|GUILT GONE FOR EX-SAN FRANCISCAN AT SALT LAKE CITY'S SUMMUM TEMPLE
|By Andrea Perkins
"It's a long way down," says Fiona Crimshaw looking through the open doorway of the bus. It's hard to believe she's flirting with the lumpy bus driver, but she is. She turns to him, flashes her bus pass, winks, turns again with a little wiggle, and jumps, clearing three steps with panache and triumph. The bus lurches away and she now stands in a bad part of town facing an enormous pyramid.
The pyramid is 40 feet long at the base and 26 feet tall, a dwarf compared to Cheop's place in Giza, but quite a structure for Salt Lake City, Utah. For Summum, a local religious group, it's a temple. It is located at 700 South and 700 West, coordinates that are no accident. The number 77 holds significance for the group, which allows their sacred wines to ferment for exactly 77 days. "The pyramid is aligned with Earth's true North," says Fiona, an edgy blond with super long fingernails painted gold, "so each side faces a cardinal point of the universe. In each corner there's a humongous Brazilian quartz crystal in a specific shape tuned to certain universal frequencies. It makes for a very resonant inner chamber with energies from the Neter forces."
Fiona, 27, emigrated to Salt Lake City from San Francisco in 1994 in order to worship at Summum pyramid. She had just been fired from her para-legal secretarial job when she learned about Summum from a member she met in a North Beach coffee shop. It all sounded too good to be true and she decided to go to Utah at once and check it out for herself. Once in Salt Lake City she never left. "I had a cat in California but I don't know what happened to him," she says. "I couldn't go back. Once I was here, I knew this was where I was supposed to be. I just left all my belongings in my apartment and never went back. I totally started over. I reinvented myself."
A California native and self-proclaimed radical, Fiona never found her niche in San Francisco, where she had lived ever since moving away from her "very rich and very catholic" parents to attend college. "There's like all this hype about how liberal and great and crazy San Francisco is," she says, "and I'm sure that back in the sixties and in Kerouac's day it really was, but it's not that way now. If the truth be known, it's a Mecca for phonies and posers, people who want to be ‘counter' but fail because they're just jumping on the most obvious bandwagon. A lot of people come to San Francisco thinking that by living in a ‘cool' place they too will become suddenly very cool. Everyone is obsessed with appearances, even the hippie kid bumming change on the street. It's all about image. It's all empty. It's all been done before. True radicals cannot thrive there. They are found in more unlikely places."
"Like Salt Lake City?" she is asked.
"Yeah. Anything is still possible here because nobody is looking."
Anything, like Summum, a religion born in 1975 when Claude Rex Nowell claims he was contacted by intelligent beings which he refers to as the "Summa Individuals." After legally changing his name to Summum Bonum Amon Ra (Amen for short), he began gathering his disciples and spreading the word. Summum draws heavily upon ancient Egyptian customs, emphasizing meditation, sex, and mummification, which has been actively performed since the mid 1980s. In fact, Summum is the only organization in the world to offer the service of modern mummification. Around 100 or so people world wide have contracted with Summum to be mummified after they die. To date, however, only beloved pets have undergone this very high-tech procedure.
Thanks to modern science and the hard work of morticians, mummification has come a long way since the old days. In today's world, an aqueous chemical mixture replaces the salt and tars of ancient times. Today's mummy retains suppleness of limb and pigment of hair, skin, even eye, unlike the dried husk-like mummies of yore.
"I work hard at staying in shape and I don't relish the idea of all that hard work going to waste just because I die. I want my body to be a monument to the way I lived my life,"says Fiona, who currently works as an aerobics instructor.
Summum doctrine includes other startling tenets. Expanding upon the Big Bang theory, Summum describes the genesis of life as the result of God's masturbatory ejaculation. Masturbation is a celebrated act in Summum. Likewise sexual intercourse, a subject on which Summum instructional manuals abound.
"I no longer feel guilty about the natural tendencies of my body," Fiona confides. "I've learned that sexual pleasure is a glorious gift. It's our way of worshiping God."
Fiona stands facing the pyramid, which has been the target of numerous acts that Summum regards as discriminatory. Inside the pyramid they are manufacturing "Nectar Publications," or in other words, wine. The wine is for use in sacred ceremonies, and therefor an integral part of Summum religion. But Utah's stringent liquor laws have forced the pyramid to be licensed as a brewery, rather then a temple.
Fiona gazes up at it with awe and respect. "Do you ever want to return home?" she is asked.
"No, never," she says.
Members of the Church of Summum declare that they have been the victims of religious persecution, human rights violations, and hate crimes for the past twenty years. Their leaders had to cut through acres of red tape before they could even be registered with the federal government as a religious organization.
"How ironic considering our teachings are some of the oldest in the world and can be found inscribed on stone that dates back thousands of years," says Brian Hunter, a Summum official.
Most of the controversy has revolved around their wine-making practices. In 1977, agents from the Utah Liquor Control Commission told the Church of Summum that "by practicing your sacramental religious worship you are violating the law and will be arrested if you do not stop."
Henry Richards, a speaker on behalf of the commission, said in court, "all they [Summum] want to do is sit around inside a pyramid, make wine and get drunk."
In the 1980s, Summum leased a farm and with volunteer labor grew food for the homeless. Most of the food was given to the Utah Food Bank, but the excess was handed over to the Mormon Church cannery. In 1987, Lowell Bennion, director of the cannery, told them he would no longer accept their donated produce because Summum made wine. However, he changed his mind shortly thereafter, when local need increased.
Summumites blame the state of Utah, which they claim is nothing less than a Mormon theocracy. After several court hearings, and letters to the IRS, Summum was finally granted a license to produce wine for religious reasons. But it wasn't until 1990 that the state of Utah granted the Church tax-exempt status.
Summum members have been arrested in public places for ditributing their religious literature, though the state later dropped all charges. In 1994, Summum members were arrested in a public park for proselitizing their religion while at that very moment, Mormon missionaries were in the same park doing the same thing. After Summum took out a loan to hire an attorney, the state requested that Summum sign an agreement that they wouldn't sue if the city would dismiss the charges.
However, the community at large generally ignores them. Their temple is located in an industrial part of town and goes unnoticed by most residents. Mr. Simon Fetzer, an electrician, was recently passing by the front of Summum headquarters on his way home from work. Asked how he felt about Summum, he responded, "What's that?"
After looking at the pyramid -- and following a brief run-down on the beliefs and practices of Summum followers -- he said, "Well, I'll be. I just thought that was sculpture."
The average Salt Laker has never heard of Summum, for Summumites are small in number and have mostly staid out of the limelight. But Utahns who do know about them are either totally apalled or highly amused.