On October 26th, 2006 the police raided a shop in the Beaches district of Toronto. The owner was arrested and is currently held in the prison at Penetanguishene. He was accused of trafficking and running a grow-op. The operation was both part of Health Canada's medical marijuana program and a branch of the Church of the Universe where they consider marijuana to be their sacrament.
The media coverage of the raid was more than enough to pique my curiosity. As I began researching them, I found the Church of the Universe described variously as a cult, a joke, 'the answer' or a threat to the community. Since I'm fascinated by cults, I like a good joke, I sure as hell could use 'the answer' and I'm probably big enough to survive the average threat to the community, I decided to pack away my hang-ups and preconceptions and pay a visit to the leaders of the church.
As he drives back to the mission, Brother Michael and I talk about politics. He's quite well versed as to the players on the local stage as well as the machinations of local government. Municipal elections had just taken place all over Ontario and, as he has for the last twenty-two years or so, Brother Michael has just finished running for mayor of Hamilton. He's never won. It's quite probable that he never will but he runs just the same. It seems like it's his nature to fight against forlorned hope. Thing is, he has a pretty respectable turnout. Some elections he gets more voters than others, but in every one, he manages to get his message out. It's possible to win without making a difference in the world and it's just as possible to make a difference even if you didn't win. He swings through a back alley and eases the blue Accord station-wagon into the garage, settling in beside its identical twin. Both cars, as well as the two motorcycles in the garage belong to the Church of the Universe. We climb out and enter their headquarters.
Inside, the ramshackle old house has gone through some strange mutations. It is huge and shadowy and labyrinthine. You know those dreams you had as a kid? The ones where you come home but everything in your house is strange and getting to your bedroom means navigating a complex, deadly maze full of insurmountable obstacles and lurking monsters? You know... you had them all the time. Anyway, the Church headquarters is like that, only the lurking monsters are replaced by the possibility of narcs doing a raid. All the doors are barricaded. Brother Michael Baldasaro, Brother Walter Tucker and myself head upstairs for a long talk. Both of the roach clip-reverends could be described as resembling bikers, old time prophets or roadies for Willie Nelson. Each description seems accurate in its own way. Personally I'm reminded of some friends' hippy parents from when I was a kid. It's kind of comforting. We're joined by a local filmmaker, Lee Hillman, who is doing a documentary on the Church.
You may find it tough to get a clear, unified picture of the Church of the Universe (C of U), so before you start it might just be best to accept that there isn't one. In fact, the idea of a unified vision of spirituality is against the principles of the Church, "For me to even indicate how you should pray is for me to interfere with your spirituality," says Brother Walter. A quick glance through their website [http://www.iamm.com/] suggests a jumble of religious ideas falling together from the four corners of the world. In fact there are only two rules within the organization.
1. Do not hurt yourself.
Seems simple enough. Even banal. These are principles common to nearly every religion so it seems quite unnecessary to restate them at this point. Then again, have a look at the more vociferous proponents of the major world religions. How are they doing with those rules? Making progress?
If you really want to separate them from other religions, let's get back to the C of U's belief in pot as a sacrament. "When it was called the tree of life to me I knew it was true," says Brother Walter. "It was a spiritual connection throughout the universe." It does stick out a bit as odd for a religion to say that doesn't it? It couldn't be that a massive cathedral filled with incense and stained glass, overpowering you with its sheer scope was built for that same transcendence right? Vodun ceremonies where the participants dance past exhaustion until they fall willing prey to the spirits of their belief wouldn't be chasing that same sense of transcendences would it? "I'll bet you," he continues, "being the person I am, I could travel to almost any part of the world and not have an enemy, at least not a non-government enemy. I feel that I became a part of the spiritual connection that's prevalent throughout the world."
"We all did coke," he continues, "we all did acid, we all did a lot of other things like PCP and all those other things, I don't think there's anything I haven't done, including opium and heroin. I had the opportunity to try all those things (no needle shit, 'cause I'm scared of needles.) I had an opportunity to try a lot with all the other people around and the only spiritual mood alterer was marijuana. The only spiritual thing that bound us together."
