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March 2nd, 2011 NANCY ROMMELMANN, AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Children Of A Higher God

The members of the Santo Daime church fought for the right to drink hallucinogenic tea. And they’re serving it to kids.

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(Click on the audio link at the top to listen to co-author Aaron Mesh talk with KXL about this story.)

Three times a month, the 39 members of the Church of the Divine Rose gather in a Portland VFW Hall at Southeast 9th Avenue and Mill Street. The dress code is white button-down shirts with white or navy-blue slacks or long skirts. Women wear blue bow ties and tiaras. Men don blue neckties and pin gold stars to their shirts. Congregants sing Portuguese hymns and pray. At some ceremonies in the rented hall, they dance for as long as 12 hours.

HOUSE OF PRAYER: This VFW Hall in Southeast Portland rents its meeting room to the Church of the Divine Rose.
Credits: vivianjohnson.com

Their religion is Santo Daime, an 80-year-old Brazilian faith that expanded worldwide in the 1990s and is a blend of Catholicism, native Amazonian rain-forest rituals and Afro-Caribbean animism: the belief that animals and even plants have souls.

The religion may be on the exotic side, but what really makes it stand out is this: The most sacred of the church’s rituals is the drinking of a hallucinogenic tea called ayahuasca—a bitter, reddish-brown liquid brewed from the vines and leaves of two Amazonian plants.

The tea, mailed from South America, can make the participants nauseous—they vomit often enough that it’s considered part of the ceremony, a spiritual cleansing referred to as “purging.” Adherents say they may see lights, colors, visions; they may feel closer to God. Their psychedelic trips allow them to journey through their lives to revisit their mistakes with fresh understanding.

“It is the experience of most people who become initiates,” writes Jonathan Goldman, a 60-year-old Santo Daime church leader in Ashland who converted from Judaism, “…that Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mother, and other beings not necessarily traditionally connected with Christianity, are palpable, seeable, heard, and, in some cases, touchable entities.”

Ayahuasca is classified in the United States, like heroin and marijuana, as a Schedule I controlled substance. That means it is illegal to use or possess—unless you are a member of the church, which, since 2009, has been given a pass by the courts.

Only 120 Santo Daime members live in Oregon, but they have rights that have rarely been established anywhere else in the country. In 2008, Santo Daime leaders in Ashland and Portland sued the federal government for the right to drink ayahuasca under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a measure Congress enacted 15 years earlier as a result of a separate Oregon case involving Native American use of peyote. In 2009, the U.S. District Court in Oregon made it the second state (after New Mexico) where the tea is legally protected as a religious practice. This January, the federal Justice Department appealed the ruling.

Brian Borrello believes Santo Daime members should be allowed to worship as they choose, and if this includes ingesting ayahuasca, so be it. He just doesn’t want his 7-year-old daughter to join them.

For the past year, Borrello, a 52-year-old North Portland designer specializing in public art, has been locked in a heated legal battle with his estranged girlfriend, Katya Tripp, a 44-year-old acupuncturist. The issue is their daughter, now in the first grade. Borrello wants to keep her away from Santo Daime ceremonies—because the church admits it’s given small doses of ayahuasca tea to children as young as age 10.

Borrello says his daughter has not sampled any tea, but he’s willing to go to court to make sure it never happens.

“I don’t care what they do,” Borrello tells WW, referring to adult church members. “I don’t even want to get into whether it’s a cult or a religion. They’ve exceeded their sense of responsibility and propriety by offering it to children. They are irresponsible psychedelic tourists.”

The custody battle raises troubling questions: What happens when religious freedom and child welfare come into conflict? And while a learning curve always accompanies any new idea, does the government have the authority to say the agents of change shouldn’t be children?


It may seem counterintuitive that a state so famously secular as Oregon sets trends over the recognition of spiritual rites. But Oregon has long been a battleground over the religious use of drugs.

In 1990, then-Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer successfully prosecuted a U.S. Supreme Court case and denied a Native American man’s desire to have his peyote use recognized as a religious freedom. In direct response to that case, Congress passed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, requiring that the government show “a compelling interest” when enforcing laws that impinge on religious observation—in effect, legalizing peyote use in Native American religious ceremonies.

Oregon again set legal precedent for Santo Daime: In 2009, a U.S. District Court ruled in a lawsuit that Santo Daime followers could use ayahuasca tea without fear of arrest.

