Higher Power: How Psanctuary, Louisville’s Psychedelic Mushroom Church, Finds Faith With Fungi

Apr 13, 2022 at 2:45 pm
Psanctuary uses psilocybin mushrooms in their religious practices.
Psanctuary uses psilocybin mushrooms in their religious practices. Art by Talon Hampton

In a field of yellow wildflowers at a large metropolitan park on a perfect spring Sunday afternoon, a small Louisville church congregation was sitting on blankets, about to microdose psilocybin mushrooms.

Anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that this group was one of the others that populated the area that day — the yoga class, perhaps, or the people playing fetch with their dogs. Nothing immediately gave away their purpose, though from a distance, onlookers would miss the hints — the neon mushroom-themed blanket on which two church founders sat, the references to “the mushroom space” dotting the conversation throughout the afternoon.

This church was Psanctuary: The Sacred Mushroom Church, a religious organization in Louisville that uses psilocybin mushrooms, which have psychedelic properties, in their religious practices and regards them as a tool for communing with a higher power and nature. Like in most of the country, psilocybin mushrooms are illegal in Kentucky. The “sacred mushrooms,” as the church often calls them, are a Schedule I controlled substance that can carry a punishment of up to three years for possession, but registered 508(c)(1)(a) churches like Psanctuary have certain legal protections they say allow them to use mushrooms in controlled worship contexts. This afternoon’s gathering, their fourth of its kind since the church’s inception in 2021, was, in their phrasing, a “subtle sacrament encounter” — less than a full trip experience (a “congregational communion”), but a communion with the world nonetheless, by way of mushrooms. 

First, though, the congregants shared their intentions for the day — “to be me,” “to find myself again,” to be a good representation for the church — as well as what they were grateful for. A young Psanctuary cleric in training, Tristan Harris, said he was looking forward to the chance to “connect with you all and with this” — he patted the earth — “big ball.”

Psanctuary’s founder and minister, 43-year-old Eric Osborne, pulled a small Pyrex container out of a tote bag. Inside it was a collection of small psilocybin mushroom caps, tiny things, each one 0.10 grams and barely bigger than a fingertip. 

A “sacred mushroom,” Eric told the group, “is just a gift of nature,” one you “don’t even have to grow” — “just got to pick ‘em and there they are.”

“Heaven’s right here,” he said, “if we allow it to be.”

His wife Courtney McClure, Psanctuary’s secretary and co-founder, had already passed around a clipboard with a waiver, which all nine people in the circle (except me) had signed. The group was a small fraction of the approximately 30 local members and the 120 or so internationally who make up the church — technically, the “non-denominational, international faith-based community.”

click to enlarge Eric Osborne, the founder and minister of Sanctuary, holds a collection of psilocybin mushroom caps, which his church considers sacred.  |  All photos by Carolyn Brown
Eric Osborne, the founder and minister of Sanctuary, holds a collection of psilocybin mushroom caps, which his church considers sacred. | All photos by Carolyn Brown

Eric distributed the mushroom caps, and, together, each group member popped theirs into their mouth in an instant. A few winced at the taste.

Once everyone had eaten their cap, Courtney read the church’s statement of faith:

“We believe that Sacred Mushrooms are a primary source of personal and divine revelation. We seek counsel from the mushroom, to find direction and inspiration in our faith practice. And we believe that all individuals who seek true revelation from Divinity can do so.”

Psanctuary uses psilocybin mushrooms the way they do because they’re a registered 508(c)(1)(A) organization, and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion.” That’d be true if they were a “normal” church, too, but their exercise of religion involves something most churches, to put it mildly, would likely frown upon. 

Still, Psanctuary’s exercise of religion is about connecting people to mushrooms in a way that goes beyond a list of thou-shalt-nots. 

“We want to change the culture around religious experiences and psychedelic experiences,” Eric told LEO. “I’m not against recreational psychedelics, but that’s not how they’re best applied. If you really believe, like we do, that these mushrooms are a sacrament that can connect you to your higher power, then they should be used intentionally.” 