Yes, I just heard a few of you get up and leave during that last paragraph. You don't believe that a church is associated with that sort of thing. Churches are about bake-sales, long lectures on why you're wrong, and diddling altar-boys. Well, don't feel bad about thinking that way. First, there's a long list of people that have driven the C of U from its previous two headquarters who would agree with you. Secondly, those within the C of U really don't want your justification, or anybody else's for that matter. They've decided they're a church and recognition from any form of 'authority' seems to imply to them that belief is a granted favour rather than a natural right.
"That comes from the old days when you wanted to proselytize, you wouldn't proselytize with the peasants because they had no say in anything. When you wanted to proselytize, you would proselytize with the ruler. If the ruler decided he was going to be a Catholic, everybody was a Catholic," explains Brother Walter. "The Bully still rules."
"It's all just hogwash," Brother Michael ejaculates. "In the Church of England, the King of England is the leader of their church. In our church, God is. The Roman Catholic church didn't register itself. It might register some of its parishes, etc., but the Church itself doesn't recognize the right of the state to recognize it. Jesus had a hell of a time getting recognition!"
It's true, Jesus was never good at filling out the right forms. The C of U had once been recognized by the government of British Columbia as a charitable organization but they seem to have found the affair somewhat distasteful. Brother Walter explains, "When you apply for charitable organization standing, they send you a form that's basic for both charitable organizations and sports organizations. It was degrading, it was not uplifting to have a government sponsored piece of paper, so we just let it slide."
And this attitude is allowed to flow throughout the Church of the Universe. Normally I would say that it follows down through the entire hierarchy but, as the method of ordaining new ministers suggests, hierarchy is not a term in keeping with their approach. Brother Walter: "The Catholic church has trouble finding priests. Why? You can't make a priest, a priest has to want to make himself. What we said to people was, 'If you want to be a minister of the Church, you're a minister of the Church.' If you want documentation that you have to show to the government, you pay for the documentation you don't pay to be ordained. Then after that, you do what you believe is necessary as a minister of the church of the universe. We haven't had one fuck-up. I don't believe that people who want to be ministers are fuck-ups. Most are people who are frustrated with the spiritual reality they find around them." Clearly not the controlling mindset of what people refer to as a cult (or the controlling mindset of most religions for that matter.)
So, if the structure of the Church is this relaxed, what holds it together at all? Brother Walter offers some illumination as he lights up, "I think that the most powerful aspect of the Church of the Universe is that most of its people come from disrupted heritages. You see, if your mother was Italian and your father was Italian, it goes right back and it gives you a sense of a platform to stand on when you’re looking at the world. You don't have that, neither do I. Neither do most of the people that I found in the Church of the Universe, they're disrupted heritages. Let me put it this way, from an Irish heritage point of view or from a Congo heritage point of view... you put the two together and you’re going to find that there's a tremendous conflict unless there's a common ground. That can be marijuana. At that point your emotions and your spirituality come into play.
"The people of the church, because of disrupted heritages have not got a clear picture of the God that was passed down to their parents. At that point they see a picture of God that is more personally theirs and understand that the fact that they see a personal God is the most important part of their life... not the Church. The Church is a resting place for people that feel that way, that's all. Because they feel that they are the image of god and that they have the responsibility to personify, somehow the spirituality."
Smoke on the Water
"Clearwater Abbey was a definitive moment for me," Brother Walter says as he thinks back to how the Church began. "Being a family man and having four children, I used to take my children where they could swim in a clean, quiet environment. There's a place called Emerald Lake, it's a large quarry just north of here and I took my family there. Then I discovered there's a place just before Emerald Lake called Clearwater, it's a closed off quarry. The man that had control of it had control of Emerald Lake. I asked him about Clearwater and he said he had control of it but he couldn't put anybody in charge of it because any time he did, they stole him blind." He offered to run the place for the company as a quieter spot, free from the drunken kegging that went on at Emerald Lake.
"When I leased from the company they said they didn't need the property except for mining, as long as it was available, they didn't care. I built a house and started living there. The people that came were really extraordinary. They were the people that didn't want to go to Emerald lake, they were the people that didn't want to spend most of their afternoon getting so drunk they could hardly stand up. They were people who wanted to communicate more, to socialize on an intellectual level."
