Sacred Garden Church, an intriguing experiment on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay, emerged from a network of drug-reform advocates who in 2019 convinced the Oakland City Council to direct its police department to stop arresting people for using plant-based psychedelics like magic mushrooms and ayahuasca.
Sacred Garden calls itself “a multi-sacrament church.” Included are magic mushrooms, plants containing such psychedelic compounds as mescaline and DMT, and also psychoactive chemicals like MDMA and LSD.
You can believe almost anything you want and join the Sacred Garden. Members of this “post-modern church” adhere to a “faith of least dogma.” But they are required to at least be open to the possibility that psychedelics — used with care and respect — may provide access to the “divine.”
This open-minded exploration is gently led by the church’s senior pastor, Bob “Otis” Stanley, a Tennessee born-and-bred authority on the psychoactive properties of a dizzying array of plants and fungi. Stanley has ancestors with deep Quaker roots, but grew up in the 1970s in a conservative Methodist family.“I’m not a Christian. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not an indigenous practitioner,” Stanley said. “There is something that is divine, but we are not trying to define that.”
“Religions assert all kinds of things,” said Stanley, who holds a masters of divinity degree from the University of Chicago. “Christianity will say after you die you go to heaven. Buddhism might say if you meditate like this for many lifetimes, eventually you’ll have some nirvana. That’s lovely. I don’t know what happens when I die, but this I know. It is possible to have a direct experience of the divine — whether you call it satori or God coming and saying ‘hello.’ We can have that experience in this lifetime…That’s why we need these sacraments.”
Some scholars and sociologists of religion see churches like Sacred Garden and the broader psychedelic renaissance as part of a transition from an era of word-based religion to a time of experienced-based spirituality. In this view, psychedelics are a powerful force for revival — like the printing press was for the 16th century church reforms of Martin Luther.
Among those academics is Thomas B. Roberts, a professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, who began teaching college courses on psychedelics in the early 1980s. Roberts, most recently the author of 2019 book MindApps, said churches like Sacred Garden “can provide experiential depth to what had previously been abstract words.”
“Ideas such as awe, sacredness, eternity, grace, agape, transcendence, dark night of the soul, born again, heaven and hell, divinity, blessedness, gratitude, adoration, faith and forgiveness may take on new depths of meaning,” he said. “They become alive.”
Over the last two years, Sacred Garden Church has grown to about 90 “confirmed practitioners,” members who have gone through a three-month period of preparation that is required before they can participate in psychedelic ceremonies. (That includes the author of this story, who joined as part of his own entheogenic exploration and to offer an inside account of the congregation as a participant/observer.)
The church is one of about a dozen congregations in the Sacred Plant Alliance, which seeks through self-regulation to promote ethics, accountability, safety and legal aid in emerging psychedelic communities. Most of its member organizations are still operating underground, or just started to come out in the open.
Unlike two ayahuasca-based churches profiled in earlier stories in this series, Sacred Garden has not sought an exemption to federal drug laws under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Nevertheless, Stanley and church attorneys assert that they “are practicing within the intent of religious freedom protections” offered by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“As we are engaged in sincere religious practice, the burden is on the government to avoid interfering with our practice. To date, formally petitioning the government has required churches to stop their sacred practices while the petition is considered,” he said. “Churches have waited for years with no response.”
Stanley’s psychedelic journey began in the 1980s with a series of teenage acid trips
with some friends in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. “All the trees started going into patterns and moving toward me. The air became solid light. Everything became light and I was part of that — golden white light. These are things you can’t explain, but eternity was present…So I recognize LSD as a sacrament by direct revelation.”
Bob begins to tear up when starts looking back on his psychedelic baptism. “It’s hard to talk about the most precious experiences of my life…when LSD opened that experience to me…to eternity, to the love of God. It helped me let go of suffering and become more loving. That was, without question, the experience of sacrament.”
We are sitting in Bob’s kitchen. He’s one of several tenants living in an old red brick industrial building in the Oakland flats, not far from downtown. Before we sat down he gave me a tour of his own sacred garden, dozens of plants growing in a variety of large ceramic and black plastic pots on what was once a parking lot and loading area for delivery trucks. Most of these plants contain some kind of psychoactive compound. “These are sacred plants of the Big Sky, the mescaline containing plants,” he says, pointing to a stand of large vertical cacti. “People in the U.S. call them San Pedro, but that’s a post-colonial name. Some now prefer to call them wachuma. They have Big Sky Spirit.”
Later on my tour, I ask Bob which plants he uses to produce changa, a smoking blend at the center of the church’s psychedelic initiation ritual. “Those are the deep forest plants,” he says, reaching out to touch the leaves of a psychotria alba plant growing out of a black plastic pot. “The White Queen. Some people call it chacruna.”
When I take a picture of the plant, Bob bursts into a song of gratitude, as he often does when giving his plant sermons. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” he sings. “Beautiful plants!”
Moving on, he stops to pay his respects to an ayahuasca vine, the other ingredient in his changa blend. “This one is three or four years old and survived a cold snap. I’ve got one inside that’s fifteen years old. These tend to grow in shaded and wet areas. They help us to go deep within, to deal with things that need to be transformed. Deep forest plants help you go down and bring up things in your life and convert them to fruits and flowers or healthy things.”
Bob’s black cat, Bill, slinks around the potted jungle and starts nibbling on some long grasses which also contain DMT.
