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At Full Circle church in Venice, picking up where earlier seekers left off

Venice group rejects aspects of New Age while channeling millennials' spiritual approach into a new movement

Across the street from the Rose Cafe in Venice, a bad-boy actor is shepherding a crew of millennial "nones" toward what might be called the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Part II.

The incense-and-healing-crystal-accessorized movement known as New Age flourished here in the 1960s and '70s. No one ever wrote its obituary, but today it is diminished — many of its tenets co-opted into the broader culture, with fitness-focused yoga studios popping up on every corner and "wellness" a mainstream goal.

The Venice group is stepping in where earlier seekers left off, rejecting aspects of New Age while channeling young millennials' approach to spirituality into a new movement — or, at least, a really good party.

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FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of the graphic below listed incorrect percentages for religiously affiliated people ages 30 and older.

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On a recent Sunday, actor Andrew Keegan led a weekly ceremony called "Activ888." Young, fresh-faced men and women in various modes of casual dress — some preppy, some with an edge — joined an aging hippie or two in a large circle on the floor.

They shared what they hoped to "activate" by being at the church known as Full Circle that day: Joy. Beauty. Not taking things personally.

"So it is," participants said after each person spoke, an affirmation suspiciously similar to a post-prayer refrain from the TV series "Battlestar Galactica." A young woman with a breathtaking voice played a guitar and sang a mantra.

Some have called Full Circle a religion, others a clubhouse. Founder Keegan — who's perhaps best known for his performance opposite Heath Ledger in the 1999 movie "10 Things I Hate About You" — says it is meant to be a space for young adults to explore their spirituality and creativity, and to push back against gentrification in Venice.

But in the months since the project's birth, steep Westside rents and insinuations that Keegan may be getting kind of culty have made it hard to make Full Circle Venice everything it says it would like to be.

Spiritual ground zero is familiar territory for Los Angeles. For reasons scholars have spent careers pondering, the region has spawned all sorts of religious and quasi-religious groups, often with celebrities as part of the package.

The Eastern-influenced Theosophists put down roots here in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson's evangelical Church of the Foursquare Gospel ensconced itself in Echo Park, elevating its leader to stardom (and some degree of infamy, in the wake of a possible kidnapping hoax and alleged affairs). In more recent decades, Scientology attracted John Travolta and Tom Cruise to its fold;  Kabbalah drew Madonna and Demi Moore; the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness beckoned a Beach Boy and Arianna Huffington.

Full Circle has been blessed by a demographic trend: millennials' appetite for free-form spiritual awakening.

According to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, in 2012 nearly a third of adults under 30 had no religious affiliation, compared with only 9% of those 65 and older.

The "nones," as the unaffiliated are called, don't always reject spirituality outright.

Instead, many "seek to cultivate personal spirituality and meditation, and pick and choose among social programs that advance personal freedom and certain social causes," said Wade Clark Roof, a professor emeritus of religion and society at UC Santa Barbara.

Full Circle, whose leaders say they reach out to "millennial and millennial-minded people," fits the mold. It borrows from everything from alternative healing to Burning Man — with a dash of grass-roots rhetoric.

The church the group is renting is located on a prime Venice corner. Built in 1905, it housed Christian congregations for many years, before a branch of the Hare Krishnas moved in. Brightly colored murals, painted by Full Circle members, adorn its facade. Its sanctuary has wood rafters and stained glass and is festooned with paper lanterns and New Age art.

Arrayed on a table by Full Circle's front door on a recent Friday were cards advertising yoga classes, gatherings with "tonic bars" and workshops like "Dream Awake," an introduction to a technique called EFT Tapping, which promises to "transform your fears in to love."

Seated in a candle- and crystal-strewn conference room — beneath the gaze of a giant painting of Abbot Kinney — Keegan, 36, said that the idea for Full Circle came to him shortly after the Occupy movement staged a protest in Venice.

"It sent me on [a] much more definitive idea of how to develop community [and] bring more abundance and cohesiveness," he said, adding that when the Rose Avenue church property became available for rent, "everything lined up."

"It's nice to see people coming together not in a bar, not in a traditional setting, but for the great vision of something better than what exists," he said.

The name "Full Circle" is borrowed from a communal organic farm in Ojai where one co-founder grew up, but Keegan, who likes to hug guests, doesn't see his church as an extension of hippie culture or New Age movements.

