Heavenly Trip: Inside the Peyote Way Church of God

Jan 9, 2014 at 4:00 am
The "Reverend" Anne Zapf and "Rabbi" Matthew Kent.
The "Reverend" Anne Zapf and "Rabbi" Matthew Kent. Andrew Pielage

A tall, heavyset man with shaggy blond hair and straight-cropped bangs stands in the middle of an empty gravel parking lot. He looks around aimlessly, hands shoved in his pockets.

When he sees a car pulling up, he turns, hands still stuffed in pockets, and hurries over to a small building with a satellite dish on the roof and a serape covering the door.

"Someone's here," he says into the darkened building.

A minute later a small, wiry man wearing tight black yoga pants, a fanny pack and a baseball cap pulled over a graying ponytail appears in the doorway. He moves across the lot with a mountain goat's spring in his step.

"Hello, I'm Matthew," he says, a grin touching the corners of his mouth. "Welcome to Peyote Way."

This is Matthew Kent, one of the two primary spiritual leaders of Peyote Way Church of God near Safford, a small town about two hours outside of Tuscon. On this afternoon, "Rabbi" Kent has just finished an interview with two filmmakers from California who are working on a documentary about his church. The blond man wandering around the property, he says, is preparing for one of the church's "spirit walks."

In the distance, the peak of Mount Graham, a Western Apache holy site, is dusted with snow.

Although not a house of worship in the traditional sense — there's no steeple, no ornate architecture, no flowing robes or pulpit — Peyote Way is, in fact, a church. It was founded based on the beliefs of Peyotism, a Native American religion that uses the hallucinogen peyote as a sacrament and combines the teachings of various other mainstream organized religions — including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism and Islam — in its doctrine.

The church's 160-acre property, where Kent, his partner, Anne Zapf, and two of the couple's three children call home, is largely undeveloped. There are a few rustic buildings, a pottery studio and two or three small trailers clustered around an empty swimming pool in the main lot. The place looks more like a commune or a hostel than a church.

It's hard to believe that people from across the United States and as far away as Korea, Russia and Afghanistan come to the scrub-brush Arizona desert searching, as Kent says, for enlightenment, God or simply a reconnection with nature. But they do — maybe because, according to Kent, it's the only place in the country that does what it does.

Kent and the "Reverend" Zapf are hippies — an endangered breed straight out of the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s. The couple, who maintain a vegetarian diet and don't drink alcohol, are lean and healthy-looking. As 60-year-olds, they easily could pass for people in their early fifties. Their three children were born at Peyote Way and are in their late twenties or early thirties. Joseph, the couple's middle child, lives in Sedona and sells church pottery.

Kent and Zapf say they adhere to their old counterculture's main tenets — peace, love and the use of mind-altering drugs to expand consciousness — to survive in today's consumer culture.

Peyote, one of the most powerful and rarest natural hallucinogens, is key to the church's spiritual practice. The holy sacrament peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a spineless cactus native to the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and Texas, and to north-central Mexico.

Anybody who has read Carlos Castaneda's books has an idea of what peyote is. Castaneda, a University of California, Los Angeles, anthropology-student-turned-prominent-mysticism-author, documented his experiences ingesting peyote. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was published in 1968. At Peyote Way, visitors get a version of the experiences Castaneda wrote about.

But Kent warns that coming to Peyote Way with expectations is a recipe for disappointment.

"It's hard to come here without expectations, but the more you can tamp them down the better," Kent says. "When you read Carlos Castaneda, or hear about somebody else's peyote experience, well, that was their peyote experience. Your peyote experience is going to be absolutely yours."

Each year about 120 to 140 people visit the church, which requires visitors to become members with a suggested donation of $200 to $300 each, including a one-time membership fee of $50. Kent says mentally ill individuals are turned away, and people with physical disabilities are required to stay near the compound's main house while taking peyote. Determining a person's physical condition is a judgment call by Zapf and Kent.

Zapf and Kent's children had their first spirit walks when they were fourteen years old.

"I figure if you're old enough to make babies, then you're old enough to know the truth of life and spend some time in reflection about who you are and what you want to be in this life."

Those who venture into the middle of nowhere to find Peyote Way get a tour of its grounds, after which they are given a place to stay for the night so that they can fast. The next day, guests pick out one of the three spots on the property, each with a rustic lean-to and a fire pit, where they will spend the second night drinking the church's peyote mixture.

"When it comes time for the spirit walk, Annie will measure 21 grams of peyote — it's the reputed weight of the soul — then boiling water is poured over it," Kent says. "The mixture really is more gruel than a tea."

In general, visitors report having three different types of reactions to drinking the potion: They get sick all night and nothing happens; they are sick half the night and then the most amazing things happens; or it is wonderful from beginning to end, Zapf says.

