Take a photo tour of Peyote Way Church of God here.
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.