James Arthur Ray receives a standing ovation as he strides to the front of a meeting room at the Antlers Hilton in Colorado Springs.
In the two weeks leading up to this evening, three participants in an Oct. 8 sweat lodge ceremony Ray ran in Arizona have died. Now the motivational speaker faces lawsuits and possible criminal charges. Most, if not all, of tonight's 150 attendees are aware, but Ray's not interested in delivering any cautionary tales; instead, these prospective customers will be treated to his boundless empathy.
"This has been the most challenging and difficult 10 days of my life," the 51-year-old says, eyes glistening.
A CNN reporter who had been hidden in the audience interrupts, and asks how Ray, so soon after the deaths, can keep trying to make money. (The five-day "spiritual warrior" program apparently cost about 60 participants more than $9,000 each.) But Ray, tanned and confident, doesn't take the bait.
"This is not a press conference," he replies, waiting while his staffers escort the reporter from the room. He then explains that he believes his work is just too important to stop, which is why he travels the country offering "free" sessions like this one.
With that, the crowd again applauds, and Ray tries to convince them that he can help change their lives through his blend of buzzwords and "traditional" practices, to be explained further at training sessions costing thousands.
This all sends shivers down the spines of many locals.
"It's really bringing to attention how the ceremony has been abused," says Kelly Smidt, who helps her husband Jacob Anaya run sweat lodges and other ceremonies on their property in Penrose. Anaya, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, learned to conduct ceremonies over 18 years he spent helping a Lakota spiritual leader in California, who used them to curb addiction.
That sounds like a long time, given that the drill appears fairly simple: heat some rocks, put them in a crowded tent, add water, and sweat away. But for the traditionally minded, every step is supposed to be done a certain way. The frame for the bowl-shaped lodge is constructed with willow limbs, and is then covered with cotton or wool blankets. The fire is built in a particular pattern, and a set number of rocks are laid down with prayers.
When the ceremony begins, the rocks are brought in seven at a time, and the overseer keeps an eye on the participants to make sure they're doing OK.
"Every single thing has a meaning to it," Smidt says. "You do it the correct way — if you don't, the spirits won't come, or something bad will happen."
"You'll just get hot and sweaty," Anaya adds with a smile.
Anaya typically runs lodges with about a dozen people. He's been in a lodge with as many as 26. But the lodge Ray used in Arizona held 50 or more people at any time. It appeared to have been covered with plastic tarps, which Anaya says would have dripped scalding water on participants. Anaya and Smidt also note that having people pay for sweat lodges and other traditional ceremonies is frowned upon, and they marvel at how Ray's "macho man" lodge made the ceremony into an extreme activity.
Says Roxanne Roberts, a co-founder of Sacred Hoop Ministries near Woodland Park who's helped run sweat lodges for 10 years: "The thing now is to educate people there's another way."