"The first four hours are the most physical, as the tea has a challenging taste and ingestion of it can cause nausea," she says. "The next four hours are critical, as fear and nausea compete with the rational, curious mind. At this point, one can surrender to the experience or succumb to fear and fight it all the way."

The taste of peyote is notoriously bad, and drinking the mixture is a lengthy and arduous process. Most visitors don't make it through an entire quart-size container, says Kent. They typically vomit.

"Let's just get it straight from the beginning: Peyote is not a recreational substance; it's a re-creational substance," says Kent, who sees peyote as a medicinal plant that can be used for psychological and physical healing.

Church members who have participated in a spirit walk typically refer to peyote as "medicine" rather than a drug. One such member, Dr. Joe Tafur, an integrative family physician in Phoenix and cofounder of Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual healing center in Peru, says he learned of Peyote Way in an old article about the church. He subsequently decided to experience a spirit walk and has participated in seven such psychedelic journeys since then.

"The average person can benefit from the spirit walk," says Tarfur. "The spirit walk offers an opportunity for profound spiritual healing."

Long-term, repeated use of peyote is safe, he says. He cites John Halpern's Harvard-affiliated study on it as evidence of the cactus' safeness.

"In my experience, it allows for healing of the subconscious and deep emotional traumas that often evade allopathic and psychological approaches," Tarfur says. "Healing of the mind and spirit then allows for a number of physiological benefits through mind-body connections, primarily through psychoneuroimmunologic and psychoneuroendocrine connections."

Another church member, Robert McDermott, a former technology worker at University of California, San Diego, says he has experienced fifteen spirit walks.

He embarked on one of his earliest in an attempt to overcome anxiety related to a "serious illness."

Says McDermott: "The medicine was difficult for me to take, and I became very nauseous. Then [after about an hour] I began seeing my anxieties and my fears of death associated with my illness for what they were. My anxieties were preventing me from being present with my family and friends. I found a place of profound gratitude for my life as it was."

McDermott says he wouldn't be alive today "if it were not for this sacred medicine."

The church's late founder and Kent's teacher, the Reverend Immanuel Pardeahtan Trujillo, started using peyote as a way to treat himself for post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from his combat in World War II, according to Kent.

Far-fetched as it may sound, Kent credits peyote with reversing his vasectomy — after which he and Zapf had their three children.

A mound of stones and gravel draped with an American flag and surrounded by discarded cattle gates holds a prominent place in Peyote Way's dirt yard. It's the burial spot of Immanuel Trujillo, who died at 82 in small room at the church in June 2010.

With little prompting, Kent dives into an extensive biography of Trujillo, who went from New Jersey to Europe in World War II to New York City to Texas and eventually to Arizona. It's clearly a story he has told many times.

Kent's recounting of Trujillo's life can seem implausible, even mythic, but in many ways the church's existence in the high desert of Arizona is just as outlandish.

As the story goes, Trujillo was born to a Jewish mother of French-American descent and a Mexican/Apache father who died when Trujillo was just a few months old. Trujillo's mother, fourteen years old at the time of his conception, gave him up for adoption. For the first two years of his life he was raised in an orphanage. Then, an Irish-Catholic family adopted him and renamed him Jimmy Coyle.

When he was fifteen or sixteen, Coyle ran away from home to fight the Nazis. A bomb blast at the tail end of World War II nearly killed him.

"His face was rebuilt, his teeth were blown out; he had a piece of steel in his head and a piece of steel in his leg," Kent says. "Immanuel had PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The brain injury would mean that he would have blackouts and that he would be functioning but not aware of what he was doing."

Coyle recovered from his wounds and found himself back in America when he was about nineteen. It was around then that he also learned that he had been adopted. His biological father had left him an inheritance. Coyle became obsessed with learning about his biological parents and began using his father's surname, Trujillo. In his father's will he found the names of several other benefactors, including Eugene Yoakum and Bill Russell (also known as "Apache Bill"), who lived in Tucson.

Trujillo traveled to Arizona and and tracked down Yoakum and, later, Apache Bill, a medicine man for the Native American Church. In those days peyote use was illegal but the Navajo and other Native American tribes, including the Huichol, continued to employ the hallucinogenic cactus in religious ceremonies.

Yoakum and Apache Bill introduced Trujillo to the hallucinogen.

"They took Immanuel up to Redington Pass and said, 'Son, you stay here and fast for a day and then start eating this medicine, and we'll be back on the third day.' And that was Immanuel's first spirit walk," Kent says.

Like Trujillo, Yoakum and Apache Bill were military veterans. They had served during the Philippine-American War and had participated in the massacre of 600 people in the Moro Crater battle of 1906, Kent says.

"Part of each of their hearts was shattered by the violence they had done and had witnessed. It goes with any veteran," Kent says. "They knew that the peyote helped them find some peace. And so they knew it would help Immanuel."

