Transubstantiation was what did it for Nate Lappegaard. Raised within the strict dogma of the Catholic Church, Lappegaard was fifteen years old when he argued with a priest over whether he was really consuming the body and blood of Christ during Communion rather than just downing wafers and wine.
"I had no problem at the time accepting the bread and wine as a symbol of the body and blood of Christ, but even then I refused to admit that when the priest blessed them they became the actual flesh and body of Jesus," Lappegaard recalls, standing outside Orange Cat Studios on a frigid Sunday night. "The priest told me I would burn in hell if I didn't believe in this miracle. That was pretty much it for me and the Catholic Church."
Lappegaard's family moved to Colorado soon after, and he ditched God for alcohol, drugs and DJing at raves. Now 33, Lappegaard still performs regularly at Beta as DJ Ishe, but he's off the drugs and alcohol, having found sobriety three years ago. He now works a day job at Whole Foods in Lakewood and helps Sean Rice, Orange Cat's owner, book his space. That's how he first became aware of the Red Door. DJ Brett Starr, a friend, asked if Lappegaard knew of a place where a start-up church could meet; Starr had been approached by the church's founder because, he says, "The kids from the tribe around Denver that like to party all night had pegged me as the most spiritual DJ in town."
Lappegaard was happy to help. Although he hadn't entirely realized it, he missed the sense of community he'd gotten through church, of belonging, of reaching for something bigger than the mere human experience. Those weren't the elements that had pushed him away from Catholicism. And through the Red Door — which has fashioned itself as a church without religion, where the only theology is humility — he is filling that void in his life.
So are most of the spiritual sojourners at Orange Cat tonight.
They begin trickling in around 7 p.m., as DJs Ishe and Starr spin mellow trance and electronic music from the elevated stage at the back of darkened room. The congregation is mostly thirty-somethings, men and women who wouldn't look out of place in a yoga studio or at Burning Man, but there's a handful of graying fifty-somethings as well, some with ponytails and goatees, who project the sort of eerie, unwavering calm typically associated with kindergarten teachers. Members of the congregation greet each other with long hugs and smiles. Some take seats on pillows surrounding a table covered with candles in the middle of the room; others occupy the folding chairs that line the walls and wrap themselves in blankets. After an opening prayer, Reverend Eryn DeFoort, the 33-year-old life coach/mentor/educator/author and founder of the Red Door, takes the mike and offers tonight's message: "Remembering the Primal Self."
Six feet tall, with black hair and a mild speaking voice that belies her powerful presence, DeFoort leads an hour-long discussion on balancing the primal and the civilized self in today's modern society. The conversation meanders from archetypes of divine feminism and masculinity to the kabbalah to tales of Lamoria and Atlantis to why people are so afraid of feeling their experiential side. It's heady stuff, but the forty or so people gathered in the room listen intently, treating the subject matter and the opinions of those commenting with, well, reverence. This is not "mental masturbation," DeFoort says, not the pointless, self-congratulatory intellectualism she experienced so often as a "workshop junkie." She's adamant that her growing congregation of spiritual frontiersmen and -women — many of them former club kids and ravers — not only hear these Sunday lessons, but internalize them so that they leave the Red Door feeling loved and balanced and ready to attack the week.
"Oh, wow, is it 8:30 already?" she asks with a start, surprised at how quickly the time has gone. "We're going to have to wrap this up."
At DeFoort's urging, everyone helps move the chairs out of the way so that the floor is clear. People drop the blankets and remove their coats, while others grab bongo drums from a pile by the stage. The DJs start spinning electronic music, more intense and primal than before.
And then they dance.
As a kid growing up in a small town in South Dakota, Eryn DeFoort was immersed in the Worldwide Church of God, which rolled the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity and orthodox Judaism into one bizarre theology. She was taught that members of her church were "the first fruits," modern-day Israelites, and that while the rest of the world would burn in a hellish lake of fire, she and the rest of the chosen ones would usher in the return of Jesus Christ. During a first grade art project, when the kids were instructed to draw pictures of Santa Claus, she gave him a purple hat and stoically referred to him as an old man with a white beard. Her church taught that Christmas, Easter and most American holidays, including Halloween, were not only bad but evil, occasions to be avoided at all costs — and certainly not celebrated through idolatry.
"I grew up with this odd feeling of thinking I was superior to everyone because I knew what they were doing was evil, " she remembers. "But at the same time feeling ostracized because of the nature of my upbringing. So I tried to compensate by being the smartest kid in the class. Which only made it worse."
