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A mystical mix of beliefs in harmony

There are no funerals at Harmony Metaphysical Church.

When a member dies, there may be tears, and sadness, but the congregation marks the occasion with a celebration of life, because at Harmony, there really is no finite death.

"We just move from one dimension to another," said the Rev. Donna Jeanne Guerra, pastor at the church since 1990.

Believing in a life after death is not at all unusual for the members of Harmony. The church, founded in 1962, espouses a doctrine that includes many mystical concepts, including telepathy, communicating with the dead, spiritual healing and miracles.

Guerra, 57, was raised a Methodist, yet was also exposed to psychics and mysticism early on by her mother. She attended her first seance when she was only 10 years old.

Guerra said she knew she was "different" as a child, having an unusually strong clairvoyant ability. She recalled one instance when she was filled with a feeling that a neighbor would be killed, and then he was.

Rather than embracing her ability, she became frightened of it, she said, and it eventually sent her on a quest to find people who could help her understand paranormal phenomena.

Then, in 1975, Guerra happened upon Harmony Metaphysical Church.

There she found services that not only included traditional readings and hymns, but also pastors who were channeling messages from the beyond.

At her very first visit, Guerra, who was then a medical office manager, recalled the pastor telling her there was a Harry and Elizabeth in the room.

"I had never met this woman, never filled out any cards, no one knew me, and here she was, talking about my grandparents," Guerra said. "I knew I was home."

As Guerra became more involved with the church, her passion turned to study, and she began taking courses with the Universal Harmony Foundation, based in Seminole. She eventually received her ordination through that two-year seminary program.

In 1990, of the two pastors who had founded Harmony Metaphysical, one had died, and one was gravely ill. Guerra was asked to step in.

"God made it happen," she said, "and it really happened so quickly I didn't give it much thought."

Now, 16 years later under the leadership of Guerra, the church has grown from about 30 parishioners at a typical Sunday service to more than 150. And the service is far more than just an exercise in messages from the beyond.

Guerra stresses the oneness of all people in her services, and while it is a church, and there is a cross on the wall, many religious canons are taught, including Taoism, Judaism and American Indian practices.

"We're like a Heinz 57 here - just a really good mixture," said Karen Myers, 55, who drives from Palm Harbor almost every week to attend services, classes and to volunteer in the church's gift shop.

Myers, a retired retailer, was raised Lutheran and went to church every Sunday, but she still never felt the spiritual connection until she joined Harmony.

"They kept telling me I was a sinner and I was going to hell, and I just knew that didn't feel right," she said.

As for the unique mystical teachings that she encountered at Harmony, Myers likened it to the belief in the afterlife that many mainstream religions share, and said that once someone believes in a divine power, "anything is possible."

Pepito Valdez, 51, has been a member of the church nearly 20 years. In his younger years, he too was taught that if he followed certain rules, he would get to heaven, but that everyone else was doomed to hell.

"It was an insult to my intelligence," said Valdez, a South Tampa portrait photographer who also teaches a course in miracles at the church.

At Harmony, Valdez said, Guerra teaches that God is a life energy that connects every single thing in the universe. Even though this energy may not always be seen or felt, its existence cannot be negated.

Think of a dog whistle, he said. "You and I can't hear it, but that doesn't mean there is no sound."

Guerra is well aware of the skeptics. At one point she even had to take the word "church" off the street sign because of continued vandalism.

But she holds no animosity.

"I detach from it, and send them blessings," she said. "We're still all part of the same energy, and as we are all taught, I turn the other cheek."

Services are held at the church, at 2517 W Henry St., every Sunday morning, 11 a.m. For more information, call the office at 872-0295. Contact reporter Sheryl Kay with any religion news at or call (813) 230-8788.