We Tried to Talk to the Dead at New York’s Only Spirit Church

A relaxing night at an inner-city seance.

Modern seances use electric candles.
Modern seances use electric candles. Eric Grundhauser

Can you speak to the dead? Can they speak to you? After attending an official modern day seance, I have no idea, but that doesn’t mean it was totally bogus. In fact, it was pretty relaxing. 

In the City of New York, there are a handful of seance ceremonies available to anyone looking to commune with the dead, but only one of them is held in a church. The Spiritualist Church of New York City (SCNYC), the only Spiritualist church in the city, is a modern evolution of the Spiritualist beliefs popular during the Victorian era. At its core, Spiritualism espouses the belief that death is not the end, and that communication with the spirits of the deceased is not only possible, but a vital and beneficial way of learning about this life and the next. And this communication is made possible via the good old-fashioned seance.

In their heyday, around the turn of the 19th century, Spiritualist seances looked much more like the traditional spirit-talking ceremonies you might see in the movies, with a small group of people holding hands around a table while a medium conjures up ghosts. Today, many of the classical trappings are still a part of the church’s ceremonies, but Spiritualism as a whole has moved towards the New Age world of healing energies and guided meditations.   

The Spiritualist Church of New York City was founded in 2007, establishing itself as a separate entity from the larger National Spiritualist Association of Churches, creating an independent congregation based on a belief in reincarnation.

In a phone call, Reverend Seiko L. Obayashi, one of the founders of the church, describes the rebirth cycle to me. “As we spend some earthly time here as a human, we learn, we make mistakes in this physical reality, and we go back home. To God or whatever you call it,” she says. “And we go back and forth between physical life and non-physical life.” Her church also places a strong emphasis on bringing other faiths to the Spiritualist fold. “We are very progressive in terms of an interfaith approach. We eventually want to invite rabbis and priests to our church.”

And every Sunday, after their service, they hold a seance.

Think this is what seances look like? Think again.
Think this is what seances look like? Think again. The Public Domain Review/Public Domain

The services are held on 35th Street in Manhattan, in a Swedenborgian church (a Christian sect that follows the teachings and visions of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg) building from the mid-1800s. The SCNYC rents out the space on Sunday nights. On the night I attended the church to try to take part in the seance, a healing service was taking place.

Handed a Spiritualist hymnal on entering, I joined the 20-some other people in attendance, sparsely littering the pews. The hymnal was filled with songs about light and forgiveness, and included the nine declarations—think, commandments—that have been adapted and adopted by the church. Among them are “We believe the existence and identity of the individual continue after death,” and “We affirm that the precepts of Prophecy and Healing are Divine attributes proven through Mediumship.” Calm New Age tunes were in the air.  

Rev. Susan West gave a sermon on the importance of unconditional love, and there was a short break during which everyone was encouraged to get up and introduce themselves to each other. Pretty standard church stuff. Then there was a chair healing. The lights were dimmed and Rev. Nilsa Ocasio walked everyone through a guided meditation. We were invited up to one of a series of chairs near the front, behind which stood a spiritual healer. I sat down in one of the chairs and the healer asked me if she could touch me. I said sure and she proceeded to lightly lay her hands on various parts of my body, channeling healing energy to and around me. It was somewhat uncomfortably intimate.

After the service, about 10 people stuck around for the seance (which runs $20 a session), which took place in an upper room of the church. The smaller room had shelves of old books lining the walls. A ring of stackable rental chairs was set up around a small table where an electronic tea light flickered. Most of the people seemed to have been to similar seances, and casually chatted as though we weren’t about to attempt to breach the barrier between the living and the dead. One of the mediums that would be communicating with the dead that night joked that she didn’t mind seeing spirits, but didn’t like seeing “orbs” (manifestations of spirits as floating balls of light) on her personal time.    

When the seance began, all of the lights were turned out save for the central tea light, and the small crowd was told to sit with our palms up in our laps to show the spirits that we were ready to receive their calls. The session was led by Rev. Ocasio and another medium, both of whom were certified seance leaders through the church’s sister organization, the Holistic Studies Institute. The mediums would be receiving and interpreting the spirits’ messages, but assured us that they would not convey messages of “doom and gloom.”

Once again Rev. Ocasio led us through a guided meditation, asking us to envision negativity leaving our body, and light replacing it. It was pretty relaxing.

We were asked to think of deceased people we would like to hear from, with the idea being that this would induce their voices to come forward among all of the talkative dead in the air. The way the mediums talked about hearing the dead was almost like they were experiencing a busy, ghostly party line, where they had to focus to locate souls with messages for people in the room. I found it very quiet.

When the mediums received messages from the dead, they would take turns addressing someone in the circle, giving them a dispatch from beyond. Each time they would start by saying, “May I give you a message?” Then would come lengthy, seemingly stream-of-thought readings. At one point during the first reading, something at the back of the room fell to the floor, marking the last sign I saw of possible supernatural activity.  

The old books helped the decor.
The old books helped the decor. Eric Grundhauser

Like many psychics, the mediums would circle certain topics, moving from vague generalities to more specific details. For example, one woman was given a message from a deceased loved one about focusing on her joy, which was eventually narrowed down to baking. The message made her weep. Sometimes the mediums would describe seeing figures standing over someone’s shoulder, or lights swirling around them.

When it came time for my message, Rev. Ocasio said that someone in the spirit world was encouraging me to overcome an obstacle. The message revolved around wanting to let me know that I had the skills to do something I’ve been thinking of doing, but have been avoiding because I thought it was too hard, or was afraid of failing. Try as I might I had trouble relating the message to anything that had been pressing on my conscious, but I nodded in understanding all the same. When my message was over, Rev. Ocasio asked, as the mediums asked everyone at the end of their message, “Can I leave you with that?”

At the end, a few of the assembled who felt that they too had burgeoning psychic abilities communicated a couple of messages to people in the circle. Unfortunately none of the spirits had anything else to say to me. It took almost two hours for everyone to receive their messages from beyond, and, unfortunately, by the end I was more acutely aware of how uncomfortable the chair was than of any spirit presence.  

Then the lights came up and everyone shuffled out into the night. While I can’t say that I found any great spiritual connection to the events of the seance, many of the people seemed to connect with the spirit messages they’d received, likely able to map some of their very real concerns to the messages coming from the mediums. Maybe it makes their problems easier to organize or deal with. Or maybe it was dead people. You’d have to try it, and decide for yourself.