After his first spirit walk under the guidance of Apache Bill, Trujillo began using peyote regularly for spiritual and therapeutic purposes. He joined the Native American Church and eventually became "roadman," a leader of peyote ceremonies.

Trujillo remained a member of the church for nearly two decades, finally breaking away to establish an inclusive, multiracial church offering peyote to non-natives.

Trujillo's experience with psychedelic drugs and his promotion of the use of peyote led him and prominent Harvard psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary to become friends. Trujillo introduced the counterculture icon to peyote, and Leary in turn introduced Trujillo to LSD, Kent says.

Eventually, Trujillo joined Leary's League for Spiritual Discovery, which held storied LSD-fueled escapades at Millbrook Estate, north of New York City. After police raided Millbrook, Leary and "psychedelic yoga master" Bill Haines decided to establish the Sri Ram Ashram in Arizona, with the help of Trujillo.

Kent says Trujillo located the property in the small Arizona town of Benson, where Leary and Haines started their ashram. Trujillo lived at the ashram for several years and helped establish the center as he looked for property for Peyote Way.

Eventually, Trujillo left the League for Spiritual Discovery to have a family. Leary, who famously was called "the most dangerous man in America" by President Richard Nixon, was hounded by authorities and in and out of jail for years. Members of his organization faced similar scrutiny.

Off on his own, Trujillo hired an Arizona real estate agent to find him land with a water source, which is how he came to purchase the 160 acres near Aravaipa Canyon in a foreclosure deal. After purchasing the land, Trujillo focused on making pottery and establishing his church.

Trujillo and his wife, Jane, lived on the land with their four-year-old son, Juan, while building their pottery business. Then the little boy was killed in a freak accident. As Juan and his father hauled pottery to Trujillo's kilns for firing, the boy fell off the back of their truck and was run over.

"It broke their hearts, and that was the beginning of the end of Immanuel's last marriage," Kent says. "From the time we knew him until he died, he was celibate."

Zapf and Kent met Trujillo in October 1977. They were in their mid-twenties at the time and had recently married in their home state of Pennsylvania.

They arrived at Trujillo's fledgling church through circumstance.

A man they had caught a ride with while traveling across the country had rescued Trujillo's elderly mentor, Yoakum, who had become trapped behind a refrigerator in his home.

"He would have died had our ride not entered his remote cabin and pushed it off him," Zapf says.

The two had been at Peyote Way, then called the Church of Holy Light, for a few days when Trujillo showed them a tray of drying peyote and offered them an opportunity to go on a spirit walk.

Soon after their first experience with the drug, the two decided to stay and join the church. They were designated by Trujillo as the "Reverend" Zapf and "Rabbi" Kent, although they have no formal affiliations to Christianity and Judaism.

Over the next several years Trujillo, Zapf and Kent worked to incorporate the burgeoning business, Mana Pottery, and to formally found the church, which was officially registered as a nonprofit organization in 1981, according to public records.

The pottery business expanded with the arrival of the married couple. Back in its heyday, Goldwater's Department Store carried Mana Pottery. Celebrities, including former NBA star and tie-dyed wearing big man Bill Walton, collected the colorful pieces featuring images of peyote and animal figures. And the Smithsonian Institution gave Trujillo's work a place in its permanent collection at the National Museum of the American Indian.

But the road to establishing the peyote-based church wasn't without obstacles. At various times, Trujillo, Zapf and Kent each faced prosecution for possession of peyote, designated a Schedule I controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In the early '80s, Zapf and Kent were arrested in Texas while on a "spiritual mission" to purchase peyote from an authorized dealer. Trujillo was arrested at least twice, once in Denver in the '60s and again in 1986 in Globe, Arizona, for eating part of a peyote button in front of a police officer.

Trujillo was acquitted in 1966 of possession of peyote in the Denver case and again in 1987 in the Globe case. Dr. Andrew Weil, a Tucson guru of alternative medicine and health food who teaches at the University of Arizona, acted as an expert witness in Trujillo's 1987 case.

During his testimony for the defense, Weil detailed his studies of peyote at Harvard University, the drug's impact on health and well-being, and the hallucinogenic effects of ingesting the plant.

Mescaline (the ingredient that makes people hallucinate) is the most commonly known psychoactive alkaloid in peyote, but as Kent is quick to point out — and Weil attests to in the court transcript — peyote has more than 50 different active alkaloids that make it unique.

"The effect of eating peyote is due to the interaction of all of these alkaloids. It can't be equated with eating pure mescaline, and so I think that [this] creates a lot of confusion in research because most of the research had been done with isolated mescaline and not with peyote," Weil stated. "I don't think the two are equivalent."

Through his testimony Weil described his observations of individuals who had taken peyote.

