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In a Quest, Arlo Guthrie Is Back in That Church
Published on Saturday, January 5, 2002 in the New York Times
In a Quest, Arlo Guthrie Is Back in That Church
by Eric Goldscheider
 
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. Arlo Guthrie, the hippie icon, says his search for spiritual enlightenment has taken him down many roads, leading almost inevitably to a church here that he made famous in the song and movie "Alice's Restaurant."

Along the way he has explored his Jewish roots (on his mother's side), spent time with Franciscan monks, studied Buddhism and found a personal guru who awakened him to what he says is the Hindu practice of embracing all religions.

"I have three or four major traditions that I am carrying around inside me," Mr. Guthrie said, "and they are all just different views of the same reality."

The Guthrie Center
The Guthrie Center
He has long felt that zealotry and fundamentalism are among the biggest dangers facing the world, he said, "and nothing could have proven me more right than 9/11."

Now Mr. Guthrie is building a ministry grounded in two intertwined institutions he started 10 years ago. The Guthrie Center, whose Web site is www.guthriecenter.org, is an interfaith church devoted to promoting understanding among religious traditions. The Guthrie Foundation seeks to protect indigenous cultures from encroaching globalization.

"We need to find a way of saving local cultures from extinction and at the same time continue the process of becoming one world," said Mr. Guthrie, who sports a Fu Manchu mustache and whose white hair hangs below the collar of his black button-down shirt.

Both initiatives are housed in a building that holds considerable significance for Mr. Guthrie, the de- consecrated Episcopal church where his high school teachers Alice and Ray Brock once lived.

In 1967, Mr. Guthrie recorded "Alice's Restaurant," an 181/2-minute ballad about his arrest for illegally dumping garbage that had piled up in the church. The resulting criminal record made Mr. Guthrie ineligible for the draft in the Vietnam War. In 1969, the church was the site for the movie of the same name.

When an opportunity to buy the former church for $300,000 presented itself in 1991, Mr. Guthrie seized it. "There is a history that I have with it," he said, "and I am trying to craft a use for it that fits."

Mr. Guthrie, who is licensed to conduct weddings, said he did not do many because he spent 10 months a year performing, in part to raise money for the church and the foundation.

"I would love to be here and lead meditation classes and other things I find interesting," he said, "but it's going to have to wait till I pay off the mortgage."

The foundation recently secured a private grant to heat the sanctuary. A kitchen at the base of the bell tower doubles as a gift shop. It and a living room area are now used year- round by social service agencies and community organizations. They sponsor such things as play groups for children and activities like cookie baking by people with developmental disabilities.

The church also serves as a performance and exhibit space. During the cold winter days, a candle burns on a free-form altar in a carpeted area overlooking the nave. Though visitors are welcome to pray and meditate, no formal religious ceremonies are held in the church.

"It's a bring your own god church," Mr. Guthrie said.

The sanctuary was reconsecrated in the early 1990's by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a woman Mr. Guthrie has regarded as his guru for almost 20 years. In her teachings, Ma, as she is known by her devotees, draws heavily on Hindu traditions that emphasize interfaith understanding.

Mr. Guthrie said he believed in one God, but he hedges slightly.

"Either there is a great truth or there isn't," he said, "and if you live by it, even if it isn't there, then what's the harm?"

Mr. Guthrie acknowledges that he is known more for his counterculture past than his current spiritual efforts.

"I think most people think of me as the happy hippie of the 60's, and that's fine," he said, adding, "I think we stood up for the right stuff, and many of us still do."

The grounding for his personal beliefs comes from his parents. Mr. Guthrie tells a story of when his older sister Cathy was fatally injured in a fire before he was born. When his mother, Marjorie, arrived at the hospital, a nurse asked what religion to put on the child's form.

"All," she replied. When the nurse would not accept that, she said, "None."

The nurse asked his father, the folk-singer Woody Guthrie, the same questions when he arrived 20 minutes later. Without discussing it with his wife, he gave the same answers.

Mr. Guthrie said his father read many religious books and made copious notes in the margins. He read the Bhagavad-Gita as a young man and later in life "could argue back and forth about the Torah and the Talmud" with his father-in-law. His goal was never to sway people but to help them find their own truth, Mr. Guthrie said.

"Let me be remembered as the man who told you something you already knew," was something his father liked to say, Mr. Guthrie recalled.

Woody Guthrie's religious concerns led him from being a happy-go- lucky cowboy-poet to wanting to make a social contribution through his songs.

"I inherited that," Mr. Guthrie said. "My parents are the ones who set the foundations of my spiritual life to be big enough to include `all' and strong enough to say `none.' "

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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