Going To Church 

There were nine of us that afternoon (plus two dogs), and we sat on blankets in groups of two and three. Eric and Courtney shared one that was decorated with designs of psychedelically colored mushrooms, a gift from a therapist who’d worked with their former upscale wellness retreat business in Jamaica, MycoMeditations. Their dog Smokey lay in the grass in front of them.

Young husband and wife Tristan and Cassie Harris sat on a pink blanket with their dog Luna, who often trotted away from the group throughout the afternoon, prompting one of them to follow after her. Tristan, the aforementioned Psanctuary cleric in training, hails from Pike County. After he finishes the eight-week training process, he’ll be able to help Eric (and/or Psanctuary’s two ministers in training) officiate sacrament experiences while getting paid for it. (Other church members will be able to train as ministers in a 10-month program starting on May 25.)

I shared a green blanket with Alex, a tall, gentle-voiced guy who asked that LEO not share his last name. I was the only one present who had never tried psychedelics of any sort; my closest foray into that world was one incredibly underwhelming experience smoking weed in California. 

Psanctuary co-founder and treasurer Athena Short joined an older couple, Stephen and Nancy Headland, on a white blanket across from Eric and Courtney.

Unlike everyone else in the group that day, the Headlands, two founding members of Psanctuary’s congregation, do not live in Kentucky — yet. They hail from Paso Robles, a sunny, semi-rural town in California’s wine country. They’re so new, in fact, that a reference to planning an event around Thunder Over Louisville confused them: “I thought you had the ability to predict actual thunder in the sky!” laughed Nancy.

They were in Louisville for the week for a “fact-finding mission” — looking at neighborhoods, scouting out potential places to live. So far, so good: they’d loved the welcoming and diverse locals and had not “met anybody who was cross or even looked cross; everybody’s been super friendly,” Nancy said. They’re looking forward to having four weather seasons, even thunderstorms, and to making use of the city’s sizable park system. Their plan is to be here in August — around the one-year anniversary of them joining Psanctuary.

In fact, they’re moving to Louisville because of Psanctuary.

click to enlarge Nancy and Stephen Headland share their experiences with mushrooms with other members of Psanctuary.
Nancy and Stephen Headland share their experiences with mushrooms with other members of Psanctuary.

Stephen and Nancy had both met Eric and had had experiences with mushrooms before joining the church; after they’d each attended a MycoMeditations retreat a few years ago (albeit not at the same time), they’d come back to the U.S. feeling transformed, “lighter,” with an impetus to make huge changes in their lives.

“While not a panacea and not a magic bullet,” said Stephen, who has given up all drinking and smoking since his retreat experience, psilocybin mushrooms “really awakened in me the idea that things could be different — things could change.”

They continued to keep up with Eric through his podcasts, “Psilocybin Says” and “The Psilocybin Chronicles,” and joined the church last year; they’re the first non-founding members whose faces you see in Psanctuary’s promotional video, which was filmed at the church’s retreat in Brandenburg last September. Now, they’re looking forward to being part of its in-person community and further exploring their relationship to psilocybin.

“Each time I commune with the mushroom, I get something out of it,” Stephen told LEO. “Sometimes it’s a little something. Sometimes it’s a harsh something. Sometimes it’s a soft, warm something. But there’s always a lesson. I feel like the mushrooms are there to teach.”

How It Started, How It Works 

Psanctuary was founded in February 2021 and held its first Zoom service on May 2, 2021. By early September 2021, when their website went live, the church had already grown to nearly 100 members, which Eric commemorated in an Instagram post: “I suspect you will see this community expand rapidly as it is founded in love, compassion and honesty. Anything else is destined to fail.” (Incidentally, Psanctuary’s URL used to belong to a Christian church in England.) 

They finally got an in-person meeting space earlier this year.

On May 7, 2021, Psanctuary officially got its 508(c)(1)(A) status, making it a nonprofit religious organization. 