DeFoort was a loner who worshiped her father. In addition to leading seminars in the Worldwide Church, he owned and operated his own hydraulics distributing company — and gave a portion of his salary to the church. DeFoort remembers him as a Tony Robbins-like figure, and as she grew older, she began seeing herself in that same role: up there on the stage, the pulpit, motivating, preaching. Aware of his daughter's spiritual hunger, her father gave her books to help her along the path. But when DeFoort was eighteen, her father experienced a spiritual awakening of his own.
"There was a movement that went through smaller churches like ours in the early '90s called the 'Grace Awakening,'" she explains. "On a philosophical sense, it was when these churches figured out that it was more the spirit of what you do, not the letter of the law, and so you need to get off your high horse of being law-keepers."
While the awakening helped create modern-day Christian fundamentalism, it pushed her father in the opposite direction. DeFoort compares it to waking up from a coma, with the family cutting all ties with the cult-like Worldwide Church. Originally, DeFoort had planned to attend a church college, but at her father's urging she instead went to Hastings College in Nebraska, spending summers interning with fashion photographers in Minneapolis and ultimately earning degrees in world religion, English and journalism.
Her college years weren't easy. Living away from your family at eighteen is hard enough — but DeFoort had also lost her entire belief system. At times, she was suicidal.
"When you're so young, your confidence doesn't come internally, it comes externally," she says. "I had to learn quickly to develop internal confidence. Think about it. As a kid, you had your entire life laid out for you, then one day you find out it was all BS. You're left with this individual quest, that soul quest that everyone goes on, where you ask what are the rules of life, when you find out that all humans are fallible, that no one has the answers, that most adults are just as screwed up as you are, the dark night of the soul. You are completely and utterly alone until you get to the reverse of that — which is that you are not alone. That was a ten-year process for me."
It was a process that involved a lot of experimentation. "I picked up a book called Conversations With God, and I remember poring over it, looking for anything that would allow me to have sex," she says with a laugh. "I was looking for anything that would get me out of that goody-two-shoes vein, so I started shopping around for all the really crazy stuff. The first thing I did was go to a spiritualist church, where they were having mediums, having dead people come in and have conversations, and I just ate it up. My dad passed away right at that same time, so I was having all these crazy conversations with my dead father, really getting into metaphysics and anything new-age spirituality. I was dabbling in everything to fill the void, I suppose. It was almost like I put on the black sheep's clothing and ran with it, you know?"
The black sheep soon ran to Denver, where she worked as a freelance photographer and took odd jobs wherever she could find them: doing landscaping, working at a home for juvenile delinquents. She continued trying different churches, but they were all too steeped in one way of thinking, too restrictive, never unifying enough. She was seeking an inclusive, non-judgmental community, a place where other black sheep could gather and let their freak flags fly.
She found it in a club.
In 2000, she went on a first date with Paresh Rana. As the night wore on, he made his move. "He put a pill in my hand and said, 'Do you trust me?'" she recalls. "I looked at him, bewildered, but I ended up doing it."
The two then headed downtown to Amsterdam, a club that was home to an exploding electronic, house and diva scene. "I met so many people who were so extraordinarily rock-your-world loving — and they were like that when they were sober, too," she says. "It was just a place with no boundaries or judgment. That night continued till 7 a.m. the next morning, and we wound up sneaking into somebody's neighbor's hot tub. It was just heaven on earth for one night. Then, of course, that opened me up to experiences where you don't have boundaries and judgment and a sense of what's right and wrong, but only what's loving and what's not."
It was a secret, underground world that existed only on the weekends in Denver, an anything-goes world of dancing and drugs, music and transcendent experiences. One night DeFoort would find herself making out with a merry-go-round of women and men; on another, she would be with a group at the back of the club, all rolling their faces off on ecstasy, guiding an astral meditation where everyone suddenly imagined they were in Australia.
"We would just be out of our minds," she remembers. "It was beautiful. "
For Rana, a South African of Indian descent who'd come to America chasing the white-picket-fence dream only to become disillusioned, it was an entirely new way of looking at life in this country. "It was a great environment to see people let go of their constraints," he recalls. "But what made the scene more than just doing drugs at a club was the music. Denver was not playing hardly any electronic music at the time. It was still '70s, '80s and '90s music at clubs. This was the edge of the progressive scene, and it was a very avant-garde group of people, the outcasts...and the music was phenomenal. The best music in town was coming out of that space."
Rana and DeFoort were the token straight couple in a predominantly gay scene, he says. And while there was certainly plenty of drug use, on many nights they would not indulge at all.
"We would go with the intention of letting the music guide our journey," Rana says. "It was like, 'We know what our bodies and brains are capable of now. What can we do to generate that state without any external influence?' And we would go there and we would do just that: We would sit in meditation at the back of the room and we would meditate to that music, and then we would go dance."
