When the Gallo Center for the Arts booked best-selling author James Van Praagh, it branched out beyond its typical offerings, possibly into another dimension.
Van Praagh is internationally known as a spiritual medium who claims to communicate with the dead and relay messages from the "other side." His appearance Sunday afternoon in the center's 1,200-capacity Mary Stuart Rogers Theater is nearly sold out, a testament to Van Praagh's popularity and the explosion of the "mediumship" movement in popular culture in recent years.
"My life has been about educating people. I think this week in Modesto will educate them and help them think differently," Van Praagh said from his office in Palmdale. "When you challenge someone's belief system, people will always say this isn't real. But I know what the work is about, I've seen the healing. I think a lot of skepticism is based on fear. Everything in life is based on love and fear."
And it was not without some fear that Gallo Center Chief Executive Officer Lynn Dickerson booked Van Praagh, the first spiritual medium to appear at the center since it opened in the fall of 2007.
"Before booking him, I was a bit nervous that there might be some criticism," Dickerson said. "We do all sorts of things Christian programming, blue comedians lots of different things at the center. As I see it, this is just part of the diversity of programming we bring the community."
Van Praagh's 10th book, "How to Heal a Grieving Heart," will be out this fall. He has appeared as a frequent guest on national TV shows including "Oprah," "Larry King Live," "Dr. Phil" and "The View." He also co-created and produced the long-running hit TV drama "The Ghost Whisperer" starring Jennifer Love Hewitt.
He is one of the highest-profile members of the current "mediumship" movement, which gained mainstream success in the early 2000s thanks to TV shows such as "The Ghost Whisperer" and "Medium" and fellow TV spiritualists such as John Edwards. But it is a tradition whose cultural roots date to the popularity of seances in the Victorian era and even circus shows and fortune tellers.
Dickerson said the center has received a handful of complaints about the show, most from conservative Christians concerned about the presentation going against their religious beliefs.
Dickerson said she did her homework before booking Van Praagh, contacting other venue directors at communities in which he had appeared, including Santa Rosa and Palm Desert. She said it was after talking with the Palm Desert theater director that she reached out to Van Praagh personally about appearing in Modesto.
She expects his event will draw a nontraditional crowd. Tickets have been sold to people who live in Sacramento, Fresno and the Bay Area.
"It's not a religious show; it's entertainment as I see it," Dickerson said. "There will be skeptics that will debunk it. But it's not just wacky people buying into this, it's across the board. I hope it will be something that is entertaining and, for the people here seeking comfort, I hope people find it."
Beware 'fallen angels'
Van Praagh's appearance brought a varied response from some local religious leaders. The Rev. Mark Wagner of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto said people should use caution when opening themselves up to those who purport to have spiritual powers.
"In every bookstore, there is a section with books about the 'metaphysical.' I am often concerned that our people might think it's OK to try anything they find in these books," he said. "People may think they are invoking harmless 'powers' or tapping into their own personal potential, but they may be opening themselves up to the influence of the fallen angels."
The Rev. Debra Brady, pastor at Modesto's First United Methodist Church, said she never has addressed mediums or mediumship to her congregation. And she said she tries to stay open to other people's spiritual experiences.
"There is a lot of mystery around this. Our tradition is varied, rich and has mixed messages about the whole thing," she said. "I truly have met people I think have a gift in this way, who are extra intuitive. But I understand people's concerns, too. And if they are concerned, they shouldn't go. You go in with wisdom. Does it lead you on a path of love and life, or cause more pain and suffering in your life?"
Van Praagh said his shows typically run three hours. He said the first thing he does is "demystify talking to dead people." He talks about his own 30-year journey and experience in the spiritual world. He also does a question-and-answer session and readings of random audience members.
"I help to remind themselves that they are indeed that beautiful force of God and to empower themselves with that. That the spirits are very much alive and there is no death," he said. "It is a lot, it's a life changer. People who go to events say they look at life and death differently."
Religion, spirituality differ
Van Praagh said the Modesto audience will be new to him, but he has made appearances across the country and world to many different sorts of communities. He said one of his best appearances was in Kentucky, the heart of the Bible belt, where he had a book signing and people brought him homemade pies and flowers.
"I could care less about what people think who are skeptics; what people think of you is none of my business," he said. "I know what the work is about, I've seen the healing. Religion is different from spirituality."
James Van Praagh will appear at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Gallo Center, Mary Stuart Rogers Theater. Tickets are $19 to $69. Call (209) 338-2100 or go to www.galloarts.org.