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Four Quarters, Many Faiths

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo

 

In its 300-year history as go-to haven for religions on the run -- the Quakers, the Amish, the Huguenots -- it is unlikely that Pennsylvania has attracted a community as colorful, and spiritually diverse, as the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary.

 

Hidden in the state's southern foothills, the sanctuary bills itself as a 'safe and sacred ceremonial space for the modern practice of ancient religion.' An eclectic, 250-acre oasis, it includes a Native American Sweat Lodge, drum and dance circle, hilltop labyrinth, dozens of altars for worship, and hundreds of campsites. And at its spiritual center, the Allegheny's answer to Stonehenge -- 47 multi-ton stones semi-circling an open-air altar. The stones were all raised by hand and are still growing by two stones a year thanks to a three-day, sweat-filled, community-wide tug of war called 'Stones Rising.' Plain People these are not.

 

There are a half-dozen or so full time residents of the sanctuary who live under monastic vows of poverty and service, but their community of support swells into the hundreds for their many Earth-religious ceremonies, such as Beltaine, Samhain, and Yule. Though the variety of faiths on display at Four Quarters can appear disparate -- members' religious roots range from Afro-Caribbean and Neopagan, to Gaian and Druidic -- they are nearly all nature-based, putting these forested foothills at the center of their spirituality.

 

The founder of Four Quarters is a 58-year-old former engineer named Orren Whiddon. Burly and whip smart, with a salt and pepper beard, and plump belly bulging between his suspenders, Whiddon says their spiritual traditions are not meant as a counter-cultural statement or utopian vision.

 

'We are in our third decade, and we have gotten here with simple hard work and the amazing support of our membership' he says. Nor is their working farm—run by the full-time residents—'some idealized notion of rural life. We work seven days a week during the season and it can be very hard. But the reward is in living simply with what we build by our own hands... and sharing it.'

 

Sustainable living is key to the church's earth-based spiritual traditions. They grow their own vegetables and raise their own poultry and beef. They built most of their own buildings by hand and heat them with wood from their land. The church also operates its own meadery, which brings in outside income, as does an on-site machine shop. And nowhere will you find a television set.

 

Nobody receives a wage for their work; live-in members pool their skills, their food and their living expenses into a common treasury—commune style. The church's operating revenue comes from memberships, donations and from making portions of their land available for alternative music and arts festivals in summer. Whiddon mails financial statements to members every January; the church is governed by a board of directors and is registered in Pennsylvania as a nonprofit Church and Monastery.

 

Four Quarters’ adherence to so-called 'Earth Living,' as well as its financial transparency, serves as a working model to counter another of Whiddon’s concerns: that we are in the early stages of a global industrial collapse. Whiddon believes that oil, food, and resource depletion, combined with rising population and climate change, will lead to economic catastrophe. For Whiddon, Four Quarters is less a prepper sanctuary than an example of sustainable stewardship of the land as mitigation for what he sees as hard times ahead.

 

This belief seems less pertinent to other members. When asked about Whiddon's concerns, most nod in agreement but say they are here for another reason. They are just looking for a place to be themselves—and not only in terms of faith. Many Four Quarters members are LGBT, or home-schoolers, artists and cultural activists. They say their church is a place where all of its members can live their lives openly and without compromise, can love and be loved, can refer to other members as brothers and sisters and to the land as their 'spiritual home' and forget for a time the cold realities—religious, economic, or homophobic—that lay just off, beyond the altars, the hemlock trees, and the rolling Allegheny hills.