Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel is a thought leader, a lifelong spiritual adventurer and an entrepreneur. Following Seminary and multiple jobs in the tech world, Rev. Jeremy served for seven years as the Minister of Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, CA. He left in 2017 to launch the SacredVR Project and later its secular cousin EvolVR (pronounced “Evolver”). Both projects host live spiritual and personal growth events like Yoga and Meditation sessions, in Virtual Reality spaces attended by people from around the world. These events have been attended by over 3,000 people from twenty-two different countries in the last year!
Vennly: What inspired you to leave traditional ministry and start SacredVR and EvolVR?
Jeremy: I found traditional Ministry stifling and on a larger scale increasingly irrelevant to the people that I wanted to be in relationship with. One thing I have never been called is traditional, and even being a Unitarian Universalist minister, the expectation of what spiritual community, worship, pastoral care, or social justice was supposed to look like was too constrained for me. My lightbulb moment happened in late 2015, when I got a glimpse of where VR was as a technology, and it was light years beyond where I thought. I realized that this could be a new space to explore spiritual community within that would be free from the baggage of traditional spaces.
Vennly: In your opinion, what are the commonalities between in-person and virtual spiritual experiences?
Jeremy: The reason I jumped into VR full time a little over two years ago was because as a technology it finally had grown up to the point where immersion was possible to the extent that you could really feel like you were with other people. Not seeing and hearing other people like on a video chat, but actually experiencing shared presence with them, being “with”them.. At the same time, some enormous differences exist. For example, people choose an avatar to represent their bodies in VR, and some are very life like, but others appear as robots, or monsters, or whatever the imagination can dream up. And this reinforces the fact that people can be someone other than who they “really are” in VR, which can make building the kind of trust necessary for spiritual community a bit complicated at times. But what I have found is that their is also a magic in this, as it allows people a feeling of safety to get real with what is on their heart very quickly.
Vennly: Has ministering through technology changed your general views on spirituality?
Jeremy: I see technology as a process that reveals hidden truths. Humans could always fly, they just needed to be wrapped in materials assembled in such a way to reveal it. What new truths about spirituality, and more importantly, about ourselves, can technology help reveal to us? Immediately VR breaks down physical and geographical barriers to connect people, but that is just a tiny glimpse of what is possible. My view on spirituality is that it is an adventure of ideas, and technology can offer new paths to new discoveries.
Vennly: Many digital spaces have become fraught with divisiveness and hatred. What are the challenges and bright spots in building community in virtual reality spaces?
Jeremy: We set a very intentional tone in our space. In the spot that one teleports into, they encounter a sign with a series of value statements, and twin rainbow flags flap in the breeze above the worship space. We do get trolls but unlike real life, the technology makes it easy to set boundaries in VR. I can mute anyone I want, and turn on a bubble around my body so no one can touch me. And if someone is really causing trouble, it is easy to remove them from the space altogether. But the truth is, almost all the trolls we get at our live events are little kids just trying to get attention, and we have even learned how to win them over. In general, people are thrilled to find our events and join them with incredible respect. We now have a core group of regulars and a larger group who we see at least once a week at an event. It is absolutely a real community of spiritual seekers who are committed to personal growth and look forward to seeing each other.
Vennly: Vennly is also a digital space for spiritual expression. How have your experiences with SacredVR and EvolVR informed your views on how people might engage with Vennly?
Jeremy: People are searching for exactly what Vennly is providing. Whether it is in VR, online, IRL, people everywhere are engaged, as they always have been, in their own search for meaning. The traditional spaces that used to provide resources along these lines are losing relevance to many and so new spaces must be created. The challenge is fighting through all of the noise!