Jonathan Goldman, the spiritual leader, or padrinho, of Ashland’s Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, brought the suit. Generally acknowledged to be the person who brought Santo Daime to Oregon, Goldman, an acupuncturist originally from Detroit, and five other plaintiffs in Ashland and Portland filed the 2008 lawsuit. They charged the federal government with violating their religious freedom by seizing shipments of ayahuasca tea from Brazil bound for Goldman’s Ashland home, and arresting him on drug charges.

Roy S. Haber, a Eugene-based lawyer who argued the case for the two Santo Daime churches, says government attorneys never showed a compelling reason why the feds should interfere with a religious practice.

“The government failed to establish that there were health problems” associated with ayahuasca, Haber says. “They failed to establish that there was a likelihood the tea would be diverted [outside the church]. Our experts were very clear that the tea was not a danger as used by the church. The experts for the government were basically speculating.”

Haber’s witnesses proved persuasive, and on March 18, 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner, whose jurisdiction covers the state of Oregon, ruled in favor of the Santo Daime churches.

“Daime tea is consumed during all Santo Daime services,” Panner wrote. “[The Church of the Holy Light of the Queen] cannot survive as a viable church without the Daime tea.”

That ruling is not binding outside of Oregon—but it does set a precedent that will be referenced anywhere else in the country if government agents crack down on Santo Daime ayahuasca use. The church’s rituals have been ruled legal in Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands and Oregon.

Panner’s ruling further acknowledged that Oregon’s Santo Daime members had “on rare occasions permitted children to drink Daime tea, but only a token or symbolic amount,” and dismissed that as a concern.

“There is no evidence that the church allows children to drink enough Daime tea to experience psychoactive effects,” Panner wrote. “Given the tea’s repulsive and nauseating taste, it seems unlikely that a child would want more than a sip.”


Despite the favorable ruling, Oregon’s Santo Daime members remain secretive. They don’t want to be interviewed, or to discuss their ceremonies.

“We don’t seek publicity,” says a member of Portland’s Church of the Divine Rose, who asked to remain anonymous and is herein referred to as “Celeste.” “We don’t seek to convert others. In fact, we are intentionally difficult to find.… In most countries, Santo Daime is illegal and underground; even in Oregon where we are now legal, there is still that atmosphere, the sense of being like the early Christians meeting secretly in the catacombs.” 

In fact, the Church of the Divine Rose rents meeting space from the Southeast Portland VFW, where other groups using the room include Alcoholics Anonymous, Radio Cab and the bagpiping group Oregon Pipers’ Society. VFW caretaker Kim Becker says the church, unlike other renters, won’t allow VFW volunteers into the room during events, so she didn’t know the church was using hallucinogens.

“I didn’t know that, but it explains a lot,” Becker says. “They’re there into the wee hours. I guess I don’t really care, if [ayahuasca is] not illegal.”

This secretiveness, says Celeste, is due to outsiders misinterpreting Santo Daime.

“The churches have been all the more press-shy due to the sensationalistic press coverage it has experienced in various countries,” she says. “Scandalous stories about Santo Daime as a mysterious drug-crazed zombie cult in the jungle have become a staple of Brazilian tabloids.”

Certainly, Santo Daime has few trappings of organized religion. Aside from tithing—church members worldwide tithe, according to the religious-freedom lawsuit, with some members of the Portland church expected to donate $80 a month—there are no vestiges of traditional Christian practices: no Bible study, no confession, no thou shalt nots.

Instead, there is ayahuasca tea, a sacrament that has the same significance for Santo Daime members as the Eucharist has for Catholics. Ceremonies are held according to the Santo Daime official calendar, with “works,” or ceremonies, held about three times a month. These works usually run from sunset to dawn. Ayahuasca is always administered.

I AM THE VINE: The preparation of ayahuasca tea involves hours of chopping and boiling Amazonian plants.
Credits: Bia Labate

Ayahuasca—the word is from the Incan language Quechua, and roughly translates to “vine of souls”—is made from two Amazonian plants: a shrub called rainha, which contains DMT in its leaves, and a vine called jagube, which temporarily disables stomach enzymes, allowing the DMT to enter the bloodstream.

Santo Daime members believe that when they drink ayahuasca, like traditional Christians drinking wine, they are drinking in Jesus Christ. But where most Christians take this communion on faith, Santo Daime members get something more tangible: hallucinogenic visions.

