A Remote Arizona Church Offers Peyote-Induced Spiritual Journeys

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 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.

New Times photo illustration/Photo by Andrew Pielage
First, the Reverend Anne Zapf cuts the tops of peyote buttons, then dries them, and measures out 20 grams for the final gruel-type mixture church members imbibe.
Andrew Pielage
First, the Reverend Anne Zapf cuts the tops of peyote buttons, then dries them, and measures out 20 grams for the final gruel-type mixture church members imbibe.

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. 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, which Kent, his partner, Anne Zapf, and two of the couple's three children call home, largely is 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 looks more like a commune or a hostel 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 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.


Kent and the Reverend Zapf are hippies — an endangered breed straight out of the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s. The couple, who maintain a vegetarian diet and don't drink alcohol, 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 rarest and most powerful 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 Texas, southeastern New Mexico, and to north-central Mexico.

Anybody who has read Carlos Castaneda's books has an idea of what peyote is. Castaneda, a UCLA anthropology student turned prominent mysticism author, 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, 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 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 more, 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.

Their children had their first spirit walks at 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."

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2 comments
hurricaneric
hurricaneric moderator

Here's a Letter to the Editor we received from Peyote Way Church:


1. Carlos Castenada’s work has long been regarded as fiction by scholars. For more accurate and scientific information about peyote’s alkaloids, please consult MAPS or EROWID, or Edward Anderson’s Peyote the Divine Cactus.

2. No one is getting rich off Peyote. The holy sacrament Peyote is not for sale at the Peyote Way Church. The gross income listed in the article does not reflect the taxes paid by Mana pottery, or the cost of upkeep for buildings, vehicles that wear out quickly on the rough roads, or minimal salaries for minimal staff. Our records are available upon request
 
3. The church is tolerated and even admired by many of its Mormon and non-Mormon neighbors. Mormons tend to know a thing or two about religious persecution and do not tend to practice it. The many other friends of the church, in and out of Graham County public office, will go unnamed, but we know who you are and appreciate your kindness, acceptance, and often support over the decades.
 
4. When Immanuel and his associates purchased the land in Aravaipa, it was not in foreclosure. It was Immanuel who was often battling foreclosure to hold this beautiful 160 acres as a sanctuary for all race Peyotism.
 
5. Membership is not a one time fee, but an annual donation. We, like all other non profit organizations, depend on membership support.
 
6. To a person who considers Peyote a Holy Sacrament it is painful to hear it described as a hallucinogen. We consider the word hallucinogen to be a pejorative. It is an inaccurate term that has been used since the 50’s and 60’s to denigrate the Peyote experience and not an accurate description.
 
7. The establishment of discriminatory Peyote laws that limit Peyote use strictly to Native American members of the Native American Church, while prohibiting these same people from cultivating their holy sacrament, is a threat to the survival of this sacred plant.

Rev. Anne L Zapf, Apostle, with approval of the Peyote Way Church of God Board of Stewards

mtomchee
mtomchee

It's difficult not to quickly judge these individuals as peyote, a healing medicine to our Native peoples, has provided psychological benefits through mind-body connections. It's not surprising that non-natives have embraced this herb to heal PTSD and other ailments in their quest for spiritual enlightenment. In the early years (1950s and 1960s) the Native Americans fought unwaveringly to legalize the possession/use of this healing herb. The result is the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978. This non-profit group should follow the same suite in all fairness.


 
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