Conjuring Spirits in Florida
In Sarasota, there is a community surrounding a litany of roadside psychics and more than 100 mediums and spiritual guides. Why?

By Michael Adno for The New York Times (Available online here)

SARASOTA, Fla. — On a recent Sunday, Phyllis Town, 66, and more than 40 congregants rotated in and out of Sunday service at the Sarasota Center of Light, founded 68 years ago as a nondenominational church that wed Christianity and metaphysical spirituality, and where all ministers are mediums, to receive their own individual “vibrational healings.” With Ms. Town seated, Rev. Jim Toole, 60, took a breath, closed his eyes and positioned his hands just above the top of her head. For about 10 minutes, Reverend Toole moved his hands around Ms. Town’s upper torso and head mere inches from her face, careful not to touch her. As she sat silently, carefully breathing, he explained that he was channeling energy. When Reverend Toole was finished, he softly whispered in Ms. Town’s ear as a grin stretched across her face.

“I come here because it’s the only time I get touched,” a woman told Ms. Town during one session.

The sentiment of missing someone’s touch resonated with Ms. Town, whose husband “transitioned,” because “it never occurred to me that I was going through that as a widow.” Nearly six years ago, in the wake of his death, she devoted herself to the Center entirely.

Reverend Toole and Ms. Town are part of a dense spiritual constellation concentrated among two neighboring cities, Sarasota and Bradenton in Florida, that also encompasses the Spirit University, a litany of roadside psychics and more than 100 mediums and spiritual guides. Unlike other American spiritual outcrops like Lily Dale, N.Y., and Cassadaga, Fla., Sarasota wasn’t founded as a spiritual community. And its wealth of spiritualists isn’t billed as an attraction.

As Americans search for means to cope with loss, and even though interest has grown immensely in the past century, the stigma of fortunetelling fraud, psychic scams and skepticism still haunts the practice.

“I thought I was a witch,” said Ms. Town, who is an associate minister at the Sarasota Center of Light. “Spirits would come to me — dead relatives and things like that.” It took the community in Sarasota to bring her out of her shell. And like any community, Town’s story demonstrates the value of a room full of people on any given day, the kinship, the warmth, the sense of being less alone in the world.

As a native, I’ve heard stories about Sarasota’s energy grids, vortexes, a Calusa force field that prevents hurricanes and the 99-percent quartz-crystal sand at Siesta Key. All of it helps draw the metaphysical community. “You don’t move to Sarasota; you’re called,” a man told me. When I was growing up, the string of roadside psychics along Route 41 was as omnipresent as the car dealerships and pawn shops with their neon signs burning late into the night. It is where many psychics live and work today. In retrospect, it seemed absurd not to be more aware of the deep spiritual community here straddling the line between the physical and metaphysical worlds, but throughout my childhood, it was unclear what was simply Southern lore or if Sarasota truly held spiritual significance, what was real and what many deemed a “scam.”

Nationally, Americans increasingly consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” according to a Pew Research Center survey, a metric that spiked to 27 percent from 19 percent in the last five years. While American spiritualism is often depicted as rooted in Native American, Caribbean, Latin American or African cultures, spiritualists today span a vast racial spectrum, and Southwest Florida represents a mere sliver of the broader spiritual diaspora.

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Michael Adno for The New York Times