The use of the tea to slip through the doors of perception is not unique to Santo Daime believers. There is a thriving psychedelic tourism business at places like the Blue Morpho Ayahuasca Center outside of Iquitos, Peru, where a seven-day, five-ayahuasca-ceremony retreat runs $2,150. Online photos of the center include a shower and a toilet, which, let’s face it, is a practical part of the pitch: For all but the most seasoned ayahuasca users, the tea has an emetic effect, often a violent one.

Movie director Gaspar Noé tried ayahuasca in the Peruvian
jungle in preparation for his death-trip movie Enter the Void, released last year. “Everything seems like it’s made out of neon lights,” Noe told Wired. “When people smoke DMT, they say, ‘Oh, I thought I was in the movie Tron.’ Everything is made out of bright lines.”


Katya Tripp, a Barnard College graduate with a master’s degree from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, believes ayahuasca is helping her understand her life.

“My inclination to do it in the first place,” she told lawyers during a deposition last September in the custody battle over her daughter, “is not to be under the influence of anything that dulls my consciousness in a way that—other reasons that other people do drugs, like smoke pot, or do ecstasy. I am taking the sacrament for my own healing and growth, and it has been a great, very helpful thing in my life.”

Tripp, who runs a private acupuncture practice on Southeast Belmont Street, is tall and gaunt. She adds red highlights to her long, dark hair; her preference is for $200 handmade Cydwoq sandals; she plays Brian Eno for patients during treatments.

“I would describe her as very attractive; hippieish, but very clean,” says a former acupuncture client. “She would look at you as though she was trying to look into your soul, but not smiling, and not sensual, just really intense and out there.”

In 2001, Tripp met Brian Borrello. At the time, she was living in a Northeast Portland ashram called the Nityananda Institute.

Borrello, a designer whose current projects include building wind turbines for TriMet and designing a Rosa Parks Memorial for Peninsula Park, has a compact build, a third-degree black belt in Shotokan karate, and religious impulses that tend East. 

“I meditate; I used to do a pretty serious Zen practice and martial arts practice in development of mind and body and spirit,” he says. 

Tripp and Borrello began living together in 2002, and in 2004, they had a daughter. In 2008, Tripp became interested in ayahuasca.

“Her brother was sending her articles from The New York Times about ayahuasca in Brazil, saying, ‘Doesn’t this look cool?’” says Borrello. He says Tripp started looking into it, discovered Santo Daime, and in 2008 found the Church of the Divine Rose in Portland.

“When Katya started her activities with the church, I saw it as just a progression of her seeking,” says Borrello. “She had done other things, the Way of the Heart, and crystals, and she was into a whole range of New Age pursuits, you know, spirit guides.”

Tripp’s interest in Santo Daime and ayahuasca grew; soon, she was attending events several times a month. “She goes to this service, comes back, I must say, late at night, completely sweaty and looking ragged and rugged like it was a pretty intense experience,” says Borrello.

By 2009, says Borrello, “I had a sense after she started this Santo Daime experience that she was on a very different path that wasn’t gonna involve me.” In September 2009, he moved out of the Northeast Portland home he and Tripp had bought together. They shared custody of their daughter.

Within the month, a 31-year-old man moved in with Tripp. His name is Justin Frisbie, but he then called himself Hyacinth Baba. They met during a ceremony at the Church of the Divine Rose. 

Soon after, says Borrello, he learned that his daughter was attending Santo Daime services. “I found this tremendously alarming,” he says. 

Tripp didn’t. When Borrello confronted her, she encouraged him to “call the priest and priestess and discuss it with them if I want,” says Borrello.

In November 2009, Borrello went to the Southeast 33rd Avenue home of Sky Yeager, which served as headquarters for the Church of the Divine Rose, which Yeager led with his then-wife, Alexandra.

Alexandra Bliss Yeager, slender with long, brown hair, had become a member of Santo Daime in 2003, in a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro. At age 36, she had been the head of the Portland church since 2005. Sky Yeager, her husband of five years, was 51, and managed several properties he owned. He identified as a padrinho and had, by his own admission, taken ayahuasca 400 times. One of two local church members to have access to the ayahuasca, Sky Yeager was also one of five or six in the church to decide who was “centered” enough to receive the tea.

The Yeagers’ home “had a voodoo vibe, with a lot of African effigies, lots of people in and out,” says Borrello. The couple was welcoming: They invited Borrello to a ceremony, an offer he declined, and they listened to his concerns about his daughter being exposed to Santo Daime ceremonies.

“They proceeded to tell me what they describe as their church policy,” he says. “That yes, in fact, children are welcome and encouraged to be part of the practice, that they are in fact given a small amount of the sacrament, as they call it, but that they would of course require parental consent, that both parents have to agree to that.”

