of the Priest and the Medium in hopes of an autograph. Gehman is poised and petite, with coiffed grey curls and tomato red nail polish. She spent the first hour of the event fielding an astounding scope of questions, most of which she answered as quickly and confidently as if she were being asked her home address.

Is there free will?

“Yes.”

Is there life on other planets?

“Probably.”

Will we be reunited with our loved ones after we die?

“Yes.”

Does that include pets?

“Oh, yes.”

In fact, for 18 years Gehman had a pet poodle that she dyed pink by rinsing its coat with beet juice. One day after the pet passed on, Gehman was lying in bed when she noticed little paw prints on the covers approaching her, and felt a sudden warmth at her side.

One woman asked why it is that some people are born intuitive while others have to work at it. Gehman responded that it was like music, where anyone can develop the skills but some people are natural prodigies. Dyle has a similar response when asked the same question: “Almost anyone can learn how to play piano. But most people are not Beethoven.”

In training the non-Beethovens of Spiritualism, Gehman turns to psychometry – the practice of reading objects. In Gehman’s workshop, participants were divided into pairs and asked to exchange personal items. They traded rings, watches, glasses, and spent a few minutes in silence concentrating on what they felt while holding them. At the end of the exercise, a few eagerly raised their hands and described how the vision of a landscape materialized before them, or how a profound sadness washed over them as they handled their partner’s trinket. Others sheepishly confessed that they had seen nothing, felt nothing.

“We always need to be developing Mediums. The pastor might be thinking of retiring at some point so we really need to work on leadership and development.”

– Cher Dyle

As a teacher Gehman was good-natured but firm, cautioning her pupils to use their newfound talents wisely. “You wouldn’t go looking in someone’s pocketbook. Don’t read their aura without asking,” she said. Whenever someone ventured to describe an intuition as “weird” she cautioned against the word. “It’s not weird. It’s wonderful.” Some who attended the event seemed genuinely intent on developing their spiritual potential, taking diligent notes and asking about the logistics of giving readings. But others likely paid the $60 cost of admission just to see Gehman at work. This was evident in the way the crowd livened up when the time came for her to demonstrate her own skills.

Gehman delivered readings from a podium, calling on individuals from the crowd and describing the figures she claimed to see around them. These figures were typically family members or distant ancestors (Gehman described one woman in Victorian garb, another in traditional American Indian dress), but always with some emotional link to the receiver. Love, she explained, was like a gravitational force connecting the spirit world to ours.

Finding New Leadership

Dyle gives messages in a similar fashion at Church of the Spirit, calling them “platform readings.” On the spring Sunday after James had finished his speech she took her place at the pulpit, flanked by an American flag one on side and a flag bearing the Spiritualist symbol of a sunflower on the other. She called on the congregants one by one to stand and receive their message. “I see three generations standing around you. They approve of what you’re doing and they want you to go further,” she said to one woman in the crowd. Dyle says these readings may not make sense right away, but the meaning will hopefully reveal itself over time. “Everything they have told me has come true,” Webster says. “Every, every, every thing.”

“People’s minds are not conducive any more to being able to just reflect internally and let there be a stillness.”

– Chris Bott

Spiritualism is a young religion, but not a youthful one. Gehman’s workshop did not appear to attract any of the roughly 20,000 students at nearby Northwestern University. The average age of Church of the Spirit members is fifty. The current pastor, the Rev. Marrice Coverson, recently celebrated her 25th anniversary with the church. “We always need to be developing Mediums,” Dyle says. “The pastor might be thinking of retiring at some point so we really need to work on leadership and development.”

Concern over retaining the interest of the next generation is nothing new. In his book Spiritualism Today (published in 1969) Spiritualist author Maurice Barbanell writes, “Modern scientific discoveries have made religious orthodoxy more and more unacceptable. Youth is no longer satisfied with what was good enough for their fathers.” His concern is echoed by Chris Bott, 34, Director of Music at Unity Church on the North Shore who coordinated Gehman’s workshop. “People’s minds are not conducive any more to being able to just reflect internally and let there be a stillness,” he says.

Embracing Non-Rational Knowledge

Dr. Kenneth James, 63, is an assistant pastor at Church of the Spirit, a Jungian Analyst and founder of the Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago. His professional and spiritual life has always centered on what he calls “non-rational sources of knowledge,” and he likens the Jungian practice of dream interpretation to the work of Mediums. In both cases, he says, the person receiving the message has to be patient and look inward to understand the meaning. “It allows somebody to become more reflective about their experience and notice things that they wouldn’t notice,” he says. “In our lives today we’re so rushed and everything is so immediate. Everything has to be ‘now’ so we become outward oriented.”

“Everything they have told me has come true. Every, every, every thing.”

– Paloma Webster

James worries that in the information age people get wrapped up in the illusion of certainty and dismiss anything that can’t be proven. “We live in an era where absence of evidence is interpreted as evidence of absence,” he says. And while all religions require faith in the unexplainable, Spiritualism is not anchored by thousands of years of history. It has no text, no commandments, no saints or even high-profile celebrity devotees. What it has is what James calls “one of the most diverse communities I’ve ever experienced in a church setting. A really unique group of people.” It falls on those people to keep the tradition alive in an increasingly secular and cacophonous modern world.

A framed drawing of the Fox Sisters’ home hangs in the chapel at Church of the Spirit. But these women are not credited with founding Mediumship, only the religion based around it. “It’s like gravity,” Dyle says. “Did Newton invent gravity? No. It was always there but there was an awareness and then a connection was made.” It is this connection – either to departed spirits in another world or kindred spirits in this one – that keeps the members of Church of the Spirit coming back every week.

Photo at top: The Church of the Spirit has been at its Logan Square location since 1915 (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)