Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Transcending Religion

While churches, temples and mosques continue to thrive in Coastal Virginia, many area residents are seeking spiritual enrichment elsewhere

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The Space Above Yoga Norfolk, Searching for God in the 7 Cities
Gabrielle Gerard-Jenks, a well-known yoga instructor in Norfolk. Photo by David

Evidence of the melding became clear to me again and again as I talked with people throughout the region. Gabrielle Gerard-Jenks, one of Norfolk’s most popular and respected yoga teachers, was among them.

Gerard-Jenks, who teaches at The Space Above yoga studio in Norfolk, was born in New Jersey but moved here when she was in the second grade. She attended church as a child, but in time—like so many other people I’ve encountered—began to struggle with it.

“My father was a first-generation American from Sicily,” she said. “He carried with him a lot of complicated messages about what Catholicism meant, with all the guilt and ideas about damnation.” As a result, she recalled, her early experiences with Catholicism were “difficult and complicated, and burdened with a lot of manmade perspectives on hell and damnation, as well as concepts like the Trinity. My mom was more of a naturalist,” she added, “so these two worlds kind of left me confused.”

Out of that confusion grew a desire to learn about other spiritual traditions—and major in philosophy and religion in college.

“I was like a leaf in the wind at the time, so this stuff was really attractive to me. I was trying to figure things out.”

She was especially drawn to Buddhism but didn’t feel fully anchored in it. “I knew I wasn’t going to become a Buddhist,” she said. “But neither was my Catholic anchor strong enough.”

Gerard-Jenks began her yoga studies in 1993 and ended up studying for 13 years with a teacher named Kathleen Barratt, who specializes in breath work. Eventually she came to realize that yoga could enhance other religious practices rather than replace them.

“As yoga teacher, I have been around a lot of Catholics, Jews, atheists and people from other traditions. Yoga is nonsectarian, so it can feed and nurture the roots of your religion, whatever that might be.”

She is currently seeking a church home, in part because she wants her 6-year-old daughter to have that experience.

“Having a child,” she said, “has shown me the importance and value of seeing people congregate and celebrate, and then serve. I want her to witness that.”

For her part, Gerard-Jenks said that yoga has helped her understand and come to terms with the confusing messages she received about religion while growing up.

“It has helped me break down a rigidity of attitude toward things like the Lord’s Prayer and find the energy behind it. When you meditate on a prayer or passage of scripture long enough you begin to feel its energy, and it becomes real; it becomes an experience. You begin to understand what it means to embody spiritual principles versus just intellectually understanding them. I think the yogic principles help sustain that commitment. And then, everything’s yoga. I could walk into a Christian church and experience yoga because I’m experiencing union.” (The word “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning, “union.”)

Offering another example, she reflected on the story of Jesus dying on the cross.

“The crucifixion isn’t a one-time experience,” she said. “We are constantly being asked to die to what is no longer needed. So there’s been this confluence of everything merging together for me over many, many years. There are many paths, and one source.”

As she continues her search for a church to call home, she is determined to find one that is non-judgmental—and one that is committed to serving people in need. Yoga, she said, is very much about taking one’s abundance and giving back, but she said that yoga people tend to do that individually. She feels that her classes draw a lot of people who are on a spiritual journey, rather than attending simply for the physical benefits. But she noted that yoga studios typically aren’t structured in a way that foster community and social outreach, as many religious organizations do. She hopes to see that change eventually and said that recently there have been some efforts to join together with other studios to raise money for charity.

In the meantime, she continues to see value in organized religion, not only for that reason but because, in going to church, she has had to confront the discomfort of some of the narratives about religion that she received while growing up. 

When she attended church on Easter, in fact, she heard from the pulpit a few things that at one time might have made her “instantly shut down.” Now, she said, “I can be there and receive what they have to say with ease, even though I may not resonate with everything.”

Another spiritual practice that has been growing in popularity since the 1980s is Wicca, which draws on ancient pagan rituals but was not formalized as its own religion until the mid-20th century, and did not become widely known until 1954 when it was popularized by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner.

Drema Deoraich is among its local adherents.

Deoraich told me she was raised in northeast Florida where she regularly attended a Methodist church and Sunday school.