But the party couldn't go on forever. Soon after DeFoort and Rana married in 2004, they separated, deciding they were better friends. When Amsterdam shut its doors, the circle of club kids dispersed.
Another Sunday evening at Orange Cat, and the place is absolutely packed. In just eight weeks, the Red Door has grown so popular that DeFoort has decided to cut back to two gatherings a month, so that she can catch her breath and make sure the church develops the way she wants it to. (She's already filed to get it non-profit status.)
Rana says he was stunned a few days earlier when, walking through Whole Foods, he overheard two women he'd never seen before talking about the Red Door. And tonight's crowd seems a testament to the buzz. Latecomers shuffle in and do their best to seem inconspicuous as they climb over laps and legs to find a seat. It's not hard; Reverend Earl "Raj" Purdy has a stranglehold on the room as he delivers his "Transforming Fear Into Love" sermon with all the fiery theatrics of a Baptist preacher. A teacher and astrologer who offers a "Course in Miracles" class at Unity Temple in Capitol Hill and once played saxophone with the Temptations in Memphis, Raj engages the audience in call and response time and time again, hammering home the main point of his message: It all boils down to love. People going off on you, getting angry and spitting vitriol in your direction? That's a call for love. "A call for luuuuuv," he intones.
"If you see just one need in yourself," Raj continues, "you will be saved. Need is love."
As the DJ drops a funky, George Clinton-esque bass line, Raj goes for the big closer, rapping the main points of his sermon over the music. People clap along, shouting back the chorus lines that he provides: "It's only love or a call for love!" "By giving help I'm asking for love!"
"I have an extra chakra; it's called the boogie chakra!" Raj sings with a laugh. The audience is completely enraptured.
Raj takes a seat to enthusiastic applause, and DeFoort starts guiding the gathering toward the movement portion of the evening. The lights are dimmed so that the room is now illuminated only by candlelight, and Valency Gorman, the Red Door's movement instructor who's a yoga teacher/massage therapist with a background in elementary-school education, goes to the stage. The DJs begin spinning Indian-sounding trance music, like a score to some salacious Bollywood film, and Gorman issues calm commands: Move your arms back and forth, sway your hips side to side. As the music pulses, the commands dwindle — but by now, everyone is dancing. Some people bang on drums, others hoot and shriek. A man with a silver ponytail spins around and around again in a circle, his face a blurry smile of teeth. In an instant, the entire room is transformed into a sea of those people you see at concerts, the ones dancing to their own hippie grooves, lost in the music.
"There's no right or wrong," Gorman says over the microphone. "It's all perfect."
Outside the studio, two homeless men peer through the darkened windows at the pulsating throng of dancers. They silently appraise the pretty girls twisting, the men banging away on the drums, then shrug and shuffle off.
Kute Blackson, a life coach from Ghana who's now based in Los Angeles, comes up for the final meditation. He instructs everyone to close their eyes and breathe deeply as he guides them through a live performance of a spoken-word track off an upcoming album, repeating over and over again that "the miracle is you." Rana leads the room in the chanting of an om, a surprisingly resounding chorus that echoes off the wall and conjures thoughts of temples, mosques and minarets, holy places. Then, closing the night's service, DeFoort once more addresses her congregation.
"I want you to visualize waking up tomorrow with a smile on your face as you get out of bed," she says calmly. "I want you to visualize the day going with ease and grace."
She pauses and opens her eyes.
"We at the Red Door are amazed and appreciative for your presence."
For DeFoort, a book on life coaching given her by a friend opened the door to a new life. In 2005, she became a certified coach through the Fearless Living Institute in Boulder. Since then, she estimates, she's counseled more than 220 people; she sees her role in their lives as a cross between a drill sergeant and a cheerleader.
DeFoort found her coaching work gratifying, and she'd gotten engaged to an IBM employee she'd found on eHarmony, but she still longed for the sense of community she'd once felt in church, then at the club. Noticing how beneficial her clients found counseling, she hired her own life coach, Sue Frederick, a luminary in the self-help world who taps into her psychic intuitive abilities.
"Right away she said, 'Eryn, you know you've always wanted to be a minister,'" DeFoort recalls. "I said, 'Yeah, but for what church? I've been in and out of so many seminaries and classes and I've never found anything that resonated because I'm so anti-institution.' She said to start my own church, and I just laughed. The last thing this world needs is another church. So she said to write a book. And that seemed like a good idea. I went away to my fiancé's place in Michigan and wrote for three months."
The book that resulted was Beyond the Aha! Moment, which focuses on moving beyond mental masturbation to effecting change in your life. (DeFoort is hoping to publish it with a small publishing house in the next six months.)
Her own aha! moment was her vision for the Red Door.