"The initial effects, if a sufficient dose is eaten, are — probably within 30 minutes to an hour — some feelings of physiological distress, nausea, discomfort, fullness in the stomach, sweating, chills," he testified.

"These symptoms may last for one to two hours, and then usually subside and are replaced by...calmness, relaxation — during which the psychological changes occur," he said. "The total length of effects of eating a sufficient dose of peyote are...in the range of ten to twelve hours."

The dosage necessary to experience hallucinations is hard to predict, Weil continued. But throughout his testimony, he explained that most people who take the drug need to ingest more than six cactus buttons to have a measurable effect. (The 21 grams used for Peyote Way's spirit walks is much more than six buttons.)

Weil, who admitted taking peyote on at least three occasions, testified that the drug isn't harmful, particularly in the right setting.

"I think these are safe drugs if they're used in the appropriate context," Weil told the court, "much safer than many drugs we routinely administer to people for medical purposes."

Inside a small greenhouse at Peyote Way, thousands of button-size cacti cover the room's dirt floor like a rumpled green carpet. Kent estimates that there are 8,000 to 10,000 individual plants ranging in age from 10 to 100 years old. It's hard to imagine that each of the fragile-looking plants represents, technically, a felony to cultivate it, distribute it or consume it.

Because the DEA classifies peyote as a Schedule I drug (along with LSD, heroin, ecstasy and even marijuana), the penalty for "unlawful distribution, possession or intent to distribute" any amount could result in up to a $10 million fine and 30 years in prison, although this rarely happens. Special Agent Ramona Sanchez with the Phoenix division of the DEA says she's not aware of any recent peyote cases in Arizona.

Congress' 1978 passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act doesn't protect Peyote Way from federal law enforcement because it's not affiliated with the Native American Church. That law has been challenged several times (including by Peyote Way) based on the free-exercise clause in the First Amendment, but the courts have struck down each attempt.

Peyote Way is able to avoid prosecution mainly because Arizona is one of six states where the use of peyote for bona fide religious purposes has been legalized without deference to race — meaning individuals don't need to be part of the Native American Church to legally take the drug for religious reasons.

Still, there's much controversy surrounding the legality of taking peyote, and if federal authorities wanted to prosecute Peyote Way for its use, cultivation and distribution of the plant, they probably could make a case. Peyote Way Church technically is in violation of federal law, as neither Kent nor Zapf are Native Americans. Special Agent Sanchez, however, deferred to local and state authorities when asked about Peyote Way, suggesting that the DEA has taken a hands-off approach regarding peyote use, in the same way the Obama administration recently has backed off going after medical-marijuana distribution in states including Arizona.

Any inherent possibility of prosecution never deterred Kent and Zapf from pursuing their church's mission nor deterred people from making the trek out into the desert of Aravaipa to experience the effects of the hallucinogen.

Kent makes clear that the church doesn't sell peyote, and he says the plants it grows on the property never leave it.

"As far as the state of Arizona is concerned, they understand that in order for us to practice our religion, we need our sacrament," he says.

Kent and Zapf think their 35-year relationship with Graham County sheriff Preston J. Allred also has helped smooth the way for the church.

When they were selling Mana Pottery to Goldwater's, the couple would take chipped pieces to the courthouse in Safford, intending to give it away.

"The secretaries would give us $10, and the deputies would [give] a little less," Kent says with a laugh, adding, "They saw that whatever we were up to, it wasn't criminal or dangerous."

But being out of sight, out of mind is the biggest reason it has avoided hassle from the authorities through the years. From Phoenix, it's a four-hour drive east on U.S. 60, past Superior and Globe, and onward to U.S. 70. Twenty-five miles of washboard dirt road outside Safford lead to a remote area of wilderness. A large red mailbox — painted with the word "Mana" — alerts visitors that they've arrived.

"You don't need to worry...about your neighbors. They've all got plenty of property," Kent says. "They think we're kind of strange, but cowboys are kind of strange, too."

Kent's tour of the church takes about three hours. Outside, near one of the campsites, the large blond man is chopping wood for his spirit walk. He pauses just long enough to wave and smile.

Asked what kind of future is in store for Peyote Way, Kent — as with his lengthy explanation about Trujillo's life and the spiritual importance of peyote — has a rehearsed answer.

His greatest hope is that someday, he and Zapf can grow peyote legally and educate others about how to grow it.

"When we plant peyote, I'm not thinking of personal ingestion, I'm thinking about my grandkids," Kent says. "I think that's pretty healthy to think in big chunks of time — 20, 40, 60 years. If we thought that way about our planning for society, then we might not be having so many of the problems we're having now."

That night, on the way to a hotel in Safford, "Peyote Way Church of God" flashes on an Arizona Adopt-a-Highway sign.

Eric Tsetsi is a staffer at Riverfront Times' sister publication, Phoenix New Times. Contact the author at [email protected].