“I think I began to realize that that wasn’t going to work for me around the age of 15,” she said. “I got selected to be president of our youth group. At one point I proposed that we start visiting other churches—not just Methodist but all denominations. The elders of the church said no and pulled the plug. I said, hmmm, we’re not supposed to ask questions? What’s that about? As I got older I started asking more questions, and that kind of led me away from Christianity.”

Deoraich eventually became interested in herbal medicine and subsequently in Wicca. 

“There’s a big connection between those two things,” she said. “Not all herbalists are Wiccans, but many Wiccans experiment with herbs. I began to realize, hey, there’s this other religion. At the time, though, there wasn’t much out there about Wicca. Everybody was hush, hush about it because it was witchcraft!”

For her, however, the appeal was strong. In particular, she liked the focus on “the direct connection between me and God. She is right there beside me at all times. She listens to me like I’m a friend, or her child, or a partner. Wicca sees our relationship to the divine as a very close connection. Personally, I see God in all of this,” she added, gesturing to the world around us. “To me, that means we are all part of God.”

The reference to God as feminine is central to Wicca, although some Wiccans are duotheistic, meaning that they worship a male and a female God—or perhaps both in one. In a traditional coven, she added, the priestess is “first among equals.” (A coven is a group of Wiccans.)

This did not surprise me. Most of the Wiccans I’ve spoken with in recent years have been women, and Deoraich agreed that part of the appeal is that it stands in contrast to Western patriarchal religions.

Because it is associated with witchcraft, however, it remained widely misunderstood for decades—and still is, among many people. When Deoraich began practicing in the ’80s, she kept it largely a secret because her husband at the time was working for a government contractor and had security clearance.

“It was not OK to tell people,” she said.

In an effort to change this, Deoraich started a pagan-centric nonprofit group, the main focus of which was to “make it OK for people to come out of the broom closet, as we call it.”

Deoraich “came out” as a Wiccan in 1994. Soon thereafter, she and other Wiccans organized a Halloween gathering on Mount Trashmore.

“The first year,” she recalled, “we expected 30 or 40 people. More than 100 showed up. And the press. It was madness; it was chaos. There were church people there along the hill, and all around us, handing out religious tracts. One guy was throwing red paint on people saying, “Blood of the Lamb.” The ironic thing was that the gathering was about religious tolerance, not just for Wiccans but for people of all faiths.”

Deoraich also remembers talking with a police officer to make sure the group was doing everything it could to adhere to laws. He told her that people had been calling the police station to say that they had heard rumors that there was going to be an altar and animal sacrifices.

“I remember him saying, ‘You’re not going to do that, right?’ I just laughed and said, ‘Of course not. That’s not what we’re about.’”

The following year, Deoraich recalled, there were protestors but fewer.

“By the fourth year, it was like, oh look, there’s people on Mount Trashmore—oh it’s just the witches. That was a real big moment for us because it was like, we’re finally becoming accepted.”

Deoraich told me that Wiccan practices vary among different individuals and covens but that they can include a wide variety of rituals, including crystal-gazing, fire-gazing and the reading of Tarot cards.

“People use these things not to answer their questions but guide them on the path,” she said.

When I expressed skepticism of the idea of finding meaning in randomly drawn cards, she made a good point: “If you find meaning, then what does it matter? If it makes you a better person and helps you make good choices in your life, who cares where it’s coming from? Maybe it’s coming from your higher self; maybe it’s coming from your subconscious. It really doesn’t matter what the source of that guidance is.”

Deoraich added that Wicca also appeals to her because it’s very open and inclusive.

“If God created everything,” she said, “then God loves everything, just as a good parent loves all of his or her children equally.”

That said, she sees Wicca as only one of many possible spiritual paths—an attitude expressed by virtually everyone with whom I talked for this article. Deoraich summed it up nicely.

“I think that more than anything else, I define myself as a spiritual seeker,” she said. “I don’t think it’s about any one religion. Let’s face it—any force that is this big,” she said, opening her arms to our surroundings—“that’s all God.” I don’t think there is only one avenue of approach. It’s like the summit of a mountain. You can get there from any direction.”

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