It would be a church without religion, driven by humility and understanding. "If there are 6.6 billion people on the planet, then there are at least 6.6 billion ways of communicating with the creator," DeFoort explains. To build her church, she drew from spiritual trains of thought that have been around since Thoreau and Emerson, and found modern inspiration in the New Thought Movement, represented in Denver by the Mile Hi Church and, more famously, the Agape International Spiritual Center in California, home to New Thought minister and occasional television personality Michael Beckwith.
But DeFoort added something more to the Red Door: It would preach the value of music, movement and meditation.
And when she held her first Red Door gathering this fall, dance was an intrinsic part of the program.
"I think it's been around for a long time, but it's never really been all that mainstream," says Gorman. "I call it 'authentic movement.' A lot of people learn very kinesthetically, whether they know it or not, so we encourage people to look within and really feel what's going on in their body and integrate that into the lesson. To do that holistically, you need to tap into all different levels of being human: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. We're not one-dimensional beings; we're very complex, and if you want to truly integrate something, you need to touch all those levels."
Most of those who find their way to the Red Door are spiritual travelers who've ventured to the far regions of spirituality and back again, or at the very least are open to such a journey. So while DeFoort may name-drop Thoreau, she's just as likely to find inspiration at a Michael Franti concert.
"I knew that this church would not be something for everyone, but I really didn't want it to cater to the masses," she says. "There are pockets of people out there who are really willing to live and be on the edge and do not care about whether they are accepted inside the norm. They're spiritually willing to study this crazy stuff that most people wouldn't even consider, and they are also able to physically be themselves."
"The Red Door is for people who want a sense of spiritual connection to a community," says Rana, who describes his role as that of peacekeeper. "It's for people who don't necessarily care for any specific dogma; it's for people who want to be moved by the music. The Red Door is for people who want to experience their bodies as an instrument."
DeFoort refers to them as "indigo kids" and sees parallels between the Red Door and a current trend in indie rock, with spiritually driven bands like Yeasayer and Cloud Cult gaining in popularity. But she's also noticing an older contingent at the Sunday gatherings, people who moved beyond clubbing and drugs years ago. "This particular group that is there now, the only time we got to see each other before was when someone would throw a social event," she says. "We're still the same black sheep we were, though, and you go out in the world and that's challenging sometimes, and you crave to be with other black sheep. Now we have this, and we get juiced just being around each other and remembering that okay, there is nothing wrong with us, we are a group of people who are curious about our spirituality, who are not judging but accepting — and at the Red Door, we can completely be ourselves. If we have the opportunity to do that every week, I just think it makes life easier."
At the Red Door, every service is a service.
In the early days of the Christian church, a red door signified the entrance to a place of refuge: The crimson color symbolized the blood of Christ, spilled so that all who come to Him would be saved. And during the Irish War of Independence, DeFoort says, the Irish Republican Army appropriated the symbol, using a red door to mark a safe house for IRA soldiers. To this day, countless pubs and hotels in Ireland bear the name of the Red Door.
And so does her church, even though it only opens its door once every two weeks.
On Saturday, December 20, the name seems particularly fitting. While the bar crowd outside the Larimer Lounge a block to the north is drunkenly and audibly letting off a little holiday steam, Orange Cat holds the ghosts of party-goers past, now looking for a different kind of community.
Tonight marks the Winter Solstice, and DeFoort has decided to mark the longest night of the year with "Shiver," which she hopes will become an annual Red Door celebration. From 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., there will be psychic readings and reiki massage, an herbal tonic bar and, of course, enough music to stuff a jukebox. But DeFoort would also like to see the church's coffers stuffed; this is the Red Door's first fundraiser.
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Dressed in a bright turquoise dress with strands of colorful fabric in her hair, DeFoort paces the venue, replacing lightbulbs here, consulting with a massage therapist there. Rana and Gorman, as well as Shoshanna French — a psychic guide also affiliated with the Red Door — bounce around the place, making sure that all is running smoothly. And it is. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, many catching up by the refreshment table, chatting quietly over plates full of cheese cubes and carrot sticks.
When the guided tai chi ends, the room is turned over to DJ Brett Starr — and a dozen zealous dancers immediately take the floor. A white boy with an Afro and a hoodie begins gyrating with a breakdancer's skill, drawing so much attention that a circle surrounds him, giving him the room to put an exclamation point to his impromptu solo: a one-armed handstand with his feet high in the air. When he comes down hard in a pile of loose limbs, a man helps Afro-puff to his feet and he smiles sheepishly, then resumes dancing. The wooden floor of the studio bounces up and down as the music swells and more and more of the congregation joins the dance.
Behind the Red Door, there is no right or wrong.