by Joey McGolrick
The Unaio do Vegetal remains a religion shrouded in mystery. According to their official website, Udvusa.org, the church was founded in 1961 by a Brazilian rubber tapper by the name of Jose Gabriel. His contact with local Amazonian tribes and their potent Ayahuasca brew led to a spiritual awakening, and he brought his knowledge of the tea out of the jungle and into the cities of Brazil. Since then, the church has grown to over 17,000 members worldwide. A U.S. Supreme Court victory in 2006 allowed the UDV to practice their sacrament legally in the United States, opening the door for Ayahuasca’s spread into the Western world.
Thanks to the internet and social media, I was able to contact a former member of the UDV, and he agreed to answer some of my inquiries into the church. The only stipulation was that his identity be withheld, so for our purposes we will call him Arturo. My first questions were pretty straightforward:
Are there any church locations in the D.C. metropolitan area?
There are none. There was some activity in Boston on the East Coast a while ago, but nothing at the present moment. Only New Mexico/California, and maybe Oregon.
Is everything in Portuguese?
Yes. The religion is based on Portuguese, and difficult to translate.
This was disappointing. I had hoped to locate a church in my area, with the intention of seeing an Ayahuasca session for myself. As it turns out, even if there was a church in my neighborhood, getting in would have been a challenge:
How does a person become a member of the UDV?
You’d have to be invited to attend by a current member. Without a friend who is a member, it is unlikely that you’d get in. It is very closed and secretive.
What sort of hierarchical structure exists within the church?
It’s very hierarchical. There are Associates (the lowest level), Instructive Body Associates (one level higher), Counselors, then Masters, and one general representative Master. Only men can become masters.
What does a typical UDV service consist of?
It’s called a “session,” and it lasts for four hours. Everyone drinks the tea together. They sit, hear the reading of documents containing rules of the religion, listen to chants called “chamadas” as well as music, then there’s a Q&A session during which the associates ask questions of the Master. Four hours later, it’s over. People have food and go home.
Are there any specific garments involved?
Yes, there is a uniform. Green shirts, long or short sleeves, with white pants for men and yellow pants for women. White shoes, as well.
Are prayers a part of these sessions?
Yes, there are prayers that I can recall, but they are in Portuguese. Also, they are not public, so you won’t find them anywhere.
(This turned out to be an overstatement, as Arturo was eventually able to point me to a recording of one chamada, or prayer, which an acquaintance was kind enough to translate. It is included at the end of this article.)
Did the tea make you trip? What was it like?
Ayahuasca brew from the UDV is top notch quality. It’s hard to describe it, but I can easily say that it makes you trip hard. Very hard. It’s not a joy ride – it’s a process of introspection and study of yourself, and the trip can be quite bumpy. Think of it as an alternate state of consciousness that is very favorable for self-analysis and thinking in general.
As we wrapped up the first round of questions, I found myself wanting to know more. What about their beliefs and myths? Is it a cult? Just how “Christian” is the UDV? What caused Arturo to leave the church? My burgeoning curiosity meant that this investigation was far from over. It wasn’t long before Arturo contacted me again, ready to tackle some more of my questions:
How central to the faith is Christian imagery and ideals?
There are no crosses anywhere, nor imagery, but the faith is very Christian; however, the central figure is not Jesus, but the founder, Master Gabriel.
The UDV has sometimes been referred to as a cult. Did it feel “culty” to you? On a scale of 1-10?
Culty? Well, we’ll have to split that into parts. It’s very financially responsible. There’s no profit for anyone – zero “culty” regarding money. They are very responsible in general, like to laws and state. (The Church) is harmless, and does not pursue power or domination or anything like that. People from the UDV are usually very nice to others. Also, cults usually encourage severing ties to family and friends. UDV does not do that by any means, so in social terms no, it is not like a cult.
It’s closed and secretive. Also, the church has some outrageous beliefs that are not public. They follow their leader, Master Gabriel, as if he were a magic being that fell to Earth, with lots of supernatural stories around him. So in that aspect we have a 10 on the “cult scale.”
Is there a book or doctrine central to the UDV?
UDV is not fond of books. There are a couple of books in Portuguese that followers have written about their experience, but nothing beyond that. Most of the doctrine lies in secrets and mysteries, so do not expect books telling it all. It did get a lot from freemasonry. Here’s my personal view:
Their central doctrine is really crappy. It’s all secretive, and once you get to the secrets, it’s like the Wizard of Oz; the secrets are really disappointing. Think of it like a videogame: your intention is to beat the game, but the fun comes when you’re playing it, not when you’re done with it. The secrets are meant to captivate the participants. The objective is to get there, but once you do get there it’s not really that important anymore.
Could you tell me some more about the doctrine?
The core beliefs are a mixture of Christianity, Freemasonry (the King Solomon influence is very strong), Kardecism/Spiritism (which is a gigantic thing in Brazil, and is very Christian as well), and some tiny sprinkles of African-based religions, like Umbanda and Candomble.
I can recall lots of stories. They are usually stories from other religions changed/tweaked to fit this religion. For example, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur is part of this religion; or the story of the beheading of Saint John Baptist – by comparing these two you can have an idea of the “mythological salad” that happens there.
You mentioned outrageous beliefs. Could you give an example?
Well, they believe that King Solomon invented Ayahuasca. It goes downhill from there.
Why did you leave the UDV?
I never believed the crap they said, but I stayed there for a decade because the brew was really good and it helped me a lot. Even with that, I grew tired and tired of hearing the fantasies they believe, and I got out. Fortunately, I got an alternative (and better) means of drinking Ayahuasca, and I never looked back.
My time spent corresponding with Arturo was brief, and although we covered a few of the basics, it is evident that I’ve only scratched the surface of this intriguing religion. It seems that for the time being, my curiosity will have to abide until the opportunity arrives to attend a session for myself. One thing that did become clear was that no religion, even one that integrates the use of our plant allies, is exempt from the dogma and hierarchy of modern theology. Even so, there is likely great value in the spiritual journey of the UDV, even if in the end their secrets are little more than smoke and mirrors.
Correr pra onde tem Sombra (Run to where there is Shadow)
A UDV chamada by Master Gabriel (translated from Portuguese)
Run to where there is shadow,
Ask to whom has to give,
Don’t ask to whom never had,
Even if he had, he doesn’t give.
It is the superior strength
In which we should ask for:
Give me strength,
Give me light; give me the divine love.
Give me patience; give me the divine love.
Give me obedience; give me the divine love.
Give me perfect health; give me the divine love.
A recording of this chamada can be found here:
The chamada is introduced with an explanation of its origin. Here is a transcript of what was said, translated from Portuguese:
“I want to give an explanation about the prayer ‘Run to where there is Shadow’…that I always thought the prayer’s name was “The Prayer of Daime,” but the Council of the Relation confirmed that the name was ‘Run to where there is shadow.’
We were at a day session in Laria with Master Gabriel, and in that moment arrived Guillherme, a disciple of Master Irineu, bringing in his hand a liter of Vegetal (ayahuasca), and he came and delivered it to Master Gabriel, saying that he was bringing a liter of Saint Daime. Master Gabriel took that liter of Vegetal and shared it with everyone, and in this session he sang the prayer.”