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Neighborhood peace at a mystic's calm center

Sri Natha Devi Premananda's small stucco house in South Los Angeles is a folksy refuge from the troubles outside.

March 13, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

The building appears to be just another little white stucco house in one of South Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods, with a used washing machine for sale -- $25 -- in the frontyard.

But to the people who assemble here from throughout Los Angeles -- and even from overseas -- the house is the Eagle Wings of Enlightenment Center. Presiding over it is the woman some neighbors simply call "the lady who prays."

Step inside the house and there stands Sri Natha Devi Premananda in a bright orange sari, cooking soul food while Native American flute music and the smell of incense float into the kitchen from household shrines graced with mini-lights, burning candles, silk flowers and real poinsettias.

She adds a pinch of salt to a steaming pot and says, "God is everywhere. There is no place God is not. We're all God's children. Some drink. Some smoke. Some fight. Suffering is not restricted to a particular neighborhood. Never was."

The music, incense and blend of Eastern and Western traditions would be at home in a New Age hot spot, perhaps the terraced sandstone cliffs of Sedona, Ariz. But this is West 99th Street, near the corner of Century Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, and in the backyard the drone of a didgeridoo -- a 6-foot-long indigenous wind instrument from Australia -- sets the tone for a sweat lodge ceremony.

"Sometimes we hear gunshots in the night," said Sri Natha Devi, 52, a pleasant, bookish woman with wire-rimmed glasses and braided hair. "I tell people, 'Don't be afraid. Pray for those causing the shooting and those who might be harmed by it.' "

And so they pray. Some men, but mostly women, gather in her living room. Clad in loose-fitting clothing made of white cotton, they sit on pillows in a circle, chanting mantras and offering prayers in English and Sanskrit.

Call Sri Natha Devi a working-class guru. Her folksy sanctuary -- a hub of spiritual traditions including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism -- has brought awards of appreciation from civic leaders, including City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.

People come from as far away as India and Tibet to the white house that sits beneath the landing path to LAX. A collection of 2,500-year-old Buddhist relics now touring monasteries, museums and hotels around the world made stops in Sri Natha Devi's living room in 2003 and 2004. Hundreds of visitors reported experiences of inspiration and healing.

How could this be? And why here?

Sri Natha Devi was born Claretta Cayette in New Orleans in 1955. Her father was a sugar cane farmer and civil rights activist, her mother a housewife.

At 18, she moved to Los Angeles and found work as a sales clerk. She said her spiritual odyssey began two years later when she was given a copy of "Autobiography of a Yogi" by swami Paramahansa Yogananda, who taught yoga and meditation techniques. She then turned to Christian and Eastern scriptures.

She was a single mother working in an Inglewood department store in 1981 when she met her first spiritual mentor: Duke Bradley, a retired chef with a special interest in spiritual consciousness and the hidden meanings of dreams.

"Duke was a quiet man," Sri Natha Devi recalled, "who got up at sunrise, got dressed, grabbed his hat, coat and walking cane and then spent all day talking to people he'd meet out on the street, counseling and healing and never asking for a dime in return."

Bradley died in 1984, the year Sri Natha Devi established her ministry on West 99th Street.

Two years later, she made her first pilgrimage to Indian holy sites, including a cave where she said she heard a voice that instructed her to "go and return to America and prepare your home to receive the masters."

Sri Natha Devi said she translated that to mean go home, "paint the house, patch the roof, fix the plumbing and wiring."

Through donations, and money raised at Eagle Wings bake sales and concerts, she visited holy sites in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Peru, Bosnia, Egypt, France, Italy and Tibet, where she said she "sat at the feet of enlightened masters."

She said she divined her spiritual name "while visiting the cave of Mahavatar Babaji in the Himalayas." In Sanskrit, it means "she who sits at the womb of creation," she said. Many visitors address Sri Natha Devi as "Mataji," or respected mother.

Some people learn of her through word of mouth. Santa Monica psychologists Jan and Peggy Berlin still talk about their first encounter with her.

In 1990 they met a young Peruvian shaman in Los Angeles who "asked if we were interested in attending a sweat lodge ceremony in South Los Angeles," recalled Jan Berlin, who received a PhD in psychology at UCLA. "At first, we didn't know what to say. After all, we'd been in sweat lodges in extraordinary wilderness settings the world over.

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