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In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a small church has grown up around a unique sacrament. Twice a month, the congregation meets in a ritualized setting to drink Brazilian huasca tea. Its psychoactive properties are said to produce a trance-like state. The UDV Church, whose right to exist was confirmed by the Supreme Court, does not seek new members and prefers to keep a low profile.
It did, however, agree for the first time to open up to a journalist, NPR's John Burnett.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: UDV stands for Uniao do Vegetal, literally, the union of the plants. Huasca tea is brewed from two plants: a vine and the leaves of a bush, both found in the Amazonian forest. The concoction contains DMT, considered a powerful and illegal hallucinogen by the DEA.
Anthropologists who've trekked to the Amazon to try the Vine of the Soul, as it's called, have described the intense experience it produces as death, returning to the cosmic uterus and rebirth. So, this is no ordinary congregation, even though it sounds like people are arriving for a church supper.
Sixty people are gathering inside a large salon in a nondescript adobe house south of Santa Fe. They're hugging, visiting, and pulling on forest-green shirts with the letters UDV on the pockets in preparation for tonight's session.
The Santa Fe church is the largest of the six UDV congregations in this country, numbering only 300 members in all. There are 17,000 practitioners in Brazil, where the church started. UDV USA is extremely media-shy, fearing misunderstanding and caricaturing of its beliefs and practices. Most members are private about their huasca religion. The church elders who invited me ask me not to record interviews with the members, but I'm free to mix and take notes.
I meet Barbara, an electrologist who says the tea cured her Lyme disease and Satara, a substitute teacher who claims huasca amplifies perception of herself and the world, like turning up the volume on a radio. There's Joaquin, a tattooed massage therapist, who says the tea is much more spiritual than tripping on acid. And Pete, a martial arts teacher, who says he's here to be part of a community of people all trying to get closer to God.
One of the surprising things that strikes you about this church is how structured it is. The lengthy bylaws are read during every ceremony. Members wear uniforms. They sit in identical folding green chairs arranged in concentric rings facing an altar, above which hangs a picture of the young religion's founder, Jose Gabriel da Costa. Mestre Gabriel, to his followers, was a Brazilian rubber tapper who tried huasca and created a religion around it in 1961.
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BURNETT: People turn serious as soon as the bell sounds. We'll return to the ceremony in a few minutes.
Tai Bixby is a real estate broker and head pastor of the Santa Fe congregation. He's followed by Jeffrey Bronfman, national UDV vice president.
TAI BIXBY: And we don't consider the tea to be a drug at all. The effect of the tea is that it increases a person's ability to feel and perceive reality.
JEFFREY BRONFMAN: The tea is really an instrument to help us get in touch with our own spiritual nature. It's not something that takes people into a state of disorientation.
BURNETT: Curiosity about the psychedelic tea has led to a boom in ayahuasca tourism, another name for the brew. More than 40 ayahuasca lodges in Peru advertise on the Internet with pitches like: Your vibrations will begin to harmonize with the flow of nature. Click here for rates.
Some of the experiences turn out very badly. Articles have described a few spiritual seekers who've died or gone berserk during rituals and women who've been molested by unscrupulous shamans.
Peter Gorman is a journalist, former editor of High Times magazine, and a veteran ayahuasca practitioner who lives south of Fort Worth. He says the UDV Church couldn't be more different than ayahuasca tourism.
PETER GORMAN: UDV is private. If you knocked on their door, you wouldn't get in. That's different than someone who says, I'll charge everybody $500, I'll get 15 people Friday, 15 people Saturday, and I'll get 30 people at $500 - 15,000.
BURNETT: Again, UDV Vice President Jeffrey Bronfman.
BRONFMAN: Honestly, the degree to which people find us and want to come and become involved is at an accelerated rate already for us. So we're not looking to add to it by promoting.
BURNETT: The UDV Church in America has fought for its right to drink the tea. In 1999, federal agents seized a load of huasca at Bronfman's Santa Fe office. That led to a seven-year legal fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court. A unanimous opinion held that if Native Americans can eat peyote legally, then the UDV can drink huasca. The 2006 decision has since been cited in more than 300 federal cases.
And their legal battles are not over. In recent years, neighbors have been trying to thwart the building of a permanent UDV temple.
DR. ROBERT EATON: I'm here to address the neurotoxic hazard of releasing the ayahuasca alkaloids into the environment from the UDV septic system.
BURNETT: At a hearing before the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners in 2011, neuroscientist Dr. Robert Eaton worried about psychedelic pollutants in the groundwater. Lawyer Karl Sommer complained about all the cars leaving the church after a service.
KARL SOMMER: They're going to go home at all hours of the night and they're going to wake people up. That is what has got people really upset, really nervous.
BURNETT: Late last year, the Santa Fe County settled with UDV. The agreement includes the construction of a water treatment plant and a wall around the future facility. Though the neighbors' lawsuit is still active, the church is pressing ahead for a building permit for its new temple, says national UDV president Solar Law.
SOLAR LAW: We're growing slowly and gradually and working to clarify our position before the authorities, to really gain this right that other churches have to have a dignified place to exist within the landscape of this country.
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BURNETT: We're back at the huasca ceremony. After the bell is rung, they ask me to turn off my recorder. The smiling, green-shirted congregants line up at the altar. The chief mestre fills their glasses with a murky liquid that looks like tamarind juice. Church leaders bring the tea up from Brazil several times a year in locked containers, along with a permission form from the DEA.
On cue, the UDV faithful raise their glasses and chant in Portuguese: May God guide us on the path of light forever and ever. Amen, Jesus. The church calls itself a Christian spiritist religion.
Then, it's bottoms up. Some reach for fruit and Altoids to kill the bitter taste. A few head to the bathroom to vomit. They settle into their chairs, position pillows and blankets, and then the four-hour ceremony of the Church of the Union of Plants commences, with all the excitement of watching a roomful of people fall asleep in front of a TV.
John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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