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People of diverse faiths pursue a lofty goal in a peace hike up Mt. Baldy

For the last two years, the Aetherius Society has opened its pilgrimages to all faiths. About 100 people joined last Saturday's trek up the tallest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains.

July 31, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

The mountain was supposed to impart energy to its pilgrims, but as he neared the top, Ashraf Carrim wasn't feeling it.

Slumped on a boulder not far from the peak of Mt. Baldy, the Muslim imam from Torrance laughed when asked how he was faring on his hike. "Badly," he replied. A few feet away, the Rev. Jeffrey Utter of the United Church of Christ was girding himself for the final push. "I was naive about what was involved," he admitted.

The two men were among about 100 people of various faiths who set out last Saturday on a hike for peace, with the goal of reaching the top of Mt. Baldy, the tallest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. Those who made it all the way — not everyone did — participated in an event as eclectic as Southern California itself, played out on its very rooftop.

Mountains have long been associated with holiness. The Greeks believed their mythological gods lived on Mt. Olympus. Moses was said to have brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai. Hindus say the god Shiva lives on Mt. Kailash in the Himalayas. Followers of the Shinto religion revere Mt. Fuji in Japan. The list goes on.

Mt. Baldy is sacred ground to local Native American tribes and to the Aetherius Society, a small, London-based group that organized and sponsored Saturday's peace hike.

To say that the Aetherius Society holds unconventional views would be something of an understatement.

Aetherians believe that "spiritual elders from other worlds," known as Cosmic Masters of the Solar System, are attempting to help the Earth solve its problems, but that their efforts have been rebuffed by political and religious leaders. The extraterrestrials did find a willing accomplice in a British yogi, George King, who founded the Aetherius Society in London in 1955 on their direction.

King wound up moving to the United States, where he died in Santa Barbara in 1997. From 1958 to 1961, the society says, he "charged" 18 mountains around the world with cosmic energy, much as one might charge a battery. One of these was Mt. Baldy. Aetherians have made pilgrimages to the top ever since.

For the last two years, they have opened their pilgrimages to all faiths in the name of world peace. In many parts of the world, such an invitation would be a non-starter. But Southern California has a long tradition of tolerance for the unconventional.

So the Aetherians' hike drew local Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Wiccans and adherents of Peruvian shamanism, among others.

"It is good that all the paths, all the traditions, came together for one purpose," said the Venerable Bhante Pannaloka, a Buddhist monk from Los Angeles.

"I really love this concept," said Sister Priya, a member of the Indian meditative sect known as Brahma Kumaris. She admitted that she didn't know much about the Aetherius Society but wasn't concerned. "Everybody has their own belief system," she said. "We support everybody because everybody is trying to establish world peace."

The day began in high spirits at the parking lot of the Mt. Baldy ski resort. From there, pilgrims rode one long ski lift part way up the mountain, to a lodge 7,800 feet above sea level. Those who didn't feel up to hiking stayed there and held a service under some pines.

"I am starting to feel a good energy," said one of them, Fidel Sanchez, who described himself as a practicing Catholic who is a community activist in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. "To bring people from all different backgrounds to an event like this is amazing."

The majority of participants took a second ski lift to 8,600 feet above sea level and then set off on foot for the final, hour-long hike to a point just below the top of Baldy, which is also known as Mt. San Antonio. As the air got thinner and the trail steeper, Imam Carrim and a few others chose to stop. So did the Rev. Leland Stewart, 82, a Universalist minister who founded the Unity-and-Diversity World Council in 1965 to foster multi-faith understanding.

"I never had an idea what a hike this is," he said.

Still, enough people packed the trail to create gridlock in a few spots. "The 405," grumbled one woman as she eased behind a slow-moving pack on a section too narrow for passing.

The trail rose above the tree line, climbed up a steep slope of loose rock and opened out onto a flat summit at 9,500 feet, about 500 feet below the highest spot on the mountain. Dots of snow were visible on north-facing slopes nearby.

Spirits soared. The pilgrims were tired, sweaty and ready to pray.

What followed were several hours of multi-faith prayer, meditation and musical interludes. The ceremony was led by the Revs. Paul Nugent and Brian Keneipp, ordained clergymen of the Aetherius Society, with Keneipp conducting a guided visualization that involved channeling energy from the mountain and the heavens into each person's " heart center."

Almost everyone went along, as they did with prayers and meditations offered by the other faiths.

"I'm not a big supporter of the Aetherius Society," said Utter, the Church of Christ minister, "but I'm certainly willing to support them on this."

When it was all over, Nugent declared himself satisfied. A native Briton, he is a former Anglican who admitted that he was skeptical about the Aetherius Society when he first heard about it. He said there is growing openness to unconventional religious doctrines and to multi-faith cooperation, no matter how divergent the faiths may be.

"I think it was a success," he said of the pilgrimage. "I think to get 100 people all the way up there on the mountain is a good showing. But I think that more than that, the energy and the atmosphere was very collaborative and it was uplifting. … You just feel good afterward. You feel pure. You feel as if you've done something just good. Basic goodness."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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