A Remote Arizona Church Offers Followers Peyote-Induced Psychedelic Trips
Kent's recounting of Trujillo's life can seem implausible, even mythic, but in many ways, the church's existence in the high desert of Arizona is just as outlandish.
Courtesy Todd Pierson Peyote Way Church founder Immanuel Trujillo (right) stands with Reverend Anne Zapf and Rabbi Matthew Kent.
As the story goes, Trujillo was born to a Jewish mother of French-American descent and a Mexican/Apache father. Trujillo's father had come to the United States from Mexico in 1917 and enlisted in the U.S. Army to gain American citizenship.
His father was exposed to mustard gas during World War I and suffered resulting ailments for much of his later life, Kent says. Trujillo was just a few months old when his father died.
Trujillo's mother, 14 years old at the time of his conception, gave him up for adoption. For the first two years of his life, he was raised in an orphanage. Then an Irish-Catholic family adopted him and renamed him Jimmy Coyle.
Courtesy of Peyote Way Church of God Peyote Way Church founder Immanuel Trujillo as a young man.
When he was 15 or 16, Coyle ran away from home to join the military. He wanted to fight the Nazis during World War II. Too young to join the U.S. Army, which would accept only recruits at least 17 years old, Coyle enlisted in the British Merchant Navy.
"The British were fighting for their lives, so they would take anybody," Kent says. "The British gave him a gun and called him a Royal Marine."
Coyle officially joined the British forces in 1944. In the last few weeks of the war, legend has it, he was sent on a mission to the North Sea island of Heligoland, where the Nazis maintained an ammunition dump. Coyle was assigned to take out a German-controlled radio tower.
The island was supposed to be deserted, but two members of the German Volkssturm still manned the tower.
"It was a knife operation, and as Immanuel got old, he would tell us, 'I see them every night,'" Kent recalls. "Sixteen and 60 [years old], two guys; he survived, and they didn't."
While he was making his way back to the boat that had brought him to the island, a bomb exploded and Coyle was seriously injured.
"His face was rebuilt, his teeth were blown out; he had a piece of steel in his head and a piece of steel in his leg," Kent says. "Immanuel had PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The brain injury would mean that he would have blackouts and that he would be functioning but not aware of what he was doing."
Coyle recovered from his wounds and found himself back in America when he was about 19. It was when he returned to the States to an inheritance from his birth father that Coyle first learned he had been adopted as a young boy.
Learning about his biological father set Coyle, who began using his father's surname, Trujillo, on a path that led finally to Arizona, to discovering his native heritage, and eventually to establishing Peyote Way Church of God (originally called Church of Holy Light).
Determined to track down his remaining family, Trujillo found several other names on his father's will: Juan Trujillo, who had died; Eugene Yoakum; and Bill Russell (also known as "Apache Bill"), who lived in Tucson.
Trujillo traveled to Arizona, where he met Yoakum outside Courtland. Yoakum then introduced Trujillo to Apache Bill, who was the medicine man for the Native American Church in southern Arizona at the time. In those days, peyote use was illegal, but the Navajo and other Native American tribes, including the Huichol, continued to employ the hallucinogenic cactus in religious ceremonies.
Yoakum and Apache Bill introduced Trujillo to the hallucinogen.
"They took Immanuel up to Redington Pass and said, 'Son, you stay here and fast for a day and then start eating this medicine, and we'll be back on the third day.' And that was Immanuel's first spirit walk," Kent says.
Like Trujillo, Yoakum and Apache Bill were military veterans. They had served during the Philippine-American war and had participated in the massacre of 600 people in the Moro Crater battle of 1906, Kent says.
"Part of each of their hearts was shattered by the violence they had done and had witnessed. It goes with any veteran," Kent says. "They knew that the peyote helped them find some peace. And so they knew it would help Immanuel."
After his first spirit walk under the guidance of Apache Bill, Trujillo began using peyote regularly for spiritual and therapeutic purposes. He joined the Native American Church and eventually became "roadman," a leader of peyote ceremonies.
Trujillo remained a member of the church for nearly two decades, finally breaking away to establish an inclusive, multiracial church offering peyote to non-natives.
Trujillo's experience with psychedelic drugs and his promotion of the use of peyote led him and prominent Harvard psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary to become friends. Trujillo introduced the counterculture icon to peyote, and Leary in turn introduced Trujillo to LSD, Kent says.
