SALT LAKE CITY— As he set up for Sunday services in a dank basement lined with velvet seating and glow-in-the-dark blue tables, Steve Urquhart, founder of the Divine Assembly, tried hard not to think about the swingers’ party that took place in the space the previous night.
“They have a lot of fun. I think it’s a rowdy crowd,” Urquhart, 57, a former Republican state senator and ex-Mormon, told VICE News with a mischievous smile, looking a bit like a lumberjack with his white beard and red flannel shirt.
On Saturday nights, the New Yorker Club has “lifestyle” parties. By Sunday morning, a few upside down pineapples (the bat signal for swingers), sticky floors, one suspiciously damp spot on a couch, and tasteful nudes on the walls remained as the Divine Assembly took over the venue. Urquhart and his wife Sara founded the church three years ago, and while the idea of congregating in a club where people likely have sex may sound counterintuitive, this group is used to bucking norms. Their sacrament, which they use to commune directly with the “divine” (which could mean god, the universe, or even family members depending on the person), is psychedelic mushrooms.
“We have one tenet, which is you, each individual, can commune with the divine and out of that direct communion, you can receive guidance,” Urquhart explained. “You don’t need any kind of intermediary, you don’t need me, you don’t need anyone.”
But no one gets high at church. Instead, congregants participate in a range of workshops and activities that include an ice bath, a meditation room with flashing lights, and a shroom growing course called “shroomiversity.”
The Divine Assembly is one of a growing number of churches in the U.S. whose followers worship using psychedelics like shrooms, ayahuasca, peyote, and bufo (psychoactive toad venom). VICE News has identified at least 19 psychedelic churches, though more likely exist underground and will continue to pop up as these drugs become more mainstream and legal in some cities and states. The churches operate in different ways; some have formal spaces, while others rent out venues or offer monthly retreats. Some charge membership fees and provide members with drugs—others, like the Divine Assembly, don’t. All the churches believe they’re protected under freedom of religion, although few have legal exemptions to use drugs, leaving church leaders and members responsible for defending themselves, should they ever be arrested.
“I wish they could see inside my mind, inside my heart, and just see the changes that have happened and are happening and just see how I am seeing the divine on a daily, hour-by-hour basis.”
From the government’s perspective, these churches need to demonstrate that they’re sincere in their beliefs and that they’re keeping participants safe. Both criteria sound straightforward, but applying them is more complicated, especially because the Urquharts want to avoid telling people how to worship—part of their quest to keep the Divine Assembly informal.
“I think a lot of people look at what we do, if they come out of organized religion, and say ‘This is bullshit. These people are just using the idea of religion to get around drug laws’,” Urquhart said. “I wish they could see inside my mind, inside my heart, and just see the changes that have happened and are happening and just see how I am seeing the divine on a daily, hour-by-hour basis.”
The Urquharts’ effort to differentiate the Divine Assembly from Mormonism means there’s no institutional hierarchy or doctrines, though members can carry an official card (which costs $75) and write their own “creed,” describing their personal beliefs.
The church doesn’t provide its 5,000 members with shrooms, nor does it give any instructions on how people should have mushroom ceremonies. Those typically take place every weekend in private homes or outdoors.
On a recent Saturday in Salt Lake, three women gathered around the kitchen table in a three-level home. Each held onto a tarot card to help them set an intention.
“So go. Love. Intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you,” said psychedelic guide and Divine Assembly member Marcie Collett, as she kicked off the ceremony with a prayer.
Plunging a french press filled with a mixture of shrooms and lemon juice, she poured shots for the three participants, which they downed, each taking the equivalent of one to two grams. The women did not want to be identified.
Then the women traipsed upstairs where they settled in comfy chairs and a bed while wearing eye masks and headphones. The eclectic decor included crystals, tapestries, and a wall of crosses. Collett and another member of the assembly stood by as a hush fell over the women.
“They’re such a chatty group. So when they’re quiet, that means they’re going to something,” Collett said.
Urquhart is one of the last people you’d expect to be the founder of a shrooms church. By his own admission, he once chalked psychedelics up to “stoner weird shit.” Urquhart joined the Mormon Church, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), when he was 10—four years after his brother Ike died by suicide.
“My family was a mess and my mother was looking for structure,” he said.
The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith in Fayette, New York in 1830. Mormons believe Smith was a prophet who restored Jesus Christ’s one true church and translated an ancient record known as The Book of Mormon that posits the U.S. is the “promised land” for Christ’s followers.
According to the church, more than 6.7 million Mormons were in the U.S. as of 2020, with about 2.2 million in Utah. They abide by a strict code of conduct that includes eschewing alcohol, coffee, drugs, premarital sex, and gay relationships. Boys can enter the priesthood at age 11, but girls and women are barred from it.
At first, Urquhart said he loved having a roadmap for eternal salvation.
“The concept of morals and moral codes have always attracted me. I no longer think the moral code of Mormonism is healthy, but I did like having it when I was young,” he said.
Urquhart’s faith started to waver, and by 2009 he no longer thought the Mormon Church knew “the only way to get to heaven.” A state senator by 2013, he started championing gay rights, doing an about-face on his previous views; around the same time, he started drinking and using oxycodone daily. One night in 2015, he took all the oxycodone he had in an attempt to end his life. He immediately regretted it and made himself vomit.
“I passed out and woke up in the morning on the bathroom floor in my puke,” he said. In the morning, he showered and went to Capitol Hill.
