Meeting at Denny’s was hell — but at least the spirits showed.

A Tough Time for Angels 

Meeting at Denny’s was hell — but at least the spirits showed.

“Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I shall be also.”— Matthew 18:20

There's a bittersweet quality when the Rev. Charlotte Main recites this verse at the Ethelaine Chapel's Sunday evening service on November 30.

It turns out that hardly more than two have gathered in the rustic church at 4317 State Line. After months of forced exile -- four days earlier, the building was cleared again for worship; the mold-plagued church had been closed because of health concerns -- Charlotte is happy to return to the charming if barely habitable structure.

Charlotte's audience comprises only her husband, the Rev. Henry Main, and one congregant, a transcendently good-natured 78-year-old named Oneitha.

"I guess we should have called more people," Charlotte says, punctuating the comment with a smile that seems at first to suggest irrepressible optimism. Later, it becomes clear that her frequent displays of mirth are a way to prevent a tearful surrender. Running the spiritualist church has been such an ordeal -- putting up not only with a declining congregation but also with the indignity of having to meet for several months in a Denny's restaurant -- that Charlotte seems nearly on the verge of collapse. But she won't stop making the three-hour round-trip commute from the Mains' lakeside home in Linn Valley, Kansas, even in the winter, when unplowed snow adds treacherous topography to already iffy gravel roads. Not if there's a chance to reach even a single soul.

"Even when it was just Henry and I, we held service anyway," she recalls. "We sang songs, gave messages and put the prayers and positive energy into the ethers. The fact that no body showed up doesn't mean we didn't have the spirit there with us."

For years, Charlotte was guaranteed at least one more participant: piano player Fern Moreland, whose rhyming readings channeled from her Native American spirit guide Great White Feather made her the spirit world's version of the rappin' granny. Moreland left the chapel earlier this year after suffering a back injury, so the Mains have started improvising, using various gospel compilations to make mix tapes. Tonight, though, technical difficulties abound.

First, Charlotte struggles to summon sound from the boombox; after a few minutes, she discovers that the device remains unplugged. Once activated, it blares talk-radio banter at top volume, and Charlotte fidgets furiously to silence the blather.

After several unsuccessful attempts to locate the song that correlates with the hymn number she has announced, Charlotte settles for calling out song numbers on the fly when she recognizes the melodies. Oneitha serenely flips between pages. Then, knowing most of the selections by heart, she closes her eyes tightly and claps her hands as she sings.

A laying-on-of-hands healing follows, during which Henry murmurs almost imperceptibly while performing a series of motions that, to the recipient, feels like a combination of a delicate pat-down, a tentative massage and a human lint-rolling. Charlotte reads a mammoth prayer list, one that she started ten years ago, when she assumed the pastor position. Names are added but never removed, so everyone who has in any way been involved with the chapel appears, as do concepts such as "world peace" and "the growth of our church." A song plays in the background to complete the sensory overload, though it's not the one Charlotte has announced.

Henry's lecture focuses on "I Know Who Holds Tomorrow," one of the evening's many hymns, and it's easy to see how the Mains draw inspiration from these lyrics: Every step is getting brighter/As the golden stairs I climb/Every burden getting lighter/Every cloud is silver-lined/There the sun is always shining/There no tear will dim my eyes.

This week's personal prophecies -- messages from guardian angels and other spirits, with Charlotte and sometimes Henry acting as the mediums -- are fairly pragmatic. Oneitha receives "Take care of yourself -- don't go out in the cold."

Charlotte tells the Rev. Doug Boggs, a onetime fixture at the chapel who arrives halfway through the service, to "get off the fence," then follows that cryptic advice with the plainspoken plea, "We could sure use some more help around here."

Finally, Charlotte receives a message that tickles her. She pictures a parade of youngsters dancing down the aisle, reciting, "Praise him, praise him." She giggles, but it's not her signature laugh. It's the carefree chuckle of an innocent child, one that could not comprehend Charlotte's frustration with her fleeting flock.

Easy to overlook and even easier to dismiss, the Ethelaine Chapel still seems worth investigating, if for no other reason than to ask: How does a local congregation end up communing with angels in a Denny's restaurant?

The Ethelaine Chapel's chipped white paint resembles shredded mozzarella cheese. The building, which draws its name from the woman who donated it to the spiritualist church decades ago and from her granddaughter (Ethel and Elaine), has had only minimal repairs over the years. A hole in the roof above the pastor's office proves troublesome during precipitation.