"It started with the spiritual thing, it started with the fellowship of being together and the drive towards the feeling of community." Naturally, the infancy of the Church of the Universe at Clearwater Abbey did not begin in any structured way. A group so dedicated to organics and disestablishments would have to grow organically. "There was these large meetings in the evening. I didn't know anything about that, but that's what happened. Meetings started to be held. Sometimes around fires, sometimes in the bush and have meetings, and they were mostly... I guess mostly just spiritual. Just sitting and sometimes singing together and sometimes passing the pipe amongst them or passing the joint amongst them, just circles of people. When I discovered what was happening, I thought at first that it was a dangerous thing because it was secret and I started going out at night and watching what was going on around there to see if there was any dangerous situations occurring. There wasn't, these were really, really fine people. They invited me to join them and when I joined them, I found that all we did is we talked about the good stuff, how we could get along with our fellow human beings."
Clearwater had gained a reputation as a place that was a bit different. "When Clearwater Abbey was up and running, I would do... my walks. I would walk around the quarry, see what was happening, and there was a lot of fucking going on. You know, in the grass and in the bush. Several times I was asked if I didn't object to that. The answer I gave was that I couldn't possibly object because it wasn't happening to me. As long as they weren't hurting themselves or hurting anyone else, I had no right to interfere."
In spite of the climate of graciously liberal morality, Brother Walter recalls that there was seldom a problem with peepers, prudes or pervs. "We had this lady come running to the front gate and said, 'There's somebody back there that's got their clothes off!' and I went running back with her, all excited about some pervert back there. I get to the edge of the cliff where you look down over the bluffs... and here is my head lifeguard. She has her top off." His eyes twinkle with amusement at the memory. "She was beautiful. You could tell that she was just absolutely proud of herself. And I looked at the lady and I said, 'She's not breaking the rules, there's nothing I can do about it.' She was not hurting herself and she sure as fuck was not hurting anybody else as far as I can tell. Next day all the lifeguards had their tops off and within a week they had their bottoms off too and the place had gone to 'clothing optional' and it never changed."
"As soon as you make that connection it's like your family again. People came from all over the world to Clearwater because it was a really spiritual place. Although we were never a member of the Association of Nudists it was listed there as the place to go in Canada." The basic tenets of what would become the Church of the Universe were taking shape. All adults were regarded as knowing enough to be responsible for themselves and anything was possible if it kept inviolable the well-being of oneself and those around you, "that was the rule of Clearwater and there were no other rules."
Police and Thieves
Queen Street East, Toronto. Looking about the G13 store I'm a little taken aback. This was the site of the October 26th police raid. Susie Styrsky prepares coffee from beans just roasted as one of her daughters buzzes around the background filling the cooler with bottled organic beverages. There are a few issues of Cannabis Culture magazine and a couple of bongs up on the wall but overall the place gives the impression more of a health-food store than the head-shop I was expecting. "Part of that was to make sure there was always organics. Not to have organics just related to cannabis but also if you want to grow organically, say, your tomato plants or your food. So I guess it would be more to change environmental attitudes." Concern for the environment and a belief in the positive properties of organics seem to be a common attributes of church members. The reverend brothers Walter and Michael had advised me on the use of red pepper extract for various maladies as well as honey to nourish the eyes.
Everything in G13 suggests a normal family with a small business. In the back room where I hang my coat there's the ammo hopper for a paintball gun, a beaten old guitar case and a lot of books. I hear a television somewhere downstairs.
This is the horrible grow-op where city councillor Sandra Bussin vowed to clean up her district? (just before election time of course)
As we prepare for the interview Susie makes small talk about herbal cures and the benefits from coffee made from fresh, green coffee beans. She's welcoming but obviously tense and somewhat mistrustful. With a husband incarcerated, herself on probation and four children to provide for she's found little comfort in any member of the media. They tend to play the story in the drugs and gangs vein or as some sort of light humour; the goofy hippies who want to make a church based on pot. This is a real family which needs to exist beyond the soundbite.
"We've been here for, I'd say, three years now," Susie says as she lays out the history of the G13 shop. "We met the brothers last August to develop a church.
"My husband's been dealing with pain for a few years. He got migraines, back pain, pain in his legs. He's been using cannabis to deal with his pain for quite a few years. He's got an extensive background in organic farming from his grandparents who owned green houses in the Czech Republic."
Though she obviously doesn't have too much problem with the recreational use of pot, as long as the user is a responsible adult, her primary concern seems to be with medical marijuana "I feel strongly that people who are ill have to have access to this, period. No questions asked. And they have to have the right to pick how they have access to it." Her imprisoned husband goes farther with it, "Peter believes that your right to access should just be straight up, just like Brother Michael, a religious right. God gave you this plant, you have a right to it."