Rather, he insisted, the aim is to build a "spiritual community center" that is focused on the world outside as much as it is focused on the world within.

"There's a lot of 'woo woo' in New Age. I refer to it as spiritual ego," he said. "Even the whole guru thing that they keep associating with me. That's the old paradigm, having someone to follow who's more enlightened than you. That's over."

Activ888, the Sunday morning service, used to be called "Resonate" until the group decided it wanted to emphasize interests in sacred numerology and community improvement. "So it is" is not a borrowing from "Battlestar Galactica" but rather a nod to phrasing used in indigenous ceremonies to deliver acknowledgment and appreciation, Keegan said.

He was amused by the sci-fi connection, though.

"We're not married to any of the language, it's just the best of what's come through," he said. "Maybe we'll shift it to 'So say we all.' That's cool too!"

Keegan himself is something of a shape-shifter. Besides working as an actor and holding recurring roles in TV shows with numbers in their titles — "Party of Five" and "7th Heaven"— he has operated a nightclub and invested in real estate. His run-ins with bouncers are chronicled by the likes of TMZ.

When Vice magazine profiled Full Circle in August, its reporters made note of celebrity-obsessed followers, a porkpie hat Keegan was wearing and the actor's professed conversion moment — getting mugged in Venice at the same time as the Tohoku tsunami struck Japan.

A recent piece in New York magazine remarked upon how many beautiful young women frequent Full Circle, as well as Keegan's "still very nice" physique, made famous 20 years ago in teen magazines like Tiger Beat.

Rick Swinger, who lives next door to Full Circle, complains about late-night noise and drinking.

"He's an actor who likes to party. And he found a way to hide inside the church," Swinger said of Keegan.

But raucousness wouldn't necessarily disqualify Full Circle as a religious movement, said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at USC.

"Celebration has always been a part of religion," he said, pointing to harvest and fertility festivals of the ancient past. "In this day and age it's a record party. A thousand years ago, it was a passion play."

Soni, who lives in Venice, sees Full Circle as part of a spiritual trend also apparent among millennials on his campus, where one-third of the university's interfaith council doesn't affiliate with any organized religion.

"They're still inspired by the big questions, but they pursue them in a personal way," he said.

Keegan and his associates reject the cult label and insist that they're doing serious work. They love the thought of being standard-bearers for an updated brand of ecstatic California spirituality.

"The generational aspect is very important," said Daniel Paul, Full Circle's operations manager. "We're doing something that borrows from what our parents taught us but also innovates in a significant way." Paul, 36, grew up visiting the Esalen Institute in Big Sur but said that his true spiritual awakening occurred more recently at Burning Man.

He sees Full Circle as a guardian of the bohemian Venice that's under assault by an influx of companies such as Google, whose gleaming new offices are a stone's throw away.

Working from such a prime location to "keep Venice weird" means trying to keep up with escalating rents. A new owner bought the church building at auction in August for $4,462,500. Shortly after, Full Circle's rent ballooned by 50%.

"It almost took us out," Keegan said. He has been spending his own money to help pay bills.

Paul, who joined Full Circle three months ago, said he was trying to professionalize the group's business practices so that it could stay in operation.

Participants already pay for classes and events they attend at the church. Full Circle may soon add a membership program. A gallery will open in April. The group sells T-shirts and elixirs and rents out its space. It is toying with the idea of offering wellness services — "sound and light healing, those kinds of things," Keegan said.

During Activ888, Paul attempted some informal market research.

"What can this place do for you?" he asked the people in the circle. "Not from your intellect. From your feelings."

One woman asked for a Goddess Group. Another wanted a circle for kids. A third made a long-winded request for what sounded like a bulletin board for job postings. Then everyone lay down under blankets and closed their eyes as visiting sound artist Torkom Ji played music based on 432 hertz, a frequency said to have healing powers because of a special resonance with the human body.

Paul quietly slipped out of the room. He had to start pulling things together for a record release party that afternoon for 22-year-old "acoustic rock R&B hip-hop" artist Drew Chadwick, once a contestant on "The X Factor" with a band called Emblem3.

It was the kind of potentially money-making enterprise Full Circle hopes will be its lifeline. A line of teenage girls had already started queuing up around the corner.

eryn.brown@latimes.com
Twitter: @LATerynbrown

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