“I was on fire, and I was just sobbing that they are so beautiful. How is that not religion?”
In 2017, a year after retiring from the Senate, Urquhart participated in an ayahuasca ceremony in Amsterdam with his wife. Urquhart said it opened him up to both giving and receiving love, and he continued exploring with ayahuasca as well as psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in shrooms, back in Utah.
During one trip, he said he visualized his children in a way he never had before—an experience he described as “rapture.”
“I was on fire, and I was just sobbing that they are so beautiful,” he said. “How is that not religion?”
He got the idea of starting a church during a mushroom trip and realized that his skill set was in the legal and political sphere. But Sara, his wife, was hesitant.
“I’m like, ‘I just left a crazy religion, I don’t need to start one, I don’t need to join one,’” Sara said. “We spent months trying to figure out, can you get legal protections without being a religion? And you can’t.”
Other members of the Divine Assembly also expressed reservations about joining a church initially, but they described it as more of a social club, networking group, and community.
“Being raised very conservatively in Mormonism, church to me has a connotation of control and silencing the individual for the greater good,” said Sarah Warren, 36, who went through an identity crisis after her divorce because Mormonism had told her that her roles as a wife and mother were the most important.
Warren said a shrooms trip she had a few years ago, in the midst of her divorce, allowed her to “start a journey of self-discovery, of connecting to myself again, to know what spirituality and sense of self means to me rather than what has been defined for me.”
Only three religious groups in the U.S. have a legal exemption to use drugs.
The Native American Church, which uses peyote, is protected under the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act. And the União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime—both Christian churches with Brazilian roots—use ayahuasca and received exemptions after suing the federal government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Use of controlled substances at the rest of these churches, including the Divine Assembly, is technically illegal. But they can take steps to make themselves “legally defensible,” according to upstate New York-based lawyer Allison Hoots, who wrote a guide for churches trying to navigate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Hoots is a member of the Sacred Plant Alliance, a group of psychedelic churches that is trying to establish best practices for rituals, and is a member of an ayahuasca church.
“They need to show that they’re sincere, and they need to show that they have minimized the risk to participants,” said Hoots.
Minimizing risk could mean having informed consent that lets people know what to expect from a ceremony and the drugs they’re going to consume, screening to check if a person has medical conditions that may conflict with the drugs, and following up after ceremonies to help people process their trips. Churches also need to show they’ve minimized the risk of the drugs being diverted into the wider community for non-religious purposes (e.g. recreational use).
According to Hoots, the Divine Assembly’s mission to be completely non-dogmatic, including the lack of protocols for mushroom ceremonies, could weaken the church’s legal argument. But she said the law needs to look at these cases with more flexibility.
“There has to be an understanding that religion is an incredibly broad spectrum and that there are going to be leaders who say, ‘This is how I believe, which is to not force beliefs upon someone.’”
Sincerity is a bit harder to define, but Hoots said the government will look for red flags, like signs that the church is running a commercial business and a lack of ceremony and ritual.
In August 2020, Oakland police seized $200,000 worth of cannabis and mushrooms from the Zide Door Church, which believes visions coming from psychedelic mushrooms are the foundation of all religions. The church, which is now suing police, has a physical location where people can pick up shrooms and weed in exchange for donations, according to founder Dave Hodges. Hodges previously told VICE News the church stopped doing Sunday services during the pandemic.
“You remember your trauma and you know it’s there and it’s still hard, but it gives you the fluidity to move past it.”
For some members of the Divine Assembly, including the women at Collett’s ceremony, using shrooms to heal from trauma or mental health issues, is a bigger draw than anything to do with religion.
“You remember your trauma and you know it’s there and it’s still hard, but it gives you the fluidity to move past it,” one participant said.
“It’s not religious for me at all because I’m not a religious person and not even spiritual,” said another. If shrooms were legal in Utah, all three said they wouldn’t be members of the church.
Hoots said in assessing these churches, the government wants to separate spirituality and healing, which can be “really problematic.”
“When you do go into an altered state, a lot of the time people find something divine. They find something otherworldly and that is healing,” she said. “In reality and in practice, there is a significant and crucial overlap between medical and spiritual practice.”
After 16 years as a legislator, Urquhart has a friendly relationship with law enforcement, who he said is aware that the Divine Assembly uses a Schedule I controlled substance.
“I had a lengthy conversation with a very high ranking drug official. I’m not going to give the name; it was a private conversation. But he said, ‘Look, I get it…. A minute that we’re spending worried about psychedelic worship is a minute that we’re not spending worried about fentanyl and the drug cartels.’ So there just really are much higher priorities,” Urquhart said.
He’s not worried they’ll come after him, though he said if individual members are arrested, the church won’t defend them legally.
VICE News reached out to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Salt Lake City police, and the city’s district attorney’s office but did not receive any responses.
The Divine Assembly recently secured a 683-acre property 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, where it will be able to host retreats and festivals.
Despite the growth, Urquhart admitted the church is still finding its footing; he plans to find out more about how similar churches are operating. And somewhat surprisingly, he’s said not sure shrooms should be legal.
“It should just be very clear that for worship, mushrooms shouldn’t be a problem. But they’re strong,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt to have people be very thoughtful about using them.”
But he didn’t waver in his conviction that mushrooms are central to his faith.
“I left organized religion thinking to hell with it all. You know, I’ve been fooled once. There is no God, there’s nothing. And then psychedelics reintroduced the concept that there might be something else out there. And I’m really enjoying exploring that.”
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.
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