Courtesy photo Wikimedia Commons/ Philip H. Bailey Timothy Leary pictured in 1989, in Los Angeles, California.
Eventually, Trujillo joined Leary's League for Spiritual Discovery, which held storied LSD-fueled escapades at Millbrook Estate, north of New York City. After police raided Millbrook, Leary and "psychedelic yoga master" Bill Haines decided to establish the Sri Ram Ashram in Arizona, with the help of Trujillo.
Kent says Trujillo located the property in Benson, where Leary and Haines started their ashram. Trujillo lived at the ashram for several years and helped establish the center as he looked for property for Peyote Way.
Eventually, Trujillo left the League for Spiritual Discovery to have a family. Leary, who famously was called "the most dangerous man in America" by President Richard Nixon, was hounded by authorities and in and out of jail for years. Members of his organization faced similar scrutiny.
Off on his own, Trujillo hired an Arizona real estate agent to find him land with a water source, which is how he came to purchase the 160 acres near Aravaipa Canyon in a foreclosure deal. After buying the land, Trujillo focused on making pottery and establishing his church.
Trujillo and his wife, Jane, lived on the property with their 4-year-old son, Byram, while building their pottery business. Then, the little boy was killed in a freak accident. As Byram helped haul pottery to Trujillo's kilns for firing, the boy fell off the back of the truck carrying pottery and was run over.
"It broke their hearts, and that was the beginning of the end of Immanuel's last marriage," Kent says. "From the time we knew him until he died, he was celibate."
Zapf and Kent were introduced to Trujillo in October 1977. They were in their mid-20s and recently had married in their home state of Pennsylvania.
They arrived at Trujillo's fledgling church through circumstance.
A man they had caught a ride with while traveling across the country had rescued Trujillo's elderly mentor, Yoakum, who had become trapped behind a refrigerator in his home.
"He would have died had our ride not entered his remote cabin and pushed it off him," Zapf says.
The two had been at Peyote Way, still called the Church of Holy Light, for a few days when Trujillo showed them a tray of drying peyote and offered them the opportunity to go on a spirit walk.
Soon after their first experience with the drug, the two decided to stay and join the church. They were designated by Trujillo as the "Reverend" Zapf and "Rabbi" Kent, although they have no formal affiliations to Christianity or Judaism.
Over the next several years, Trujillo, Zapf, and Kent worked to incorporate the burgeoning business, Mana Pottery, and to formally found the church, which officially was registered as a nonprofit organization in 1981, according to public records.
The pottery business expanded with the arrival of the married couple. Back in its heyday, Goldwater's Department Store carried Mana Pottery. Celebrities, including former NBA star and tie-dye-wearing big man Bill Walton, collected the colorful pieces featuring images of peyote and animal figures. And the Smithsonian Institution gave Trujillo's work a place in its permanent collection at the National Museum of the American Indian.
But the road to establishing the peyote-based church wasn't without obstacles. At various times, Trujillo, Zapf, and Kent each faced prosecution for possession of peyote, designated a schedule I controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In the early '80s, Zapf and Kent were arrested in Texas while on a "spiritual mission" to purchase peyote from an authorized dealer. Trujillo was arrested at least twice, once in Denver in the '60s and again in 1986 in Globe, for eating part of a peyote button in front of a police officer.
Trujillo was acquitted in 1966 of possession of peyote in the Denver case and again in 1987 in the Globe arrest. Dr. Andrew Weil, a Tucson guru of alternative medicine and health food who teaches at the University of Arizona, acted as an expert witness in Trujillo's 1987 case.
During his testimony for the defense, Weil detailed his studies of peyote at Harvard University, the drug's impact on health and well-being, and the hallucinogenic effects of ingesting the plant.
Mescaline (the ingredient that makes people hallucinate) is the most commonly known psychoactive alkaloid in peyote, but as Kent is quick to point out -- and as Weil attests in the court transcript -- peyote has more than 50 different active alkaloids that make it unique.
"The effect of eating peyote is due to the interaction of all of these alkaloids. It can't be equated with eating pure mescaline, and so I think that [this] creates a lot of confusion in research because most of the research had been done with isolated mescaline and not with peyote," Weil stated. "I don't think the two are equivalent."
Through his testimony, Weil described his observations of individuals who had taken peyote.