Noe Valley Voice December-January 1998-99

Tom Baker -- An Equal Opportunity Spiritual Guide

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Tom Baker's friends call him the pagan periodontist.

That's because from 9 to 5, the Jersey Street resident is an accomplished gum surgeon, but on weekends and evenings he turns into a Buddhist­Jungian­New Age shaman.

Baker, 52, trades his white dental coat for a bright ornamental vest and dons a cap, beads, and shawl to act as a celebrant at all sorts of ceremonies -- from baptisms and weddings to funerals, birthdays, and coming-of-age events.

In 1992, Baker and two close friends founded the nonprofit Ceremonial Way, "out of a desire for a better understanding and direct experience of spiritual life.

"We feel that spirituality, friendship, and community are very closely bound together," he says. "Our hazy vision is [to form] small ceremonial community groups that have friendship as a common thread. I really believe that we get a lot of what we need as living beings from some sort of spiritual connection."

Baker's ceremonies often include poetry readings and storytelling. "People share stories of how they know the person who is having the 50th birthday or has just graduated from art school. We create a sacred space, which is much different than just having a party. We really touch deep feelings -- of love, warmth, happiness, and sometimes sadness. But it's about much more than words. The whole experience just fills the air."

"It's almost a way of life," says Jean-Margaret Strauss, who has attended many Ceremonial Way celebrations. "It's not just a holiday event. Tom's been a spiritual guide for a lot of people."

The Victorian home that Baker shares with his wife, Carol, and two sons, Christopher, 17, and Zachary, 15, projects a life that commingles typical family activities and a strong spiritual influence. The back yard is filled with greenery and flowers, some planted in an old rowboat. Hanging above the yard are yellow, rust, and white Tibetan prayer flags, made of a delicate gauze-like material. There are also several Buddha statues, as well as a concrete altar (next to the basketball hoop) that Baker constructed "as the outer representation of the inner truth and spiritual life."

The Bakers' sitting room is filled with family photos and Tibetan and Buddhist artifacts -- many given to them by friends, neighbors, and relatives. There are bamboo altars and a decorative green, yellow, and red Tibetan banner hanging above the doorway -- a gift from a lesbian couple for whom Baker performed a commitment ceremony.

In the den, Sunday newspaper sections are flung about the sofa. Two pets -- an Australian shepherd and a cat with incredibly soft fur -- loll on the hardwood floors.

Upstairs is Baker's attic sanctuary, a small room used for meditation and informal prayer gatherings. Indian rugs, throw pillows, and ceremonial artifacts, including a golden prayer bowl from Tibet, give the room a mystical aura. When the bowl is tapped, a low ringing noise emanates, which Baker says provides "a calming influence."

Baker and the hundred or so others who regularly participate in Ceremonial Way are part of a national trend, particularly among baby boomers, toward blending rituals and beliefs from different faiths. A recent story in the Utne Reader referred to this trend as "pastiche spirituality," or "religion à la carte."

"My personal spiritual awareness has been greatly enhanced by a blend of the modern with the very ancient introspective paths," says Baker. "The modern path for me is Jungian psychology. The ancient path is the way of the shaman. In these modern times, I believe it is for each of us to be our own shamans."

In a lighter moment, he puts this ecumenical idea more succinctly: "As the bumper sticker says, 'God is too big to fit into one religion.'"

If he had to pick a formal religion, it would be Buddhism. "But in Ceremonial Way we do not want to be restricted by previous dogma. We want to be free to explore, discover, create, and invent our own."


Baker grew up in Kansas City, Mo., the son of a homemaker and a telephone repair supervisor. His parents belonged to the Unity Church, a Christian church that operates a 24-hour dial-a-prayer service.

Baker was active in the church as a child and teenager, but drifted away when he went off to college at Kansas State University. "The religion never quite made sense to me," he says. Later, he attended dental school at the University of Missouri.

In the mid-1970s, Baker came west to Los Angeles, to complete his periodontal residency at UCLA Medical Center and at the Wadsworth V.A. Hospital. In 1979, he and Carol, whom he was dating at the time, decided to give the Bay Area a try. They moved to San Francisco, and he set up his periodontal practice (now located at 450 Sutter St. in Union Square).

"I've always been good in a creative way with my hands," Baker says, "and as a child I had a lot of dental treatment, so I was familiar with the profession. I knew I wanted to work with people in a medical way and use my hands."

To broaden his horizons, Baker also started studying Jungian psychology. In the mid-'70s, he met and began working with Don Sandner, a well-respected Jungian analyst who died in 1997.

"I came to Don with a question: What is spirit and how do I find a spiritual life in the modern world? I wanted to share this information with other people -- like when I was part of an organized religion. That has always been a desire of mine. In fact, I would have liked to be a minister but never found a church I could support."

Through his studies with Sandner, Baker learned that "we don't have to disconnect from life or from the responsibilities of our lives to touch the world of spirit. In fact, one of the messages for us today is to stay connected to our families and communities, our environment, and the earth around us."

Another reason Baker began exploring the spiritual path was so that his children would have some form of religious experience. At the time, his kids were attending San Francisco School on Gaven Street. There Baker met two other parents -- Jim Thurston, a tax lawyer, and John Robinson, an ESL instructor and fellow Noe Valley resident -- who also were interested in Jungian psychology. Together, they started performing various rituals.