Later, sitting in his kitchen, Bob explains why he feels it’s important to have a variety of psychedelic sacraments — some from nature and some from the laboratory. “We had a good friend who just did not respond to ayahuasca. He could drink five cups and nothing would happen. LSD was effective for him. Others don’t respond to mushrooms, but do with wachuma. In our church, anything that helps us make a divine connection is required. Some people may have so much shame and they just go deep into endless shame with mushrooms and hate themselves more. But MDMA might help them move through that and work with it…We’re letting the city know what we are doing here with these practices, and that we consider all these things to be sacraments.”
Bob Stanley was born in 1966 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home of the national laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Energy and originally built to develop the atomic bomb. His father, a doctor and chief of staff at the local hospital, raised his kids in the Methodist church, but was open to exploring various elements of the so-called “New Age” movement in the 1970s and 1980s. There were books by Carlos Castaneda (The Teachings of Don Juan) and Charles Tart (Altered States of Consciousness) in the family library, which Bob started reading at a young age. Bob first turned on during the “Just Say No” era of the Reagan administration. His father supported Reagan politically, but was also open to psychedelic revelation. In the 1990s, Bob and his dad both went to seminars at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, and even traveled together to ayahuasca and mushroom retreats in Brazil and Mexico. His teachers include the late Terence McKenna, the still-popular mystic/ethnobotanist, and the late Anne and Sasha Shulgin, the psychedelic chemist and “the Godfather of Ecstasy.”
“I was trying to understand how consciousness worked. What is being? What happens when your ego dissolves and all of time and space are present? The Christian churches in Tennessee were not helping me make sense of the experiences I was having with these entheogens. Maybe a little, with Jesus talking about love. My family was more of a seeking family than a knowing family, but we had our creed. My brother Daniel, a very observant Anglican Christian, would ask me things like, ‘Does your God have a personality, a character you can relate to?’ I’d say. ‘Yes but the God of that mystical experience is a God that is truly beyond words and beyond the capacity to ever be defined. God is everything — probably even a man on a throne in the sky for all I know. God has the personality of all personalities. My guess is that God will relate to me in whatever way I am capable of relating to him or her.”
Bob’s inability to find answers in the church in Tennessee inspired a five-month pilgrimage to India in the 1980s, but he was mostly disappointed with the ashrams and gurus he encountered there. Today, he does not apologize for taking short cuts to nirvana via psychedelic drugs and sacred plant medicines. “Sure,” he says, “I could spend my life doing mindfulness meditation, and I’d make some progress, but I’m confident that I would never have had the kind of experiences I’ve had with LSD or DMT.”
According to his community’s public website, the “etheric body” of this church was founded “at the beginning of time.” It has been a “practicing group” since 1984, an apparent reference to a small group that formed after Bob’s LSD revelation as a teenager back in the Smoky Mountains. Sacred Garden was officially founded as a non-profit church when its organizers filed papers with the state of California in April 2020.
Between forty and sixty congregants attend the weekly Sunday services — some via Zoom and some at a rented light-filled sanctuary on the Oakland/Berkeley border. Like all churches, Sacred Garden struggled to keep operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were heated debates and some defections over masking, vaccination rules and testing requirements.
Sacred Garden has a board of elders and an independent ethics council designed to ensure that church leaders have accountability and operate in an ethical manner.
Earlier this year, Sacred Garden Church formally ordained a half-dozen ministers, also known as facilitators. Some were mostly trained by indigenous teachers in Latin America. Others graduated from the School of Consciousness Medicine, an underground psychedelic therapy training program originally led by Aharon Grossbard and his wife, Francoise Bourzat. (Both have since been accused of nonconsensual sexual touching and unethical romantic relationships by former students and colleagues.) Other Sacred Garden clergy have been certified in psychedelic therapy in an above-ground program run by California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Regardless of their background, ordained Sacred Garden facilitators go through additional training in the ethics, safety and mental health considerations involved in the use of various plant medicines.
Like many new churches, Sacred Garden is searching for a long-term economic model that will sustain it and provide access for low-income people. Seed money to get the church organized and provide modest salaries for a couple of staff members was donated by David Bronner, the drug reform activist, psychedelic therapy philanthropist and “cosmic engagement officer” at Dr. Bronner’s All-One Magic Soap Company. Members of the church are asked to donate, and to pay additional amounts for ceremonies like the changa initiation ceremony or individual or small group sessions facilitated by its ordained facilitators, some of whom also work as freelance guides apart from their role in the church. Bob and a small core group of members are working to design overnight ceremonies and retreats where new members can engage in deeper entheogenic exploration, such as a new “Heart Opening” ceremony that employs MDMA.
Churches and mystical movements are notoriously schismatic, and Sacred Garden is no exception. There have been debates and divisions around gender, sexuality and identity politics. One leader left over the church’s connections to Mimosa Therapeutics, a start-up company using a new approach to grow and package psilocybin. Since you can pretty much believe anything you want, church members are free to offer all kinds of testimony about their psychedelic revelations. Some may think the entities they see on DMT are real. Others are true believers in astrology or seek to promote the latest “miracle cure” for all that ails us. Meanwhile, Pastor Bob gently tries to shepherd his free-thinking flock along as best he can, letting us define the divine as we see it.
“Sacred Garden Church is not a political action group,” Bob told me. “We’re not going to be a right-wing anti-abortion church or a left-wing anti-capitalist church. We just wanted to grow community around these plant talks, to let go of the things that cause us to be mean or hateful or abusive to each other. You come here and receive soul medicine, to enter into a numinous experience of what is real.”
Upcoming: In the next installment of “God on Psychedelics,” Don Lattin offers a first-person look at Sacred Garden’s psychedelic initiation ritual.
Main image: Bob Stanley courtesy of Don Lattin.