A 508(c)(1)(A) organization, in layman’s terms, is a church in the eyes of the law, but one that might not fit the mold of what attorney Greg Lake, a consultant and author who specializes in laws relating to entheogenic (psychedelic) religious groups like Psanctuary, calls a “picture-perfect orthodox church.” If Psanctuary — which is one of his clients — were to file as a 501(c)(3) church, the more traditional option, they’d essentially be “asking the IRS to comment on validity of [their] religion,” Lake said.

In any case, Lake said, the practice of using psychedelic substances spiritually has existed for millennia so Psanctuary is, in a sense, nothing new. About groups like Psanctuary, he told LEO, “You can’t regulate these things out of existence.”

click to enlarge Members of Psanctuary discuss their faith on a Sunday afternoon as part of a “subtle sacrament encounter,” an afternoon that involves hiking in a Louisville park and microdosing psilocybin mushrooms.
Members of Psanctuary discuss their faith on a Sunday afternoon as part of a “subtle sacrament encounter,” an afternoon that involves hiking in a Louisville park and microdosing psilocybin mushrooms.

A 2002 article in the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies [MAPS] Bulletin, a journal published by the foremost authorities on psychedelic research, noted close to 40 churches and religious organizations in North America and Europe (many of which are now defunct, in part due to legal threats) that have centered their religious practices around cannabis, ayahuasca, peyote and, of course, psilocybin mushrooms. The landmark U.S. v. Boyll case in 1990 ensured that members of a Native American religious group that used peyote (even non-Native members like Boyll himself) were exempt from laws that criminalized the use of peyote because they did so in “bona fide religious ceremonies.”

Psanctuary says it exercises using mushrooms under the auspices of the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a successor to the original federal law passed by Bill Clinton in 1993 that was struck down in 1997. It reads: 

“Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A ‘burden’ shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.”

Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the bill in 2013, citing concerns that it would “cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care and individuals’ civil rights,” according to a statement at the time, but a Republican-majority General Assembly overrode his veto. In various states, laws like this one have been used in cases about LGBT discrimination and vaccine mandates, among other issues, but they have, in general, been a boon for members of psychedelic churches. 

But, as Eric told me: “We are practicing our sincere faith. And until someone can prove to us that it is insincere and that we are putting the public at risk, then we’re going to keep on practicing our faith.”

‘Intense And Intentional’

People who think Psanctuary is solely about eating psychedelic mushrooms will be sorely disappointed. Much of the “work” of being in the church is about talking with fellow congregants.

Of course, Psanctuary’s ministry is chiefly focused on psilocybin mushrooms and their benefits. Even their logo is a stylization of the underside of a mushroom cap, with the mushroom’s gills radiating out from what appears to be an eye in the middle. 

Likewise, Psanctuary has their semantic particularities. Psilocybin mushrooms themselves are often referred to singularly as “the mushroom” or “the sacrament,” variably with or without capitalization, or sometimes “sacred mushrooms.” Eating mushrooms is “partaking in the sacrament.” A trip itself is a “sacrament experience”; microdosing is a “subtle sacrament experience.” A bad trip is a “challenging experience.” One’s headspace during a trip is “the mushroom space.” A group trip is “congregational communion.” Their name, of course, is “Psanctuary,” spelled with a P like in “psychedelic” and “psilocybin,” and their twice-monthly meetings are known as “Psacred Circles.” Sunday services and some emails end with the send-off “Mush love.”

Still, the “trip” experiences — both the subtle sacrament encounters like the one last Sunday and their multi-day retreats — are only a fraction of their overall ministry, and they’re members-only at that. To become one, you have to pay a nonrefundable one-time fee of $35, then choose your monthly giving tier — $10, $20 or $30, plus a $0.50, $1 or $1.50 processing fee, respectively. (It’s a sliding scale system; all tiers have the same benefits.) After that, you fill out an application, then sign their code of ethics and liability waiver. Once that’s done, you schedule a call with the founders to talk about the church and your intentions with joining. Members have access to the congregation’s Telegram channel and Discord server.

click to enlarge Cassie Harris takes part in a meditation at the end of Psanctuary’s “subtle sacrament encounter."
Cassie Harris takes part in a meditation at the end of Psanctuary’s “subtle sacrament encounter."

