At Ferrara's 'hippie church,' nothing is done by the book.
Gene Ferrara doesn't look like your average reverend. He plays congas, often wears Hawaiian shirts and frequently sits in the crowd as others lead a workshop or parts of the Sunday service at the Center for Conscious Living. During his Sunday sermon, he's as likely to talk about the spiritual lessons he drew from watching a football game as he is to discuss current affairs or the esoteric teachings of Jesus, Buddha or Nelson Mandela.
"The world's two biggest braggarts got together," Ferrara, 65, starts a story one Sunday. "Who was the second one?" shouts one of the attendees. To general laughter, Ferrara, always fast on his feet, says, "Sorry, you're right, there were three of us." He continues with the sermon, which might include some more self-deprecation and sometimes ends with an appreciative round of applause.
Ferrara started the Center for Conscious Living, 849 E. Washington Ave., and is its unpaid pastor, coordinator and custodian. "You've really built a hippie church here," commented a visitor to one Sunday service. But the center is much more than that.
While some call it a church, the Center for Conscious Living certainly does not follow a Christian dogma. Those attending are as likely to be Buddhist, Jewish or followers of Native traditions as they are to be lapsed Catholic or Lutheran. The program book welcomes people to "The Loving Spirit Community Celebration" in "A Church for the Whole Earth," and the service includes a Gratitude Song and a Native American Mother Earth song among others.
There's guided meditation - led by Ferrara or a member of the community -which may revolve around cosmic light, the Om chant or Kabalistic concepts. There's a little bit of yoga and dance and the "Namaste Greeting." This involves walking meditatively from one person to another, looking into their eyes or, some say, beyond the eyes and into the soul, and greeting each other with the Sanskrit word "namaste," which means "the Divine in me acknowledges and salutes the Divine in you." This practice often results in teary eyes and heartfelt hugs.
Like the service, the center itself is a mishmash of traditions. Housed in a large hall with wooden floors and a very modern exposed ceiling, it is decorated with astrological signs, Buddhist prayer flags and a ceramic piece with Jerusalem and its holy centers of the three major monotheistic religions. There's a large crystal, a candle, sage and a picture of Mother Mary on an altar. Scarf-like curtains separate the entrance from the main hall. And there's a fairly advanced sound and lighting system, for concerts and dances.
The regulars are professionals, students, retired people, military veterans and the unemployed. They are young and old. Teachers, real estate agents, clerks, carpenters, healers, businesspeople.
They are people like Tinley Le Voir, who was looking for "talk beyond the superficial" and conversation about "life and how to live it better." Her 4-year-old son Jaddian asks all week about "drum and dance," his description of the Sunday service.
And Sally. Sally has severe mental retardation and a spinal degenerative disease that confines her to a wheelchair. She's very social though not verbal, and before coming to CCL her circle of close relationships consisted mainly of family members, staff and other clients of her residential service agency.
Mary Napoleon, her caretaker and a regular at CCL, says Sally has made ongoing friendships with many who use the center. "Coming has broadened her world immensely," says Napoleon. "Sunday at CCL is definitely the highlight of Sally's week. I know that her input is welcomed and accepted. It is truly a loving, safe place for her."
From motel to multi-use church
The Center for Conscious Living opened in its current location in October 2009 and has seen steady growth since, both in the number of people attending the Sunday celebration and in other activities hosted there. It survives on donations and fees for use of the space.
Ferrara, originally from northeast Ohio, was raised without religion till he was 10, when his mother asked if he wanted to go to church. He studied with a Catholic priest and decided at age 12 that he wanted to become a priest, but changed his mind a year later.
At age 18 he started studying philosophy and political theory and withdrew from Catholicism. Military service in South Korea exposed him to Buddhism and Daoism. At 27 he joined an ashram in San Francisco, studying Vedic literature and practice. He was drawn to Bhakti yoga, which emphasizes service and devotion. A mystical Christian sect and "connecting with the Christ Spirit in a deep way" followed.
In 1991 he "got involved in the world of making money and raising kids," says Ferrara. "I played that game for the first time, until the marriage ended in 1999."
Working as a management consultant, he taught seminars in what he calls "feminine management theory" - creating meaningful relations with the people who report to you, exemplifying the desired behaviors and developing community based on compassion. "I started realizing I was heading my own church, but in a different room and place every day," he says.
In 2003 Ferrara took an ordination from the Universal Brotherhood Movement, an organization dedicated to disseminating the message of loving kindness through the development of a nontheological clergy. About five months later he found himself thinking, "I want my ministry to be what I do, not my hobby."
The next day, a funeral director asked him if he could preside at a funeral. He has done so about 450 times since. "That became my ministry," he says. "Every time before a funeral I pray, saying 'I trust that You will put the words in my mouth, the light in my eyes and the love in my heart and deliver through me to each individual that which you would have them receive in this day.' I do the same every Sunday before my sermon at CCL. It's about being a vehicle before Spirit."
Ferrara moved to Madison in November 2008, to minister to the Madison Religious Science Church, which was without a pastor. It was Spirit, he says, that moved his church from a meeting room in the AmericInn motel, where a handful of people met at the time, to the bead store across the street.
The bead store was owned by Dianne Becker, whom he asked to sing during services. Becker, now Ferrara's life partner, used to be a professional musician. She'd stopped singing about a decade before meeting Ferrara. When he asked her to sing, "It brought music back into my life," she says, her eyes getting moist. "It was amazing. I started singing from my heart instead of just doing commercial music. It's brought me a lot of joy."
