On weekday mornings Kery Wilkie Nunez does her Falun Gong exercises with two or three commuters next to the Dunn Loring metro station in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. The buzz from the nearby highway and the bustle of the rushing crowds aren't a problem. "You become peaceful and tranquil inside," says Nunez. It's different for the three or four doctors who do their exercises from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. near the library of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. All they hear are birds chirping. Steven Reani does his exercises in the early morning near a deserted shopping mall--except on the weekends when he does them on the vast green lawn in front of the Capitol, where dozens of Falun Gong practitioners assemble.
In a sense, Falun Gong followers in the U.S. are typical of their time and place. Like other Americans, they catch their religion, their health regime, their holistic exercise, their personal fulfillment--whatever Falun Gong may be--on the run. And Falun Gong is typical of modern America in another way: as soon as a new path to self-fulfillment opens up, it is crowded with a rainbow assortment of followers. In inner-city Washington, popular sessions with new practitioners are held each week in a house that stands in the shadow of the I-395 expressway. Out in genteel Manassas, Va., famed for its Civil War battlefield and white frame buildings, Falun Gong practitioners meet on the weekend at a most traditional venue: the Episcopal church.
In short, it's not easy to generalize about Falun Gong's devotees in the U.S. Just when you think that they are all overeducated and prone to quirky intellectualizing (and many are), a practitioner with seriously calloused hands tells you he earns a living pressure-washing decks. Before discovering the texts of Falun Gong, he assures you, reading books was not his thing.
But practitioners all seem to share similar stories about the joy that Falun Gong has brought to their lives. Sure, some took up the exercises because they were convinced of Falun Gong's healing power, while others came to it as a natural progression from Tai Chi and yoga. Many, however, seem to agree with Gary Feuerberg, a statistician in the Federal Government, who says with a note of wonderment in his voice that Falun Gong "is very powerful and makes you a better person. It's about truth."
What about politics? This is Washington, after all. Each day Falun Gong followers--mostly ethnic Chinese--can be found protesting across from the Beijing government's embassy. "Before the crackdown [on Falun Gong in China]," says Feuerberg, "no one spoke about politics. There was no agenda. Yet those suffering in China are like 1st century Christian martyrs. We must stand by them while showing compassion to their oppressors." That's a very American approach. It wouldn't get you far in Beijing.
--By Barry Hillenbrand/Washington