As you might expect, they’ve had to turn away people who’ve come to the church only for an easy supply of mushrooms. Those people, Eric said, will “pretty quickly exit themselves out” after hearing the in-depth and personal conversations that Psanctuary members have at their in-person and virtual gatherings.

“Because we are so sincere, we are so intense and intentional behind what we’re doing, if that’s not what you’re into, then you’re gonna go find somewhere else to do drugs. That’s easy,” he told LEO. Anybody can find someone to do mushrooms with, he added, but “not just anybody can come and sit and have a two-hour conversation about their own real personal vulnerabilities or pain and trauma.”

Those two-hour events — bi-monthly Psacred Circles in person and weekly Sunday Services on Zoom — make up the bulk of the church’s programming, though their recent and upcoming events also include mindfulness sessions, a cacao ceremony and a silent disco vendor’s market. 

Their in-person events take place inside a cozy studio space on East Broadway, where the only thing immediately indicating its purpose is a string of decorative mushrooms right inside the entrance. Potted plants sit atop a cubby shelf; paintings by Eric — a poinsettia, some Van Gogh-esque plants — add color to one of the exposed brick walls. 

I went to both the Community Psacred Circle on Tuesday, March 29, led by Eric; and the Women’s Psacred Circle on Saturday, April 2, led by Courtney.

Eric’s circle was heavily mushroom-focused. There were 10 of us — all men, except for Athena and me — but our conversations focused more on mental health, trauma, organized religion and the pros and cons of using mushrooms for healing. Alex spoke heartfeltly about the concept of communion. 

At the women’s circle, Courtney asked us to keep anything personal that was shared inside the circle fully inside the circle, to which we all agreed. Still, I can say that it was slightly larger than the previous one — there were 14 of us, including one service dog, but we were all female. 

We didn’t talk about mushrooms, though — we talked about emotions. We did a “body scan meditation,” then played several rounds of “The Noticing Game,” where we shared observations about how we (collectively and individually) were feeling and existing in the space. It wasn’t always easy; I struggled to come up with a response on two of the four rounds, but it helped us connect as a group.

The word “Psanctuary” didn’t even come up until the very end, right before Courtney concluded the group and offered people slices of homemade hawthorn berry heart cake.

The Road To Psanctuary

The long journey to Psanctuary didn’t begin with a prayer to God or a cry for salvation or a Bible verse. It began with another walk in the woods. 

Eric was 19 in 1999, a student at St. Catharine College, a small, now-shuttered Catholic school near his hometown of Springfield, Kentucky, working on an associate degree in liberal studies. He’d graduated from a Catholic high school a few years earlier. 

By that point, though, he’d already started to question the faith he was brought up in.

“As I got older, I started to see that where I really felt in touch with God was not in the Church,” he said. “I mean, I was fully bought into the Catholic thing. When the pedophilia scandal broke out, by then, I’d already started to really question the validity of what I was engaged with all the time. But then I just said, ‘Look, this is hogwash. This is corrupt to its core.’”

Disillusionment with the Church led him to explore nature more — to spend more time in the woods, hiking and hunting for mushrooms, initially for food.

When he discovered psychedelic mushrooms, it was a revelation. Years of church experience had failed to give him a spiritual connection, yet here was something that could — something “real and direct” and “not a theoretical thing anymore.” 

Eric was already plenty familiar with the sacrament of communion, how, in the Catholic Church, through the process of transubstantiation, a thin wafer gets transformed by the priest into the body of Christ.

But a psychedelic mushroom — this did not need to be consecrated. To him, it was already holy and perfect by its own existence. It was a doorway to God, nature and the universe, and he could hold it between his fingertips.

Still, after he transferred to UofL and graduated in 2004, he taught English for a few years at a Catholic middle school in Louisville.

