Video produced by Jessica De La Torre and William Jenkins.
Smoke twirls from the lips of a man with a long beard and metal-framed glasses, who is dressed like the Pope with a psychedelic twist: embroidered gold hemp leaves decorate his cloak, and mushrooms adorn his stole.
Dave Hodges is the pastor, preacher, and founder of Zide Door, a nondenominational and interfaith church in Oakland where religious practice centers on the use of natural hallucinogens known as entheogens—mainly, mushrooms containing the psychoactive chemical psilocybin. For Hodges, “Mushrooms are the origin of all religion.”
Hodges founded Zide Door in January 2019 and, until the pandemic forced him to scale back, presided over psyche-altering sacraments and hot-boxed sermons at the church, a nondescript building on 10th Avenue near E 12th Street, every Sunday at 4:20 p.m.
Despite two years of a global pandemic—and some unwelcome attention from local law enforcement agencies along the way—Hodges said interest in Zide Door has grown, and the church is now making a cautious return to hosting in-person gatherings, with plans to do more in the coming months.
A place of worship and a dispensary
A heavy-set, armed security guard grants access to the church through its main entrance on 10th Street, which sits behind a row of thickly rooted palms. Past the gated door there is a metal detector and, beyond that, a small hall where membership is verified.
“We do have fairly strict security at the church, and this is an unfortunate issue with Oakland; We are in a very high-crime area,” said Hodges. “So the thing that keeps us and our members safe is having armed guards at the front door who are constantly watching for anything to happen.”
Once membership is verified, members walk through an open room filled with about five royal-blue pews that Hodges found on Craigslist. A mini stage with a pulpit holds red, yellow, and green candles with an old and tattered printout that reads, “Sermon every Sunday @ 4:20. Free joints for all during the sermon (everyone must be smoking).”
Music plays loud in the church. But instead of choir melodies, artists like Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar vibrate the room.
Red-capped mushroom figurines decorate the small stage, offering some cohesion to the awkwardly staged room as a psychedelic sermon area. This is where members once rejoiced with cannabis, before the pandemic, and listened to Hodges preach about safe access and the use of entheogenic plants.
The main attraction, the mushrooms, are in a room adjacent to the sermon area that doubles as a dispensary. There is a large poster that reads “20% off Sacraments” on specific days of the week. Black tubs of mushrooms and cannabis fill a metal storage shelving rack against a wall.
Zide Door is one of the few places in the United States where people can purchase mushrooms without being legally penalized or taxed, as long as they are granted membership, a process that consists of answering an online questionnaire. Among the questions is, “Do you work for law enforcement or any government agency?” Members must also agree to accept entheogenic plants as part of the religious onboarding.
“We’re very private and we want to make sure we know why you’re coming in and make sure that you believe in what we believe in,” said Hodges.
Slowed by the pandemic, and then a police raid
Zide Door began as a cannabis-focused church in early 2019, but Hodges was able to add psychedelic mushrooms to its offerings after Oakland’s City Council approved a resolution in June 2019 that effectively decriminalized mushrooms and other consciousness-altering plants like ayahuasca and peyote.
Although it’s still illegal to possess these plants under federal law, and illegal to sell them in Oakland, the resolution deemed these offenses “amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Oakland.”
That didn’t stop Oakland police from raiding the church on August 13, 2020. In security-camera footage made public by Hodges on Instagram and later in news reports, officers can be seen forcing their way into the building with guns drawn and pointed ahead, while people exit the church with their hands in the air.
Recalling the raid recently, Hodges said police entered the church as if they were storming a mafia headquarters, a scene he found both humorous and alarming.
“I was about five minutes away from the church when I got a call that the cops were there. They were still clearing people out of the building when I arrived. I started yelling at them that they’re violating the city’s order, and my religious freedom, and that I’m the one responsible for all of this,” he said. “Basically, I was telling them to just arrest me.”
Instead, said Hodges, the officers, aided by personnel from Oakland Fire Department, insisted on breaking into the church’s safe boxes with the help of rescue tools. After hours of work, they succeeded in tearing open two of them, seizing $5,000 in cash and $200,000 worth of cannabis and mushrooms. Hodges was let go with a fine and a warning. After cleaning up the mess left behind by the raid, he reopened Zide Door 24 hours later.
“This wasn’t about whether we were doing something wrong,” Hodges told The Oaklandside. “It was about how the police can take money from something that they think is wrong.”
The Oakland Police Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But following the raid in 2020, Oakland Police Capt. Rendell Wingate told CBS News that the department was acting on a complaint by the Alameda County health department of an illegal business that was “creating respiratory health issues” for children living in close proximity, and questioned the church’s validity based on its dual function as a mushroom dispensary.
“We have several churches in the city of Oakland and they are non-profit and not known to sell cannabis or mushrooms,” Wingate said at the time. “This is the first for-profit religious establishment I’ve seen in my 28 years as an Oakland cop.”
Hodges said he is actively working with an attorney on compiling a legal case against OPD on the grounds that the department violated religious freedom laws. He now views the raid, and the pending legal challenge, as unfortunate but necessary steps in a longer-term effort to safeguard the church and its practices.
“From the day we opened up, I knew we would have a raid, but OPD was the last place I thought it would come from because of the City Council’s [resolution]. I thought it would come from the county, the state, or worst case, the feds,” he said. “It’s always been the expectation. And it’s part of the plan, in the sense that we have to have a raid, we have to have a court case, in order to prove that what we’re doing is right. And I know that what I’m doing is right.”
A return to in-person sermons
Hodges made it clear that Zide Door never completely closed its doors during the pandemic—the church has remained a place where members can visit and purchase mushrooms—but the weekly public sermons were discontinued as a COVID precaution.