Says Robinson, "We had fun acting out rituals in celebration of the solstice, or in doing coming-of-age ceremonies. We dressed up in costumes that evoked long-lost archetypal deities from various cultures. We chanted, making up stories and acting them out. These events, attended by the parents and children of San Francisco School, were very wonderful."

Yet it wasn't enough for the three men. "It was a liberal school environment so it was fun to meet people there and talk about issues, but it still wasn't enough of a container for us," says Baker.

Six years ago, they launched what they hoped would be a better vehicle for their spiritual yearnings, Ceremonial Way. Then in 1995, they acquired tax-exempt status as a religious nonprofit corporation. "San Francisco is the perfect birthplace for our religious organization," says Baker. "Our ceremonies are equal opportunity. They honor all races and nationalities, all religious backgrounds and sexual orientations."


Today, many of Ceremonial Way's events are held at Baker's home. It's not unusual for 50 people to show up -- mostly family, friends, and Baker's dental patients.

"It's a changing group," he says. "There are easily at least a hundred people in the San Francisco community who are active participants. We have different clusters."

There's a strong Noe Valley contingent, as well as a Berkeley group that's been formed with the help of Baker's sister-in-law Patty and brother-in-law Page. Baker performs most of the ceremonies, but Robinson and Thurston help to develop rituals, ceremonial styles, and the philosophy behind Ceremonial Way.

A few of Ceremonial Way's participants are practicing Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, but most depend on Ceremonial Way for their spiritual awareness.

"What I really value is the connection to the community," says Marcia Anderson, who sits on the board of advisers of Ceremonial Way. "We witness people's lives and families over time. When my daughter turned 21, we had a ceremony for her." Anderson often travels to Nepal and has brought back a prayer wheel, drums, and masks for Baker to use in his ceremonies.

For Susan Hilton, a patient of Baker's, the group is "a way to socialize with Tom and Carol and their circle of friends. It's more social than spiritual for me," she says. "But during the last Day of the Dead celebration, I got a lot out of it. It was very touching. I'm not a spiritual person, but through attending these ceremonies I have become more in touch with myself and a community, and that's a very special feeling."

"You walk in and experience what you experience," adds Baker. "It's legitimate no matter what happens, no matter where your mind goes. It's a completely individualistic thing. We try to create a space where people can participate on whatever level they want. Sometimes it feels like we touch into a great space, into the mystery."

The 1996 Day of the Dead ceremony was an especially moving one for Baker and the attendees. They met at Baker's home and talked about the transition between life and death. They built an altar and displayed candles and pictures of deceased family and friends. Baker also created a scroll on which participants wrote the names of people who had died recently. They talked about their loved ones, remembering funny stories as well as painful memories.

"Then we sat down and opened this communication to our deceased loved ones," recalls Baker. "We wrote down prayers and tied them onto a long narrow string and proceeded out to the back yard. I had the fire going in an old barbecue pit, and I placed some old Christmas trees on top and we wrapped the prayers around the trees. The fire went about 15 feet into the air. It was a very powerful ceremony."

To date, Baker has performed almost 200 ceremonies, including a wedding in Telluride, Colo., a baptism in Albany, N.Y., and -- this past May -- a 10-year anniversary and commitment ceremony for Emil Miland and Fred Sonenberg, who live on Fair Oaks Street.

Baker calls himself a "celebrant" rather than a minister, but he explains that one of the reasons he formed Ceremonial Way as a religious nonprofit corporation was to ensure that the weddings he performs are legally binding contracts.

"That's not an issue for many other ceremonies, including funerals and equinox and birthdays," he says, "but for weddings, where the state has a definite legal interest in the wedding contract, we wanted to have something behind us that is supported by more than just us."

Through it all, he's continued his "day job" as a periodontist. With such a demanding occupation, how has he managed?

"It's been very difficult," says Baker, "and sometimes I'm not sure how I've done it. One time I was organizing three coming-of-age ceremonies at once.

"But it's a work of love," he adds. "It's very energizing. When I get involved in a ceremony, I never know what's going to happen. It allows me to step away from being a periodontist and step into something I really love and get energy from."

Although Christmas is still a few weeks away, Baker and his family don't plan to wait until Dec. 25 to begin celebrating . Instead, they'll honor the winter solstice by gathering with groups of friends on various nights through Jan. 1.

"I think Christmas is a very difficult time for families," says Baker. "Families are trying in one day to all get together, and you just can't fit everybody in on the 25th of December. It creates frustration and turmoil. Plus, we've lost connection with why we are even celebrating. I think celebration is best done over a period of time, and the winter solstice can be celebrated from winter solstice to New Year's Day. The solstice [Dec. 22] is the depth of mid-winter darkness. We're celebrating the return of the light and the birth of new hope and new beginnings while at the same time being surrounded by this other side of life -- darkness, the unknown.

"If we slow down and make sure we connect with the people who are our loved ones, that is enough."

In the new year, Baker is hoping to expand the reach of Ceremonial Way. Last spring, the group published its first newsletter. A web site is also being developed. "Now that we've gotten this baby born, we're starting to investigate ways of sharing this concept of creating a sacred space," Baker says. "Right now, though, we're growing by word of mouth, and that's the perfect speed for us."

If you are interested in learning more about Ceremonial Way, you can contact Tom Baker through e-mail at