In 2009, he made a complete pivot: he started a mushroom farm, Magnificent Mushrooms, in rural Paoli, Indiana, about an hour northwest of downtown Louisville. He would have preferred to have stayed in Kentucky, he said, but a board member at his school had an empty farm and needed someone to maintain it, so the opportunity was there.

Eric turned the farm into a thriving business that grew close to 15 different varieties of mushrooms over the course of its time in Paoli. He grew 100-150 pounds of edible mushrooms a week for restaurants, private caterers and a grocery store in Louisville and Southern Indiana. Locally, his clients included Le Relais, Harvest (which has since closed) and the Wiltshire group. He led educational workshops about the benefits of mushrooms — both edible and psilocybin. In 2011, the Indiana State Department of Health recognized Eric as a wild mushroom identification expert.

On April 8, 2013, he met Courtney McClure, a former competitive figure skater who was then working at the Middletown branch of the local health food market Rainbow Blossom. They married in October 2016, and they now have four children between them, including two from Eric’s previous marriages.

In November 2013, Eric started leading trips to Jamaica — where psychedelics are legal — with MycoMeditations, the wellness retreat company he’d founded the year before. MycoMeditations, which specializes in high-end psilocybin-assisted retreats, offers guests guided mushroom trips and licensed therapists in an ocean-front environment in an attempt to combat depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction.

But in June 2015, Courtney and Eric entered what he calls “the worst, hardest period of our lives” when police raided their 87-acre Magnificent Mushrooms farm in Indiana and took them away to jail.

click to enlarge Eric Osborne, right, and his wife Courtney McClure, left, are both co-founders of Psanctuary.
Eric Osborne, right, and his wife Courtney McClure, left, are both co-founders of Psanctuary.

The Paoli Police Department said officers found five pounds of psilocybin mushrooms and seven pounds of cannabis butter on the property (though, Eric disputes this, claiming that officers included the weight of the dirt in the mushroom weight, and that there were “probably only three ounces” of weed in the butter).

Arrested on a slew of drug charges, Courtney was locked up for a day before getting bailed out while Eric was held in jail for eight days. After their release, they’d spend eight weeks on home incarceration. In the end, they were sentenced to two and a half years of probation.

They say the relatively lenient outcome was likely because they were both white and neither one had an arrest record.

“People’s lives are taken away every day because of plants,” Courtney said.

Despite the ordeal, Eric managed to give off a slight smile in his mugshot as he posed against the white cinderblock walls.

“I was doing my best to smile because this has always been my faith and practice. I have always had some kind of trust in the mushroom, and I trust the process,” he said. “Even though that was a horrifying day, there was still a part of me that knew everything was gonna work out, that still had that faith.”

In 2017, he and Courtney moved to Treasure Beach, Jamaica, to restart Magnificent Mushrooms and continue MycoMeditations.

Still, Eric said, he missed his home state. In Jamaica, he’d often play John Prine’s “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” and he even adopted a dog named Kentucky. (She’s still doing well, but she now lives on a hemp farm, where she has more room to run around that she needed than she had at Eric and Courtney’s house.)

Eric decided to leave Myco in late 2020; his replacement, Justin Townsend, is a former Myco facilitator who has since become CEO and head facilitator. (Currently, the cheapest option via MycoMeditations is a week-long “Classic Retreat” that starts at $4,300 per person for a double occupancy and $5,550 for single occupancy.)

Since then, Eric and Courtney started a podcast, “Psilocybin Says,” in April 2021; founded a psychedelic coaching business, More Than Integration in May 2021 and started Psanctuary the same month. 

Eric treasured his time in Treasure Beach, but now, he’s back in Louisville, continuing to share his beliefs about psilocybin mushrooms.

“I just love Kentucky,” he told LEO. “I want to help people heal here.”

