1997-Mar.: Just Like Heaven’s Gate: Sunday

(Like Heaven’s Gate) Some Members Also Believe a Spaceship Will Deliver Their Souls From Earth

Sunday, March 30, 1997
Section: MAIN NEWS, Page: A8
BYLINE: By Susan Pack, Staff writer

Sometimes, as he sat in the church sanctuary, Gary Shelton felt the vibrations and heard the roar of the engines of the spaceship that would take him home to a sun two galaxies away. And if he’d been told the ship was ready to ascend, he would have boarded. “I would have been ready for it to actually happen, but skeptical it would really happen,” he said Saturday. But the 48-year-old Long Beach man would not have been ready to shed his container, to commit suicide. Shelton is a former member of Morningland, not Heaven’s Gate.

Founded in a Long Beach storefront in 1973, Morningland is a religious sect that may appear similar to the Rancho Santa Fe cult. At one time, Morningland had a second temple in Escondido, about 10 miles northeast of Rancho Santa Fe.

Members of both groups have expressed a belief that a spaceship would deliver earthly souls to salvation. Morningland men were urged to get vasectomies; many Heaven’s Gate followers allowed themselves to be castrated. Morningland was founded by a man named Donato; Heaven’s Gate was commanded by a man named Do.

But Shelton, who has fond memories of Morningland, cited more differences than similarities. And a current Morningland member was outraged Saturday at any association between the two groups. “I think this is in extremely poor taste,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “This is Easter. It’s our high holy week.” She described her group as “good people doing good things.” She declined further comment as she briskly escorted a reporter away from the Seventh Street church, which stretches from Molino to Ohio avenues.

Daniel “Donato” Sperato, a former North Long Beach Boys’ Club official, established the religion “for the soul purpose of assisting mankind in transcending the limits of matter, time and space” to reach an eternal state, according to a 1977 Morningland publication. After Donato died in 1976, he reportedly ascended to a spaceship 25 miles above the planet. Succeeding him on earth was his wife, Patricia, known as Sri Donato.

Shelton said he was told three spaceships, each the size of Texas, were hovering above Earth. The church building was called the ship, and it was to ascend at an unstated time.

In the meantime, Morningland has had its earthly problems. In 1980, the state investigated the church for allegedly trying to bribe a former lieutenant governor (nobody was convicted). Accusing church members of harassing his sister after she broke up with a member, a Bellflower man confessed to planting a dynamite bomb at the church in 1986.

Former members told the PressTelegram in 1986 that sham marriages were arranged for immigration purposes, and husbands and wives were persuaded to split up. Some members donated thousands of dollars to the group.

Jeff Paul, who lived next to the church from 1980 to 1995, said he heard a female voice haranguing members throughout the night.

The 40-year-old teacher said a woman used to sit in her car outside the church, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughters.

Ties with families were discouraged, said a 54-year-old Long Beach businesswoman who was a church member during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she doesn’t want to be associated with the sect, said she joined because she received help with personal problems. “Everybody likes to be liked and loved and belong to a group,” said the woman, who left six years later because “I felt it was time to move on.”

Shelton said he was “on a search for a mission for my life” when he was introduced to Morningland by a co-worker in 1982. He was impressed by Sri Donato’s healing powers. “She would move her hands through your aura,” he said. “She said she was changing your DNA.” When she held her hand over a wart-like growth on the back of his hand, he said, “I felt like my whole arm was filled with helium. Two days later, (the growth) was gone, and it never came back.”

The approximately 100 members took classes in astrology, called star logic. They listened to ethereal flute melodies. “People were so kind and loving and generous,” he said.

Shelton didn’t live at the church, but visited four to six days a week. The $5 entrance fee was frequently waived, and he said he wasn’t pressured to make large donations. Visitors, including family members, were welcome. Unlike celibate Heaven’s Gate members, Shelton said Morningland members were encouraged to “call in Donato” to heighten sexual pleasure.

Shelton eventually became a disciple, wearing a silver medallion and brilliant satin or velvet tunics over white slacks and tennis shoes. While on a church-required sabbatical, he heard rumors of a power play by Sri Donato’s assistants. “I was never called back, and I never attempted to go back,” he said.

Yet, Shelton, a customer service rep at a blueprint shop, said he’d consider returning if he were called back. Although he said Sri Donato called the group “the cult of cults,” he said he wasn’t brainwashed during the two years he was a member.

Suicide was neither encouraged nor an option for the woman member or Shelton. “I think suicide is the worst thing someone can do for his karma, his soul,” Shelton said. But he said he understands why someone might be willing to. “It just takes that tweaking of your faith in your spirituality,” he said. “It’s an easy leap to make.”

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