She turns the subject of medical marijuana toward the arrests, "We were trying to work with Health Canada. We have four growing exemptees in here, you know, to grow for them. Each exemptee has around twenty-five plants that you can grow for them during the year. And when I went downstairs, I counted the pots and there were forty-two. So if you have four [clients for medical marijuana] that's a hundred plants which are full grown. You don't have the hundred plants, but the rest of the plants are the babies. So they said that we had a-hundred-fifty-one plants, that's telling me that they had babies or in-between plants... a-hundred-seven plants would be your babies and the rest would be your full grown plants which you would give to your exemptees every three months." She considers the fines levied by comparison, "How the hell do they end up with 291 000 dollars?"
"They came in here worse than criminals. They wrecked everything. I wasn't even here in the building, they assaulted me outside." She says they planted evidence on her and said they could do whatever they wanted. It sounds like somebody who got caught in a drug bust is trying to squirm out of it doesn't it? Let me ask you, when Maher Arar claimed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police misidentified him as an al-Qaeda operative, did it sound like a terrorist was crying foul after being caught? She also says that they've been threatening to go after her house in a manner reminiscent of the laws allowing seizure and sale, based on mere suspicion of drug trafficking, that Regan introduced in the United States.
"The hardest thing about the closing is, we had a lot of people who were getting help and feeling better and now they have nothing. I can't even help them. My probation says I can't help them."
She, in turn, receives little help from the people who frequented her shop. During the same election campaign that brought all of this to a boil, Peter Styrsky had also run as a candidate. The numbers were disappointing. "We had about sixteen-hundred members, and the thing that was really upsetting was that during the vote only nine-hundred-fourty-four people voted for him. That's not even his membership. And it was a very simple thing to do. How come the cannabis community didn't even support him when he was trying to help them?"
"I guess that's one part that really hurts."
Church and State and the Religious Right
"Politics is everything, no matter where you are. You're involved with politics with your lady all the time. And if you're going to become an adept at your life you're going to have to learn to respond politically as well as emotionally as well as physically. It controls everyone's lives. You go into a company, it's politics. You go into a relationship, it's politics. If you're going to use 'politics' you might as well use 'interaction'. I don't know any church in the world that is not involved politically. I think that you have to, if you’re going to disseminate your feelings and ideas or put them up for grabs, you have to be a political animal."
"My father was a Liberal for Roster, Sask. for 23 years. Let’s face it, if you're brought up by a teacher you're being taught from the moment you're born. If you're brought up by a lawyer, you're being lawyered from the time you're born." - Brother Walter Tucker.
It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that a church that reveres the reefer as a religious right comes constantly in conflict with the courts.
"The RCMP busted us," behind his plume of smoke Brother Walter recalls the year 2000, when the Mounties came calling, and his eyes twinkle like some lawn gnome out to raise hell. "The guy was so obviously RCMP, I accused him of being RCMP, told him that if he was wearing his red coat and riding his big fucking horse I would still let him get a membership and let him have sacrament."
Persistent police raids were enough to stop the congregation from congregating. "We can't. We used to... and got busted. Just recently, as you know, fifteen of our people ended up in jail, because they attended church. We can't open ourselves to the government attack like that. Our government is not benevolent, never has been."
Brothers Walter and Michael's tendency to Just Say No to assumptions of authority brings them into court about three times a month, sometimes more. This isn't just a natural propensity to pick at the legal system either, they're willing to go pretty far with it. Brother Walter tells me of a case where the judge insisted Brother Michael remove his hat. Where possible ministers of the Church of the Universe are expected to wear a hat. This is especially stressed in cases where they interact with the government. After refusing several times to go bareheaded in court, Brother Michael was shuffled into detention. According to Brother Walter he was there for six months until the Supreme Court of Ontario sent word down that it was none of the court's business whether he wore a hat or not.
Legal Self Defense is another cornerstone of the church. "With me the only reason they haven't been able to destroy me is because my father taught me how to defend myself but most people don't have that benefit. My father was a lawyer and an MP and a judge. So at every stage of his life, he taught me. Spare the rod and spoil the child was his favorite and my mother's favorite saying and they never spared the rod. But they made me a very disciplined human being and I have to appreciate them for that." Now Brother Walter, like Brother Michael seeks to pass that knowledge on, teaching others how to learn what they need to defend themselves in court. Of course, not every fight is winnable. As you read in Acts 9:5 '...it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.'
