By Sam Barnes; Staff Writer
(Posted with permission of the Minneapolis Star Tribune)
The calendar listings have been intriguing:
"Near-death experiences, out-of-body travel, visions. The Temple of ECK will offer a free workshop on these and other phenomena"
After seeing several such notices crop up for the Temple of ECK in Chanhassen, my curiosity finally got the better of me. I had to go check it out.
The temple is the international center of a religious movement that claims tens of thousands of followers worldwide in more than 120 countries. It is located on a 174-acre site on the northwest corner of Hwy. 5 and Powers Boulevard.
Its emphasis is on teaching the souls who attend its weekly workshops and monthly worship services how to pursue their own personal spiritual journeys.
The temple takes a low-key approach in the community. Though it publicizes its workshops, it does not proselytize for new members. Some of its 700 to 800 local members also attend other, more traditional, churches. The two pursuits in no way are considered incompatible, says Sharmaine Wittsack, who works in temple services. "We're really welcoming to anyone who wants to explore some of these topics."
Eden Prairie resident Bob Donkersgoed, 52, is one who still attends traditional services as well as ECK workshops and programs. Brought up in the Catholic church, he had been exposed to some alternative religious movements during college in the 1970s, and when he discovered the temple was located nearby, he started attending workshops there in 1998.
"I would say the first and foremost thing that attracted me is the spiritual freedom"—the way the temple encourages personal spiritual journeys. "I didn't have a kind of 'aha' experience" like some ECK followers," he said. But gradually, "I came to rely on it more and more as my church."
Yet, "To this day, I still go to traditional religious services. My wife and my children are still involved in other traditional religions," Donkersgoed says. "I still attend mass," and "my experience when I go to those is enhanced.
"It just broadened my horizons. They are explaining things that aren't really explained by traditional religions."
Such as dreams. ECKists, as they call themselves, believe in soul travel, and much of it seems tied to the dream world. When you hear someone speak of soul travel, the Shirley MacLaine experience might come to mind—soaring out of the body into universes beyond. But that's not what I heard described by temple members.
They talk a lot about dreams and how they get subtle messages from their spiritual side during their nocturnal travels. "You train yourself to remember them and harvest them in the morning," Donkersgoed says.
They also learn to do daily "contemplation"—something akin to meditation—to get more in touch with their spiritual side and to begin to trust more in their own intuition.
Cheryl Seese, 57, of Chaska has been involved with ECK since the 1970s, and she and her husband moved to the area in 1992 to be near the temple. "The temple is what brought us here. It is the seat of our faith."
Originally from Tennessee, she was raised in the Methodist church. "I remember sitting in church [as a child] thinking how could that be all that there was to heaven?" She says she's found the answers in ECK.
Today, Seese leads some workshops at the temple. Typically, 15 to 30 people will attend, and they will divide up into tables of about a half dozen each, with leaders guiding newcomers in discussions. She says newcomers often have "aha" moments as they realize the significance of dreams or other encounters they have had.
Seese's son, Devin, 18, has grown up learning the teachings of Eckenkar in its equivalent of Sunday school. He is now a senior at Chaska High and attends ECK youth programs every other Wednesday night. They sound much like those at churches around the area: There's pizza and conversation about everyday life.
He has brought friends to worship services, too, with mixed results. He says one friend liked the service—especially the singing of "Hu," a chant—but another did not.
His mother notes that growing up in ECK, Devin has had one particular advantage: "A lot of the world goes around with the fear of death. That's something you don't have," she mentioned to him. He agreed.
That's because ECKists "don't see death as a finality" and believe in reincarnation, Cheryl Seese says.
The concept of "Soul" permeates ECK teachings—the idea that each Soul is everlasting and possesses a body for a short time, returning again and again to learn life's lessons.
Heidi Skarie, 56, of Minnetonka, who along with her husband Jim has been a follower of the Eckenkar religion since the 1970s, says she has managed to recall events from past lives—a marriage during the Renaissance; a Viking raid in which she was kidnapped from England and taken to Norway; and a lifetime during the early 1800s in which she was trained to become a Shoshone medicine woman.
"I actually traveled to England and to Norway and found the exact locations where I lived," she says—places she had visualized.
She says she was able to get in touch with past life memories by paying close attention to her dreams and the memories she aroused during spiritual exercises and by keeping extensive dream journals.
After such realizations, she agrees with the Seeses that death is not to be feared: "There can be the fear of pain, but not the fear of entering into these worlds that we've already experienced. We've died so many times already. We've died and we've been reborn.
"We look at the earth as a school. We come here to be refined. That's why we have challenges and obstacles: So we can grow and become more compassionate and loving people."
All this is in no way intended to represent an endorsement of this religion or any other. I just wanted to provide some background on those tantalizing calendar listings.
Contact the writer at 612-673-7840 or email@example.com.
A LOOK AT ECK'S ROOTS
The Temple of ECK was completed in 1990 at a cost of $8 million. It is reminiscent of a golden pyramid and features an 800-seat sanctuary, a large fellowship hall, numerous classrooms, and grounds that include three miles of nature trails.
The leader of the Eckenkar movement is Harold Klemp, who was born in 1942 and grew up on a Wisconsin farm. He became the ECK spiritual leader in 1981, taking over a religion founded by Paul Twitchell in San Diego in 1965, but which traces its roots to other religious leaders around the world over thousands of years.
Klemp moved the ECK headquarters from California to Minnesota in 1986. Today the temple employs about 70 full-time and part-time people at the Chanhassen site. There are other ECK temples built by local congregations in Connecticut and Canada and some other foreign countries. There are also about 300 ECK centers, which offer reading material and workshops in more than 100 countries around the world.
Klemp is called "the Living ECK Master." While revered, he is not worshiped. He does not attend regular worship services at the temple but does appear at meetings twice a year in the Twin Cities for ECK followers from around the world. Those are scheduled on April 15 and Oct. 21 this year at the convention center in Minneapolis.
For more on ECK programs, go to www.Eckankar.org.