A weathered wooden sign, with a splintered blue background and scattered yellow stars, proclaims the chapel's prophecy, teaching and healing elements. Obscured by clouds of white paint is a mention of its long-discontinued monthly psychic fairs and minireadings. Inside its garish pink door, past a wall of yellowed newsletters, educational pamphlets ("A community response to street gangs") and programs from five-year-old conventions, there's a welcoming T-shaped run of red carpet. Steel folding chairs with unattached seat cushions (after one service, Boggs asked Charlotte to tether the cushions for additional comfort, a request he prefaced with "I've got a nonspirit message for you") face the pulpit and its paper-butterfly-decorated microphone.

Charlotte, 61, exudes a warm, flower-child vibe; Henry, 68, is gruff in a good-natured manner. Their chemistry gives the services an appealing personality. At least once every week, Henry finds a way to suggest that he'll be taking a nap. (Henry: "Well, guess I'll be sleeping during this song." Charlotte: "Not while I'm singing, you won't.")

Charlotte's sermons incorporate a broad range of pop-culture and religious references as well as a number of personal anecdotes. In December alone, she has mentioned purgatory, karma, death-bed conversions, Victoria's Secret, Oprah and Angels in the Outfield; revealed that she writes "With God, all things are possible" in the memo line of every check; given advice on how to deal with stomach-staple surgery; and condoned regifting ("Once you've given something, let loose of it"). Henry opts for straightforward lectures, occasional quips and informal introductions to the services' sacred rites. "Let me see what I can do for you," he says as one healing session begins. "What God can do for you," Charlotte corrects jovially.

Modern American spiritualism began in 1848, when teenagers Catherine and Margaretta Fox allegedly communicated with the spirit of murdered peddler Charles Rosna through a series of rapping noises. Intellectually gifted believers such as author Arthur Conan Doyle -- the creator of Sherlock Holmes -- and X-ray inventor William Crookes soon ranked among spiritualism's articulate spokesmen. Among its early detractors, meanwhile, was the magician Harry Houdini, who relished debunking spiritualists, characterizing them as deceptive performers preying on the bereaved.

Spiritualists reject traditional understandings of death, heaven and hell, proposing instead an infinite number of souls in constant transition and an eternal open-door policy regarding redemption. They also embrace concepts such as infinite intelligence, natural law, the Golden Rule, moral responsibility, healing and prophecy.

Personal prophecies, Charlotte clarifies, differ from psychic readings and fortune-telling.

"We believe in Jesus, and we have songs and prayers," Charlotte explains. "It's regular Christianity with a little extra added.

"A lot of people run from one to the other getting readings and stop when they get what they want to hear," Charlotte continues. "They're caught up in material matters. Well, guides help them with the spiritual stuff. The messages might not be the ones they were wanting. It's just a short message from spirit based on whatever they want you to know. When I get a message, I don't remember it later. Sometimes someone will tell me, 'I don't know if I really understood that,' and I'll have them tell me what it was and try to get back into that vibration."

Such talents require training. Charlotte became involved in spiritualism in 1969, after her mother and sister led her to the church. (Her sister dropped out immediately after getting married; her mother stopped attending when her health declined.) She took classes at Sancta Sophia Seminary in Oklahoma, Sunset Camp in Kansas, and Kansas City's Church of Inner Faith and Unity Village, ultimately earning ordination in 1981 from Camp Chesterfield in Indiana. The seminary classes, organized like college courses, often required a weeklong vacation from work.

Though specialized instruction is required to hone one's intuition, Charlotte says anyone can become an effective medium.

"Everybody's got that gift," she insists. "A lot of us covered it up when we were children. Imaginary friends are not imaginary. We should encourage the little ones. Adults, don't tell them it's not real, because it is. And religion is another obstacle, because people have been told so many times that [spiritualism] is the work of the devil."

Henry's first experience with the spirit world came when he was watching television. His mother's face appeared on the screen during an episode of One Day at a Time. Intrigued, he joined the church in 1980.

"She sees more spirits than I do," Henry says. "Mine is more feeling. I feel them around me daily, and I try to put that sense into words."

Charlotte says that soon before running into Henry at a marriage in Mexico, Missouri, she received the message that she would meet someone who was not a spiritualist but would be receptive to it. Years later, she received another message that she initially rejected, one that predicted she would assume operations of the Ethelaine Chapel. At the time, the Rev. Dora Hendrix, head chaplain since the early '70s, was in control.