Becker wasn't looking for the spiritual when she started attending Ferrara's services; she came out of love for the man. She ended up finding more than a partner: "I discovered a blossoming of my soul, a spiritual awakening," she says, "I started to wake up. It was something that was new to me."
Ferrara and Becker opened the center in its current location seven months after their first date. "It has continued to be an unfolding for me, a tremendous gift," Becker says. "And I have a large circle of friends now. I've never felt a part of a community before."
At the time of the move, Ferrara remembers, "We didn't have two nickels to rub together. But then my father died, and I got about $15,000 from the estate. I used that money as capital to open the center."
Leaps of faith required
Mike Kueny started attending Ferrara's services in 2008, when they were still at AmericInn. "I was looking for a way to get in touch with my spirituality," says Kueny, who was raised Catholic. "I liked Gene's message of the interconnectedness of everything and the spiritual side of our daily life. I got a lot out of it."
He remembers when Ferrara found the current location. "He had to take such a leap of faith," Kueny says, "because there was no congregation, no money. He followed the principle of 'I'll build it and they will come.'"
A carpenter by trade, Kueny offered his skills and tools and worked for a couple of weeks redoing the floor, refinishing the kitchenette, building a stage. When all was ready, Ferrara, Becker, Kueny and a few others got together, burned sage and dedicated the space. The first public event was a kirtan (yogic call-and-response) concert that brought about 30 people. Sunday services started with about a dozen in attendance and have been growing steadily. "It's been great to see more people coming, and staying," says Kueny.
An original business plan by Ferrara and Becker didn't work out. However, people looking for a place to practice their passions - acro yoga, laughter yoga, hula hooping, Zumba and trance dance, labyrinth walking - started walking in the door. Kueny, who had recently been trained as a laughter yoga leader, started offering sessions at the center. Up to a dozen people show up every Sunday afternoon, paying by donation. Kueny donates the money to CCL.
Practitioners of various spiritual disciplines started showing up too, offering workshops, lectures, ceremonies and rituals. In the past year the center has hosted Sufi masters, Lamas of the Tibetan traditions, Mayan priests, a Waitaha Maori elder from New Zealand, a carrier of the West African Dagara wisdom, a practitioner of transformative breathing and others. "Each one of them looked me in the eye and said, 'the energy here is amazing,'" says Ferrara.
"I've been offered so many tools, so many different ways to explore my spirituality and grow," says Kueny, "while at the same time I am free to follow what speaks to me. This is the only church I've ever been to where I love to sit in the front row. It feels like home."
For about two years now, JoJoPah Maria Nsoroma has been conducting ritual workshops, similar to ones she leads in Milwaukee, through CCL. A dedicated group of practitioners from the center have participated, working to overcome trauma like the Holocaust or the childhood death of a parent. Ferrara, who himself participates in these rituals, asked Nsoroma to offer them to help develop a core membership of people dedicated to growth while at the same time helping the center's finances. The fee is shared between Nsoroma and the center, which is entirely volunteer-run.
The Center for Conscious Living, Nsoroma says, is a conscious effort to create a "church" to which people come for healing and a community of like-minded souls, not out of fear of burning in hell but, rather, out of determination to become whole.
Music is an important part of CCL's Sunday service. It is also prominent at other times. Numerous artists who specialize in spiritual music have given concerts at the center, which is blessed with beautiful acoustics. Like Nsoroma's rituals, the performances have a dual purpose: spiritual uplift and helping the center's bottom line through the fees for renting the space.
"Music is the universal language," says Becker. "It touches us in a different way." She remembers a concert by the group Shantala when two of the singers did a Gregorian chant. Sometimes a dissonance can break "stuck energy," Becker says, and that's what happened to her while listening. It happened again when a woman named Rahbi Crawford offered a "sound bath" with crystal bowls tuned to different frequencies. "It's a goose-bumpy feeling," says Becker.
Indeed, says Susan Shepanek, often the music that CCL presents transports people. Shepanek found her community at CCL, a place that for her has "resonated more than anywhere else. The Namaste exercise and breaking bread together make my spirit soar." Shepanek has noticed a difference in herself since she started attending. She has more friends, more energy and more passion. "I attribute it to the bliss I found at CCL."
Her appreciation for the center goes beyond the personal, however. "We're going through a turbulent time, and the planet is in great distress in many ways. Still, we ain't seen nothing yet in the sense of the ecology of this Earth. When things get worse, people with spiritual strength will be the calmers and guides," she predicts.
Plans for the future
What's next for the Center for Conscious Living? Ferrara and Becker both hope that more practitioners of music and dance will perform in the center and more people will attend these offerings. Ferrara wants it to become "a launching pad for compassionate actions out in the community." He would like it to become part of the growing effort to be sustainable regionally, perhaps a place where home-schooled children can get art and music education while meeting other kids, perhaps a place for mentoring at-risk youth or helping seniors tap into the community.
Both Ferrara and Becker hope that the Sunday service will continue to grow and that all those who seek a place to practice their spirituality - whatever its base may be - will try CCL.
"We're not for everyone," admits Ferrara, "We're not polished and haven't done anything by the book. But there are those who come in and say, 'This is home!'"
Becker agrees. "It seems that everyone who comes through this door drops their faade and brings in their true self. There's something about coming in here that makes you shed your pretense. That continues to amaze me."
The Center for Conscious Living is having an open house June 22 from 7:30 to 11 p.m. with demos of laughter yoga, kirtan, Zumba and African dance as well as a solstice dance party.