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Awkward Christian Soldiers 

How a Bay Area sect with an occult tinge went national, transformed itself into an odd brotherhood -- and now is gaining acceptance from the ultratraditional Orthodox Church

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999
Father David Lowell has a thing about television. He hates it.

It's a point he makes a number of times as he walks through the corridors of the Tenderloin emergency shelter Raphael House, which he has run as executive director for eight years. Tall, bespectacled, sporting a thick gray beard, and wearing a black robe, he possesses a calm air of authority as he peers into the various rooms within the shelter, from the kitchen to the laundry room to the rooftop playground to the storefront that once housed a restaurant, but now operates as a day-care center, to the thrift store operating next door. In the children's playroom he points out the toys available: simple, unpainted wooden blocks stacked neatly. Everything in Raphael House is almost clinically organized and tidy.

The families -- approximately 50 of them at any single time, who stay at the shelter for up to six months -- observe strict curfews, and the children's schedules are regulated. A library offers

rows of the Great Books, children's literature, books on the lives of the saints, and other religious texts from the Bible to the writings of the famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Adjacent to it is a small Orthodox chapel that holds regular services, though Lowell points out that attendance is never mandatory.

Like most charitable organizations, Raphael House depends on the benevolence of people who donate to it, and the list in its 1998 annual report is a long one; it includes many individuals, corporations, funds, and foundations. At the very top of the list for that year is a group called Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, which is listed at the "philanthropist" level, meaning that it contributed $25,000 or more. Raphael House and the Brotherhood, an Orthodox order that grew out of a New Age sect launched in San Francisco in the 1960s, have not had a direct relationship with each other since 1991, and a board of directors now coordinates the shelter. Christ the Saviour Brotherhood does, however, still own the property.

"It's really two separate organizations," says Father Lowell.

Across town in the Inner Sunset, Muni streetcars routinely squeak and rumble past the Archangel Bookstore, a shop specializing in books, magazines, music, and other materials related to Orthodox Christianity. It's a small place, usually scented with incense and filled with the sounds of devotional hymns and chants playing on the stereo. Magazines like The Orthodox Word fill a shelf, and a room in the rear hosts regular readings by Orthodox monks and scholars. The Archangel Bookstore is operated by the Valaam Society of America, a Brotherhood subsidiary that operates dozens of similar stores across the country.

Both are the local remnants of a strange religious movement that was launched in San Francisco over three decades ago and has, in that time, moved down a complex and controversial path. In the late '60s, San Francisco was the hub of the Holy Order of MANS, a sect with occult tendencies and a belief, among other things, that Jesus Christ was not the only son of God who walked the Earth. Through the years it would find itself transformed, as Christ the Saviour Brotherhood, into a self-described Orthodox group that used punk rock imagery to attract young converts, a practice that earned wide media attention (and the obvious headline, "Punks to Monks"); proselytized through the idea that the world is in its last days; and operated under the guidance of two defrocked priests, one of whom has a sex crime conviction.

The mainstream Orthodox Church in America has routinely criticized -- and continues to denounce -- the Brotherhood's unusual leadership and beliefs. Even so, the Church, one of the oldest and most tradition-heavy of Christianity's branches, has happily taken Brotherhood congregations into its flock, and made Brotherhood priests its own. And even while the mainstream Church makes strong protestations against the Brotherhood, it is unclear that Brotherhood members taken into the Church have left their past beliefs behind. One of the Christ the Saviour Brotherhood priests ordained by the Orthodox Church says he is still a member of the Brotherhood, launching a rhetorical battle over the very definition of a religious belief that is home to 300 million followers worldwide.

Earl Blighton was a man of ideas.

Born in New York in 1904, Blighton hopped from job to job as an electrical engineer -- to look at him, white-haired, balding, and bespectacled, is to think he was little more than an average person. Eventually finding a home in the Bay Area in the 1940s, Blighton studied religion, and he studied it widely: Blighton's explorations took him into Christianity, Buddhism, yoga, reincarnation, Rosicrucianism, tarot cards, and a belief that there had been multiple enlightened "masters" on Earth, and those still living were in possession of strange, esoteric powers. Among those living masters, of course, was Blighton.

In time, Blighton would tell people that he'd lived for 200 years in the same body, that Jesus Christ spoke directly through him, and that he could travel between the physical and spiritual planes. It was the sort of religious mythology that some kind of church could be built around, and by the 1960s he had begun his work. Gathering a handful of like-minded souls, in 1961, he convened the Science of Man Church in San Francisco. By 1968, it would become officially incorporated as the Holy Order of MANS, which kept its headquarters at 20 Steiner St. The order presented itself as a mainly Christian organization, but with a universalist and nondogmatic approach. In a Summer of Love San Francisco that was looking for spiritual revelation without the strict guidelines of formal religion, the Holy Order of MANS had little difficulty gathering members. Its believers proselytized heavily in the residence hotels of the Tenderloin, South of Market, and Haight-Ashbury districts, where the dream of peace and love was being annihilated by drugs and deterioration. In other words, the church went for easy marks.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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