The building appears to be just another little white stucco house in one of South Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods, with a used washing machine for sale -- $25 -- in the frontyard.
But to the people who assemble here from throughout Los Angeles -- and even from overseas -- the house is the Eagle Wings of Enlightenment Center. Presiding over it is the woman some neighbors simply call “the lady who prays.”
Step inside the house and there stands Sri Natha Devi Premananda in a bright orange sari, cooking soul food while Native American flute music and the smell of incense float into the kitchen from household shrines graced with mini-lights, burning candles, silk flowers and real poinsettias.
She adds a pinch of salt to a steaming pot and says, “God is everywhere. There is no place God is not. We’re all God’s children. Some drink. Some smoke. Some fight. Suffering is not restricted to a particular neighborhood. Never was.”
The music, incense and blend of Eastern and Western traditions would be at home in a New Age hot spot, perhaps the terraced sandstone cliffs of Sedona, Ariz. But this is West 99th Street, near the corner of Century Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, and in the backyard the drone of a didgeridoo -- a 6-foot-long indigenous wind instrument from Australia -- sets the tone for a sweat lodge ceremony.
“Sometimes we hear gunshots in the night,” said Sri Natha Devi, 52, a pleasant, bookish woman with wire-rimmed glasses and braided hair. “I tell people, ‘Don’t be afraid. Pray for those causing the shooting and those who might be harmed by it.’ ”
And so they pray. Some men, but mostly women, gather in her living room. Clad in loose-fitting clothing made of white cotton, they sit on pillows in a circle, chanting mantras and offering prayers in English and Sanskrit.
Call Sri Natha Devi a working-class guru. Her folksy sanctuary -- a hub of spiritual traditions including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism -- has brought awards of appreciation from civic leaders, including City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.
People come from as far away as India and Tibet to the white house that sits beneath the landing path to LAX. A collection of 2,500-year-old Buddhist relics now touring monasteries, museums and hotels around the world made stops in Sri Natha Devi’s living room in 2003 and 2004. Hundreds of visitors reported experiences of inspiration and healing.
How could this be? And why here?
Sri Natha Devi was born Claretta Cayette in New Orleans in 1955. Her father was a sugar cane farmer and civil rights activist, her mother a housewife.
At 18, she moved to Los Angeles and found work as a sales clerk. She said her spiritual odyssey began two years later when she was given a copy of “Autobiography of a Yogi” by swami Paramahansa Yogananda, who taught yoga and meditation techniques. She then turned to Christian and Eastern scriptures.
She was a single mother working in an Inglewood department store in 1981 when she met her first spiritual mentor: Duke Bradley, a retired chef with a special interest in spiritual consciousness and the hidden meanings of dreams.
“Duke was a quiet man,” Sri Natha Devi recalled, “who got up at sunrise, got dressed, grabbed his hat, coat and walking cane and then spent all day talking to people he’d meet out on the street, counseling and healing and never asking for a dime in return.”
Bradley died in 1984, the year Sri Natha Devi established her ministry on West 99th Street.
Two years later, she made her first pilgrimage to Indian holy sites, including a cave where she said she heard a voice that instructed her to “go and return to America and prepare your home to receive the masters.”
Sri Natha Devi said she translated that to mean go home, “paint the house, patch the roof, fix the plumbing and wiring.”
Through donations, and money raised at Eagle Wings bake sales and concerts, she visited holy sites in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Peru, Bosnia, Egypt, France, Italy and Tibet, where she said she “sat at the feet of enlightened masters.”
She said she divined her spiritual name “while visiting the cave of Mahavatar Babaji in the Himalayas.” In Sanskrit, it means “she who sits at the womb of creation,” she said. Many visitors address Sri Natha Devi as “Mataji,” or respected mother.
Some people learn of her through word of mouth. Santa Monica psychologists Jan and Peggy Berlin still talk about their first encounter with her.
In 1990 they met a young Peruvian shaman in Los Angeles who “asked if we were interested in attending a sweat lodge ceremony in South Los Angeles,” recalled Jan Berlin, who received a PhD in psychology at UCLA. “At first, we didn’t know what to say. After all, we’d been in sweat lodges in extraordinary wilderness settings the world over.
“Well, we went and, yes, we were nervous driving to her place the first time,” he said. “But her sweat lodge was reverent, sacred, powerful and unlike anything we had experienced in our 15 years of shamanic study.”
West Los Angeles Hindu minister Satyatma Morse recalled a weekend during which “a grandmother was shot to death in a car a block away on the left, and two people were murdered a block away on the right. But you are perfectly safe on her property. It’s a vortex of safety and protection -- of high spiritual energy.”
Eagle Wings is not the only mystical center in the shadows of the mainstream churches that dominate the spiritual landscape south of downtown.
Just a few miles away, Sri Natha Devi’s friend, the Rev. Meri Ka Ra, presides over the KRST Unity Center of African Spiritual Science, where 180 congregants study ancient Egyptian teachings. In March, Ra will install two 12-foot statues of Egyptian gods near the center’s entrance.
In an interview, the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, former pastor of First AME Church, pointed out that metaphysical interests are nothing new among African Americans.
“With our movement from Africa to the United States came a part of the culture that was metaphysical that truly entered the spiritual realm of healing and foreseeing the course that events would take, and of washing oneself free of demons and evil desires,” he said.
Sri Natha Devi’s center, which is subsidized by donations that can range from “pay what you can” for a prayer service to $28 for a sweat lodge ceremony, focuses on self-improvement in a workaday world.
One who recently came for the sweat lodge was Noluthando Williams, a massage therapist who lives a few miles away.
“It all comes out,” she said of the lodge’s effect. “All the pressures, all the mental, physical and emotional toxins of trying to pay the rent, buy your first house, support a family, keep your job, stay healthy and deal with things like crime and police brutality.”
Williams had had an appointment, but neighbors refer some of the other seekers, such as the feeble man who knocked on Sri Natha Devi’s door one weekday.
Leaning unsteadily on a walker, he said, “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I’m asking God to let the world know how everything’s been taken from me and how only he can give it back. No more heart problems. No more dialysis.”
Slowly and softly, Sri Natha Devi recited the Lord’s Prayer, then clasped his wrists. “God, bless this man and his health,” she said.
“I can feel it,” the man said. “I feel God’s blessings. Thank you. Thank you.” He shuffled away down 99th Street, past rowdy men sitting on porches drinking.
Some of her followers have suggested she relocate to a bucolic setting, away from the police sirens and the roar of 747s approaching Los Angeles International Airport.
Sri Natha Devi dismisses such talk: “This is my mission. This is where I belong.”