Weeding the Garden of Eden
After eighteen years at Clearwater Abbey, the end seemed nigh. Canada Cut and Crushed Stone, the owners of the land, was consumed by another company and the denizens were to be cast out. This was a crucial time for the church. The police watched and waited to move in.
"Up until about two or three years before that, I had more guns than they did. More ammo. You go through cycles, I think, as you mature. One of the cycles that we went through was... there were going to be times when there was food shortages." Brother Walter looks back to monitoring other religious groups as they stockpiled food. "Then we come to the next step. We realized that if you had a lot of food, eventually, you would have to protect that food or you would be dead. So what we did is we started arming ourselves. Going on maneuvers in the middle of the fucking night over 360 acres of the church property 'til we were capable of staying there and defending ourselves if necessary. It got so that when the police came to give my son a ticket they had a cruiser across the driveway, they had one cruiser coming up the driveway and they had one cruiser half a mile down, in case we took out the first two." Realizing how frightened the police were, they got rid of their arsenal. Strange to think of the choices we can make. Had they chosen to keep their guns the situation would probably have come to a conclusion similar to that of the Branch Davidians in Waco.
"It took them five years but in the end they sent in over thirty police officers. They cordoned off the property for two miles around. Even the people who lived there, if they left the property, they couldn't get back on. They sent thirty cops in, armed to the tits, ready to do us in if we made the slightest move. I knew if I had any opposition at all they would shoot me." Brother Wally says he came out naked with his hands in the air, so that there could be no misunderstanding.
"They wrapped Michael in a plastic blanket and they wrapped me in a plastic blanket and threw us in the back of a paddy-wagon... and they put Sister Joanne in there too. They had our hands cuffed behind our backs but I'm a very supple guy so I just brought my hands in front. I have a tendency to believe it's standard procedure or at least it was at that time. What they do is, they put the three of us in the back of the paddy-wagon, then they went tearing down our road. Our road was purposely allowed to have bumps in it to slow people down. So we're bouncing around by the time they got to the corner." He describes getting himself up and able to hold on to some extent. "The other two, with their hands behind their backs had no protection, to the point where I was lying across the two of them, hanging on to them." The vehicle would constantly speed up and slow down, anything to make the ride uncomfortable for the prisoners. These kind of stories regarding treatment by the police also seem to be a commonality among those within the Church.
The charges against them were dropped but, as inevitable as the changing of the seasons before global warming, they were ousted from their Eden. "They took everything out of there, they stole all the money that Joanne had in her purse, which was about fifteen-hundred dollars. They had a moving crew come in and move everything out of our house."
Of course he tried to go back. Where else would he go? Thinking back to that time his voice grows unsteady. More than seventy years of his life pile themselves back on top of his otherwise spritely manner. Brother Walter looks down and carefully adjusts each of the near infinite straps, buckles and laces on his boots as he talks.
"So I was sitting on a rock in the middle of the road and a policeman came over and was talking to me and he said, 'What are you going to do Walter?' I said, 'I'm going back. There's no charges against me.'"
"He said, 'It doesn't matter.'" And it didn't. They were dragged back out again and again.
Brother Walter taps his pipe out on the table, gathers himself together and refills it.
From Clearwater they moved on to an old foundry in Guelph which they redubbed Hempire Village, but that too would pass. Again, they were driven out. Again they re-established themselves, this time in what is thought of as one of the less desirable parts of Hamilton, on Barton Street. "We have the most wonderful neighbours in the world. We watch each other’s backs. That's what community is all about."
If the Church is driven out from here it is certain they will spring up again, ready to start all over from the beginning. "I did everything. Anything a human being can go through I've been though, maybe not as severely as other people but I've been close enough to it so that I can taste the ice cream. I keep coming back and saying okay, I got it, now what? And the other part of that is... and why?"
- Jason Gracey
© 2007 The Metaball. All Rights Reserved. Material cannot be reprinted without permission.
Reprinted with permission of Author, Jason Gracey, President, Post-Production – Squint Studios
“The Meta Ball” sadly is no longer online.
Jason Gracey continues his creative works @ http://www.squintstudios.ca