MAD DAD: Brian Borrello stands outside the Southeast Portland home where he met with Santo Daime leader Sky Yeager.
Credits: vivianjohnson.com

When Borrello pointedly told them he did not agree, the Yeagers said his daughter would not be given ayahuasca. 

By then, Borrello and Tripp had been in mediation over custody of their daughter for six months. Borrello asked that Tripp agree in writing that their daughter not be given ayahuasca, that she not be brought to any Santo Daime events, and that Tripp maintain some period of sobriety after ayahuasca use before again caring for her daughter.

She would not do so.

“Your ex won’t be able to use your choice of Santo Daime as your religious practice against you,” Sky Yeager wrote in an email to Tripp. “It has been ruled in federal court by Judge Owen Panner that it is illegal to discriminate against us in any way…. The federal judge also allows children of senior members to participate in our religious services and is aware that we only give children a small serving.”


As part of the custody battle, Borrello’s attorney deposed Yeager on Aug. 23, 2010. In the deposition, Yeager initially testified he hadn’t given ayahuasca to kids, then remembered otherwise, saying, “I haven’t [served children], no.... Oh, I have. Actually I served my [wife’s] nieces.” He described the girls’ reaction as “positive. They—they liked the experience.”

Those nieces were 13 and 14 years old.

Justin Frisbie also gave a deposition and stated that he witnessed ayahuasca being administered to another juvenile: the 10-year-old son of church members Bob and Eden Sky.

Church members believe the law protects their right to serve children ayahuasca. But Tripp said something else in her deposition: Yeager had served ayahuasca outside Santo Daime services.

In early August 2010, she testified, Yeager had sent her “an invitation…to a ceremony outside of the church.” This ceremony was to take place at Yeager’s home Aug. 20, and be led by “some shamans from Peru.” Even though Tripp says she knew it was “a bad decision…to be doing anything outside of the church and I never will do it again, I chose to participate in this ceremony.” Tripp says she, Yeager, Frisbie and others drank ayahuasca at this ceremony—and she testified that the night culminated in vomiting, yelling and threats.

Less than a week after his Aug. 23 deposition, Yeager left the country for Mexico and has yet to return.

Borrello’s attorney, Andréa Snyder, says Yeager and others may have grown overconfident about their rights.

“They were having a non-church function, basically, a party. Pardon my language: one in which everybody got completely fucked up,” she says. “That’s illegal. It’s only legal in a church setting.”

Reached via Facebook, where he lists his top interest as “peyote,” Sky Yeager refused WW’s requests for an interview. “I no longer live in the U.S.,” he wrote, “and request not to be included in your story.”

Tripp also declined comment. WW visited her Northeast Portland home last week, where the large front porch was scattered with children’s toys, including a hula hoop.

“Katya Tripp doesn’t want to talk to you,” she said. “I have full custody. End of story.” Then she shut the door.


The custody fight may never see a judge’s chambers; at press time, Borrello and Tripp were still in mediation. According to Borrello, Tripp has so far agreed not to administer ayahuasca to their daughter, but not to stop taking her to Santo Daime ceremonies.

TEA PARTY: A jar of ayahuasca is served by a South American shaman.
Credits: Sascha Grabow

On Jan. 14, however, the U.S. Justice Department appealed Panner’s larger Santo Daime ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder concedes the Oregon churches’ religious right to drink ayahuasca, but argues that the Drug Enforcement Administration should be allowed to supervise how the drug is used.

“[T]he injunction eliminates DEA’s authority,” the Justice Department writes, “in several important areas—such as audits, inspection, record-keeping requirements, and reporting loss or theft—severely undermining the agency’s ability to track the importation of Daime, ensure that the substance is in fact Daime, and confirm that it is in fact being used in religious ceremonies and not for other purposes.”

Meanwhile, the Church of the Divine Rose continues to regularly hold its rituals, now under the leadership of Yeager’s estranged wife, Alexandra Bliss. (She declined to be interviewed.)

The church’s supply of ayahuasca continues to arrive about twice a month in liquid form. The tea, brewed in the Brazilian rain forest, is still brought to Portland by representatives from its sister church in Ashland, and is kept in a padlocked metal box inside a climate-controlled storage unit at Portland Wine Storage on Southeast Ash Street.

Tripp continues to attend Santo Daime ceremonies. For now, her daughter stays at home, with a baby-sitter. 

 
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