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In a living room in Kendall, about a dozen people are lying on a floor getting ready to meditate, part of a celebration of a special holiday. Easter? Passover? No, massage therapist Donna Newman, the "national guide" for the U.S. Raelian Movement, tells those gathered, "This is the day our creators created us. Because of them we exist -- we can have pleasure." About 25 people in Dade, and 45,000 adherents worldwide, are members of a "religion" that believes that Claude Vorilhon, a former French race-car magazine editor, is their messiah, working on behalf of beings called the Elohim, extraterrestrials who first took him aboard a spaceship in 1973. During that trip, and in subsequent contacts, Vorilhon, who changed his name to Rael, purportedly learned that the Elohim created man in laboratories 13,000 years ago using DNA, and that the various miracles reported in the Bible can be attributed to high-tech devices (e.g., Jesus walked on water thanks to a special antigravity beam). Eventually the Elohim destroyed all the laboratories, but they're going to return -- once Israel grants the Raelian movement the right to build an embassy to welcome them back. While it seems unlikely the Israeli government will turn over land to a UFO cult, Raelian leaders are collecting millions of dollars for their proposed embassy anyway. If Israel doesn't comply, it will be destroyed, Rael predicts.
The Raelians may worship the Elohim, but according to the group, no one currently living on Earth actually has seen any extraterrestrials A except Rael. (Alleged abductees, Newman sniffs, "are just imagining things in their mind," unlike Rael.) And Rael himself doesn't offer any evidence that he in fact has spoken with the elusive Elohim, except his say-so. But for Andre Pinsonneault, a 50-year-old engineer who serves as "priest" for Miami's handful of Raelians, that's all the proof he and the others need. "The evidence is the logic of the message," he notes.
A central part of that message is Rael's assertion that for the last few thousand years people around the world have mistranslated and misunderstood the Hebrew word Elohim in the Bible. Actually, he and his followers argue, in Hebrew it means "those who came from the sky," and not "God," as translations have indicated. Millions of scholars and devout believers of all faiths have made this dumb mistake, but Rael has managed to point out their error. When asked by New Times what Elohim means, Jewish rabbis simply answer "God," although used in its plural form. What about "those who came from the sky"?
"Never heard of that," says Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.
Elsewhere in the Raelians central text, The Message Given to Me by Extraterrestrials: They Took Me to Their Planet, Rael tells about a robot who created six gorgeous female robots for his pleasure. The pro-sex attitudes of this religion are central to its appeal: Its retreats for acolytes permit nudism; it teaches something called "sensual meditation"; and, says Pinsonneault, "We are for free love as long as you don't harm anyone." Plus, he points out, "The girls are sexy." Launched in the Seventies, it is a perfect disco religion for disaffected seekers: heavy on sex appeal, modern-sounding, and no old-fashioned god you have to worship. Not surprisingly Miami adherents are concentrating their recruiting efforts in "open-minded" South Beach.
Other UFO zealots promise more direct ways to get in touch with E.T.'s. "We don't have to try to contact extraterrestrials," says Aldin, one of three members of a Hollywood communal group known as Starbuilders. "We are extraterrestrials." In their small three-bedroom home, Aldin (formerly known as Malenchen, Zal-Zen, Jal'Kae, and, originally, Michael Lamas) explains how the parade of "walk-ins" began taking over the bodies of him and his two adult companions. (His two children are called "crawl-ins.") "The original inhabitants of the bodies never thought it was going to happen," he -- for the alien -- says. They already were working as mediums, as well as selling minerals and other new age paraphernalia. When he and his "divine companion," Alara ("Katrina Wolf is the Earth name," she notes), woke up one day in March 1993, everything looked different. "The original inhabitant went and got his ear pierced, which he would have never considered before, and he got a triangle cut in back of his hair and dyed it purple," Aldin says. "She got a Mohawk haircut." The walk-in, Zal, then started dispensing messages about new self-help techniques and the future of the planet.
The main obstacle in trying to talk to Aldin is figuring out his current identity. It's like a cosmic version of Abbott and Costello's old "who's on first" routine. As Aldin starts to say "They felt in order to serve their mission properly...." A New Times reporter interrupts, asking, "Who's they?"
"The original inhabitants..."
"By original inhabitant, do you mean the person you were when you were, say, ten?"
"That's not who I was, because I'm a different consciousness. The one who was born into this body and who developed the ego was the original inhabitant."
"Is the original inhabitant there now?"
"Until two weeks ago, I would have said no," Aldin answers. "Then I met a being who was walked into over a period of nine years, and when the last walk-in walked out, the original inhabitant woke up, so he had not really left. So I can't rule out the possibility that this is the case here, as well."
On the Internet and in their writings, these sweet-tempered visionaries promote a consistently upbeat message: All humans will evolve into spiritual "light bodies" sometime in the next 50 years, then live happily ever after.
Other E.T. contactees have a grimmer message. Michael and Aurora El-Legion of Boca Raton are among the most vocal UFO believers in the country, having participated in more than 500 broadcast and print interviews, in which they have warned of a U.S. government coverup about the evil "greys" who abduct humans. Both claim to have had powerful contacts with extraterrestrials. Aurora, for instance, says that when she was sixteen years old, she was about to crash into a crowded intersection in her boyfriend's car when aliens intervened, froze time, and transported her to a nearby gas station.
What sets the El-Legions apart, though, is their vigorous promotion of UFO films, documents, and one-size-fits-all conspiracy theories. Late last month in Coconut Grove, they showed a film called Contact, based on footage of UFOs supposedly shot by a Swiss farmer named Billy Meier. Meier's films and photos, however, have been denounced as hoaxes for nearly a decade by responsible UFO researchers, such as the Mutual UFO Network. One UFO expert, for instance, obtained original prints showing that Meier's photos of "spacemen" were actually shot from a TV screen showing a commercial. These inconvenient facts don't dissuade Aurora El-Legion: To her it's all just part of a government-sponsored plot to discredit Meier and the idea of gentle, human-appearing aliens he and others support. The El-Legions promote a conspiracy theory -- developed by former "Naval intelligence officer" William Cooper -- that somehow links the JFK assassination, the Trilateral Commission, and a secret pact between the government and the "greys" to allow the wicked aliens to experiment on humans and cattle in exchange for their technology.
And that's only half of it. "The government wants to scare the shit out of you about aliens, announce an invasion of the greys, bring in the New World Order, and turn us into their little slaves," Aurora says. "Now do you get the whole picture?