Light rays from an antique ceiling fixture radiate beyond a nine-person meditation class, through windowpanes and into darkness as headlights of cars on N. Prospect Ave. flash past.
It's Thursday night, and legions of souls are following the physical and spiritual lights they hope will get them where they want to go.
Local leaders of the Order of Christ/Sophia, which teaches direct experience of God through Christian mysticism, hope that their new Center of Light in the historic Sanford Kane House at 1841 N. Prospect will attract some passers-by.
Founded simultaneously in Milwaukee and Boston in 1999, the religious movement has gone on to establish Centers of Light in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Kan., New Haven, Conn., Oakland, Calif., and Seattle.
But some critics, such as Rick Ross, a widely quoted anti-cult consultant and intervention specialist in New Jersey, do not want the movement to attract people. Ross believes the group is harmful. He says he knows at least 10 parents who said it turned their adult children against them.
Ross also points to Wisconsin Psychology Examining Board records on Father Peter Bowes, the psychologist who co-founded the movement and now is based in California as its full-time national co-director and master teacher. Bowes gave up his license to practice psychology in 2001 after three women said he steered them into the religious movement while they were seeing him for therapy.
Leaders of the group point to Ross' background, including a 1975 Arizona felony conviction for conspiracy to commit grand theft. Ross says he was young, the record was later expunged, and he went on to do work with the FBI and other organizations.
James Lewis, who teaches about new religious movements at the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee and Stevens Point campuses, thinks the still-small movement is probably benign.
Some people immerse themselves in an alternative spiritual subculture, get disenchanted, and make accusations of brainwashing that really come from their disgruntlement, said Lewis, author-editor of "The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions" and editor of "The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements."
Marguerite [C], 25, of Long Island, N.Y., who says she recently earned a master's degree in social work from New York University, left the Boston center when Ross conducted a family-led intervention in 2003.
"It was a very slow mind-control process," she said. "I wasn't really aware of what was going on. Before I knew it, I was deeply entrenched. The more I got involved, the less involved I became with family and friends."
Her brother, David Michael [C], 29, of New Haven, Conn., is a priest in the order as well as a physician at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
"For centuries, when somebody has decided to make a very deep commitment to live a spiritual life and put God above all things, this has always put a stress on families," he said. He rejects claims of mind control.
He said that he could not convince his parents that he was not crazy and was not harming his successful medical career. When they died of cancer last year, he mourned them privately but felt that he would not be welcome at the funerals.
The order blends a belief in reincarnation with New Testament teachings, writings of mystical saints, "Wisdom Teachings of all times," seven sacraments, the Trinity, a belief in Mother Mary as equal in importance to Jesus in redemption, and an emphasis on the Sophia, or the feminine aspect of God, in balance with the masculine.
It recently moved from upper-story space in the Third Ward to the Prospect Ave. house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Owners who spent nearly $400,000 restoring the house sold it to the order late last year for $909,000, said Bill Huettner, one of the owners and head of Prospect Management Co.
A law firm that had offices in the building before the order bought it has remained a tenant.
The Milwaukee center's priests - the Rev. John Mark Klapperich, and his wife, the Rev. Margaret Klapperich - live there with a deacon, a person training to become a deacon, and four novices. The novices make one-year commitments to live, pray and study there while being celibate and obedient.
"It's a very devout life," said John Mark Klapperich, who studied for more than four years before Bowes ordained him.
Bowes, who was ordained a minister in the now-defunct Holy Order of Mans in 1974, said people leave orders and churches all the time.
"People choose to be in our order because they want a relationship with God, and we don't cajole them or browbeat them. It is rigorous. It's not easy, and it's not for everybody."
John Mark Klapperich, who works in a corporation's advertising department, said center residents have outside jobs, pay rent, and tithe 10%.
There are daily services and meditation, a 10 a.m. Sunday service, and an introductory Christian mysticism course on Sunday afternoons.
Those who want more can attend Tuesday night Bible contemplation classes and Thursday night Tree of Life classes on meditation, blessings and other topics. There also are monthly workshops.
A core group of about 15 people attend classes and Sunday services. More attend workshops. Nationwide, there are about 150 members, leaders say.
The order's Web site says: "The word 'cult' actually means 'a small religious group not recognized by the mainstream.' Yes, we are a small spiritual group, too small to be recognized by the mainstream. Are we dangerous or destructive? Absolutely not."
Ross said, "There are certainly disturbing parallels between the Order of Christ/Sophia and groups that have been called destructive cults." He cited three hallmarks: absolute, authoritarian leaders who claim special lines of communication with God; encouragement of members to depend on the leaders to make value judgments for them; and families feeling deeply hurt by the isolation of their children and the lack of communication.
John Mark Klapperich said order members are encouraged to heal past hurts, and that can include writing letters to parents. "Many of the members will also say that they've come into a much fuller and richer and meaningful relationship with their families," he said.