In an era when religious extremism and dogmatic inflexibility threatens to tear the world to pieces, it seems that the Spiritualist Church of the Comforter on Garden Street in downtown Santa Barbara has all the right answers. The congregation, which will be celebrating its 120th anniversary on January 9, believes in personal responsibility and thinks that happiness is made by each individual; respects but does not worship Jesus Christ and other wise men; trusts that an infinite, expansive God is manifest everywhere but is not a personal or judgmental being; promotes the karmic idea of cause-and-effect as embodied by the Golden Rule; and doesn’t proselytize.
“We don’t have any dogma at all,” said the church’s pastor, Judy Campbell-Clark. “If you look at other religions and see something you can take, that’s great. We’re not going to tell you that’s wrong. Our religion is flexible to new truths. When they become evident, we go for it.”
The hook — at least for those who aren’t so sure about what happens when we die — is that the Spiritualists also use mediums to communicate with the afterlife at each Sunday and Wednesday service. “We believe in communication between this and the spirit world,” explained Campbell-Clark, who joined the church in 2006 and took over as pastor last year. “In that sense, we believe in the continuity of life. We believe our personality carries on when we cross over to the other side and believe that’s been proven through mediumship.”
For those seeking a sample of this philosophy, the church is inviting the public to its Sunday services on January 9 to celebrate its founding in Summerland on that same date in 1891. The event will start with a healing service at 10:30 a.m. (where mediums will tap the other realm to deliver curative vibes) and then carry on with the normal 11 a.m. service, which includes a sermon, the reciting of the nine Spiritualist principles, and then some messages from the afterlife, brought by five certified mediums who are coming to Santa Barbara from other parts of the country especially for the anniversary. That will all be followed by live music and a brunch.
No matter your beliefs, though, the Spiritualist Church of the Comforter is one of the main reasons the seaside town of Summerland exists at all. It all started on part of the Ortega Ranch that was purchased in 1885 by Henry Lafayette Williams, who founded Summerland in 1889 intent on making it a mecca for Spiritualists. By 1891, families could pay $25 a pop to become residents of a big Spiritualist tent city, and it wasn’t long before passersby started called Summerland “Spookville.” But with the crowded rise of the coastal oil and natural gas industry there and the building of Highway 101 through their formerly peaceful retreat, the Spiritualists escaped to Santa Barbara in 1951, where they’ve been ever since.
Today, the Church of the Comforter’s congregation remains about the same size as it was 60 years ago. “Our capacity is 49,” said Campbell-Clark, who explained that many of her flock are individuals in the older phases of life. “Sometimes we fill it and sometimes we don’t.” The church is a member of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, one of 12 in California and nearly 150 nationwide. (See nsac.org for more info.)
Though she grew up with a mother and grandmother who visited spirit mediums, Campbell-Clark never knew that there was a home for that belief within the Spiritualist Church. Like most Santa Barbarans, she would walk by the modest Garden Street structure and wonder what it was. But one day while walking her dog, Campbell-Clark asked one of the church-goers a question, and they invited her and her dog in. “At the end of the service, the reverend gave my dog a message from the spirit world,” she recalled. “It was right on. She nailed his situation and what was going on in his life. I’ve come back every Sunday since then.”
When asked if she ever has to deal with doubters coming through the church doors — after all, belief in the ability to communicate with the afterlife isn’t exactly mainstream thinking — the pastor said it wasn’t a problem at all. “At this point in time, we’re not trying to prove anything to anybody,” she said. “To us, it’s certainly been proven, but we don’t continually try to re-prove it to people….If you discover us and it resonates, that’s great.”
Celebrate the 120th anniversary of the Spiritualist Church of the Comforter on Sunday, January 9, starting at 10:30 a.m. The church is located at 1028 Garden Street. Regular services are every Sunday at 11 a.m. and medium message nights are every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Call 805-965-4474 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 805-965-4474 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or see churchofthecomforter.nsac-churches.org for more info.