“Prior to the pandemic I was doing a sermon every week in addition to our space being a gathering space for members and a space for them to get their sacraments,” said Hodges. The weekly sermons drew large groups of people, up to 100 at a time, sitting shoulder to shoulder, usually passing around communal joints. “With the pandemic, we did stop that. But [the pandemic] is still a problem.”
Hodges resumed the live sermons several months ago as COVID rates declined, albeit cautiously. They currently take place only once per month and for a smaller group of members, at a temporary location on Livingston Street near the Oakland harbor. Zide Door required its members to show proof of vaccination before entering the venue after the city of Oakland adopted a local ordinance mandating it earlier this year, and Hodges said the church continues to follow public health guidelines for COVID.
Hodges hopes to make the public sermons weekly again when pandemic conditions allow and once he secures a larger venue. “It’s still a challenge during this pandemic, gathering people together. We’re nervous there might be another wave,” said Hodges. “There are a lot of people that want to gather together, but we’re just very cautious about how we can do this consistently.”
Ironically, he said, membership at Zide Door skyrocketed in the months following the police raid, from roughly 20,000 to 50,000 members, at least on paper. The active community, he acknowledged, is far smaller. But even if one percent of the enlisted members were to show up to a sermon, he said, there wouldn’t be enough room at the church on 10th Street, or the alternate location on Livingston, to accommodate them all.
“Before the raid, we were purely word of mouth. After the raid, you can now find us online and submit an application on the website and become a member. But we still prefer to be referral-based,” he said. “The whole model is, you bring a friend.”
Hodges said he could imagine the church one day introducing other types of plant medicines. But for now, Zide Door only offers marijuana and mushrooms to its members. “Cannabis and mushrooms are two of the safest ones that people can use on their own, for their spiritual practices.”
Creating safe spaces for guided mushroom trips
Anthropologist and entheogenic plant researcher Acacea Lewis, 27, is the founder of Divine Master Alchemy, a school for entheogenic practices, and a passionate supporter of widening accessibility to mushrooms and other entheogenic plants that she and many others consider sacred. Lewis, who lectured alongside Hodges earlier this year at a Zide Door event, Spirituality and Beyond 2, believes groups like Zide Door and Divine Master Alchemy are doing important work by creating spaces where curious people can explore their spirituality with the help of entheogens, without judgment and outside the bounds of a clinical setting.
“I applaud those who are treating entheogens as a sacrament and technology for exploration,” she said. “To give the power back to the people for their own spiritual and religious use, versus limiting them to the purpose of a clinical therapeutic drug [that’s] controlled and administered.”
Lewis, who grew up in a Pentecostal Christian family, was introduced to psilocybin mushrooms when she was a teenager and said the plants helped her overcome deep feelings of depression and even thoughts of suicide.
“There was a time I wouldn’t talk to my mother or I wouldn’t even talk to my father because, I [had] come out as a queer, a lesbian, as a youth, and I drove a wedge between me and my family,” she said. “And working with the mushroom helped me to realize that it’s possible for me to forgive myself and my parents and to also study many other different religions.”
Lewis said using entheogens such as mushrooms can also be safer when done in spaces dedicated to the practice, and with people who have extensive first-hand experience.
“Would you go scuba diving with someone who’s never gone scuba diving before? I know I wouldn’t. Would you jump out of a plane with somebody who’s never gone parachuting before? Nope. Would you get on a plane with a pilot that has never flown a plane before? No,” said Lews. “Having experienced people who understand the hidden aspects of this realm can really be beneficial for someone who is just coming in.”
‘It makes you appreciate even just a breath’
At an Oakland Hills home that Hodges uses to facilitate smaller ceremonies, Hodges exhales smoke from a joint he just rolled. The aroma of a dead skunk fills the room of the cabin-like home. There are ceiling-to-floor windows that open to the surrounding hills, which are decorated with deep green forest.
For Hodges, this is the perfect environment to indulge in psychedelics. He hopes to soon provide Zide Door members with access to the home, as a place to safely take “heroic” doses of mushrooms while “trip-sitters,” who’ve been pre-qualified and appointed by Hodges, watch over them to ensure their safety. Hodges calls the project, “God’s Sitters.”
No special education or background is required to be a trip-sitter, only a dedication to magic mushrooms. Hodges has been training one churchgoer, Christopher Tindall, for the lead trip-sitting role. Their training involves taking large doses of mushrooms.
Tindall said the mushrooms have allowed him to appreciate life’s smallest gestures. “With the sacred mushroom, it makes you appreciate even just a breath,” he said. Tindall’s clear blue eyes begin to water as he explains how much he’s grown as a person since partaking in mushrooms. Like Lewis, Tindall said the plants have helped him overcome feelings of depression.
“Before, I thought more about suicide than about appreciating life. And as I’m taking these doses of mushrooms, you literally die and get brought back to life,” said Tindall. His thick, beaded bracelets jingle as he wipes a tear from his face. Now, Tindall said he can’t fathom the dark place he was once in.
An average mushroom dose for recreational purposes ranges between one to two-and-a-half grams, and this is the range where Hodges claims that life becomes more vivid and colorful, and plants look like they’re breathing. Above five grams is where experiences can get more intense and is considered a “heroic dose.” Anything between 15 to 30 grams is where you can leave your body, according to Hodges, and this is where things can become more hallucinogenic and scary for an inexperienced person.
“As far as the dangers of psychedelics go in general, and especially when you’re talking about mushrooms, it’s really about education,” said Hodges. “These are very powerful tools and they need to be done in the right [mind]set and setting.”
Hodges’ message to the skeptics? “You don’t have to listen to me. You don’t have to read a book. You just need to do the dose and experience what you’ll experience. So if you doubt what I’m doing, try it yourself and I can guarantee you won’t doubt it again.”