Out Of The Woods 

Back in the park, I caught Alex staring up intently at a bare tree and went over to photograph the moment. He said he was appreciating the patterns of its branches and how new leaves were coming in; still, he shied away from a photo because he “can’t be natural now that I know there’s a camera.” I looked over at Athena, who was having fun on a nearby swing set. Tristan and Luna followed shortly after, and Cassie took photos of them on her phone. A few minutes later, Courtney took Tristan’s place. Both she and Athena were wearing flowers in their hair. They were giddy and happy and eventually tried to synchronize their swinging before they jumped off, which they asked me to photograph.

While this was happening, others in our group were chatting with parkgoers about the tribulations of using the grody bathrooms — this one doesn’t lock; that one has no toilet paper.

A realization struck me: those people have no idea that our group is microdosing.

It also struck me: any of them could be microdosing right now, too.

At that point, we’d been hiking around the park for about an hour, walking along the trails and admiring a broad expanse of flowers that spread out gorgeously under the trees. As we walked, at one point joyfully passing a turtle sunning itself on a rock, everybody was in good spirits. Stephen said the mushrooms were giving him a heightened appreciation for the nature that surrounded us — they were making the nice day feel like a “nice day squared.”

As we made our way down the pedestrian side of a long stretch of road, and I spotted our blankets through the trees, which lay like gigantic flower petals through the barren woods.

By the time we returned to the circle, it was already 3:45 p.m. The harsh earlier light had already mellowed; the shadows had softened. Courtney offered people some chocolate as she and others sat down, basking in the beautiful day. Eric walked around with Smokey; Tristan reclined on a fallen tree nearby.

Not long after, we all gathered together again. For two hours, as the sun continued to fall slowly behind the trees, we just talked — about psilocybin, dreams, mushroom hunting, palliative care, divinity, stigma, consciousness, past lives, infinity, ego deaths and relationships, amongst many other topics.

At one point, Eric relayed a story: a client who had debated whether or not he should work with Eric (and ultimately did so) went to a psychic about the matter. The psychic said that this was Eric’s “last incarnation” on Earth.

“I don’t buy it,” Eric said. “I wanna keep coming back.”

click to enlarge From left: Nancy Headland, Athena Short, and Cassie Harris relax after Psanctuary’s “subtle sacrament encounter” hike.
From left: Nancy Headland, Athena Short, and Cassie Harris relax after Psanctuary’s “subtle sacrament encounter” hike.

We concluded with a mindfulness meditation.

It was quiet and peaceful. Some sounds overlaid each other: soft piano music from Courtney’s Bluetooth speaker, which pulsed rainbow colors; mourning doves, cars, a slight breeze.

Nancy told the group she’d had a feeling of something right before the timer went off to end the meditation. When she opened her eyes, she was staring right at Luna, who stared directly back at her. 

We all laughed; Tristan congratulated his dog on being the “something” — “Good job, Luna.”

Before the circle dispersed into a round of standing hugs, Courtney asked us to remind ourselves of the intentions we’d shared hours before and consider if we’d achieved them during the afternoon. One by one, the group members named them: to recenter, to represent the church, to “create a greater connection to this soil,” to “soak it in” — both the day and the conversation. Multiple people referenced an intention to “be present.” All agreed that their intentions had been met.

As others walked out to the parking lot, I stuck around to interview the Headlands. I wanted to know more about what would bring them from California to Louisville to be part of a psychedelic mushroom church. Psychedelic mushroom experiences aren’t always easy — even psychedelics experts like Eric readily admit that — and moving cross-country certainly isn’t, either.

But they were ready. There were still a few months’ worth of logistical preparations to account for, but they already knew what the mushroom — and the Psanctuary community — had done, and would continue to do, for them both.

We continued talking as we walked to the parking lot, backlit by the peak of golden hour. At one point, we stopped — unintentionally — right in front of a single yellow wildflower, which grew alone in a big expanse of grass.

Nancy was elated. It was a serendipitous moment, she said — a beautifully-timed parallel for their upcoming move to Louisville.

“It’s gonna work out the way it’s supposed to work out, and things just keep aligning themselves,” she said. “As we move forward in our journey in this move, things are just working out. And that, to me, is serendipitous. It tells me that we are on the right path, and this is what we need to do.” 

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