WASHINGTON — Beth Swick was a 40-year-old atheist with warm childhood memories of singing in the church choir when she found herself drawn by a one-word event notice taped to a door: "Chanting." Inside, she found something called a kirtan, or group devotional music.
That experience 12 years ago — joining a call-and-response song in the unfamiliar holy language of Sanskrit with a group of strangers and a beautifully voiced leader — blew the doors of nonbelief off the disaffected Presbyterian.
For decades, Swick had thought that she wasn't religious unless she identified with "some man-God off in some alternate universe in the sky somewhere." Yet in that room, enveloped by the rich music and the group repetition of a single sacred phrase (although at the time indecipherable to her), Swick felt powerfully connected to something divine.
She was soaring.
She was praying.
"It was an expression of a feeling there wasn't room for in my life at the time, some of those feelings of praise. Where does the word 'praise' fit into an atheist's life?" said Swick, a project manager for architecture and design firms in Maryland's Montgomery County who no longer considers herself an atheist.
After a few years of seeing kirtans only sporadically in the Washington area, Swick launched a monthly one in 2009. Today, there are about 15 such groups meeting regularly in the Washington region; one can find several kirtans most weekend nights, held in homes or yoga studios. Last February, Sirius XM Radio launched a channel largely devoted to kirtan-style chant, which has morphed to include hip-hopper MC Yogi (whose popular chant-songs include "Ganesh Is Fresh"). Some 4,000 people come each January to the California desert for a four-year-old Zen-out called BhaktiFest that's heavily centered on kirtan.