"I said, 'Oh, I'd never take it away from Dora,'" Charlotte recalls. "But you just never know how long these things will take to come to fruition."

When Hendrix retired in 1992, Charlotte accepted the position. She officially took over the church in October 1993. She received another message, which has not yet come to pass, about this new responsibility toughening her up.

"I'm still not very tough," she says. "I'm just more understanding. I've seen a lot."

During her years in the church, Charlotte has watched the size of the congregation fluctuate considerably, from a flock of thirty at its peak to its current trickle of three or four worshippers.

"Spiritualism is different from most churches," Charlotte says. "A lot of people that come aren't members, and a lot of people that are members don't come. Sometimes people will go to the other church [United Christian SPL at 415 Prospect], which starts at 6 p.m., and come into ours late."

The numbers are low, but some members try to make up for it with their zeal. The Mains are known for attending four different services on Easter Sunday. Oneitha sometimes attends both morning and evening Sunday services.

"That's not unusual when people get hooked on the spirit," Charlotte says. "When they start that spiritual awakening, they go really gung-ho, and they get as much as they can get."

"Spiritualism is more than a religion," Henry adds. "It's a philosophy, a science, a way of life. As much area as it covers, you'd think more people would be involved."

Actually, many people are involved, but not all of them worship under the spiritualist banner. Recently, elements of spiritualism have shown up in other churches. The increasingly popular charismatic movement emphasizes healing and personal prophecies. There are charismatic offshoots of the Episcopalian, Pentecostal and Catholic churches as well as a number of free-denominational stand-alone houses of worship. Unitarianism, often dubbed "the liberal religion" because of its emphasis on religious tolerance and individual freedom, also overlaps with spiritualism in several significant ways, including its increasing acceptance of healings.

"It's a philosophy any religion could turn and take back to its church," Charlotte says. "It's like the spokes on a wheel. People take off and start their own groups. We think they're coming to stay, but every time someone leaves, they take a little bit of me with them."

Not just worshippers have left in recent years. Moreland, also renowned as a Renaissance Festival psychic, had a loyal following that may now be staying away because of her absence. The Rev. Daniel Kudra, a popular pastor who held Sunday morning services at the chapel with the Rev. Mary Howell, left the church in 2001. And national networking has become more difficult since the demise of the American Spiritual Alliance, known for its annual conventions. Charlotte served on the ASA board and was once its president. Kudra was president of the ASA at the time of its dissolution.

"He had been the president the year before, and he put on a very nice convention, but he doesn't have carry-through," Charlotte says. "He didn't have time to do it, but he didn't want to turn it over, so it wound up falling through." The convention, the ASA's signature event, disappeared.

Charlotte clashed with Kudra at Ethelaine, alleging that he skipped scheduled services without warning. "That's the worst thing, to have people show up to a locked door," she says.

After leaving the ASA and Ethelaine, Kudra opened Angels of Light & Candle Shop at 4302 Bell, within walking distance of the Ethelaine. Several recent visits found the store shrouded in darkness during its posted business hours without any explanatory message. Cute cherubs peered through the windows through cold stone eyes. A call yielded only this recorded message: "May the light of your angels burn ever-bright to guide and protect you on your journey, wherever it might lead you on your spiritual path."

Nearly as defunct as the ASA is Ethelaine's board, which once included seven members and had five as recently as this summer. Today, Henry is the only active board member. "We tried to hold elections and give people a voice," Charlotte says. "But when things happened that didn't go their way...." She stops and laughs, a caustic chortle. "I've seen it so much over the years. So much negativity.

"In spiritualism, people open up and become more sensitive, but that can be a double-edged sword," Charlotte continues. "You're sensitive to spirit guides and loved ones, but you also get your feelings hurt more easily."

Plenty of feelings were hurt when the church found itself holding meetings at Denny's this fall. After receiving a report of mold, the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department contacted Charlotte. She says the board, which was still intact at the time, "jumped into a panic" and voted to close the chapel for repairs when she delivered the news. That left the Mains scrambling for a replacement worship space. Eventually, they decided on the banquet room at the Denny's on Shawnee Mission Parkway in Shawnee.

"We shopped around, but we couldn't find a space available that was reasonable for us," Henry says. "As long as people eat their meals there, there's no charge, and you can't beat that."

