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Munchies

West Philly's Herbal Medicine Man Makes Edible Magic

West Philadelphia isn’t known as a mecca for shamans and mystics, but that's where I went in search of a medicine man who mixes secret blends of herbs into healing concoctions he sells in old whiskey bottles.

by Ada Kulesza
Jul 31 2015, 6:00pm

Wellington Christian, whose father taught him Southern folk herbalism. Photos by the author.

I knock on a door on a tightly packed block of row homes in West Philadelphia. "How much?" I ask. $50. I hand over cash, and Wellington Christian hands me a bottle of liquid mud.

In West Philly, one would expect I'd be purchasing some kind of illicit substance. I am, sort of.

West Philadelphia isn't known as a mecca for shamans and mystics. But with its mix of yoga studios and guerilla urban farming, it's no surprise I'm here searching for a medicine man.

A key battle site in Philadelphia's gentrification wars, the tree-lined streets west of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel have become a culturally vibrant haven for artists and misfits.

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West Philly is lousy with vacant-lot gardens boasting tastefully rehabbed bedpost trellises.

It's the regional trans and queer capital, lousy with vacant-lot gardens and coffee shops. It's home to African refugees with their aromatic restaurants, and back-to-the-earth African-American eateries peddling turmeric shakes, vegan sandwiches, and shea butter cosmetics. On weekends, the farmer's market and LARPers (in halfhearted costume) enjoy Clark Park alongside hula-hooping burners and young men playing soccer.

It's where activist Kathy Change set herself on fire at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, and where police dropped a bomb on black environmental activists in 1985.

Peace reigns now, as mostly white gentrification creeps into a mostly black neighborhood—a very complicated and touchy subject. Christian lives on this border. He straddles the line between legitimacy and the underground, between medical science and folk healing. He is a walking battleground.

A hulking 54-year-old, Christian isn't obviously a healer. He can no longer support his weight and has trouble walking. He smokes and eats fried chicken and bodega sausages. Ask him about AIDS and he starts rattling on about T-cells and blood counts.

Yet despite having documented evidence of recoveries from diseases as intractable as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and late-stage cancer, the medical establishment ignores him.

He grabs his phone and starts dialing some of his former clients.

In 2010, Earl Sawyer, 72, was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer. Word of mouth led him to Christian, who accompanied him to the oncologist and surgeon. "They knew Christian knew what he was talking about," Sawyer says.

He gave up the radiation and drank Christian's brew. "Nasty stuff," he says. "I took it about a week. What came out looked like bean soup, with an indescribable smell."

Five years later, he's cancer-free.

I took the cleanser in the morning. It was bitter, but not as bad as I expected it to be. Within half an hour, I felt my guts plummet, as if in an elevator.

Christian sources his herbs from Penn Herb Company, and it gets costly as his formulas often contain 20 varieties of plants or more.

I didn't have any major, life-threatening illnesses. I was having stomach problems—feeling sluggish after meals, gassy, and bloated. It just felt like things weren't moving right, and no matter how little I ate or how much I exercised, I couldn't drop my belly weight.

I took the cleanser in the morning. It was bitter, but not as bad as I expected it to be. Within half an hour, I felt my guts plummet, as if in an elevator. Spare the details, but bean soup is a good way to describe what left my body for the next two days. It was explosive.

After the storm cleared, I felt lighter. Despite backing off from sports for four days, when I resumed practice I was stronger, faster, and more flexible. I needed less sleep, and everything went down and came out smoothly.

Joseph Lofton, 71, was on dialysis for a kidney problem as a result of complications from hepatitis C. His kidneys started failing and he was on dialysis for two years—three times a week for over three hours, he was strapped to a machine that transfused blood and removed waste.

After three months of a daily, "indescribable" shot glass of herbal brew, a liver biopsy came back negative. However, he had to stop taking Christian's medicine because it got too expensive.

After the colon cleanser, Christian said I should take a blood purifier. How much? $90.

The cost of the herbs for the formulas—not including the labor involved—makes them expensive for anyone with complicated ailments who need to take them continuously. Obviously, no insurance company will cover Christian's herbal formulas, recipes handed down from his father and uncles that were passed down from the Virginia Appalachians.

At one point his work with multiple sclerosis attracted the interest of a major rehabilitation center, which invited him for a series of meetings. They were strongly divided—on the one hand, Christian isn't licensed or formally educated. On the other, who cares? He cures people.

In the end, they dropped him. After an initial boon following some newspaper articles, as time went on his popularity waned. He was too sick himself to work, and now he lives in poverty.

The prices of the herbs are high - I'm reluctant to fork over $90 for tea myself. And he doesn't pay himself for the production labor.

A few days after I take the cleanser he calls. "I want to give you the blood purifier."

When it comes to his practice, he's extremely secretive—despite seeking out media attention, he's never allowed anyone to see where he concocts his potions, and he doesn't like to disclose too many ingredients. "I don't want people to try to replicate the formulas and screw it up," he says. But I cajole him into giving me a short list of what he puts in the blood purifier.

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A colon cleanser should go down the way it goes out—with class.

Agrimony, burdock, yellow dock, dandelion, fenugreek, green tea, garlic, milk thistle, neem, oregano, Oregon grape, chaparral mushroom, rhubarb, sassafras, white pine, goldenseal. It's in an old Jack Daniel's bottle in a sticky plastic bag that smells sour and foreboding.

"Keep it in the refrigerator and shake it really well. Drink some every night before you sleep for five days." Before I leave he says, "Keep an eye on your skin."

I have a common skin condition called tinea versicolor—blotches on my shoulders, back and chest that look pale on dark skin and pink on pale skin. I've had it for years. I used to take prescriptions to nuke it but it just came back within months, so I've let it take over, and now it's all over my stomach, breasts, back, and shoulders. It's spread so thickly that the blotches have bled into each other to look like a second skin. Besides being really unattractive, it gets flaky and itchy.

If he can get rid of this fungus, he's a true miracle worker.

That night I shake the bottle, open it, pour it, and take it down.

It's the foulest thing I've ever tasted. The only way to describe it is "trash hole." Like, trash that's been fermenting in a butthole. I gag. I brush my teeth but the aftertaste lingers as I burp it up.

Every night for five days I drink the wretched brew. The spots don't go away but they look like they're suffering—lightening up and flaking. Maybe it'll take time, or maybe it won't change my skin. (It doesn't.)

But despite the foul taste and the persistence of my fungus, I love the blood purifier. Christian was right when he said I'd feel like a newborn. After a week, the extra weight melts off and my energy increases. My sleep is sound and my face glows.

Christian belongs in a neighborhood like West Philadelphia, a misfit's sanctuary, a neighborhood with energy threatening to burst all kinds of glass ceilings. I don't know if he'll get any respect—or prosperity—as a healer anytime soon. But I do believe he deserves it.