We know the City Council members. We’ve met the restaurateurs and the neighborhood activists. We know where to find the schoolteachers and the yogis. But some of our neighbors are less familiar — like the Christian mystics that live down the street from me.
I noticed this group of women. A few of them wore collars and crosses around their necks, like Catholic priests. I often saw them gardening. They had a garage sale one time, and I bought two filing cabinets. One of the women offered to drive the cabinets to my house a couple blocks away.
So I asked, what’s the deal? Are you nuns? Not exactly, it turned out.
Christian mysticism is Christianity that focuses on a direct experience of god. In the Order of Christ Sophia that union is reached through meditation. The Center of Light, located on the corner of Pleasant and 26th, is one of 10 Order of Christ Sophia schools in the U.S. The group’s practices are unusual, which is probably why they’ve been labeled a cult by individuals including New Jersey based anti-cult consultant Rick Ross.
Estelle Gabriel has heard it before. She’s a member of the Order of Mercy, one of five Minneapolis residents who commit to live at the center and serve the outside community by doing neighborhood cleanups and visiting elderly folks at Ebenezer and Walker Methodist senior homes. Now she’s in nursing school, but at her last job Gabriel heard through the grapevine that coworkers were saying she was a cult member.
“I was like, ‘But aren’t you paying attention to me? Can’t you tell who I am?’” she said. “It’s convenient to say, oh it’s a cult, because then they can kind of write it off.
“What I think would have been really cool is if they had just asked me questions.”
The Order of Christ Sophia was founded in 1999 by Peter Bowes and Clare Watts. The group has been in Minneapolis since 2005, and the Pleasant Avenue center opened in 2010. Minneapolis Reverend Lucille Cozzolino traces the group’s roots to the Holy Order of MANS, a new religious movement strong in the 1970s that attracted thousands of followers.
The movement incorporated Eastern and Western religious philosophies and had ties to the hippie movement. According to Cozzolino, evangelizers used to minister to stoners on the street. But the community dissolved after the group’s leader died.
MANS and Sophia are not the same. For one, the newer group doesn’t proselytize, so they have nowhere near the thousands of followers that MANS did. Lucille counts 20 to 30 members in Minneapolis, ranging from live-in community members to those who drop in on the occasional Sunday service.
They believe in Christ but also in reincarnation, and meditation is the center of their religious practice. Relationship purity is a tenant — ideally no sex before marriage — but they’re for gay rights and against war. They cultivate tight, esoteric communities, but they also invite outsiders to secular events, like a monthly conscious movie night, where they show films meant to cultivate political consciousness.
The group sees Jesus and Mary as co-redeemers. Cozzolino speculates that that’s one reason they don’t attract many converts from Christianity. Although if a belief doesn’t fit with a community member’s experience, leaders recommend they let it go until it does.
Gabriel was raised Catholic and wanted nothing to do with Christianity when she first encountered the group. Not to say she wasn’t spiritual — she had completed shamanic trainings, followed Hinduism, and was running a yoga center with her husband in Connecticut.
She was annoyed when she found out he had rented the studio to some crazy Christian group. She stayed away, but after they left she would sometimes see seminars with names that peaked her interest, only to toss the flyers aside when she saw who the host was. Finally she showed up to a reading at a library, only to realize it was put on by the Order of Christ Sophia. She sat down anyways, and the rest is history.
A few things kept her coming back. She said she felt the group leaders were speaking from their own experiences, not from something they had been taught, and they gave members freedom to do the same. “You can disagree. You can have your own experience, figure out what it means to you,” she said.
Other community members interviewed said the group’s sometimes intense focus on community and getting in touch with feelings helped them grow emotionally as well as spiritually.
Gabriel recalls the first time she saw online posts about the group’s supposed cult status. “I emailed my priest about it,” she said. “He never got that email. What happened was that I had to sit with it myself and come to my own decision.”
“The only way to prove you’re not a witch is to die, so there’s really no falsifiability,” Cozzolino said. “It’s not a useful word and I really think it should be eliminated.”