That lone condition became a point of contention when the Ethelaine Chapel crowd ordered only water during the services. Henry says the group later went into the regular dining room to eat meals, but some Denny's employees -- who didn't see the congregants order meals -- became miffed, thinking the worshippers were skinflints. (Several Denny's workers confirmed this account but asked not to be named for this story.)

Eventually, the Mains convinced the management at Denny's that they were worth having as guests. But a larger problem remained: getting chapel regulars to visit the new site.

"The angels were there, as always," Henry says. "We had no problem doing the messages. But hardly any people showed up."

"Our people are hard to change," Charlotte says. "Hardly anyone showed up. We usually had between three and six people."

The Mains eventually canceled Wednesday evening and Sunday morning services. But because these changes weren't noted on the typewritten sheet stapled to the chapel's signboard, several congregants made the trip, only to be turned away once they reached the restaurant.

Regardless, the Mains got by with makeshift arrangements and a threadbare audience. They sang their hymns a cappella, sometimes with roughly rhythmic tambourine accompaniment. They set up an altar, pushed a restaurant chair against the wall for healings and hung pictures of Jesus in the room. Using candles, they spread blessings on the room, invoking light and setting up the sacred space. A setting that could have been a Moon Over My Hammy, side-order-of-savior novelty became a sanctuary of sanity and spirituality in a bustling breakfast backdrop.

Still, the forced pilgrimage to Denny's devastated the chapel, both in terms of the cost to its already shrinking congregation and the expense of the mold investigation and follow-up tests, which the Mains say totaled $350.

At the December 7 service, a frizzle-bearded man and a young woman enter midway through Charlotte's sermon and sit silently while Oneitha frequently expresses vocal approval with "Yes" and "Mmm-hmm." The doubtful guests bolt without subtlety at the introduction of the phrase "tithes and offerings." Today's total: $4.

"We hardly have any income," Henry says. "People put a dollar in, which is fine, but that won't even pay utilities. But a lot of times, people can't afford any more than that. We're there for whoever needs us." In the chapel's guest book, a recent registrant has written "homeless" under the address heading.

"People think it's a fountain of money," Henry continues. "People think we're getting rich somehow, and they're the ones putting in one dollar at a time."

"For the past five years, I haven't taken a salary, because there's not enough money to afford me," Charlotte adds. "I'm entitled to half of what comes in according to the bylaws, but I donate it back to the church. It's a service for God, and I'm so thankful we've been able to keep the doors open, but it's hard."

Charlotte pauses and laughs, but this time the diversion fails, and she can't avoid tears.

"I guess they call it burnout," she says between muffled sobs. "My youngest son gets discouraged, and he says, 'I don't know why you don't just close it down. Nobody wants to help you. Get out of it instead of wasting all your time and energy there.' Well, it's not a waste. I just have to remember I'm not doing it for me. I'm doing this for God."

The Mains are in high spirits for their December 14 service, which attracts two seldom-seen congregants. "I haven't come here in quite a while," says Marion, an Olathe resident. "But I've well-wished them every time I think of them. This little church is important. It's going to be OK."

Perhaps inspired by the turnout -- the largest in more than a month -- Charlotte shines during the day's messages, giving the job-seeking Sean an especially vigorous version of "get off the fence" and stunning a new congregant by correctly conjuring his grandmother's rather unusual name. She saves the best advice for Marion, who earlier expressed frustration at the rude treatment she has received as a Salvation Army bell ringer.

"Redbud wants to play," Charlotte says, envisioning Marion's spirit guide. "There are lots of joy angels dancing to the [Salvation Army] bells, and Redbud wants to be close [to the donation bowl] because it's red." She giggles giddily throughout this transmission.

However, Charlotte also has stern words for Marion. "Bless 'em, don't blast 'em," she says of the pesky passersby. "And never just hi 'em and bye 'em."

At the end of the service, Charlotte announces a Christmas Eve meditation; an after-Christmas celebration on Sunday, December 28, that will involve "snacks and treats"; and the New Year's Eve burning bowl ceremony, during which the Mains coat a giant wok in liquid detergent (for pragmatic, not mystical reasons -- it helps with the cleaning process), ask congregants to list on a piece of paper everything they'd like released from their lives (health problems, negative thoughts) and encourage them to ignite the paper, sending the requests into the ether. "Making an announcement to this room isn't going to carry very far," she notes dryly.

"We know the spirits are here with us, and they're learning," Charlotte says. "We wish that we could teach so many more, but they have to come."

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