A small church in Santa Fe, N.M., has grown up around a unique sacrament. Twice a month, the congregation meets in a ritualized setting to drink Brazilian huasca tea, which has psychoactive properties said to produce a trance-like state.
The Supreme Court confirmed the UDV church's right to exist in 2006. The church doesn't seek new members and prefers to keep a low profile. It did, however, agree for the first time to open up to a journalist.
UDV stands for Uniao do Vegetal — literally translated "the union of the plants." Huasca tea is brewed from two plants: a vine and the leaves of a bush found in the Amazonian forest. The concoction contains DMT, which is considered a powerful and illegal hallucinogen by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
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.
The Church Service
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 pocket in preparation for tonight's session.
The Santa Fe church is the largest of the six UDV congregations in the country, numbering only 300 members in all. There are 17,000 practitioners in Brazil, where the church started.
The UDV in the U.S. 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 NPR asked not to record interviews with individual members.)
Barbara, an electrologist, says the tea cured her Lyme disease; Satara, a substitute teacher, claims huasca amplifies perception of herself and the world — like turning up the volume on a radio. Joaquin, a tattooed massage therapist, says the tea is much more spiritual than tripping on acid; and Pete, a martial arts teacher, says he's here to be part of a community of people all trying to get closer to God.
One of 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 hangs a picture of the young religion's founder, José Gabriel da Costa. Mestre Gabriel, to his followers, was a Brazilian rubber tapper who tried huasca and created a religion around it in 1961.
People turn serious as soon as a bell rings.
Not 'A Drug At All'
Tai Bixby is a real estate broker and representative mestre, or head pastor, of the Santa Fe congregation.
"We don't consider the tea to be a drug at all," Bixby says. "The effect of the tea is that it increases a person's ability to feel and perceive reality."
Jeffrey Bronfman, national UDV vice president, says people use it to connect with their spirituality.
"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," Bronfman says.
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 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.
"UDV is private," Gorman says. "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."
And with many already wanting to experience the drug, UDV has refrained from advertising.
"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," Bronfman says.
The UDV church in the U.S. has fought for its right to drink the tea.
In 1999, federal agents seized a load of huasca at Bronfman's Santa Fe office. It 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.
Opponents Speak Up
The legal battles are not over. In recent years, neighbors have been trying to thwart the building of a permanent UDV temple.
At a hearing before the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners in 2011, neuroscientist Dr. Robert Eaton worried about psychedelic pollutants in groundwater.
"I'm here to address the neurotoxic hazard of releasing ayahuasca alkaloids into the environment from the UDV septic system," Eaton said.
Lawyer Karl Sommer complained about cars leaving the church after a service.
"They're going to go home at all hours of the night and they're going to wake people up," Sommer said. "That is what has got people really upset, really nervous."
Late last year, the 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.
"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," Law says.
Time For Tea
Back at the huasca ceremony, after the bell is rung, the consumption of the tea begins.
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 to get comfortable, 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.