I first met AJ over Honey-Nut Cheerios in the cluttered kitchen of my aunt’s So-Cal home. Six feet tall with a curtain of dark hair that hung well below his shoulders, he looked somewhere in-between Gilbert Grape-era Johnny Depp and Jesus. Over the past few days, I’d heard countless stories about my adopted cousin, whose Woodstock wardrobe and passion for New Age spiritual healing drove my MD father into a sweat. Yet we’d hardly exchanged good mornings before I decided AJ was, without a doubt, the coolest member of my mother’s eccentric extended family. Amidst a jumble of hand-painted mugs and Sea World paraphernalia, my cousin introduced me to the most bizarre and most fascinating spirituality I’ve ever encountered.

Lizzie Buehler for the Nassau Weekly

Lizzie Buehler for the Nassau Weekly

AJ is a starseed—one of an “elite group of leaders” destined to bring about what he describes as a “transformation of the Earth.” According to the Planetary Activation Organization (paoweb.com), an online community devoted to this belief system, starseeds are actually superhuman, “evolved beings from another planet, star system, or galaxy.” Having been placed on earth, these chosen individuals must fulfill a mission to bring human society into a new era of enlightenment. Like “a modern day order of knights of the round table,” AJ explained to me, starseeds must act as teachers and activists to bring the planet into a “Golden Age” of justice, balance, and peace.

This unconventional philosophy has its origins in a 1976 book by New Age writer and thinker Brad Steiger called “Gods of Aquarius.” In addition to explaining a wide variety of mystical phenomena—from UFOs to Celtic Fairies—Steiger proposed the existence of a race of “star people,” individuals from outer space who are reborn into human bodies. Steiger’s ideas did not gain any real traction until 1997, when Sheldan Nidle—a small-time scientific researcher who claimed to have had multiple extraterrestrial encounters—founded the Planetary Activation Organization. Since then, Nidle has written three books on starseeds, and attracted a large number of followers through online video segments called “webinars” on the PAO website.

AJ first encountered Nidle’s philosophy eight years ago, after he “had a vision of an elite group of leaders who could help in the transformation of the earth.” Since then, he has established a local following in LA, where he trains an “army” of other starseeds in spiritual exercises—like chanting and meditation— as well as in combat skills, like martial arts and swordfighting, which he believes will be necessary come time for revolution. 

Precisely how AJ would actually grow a motley crew of hippie artists into a global army was unclear to me. Yet as I listened, wide-eyed, between spoonfuls of cereal, I was far more interested in this promise of revolution than the practical details of its realization. AJ is, without a doubt, one of the most charismatic people I have ever encountered. Perhaps it was the sheer authority with which he outlined his mission—a calm eloquence that somehow made the existence of aliens seem like the only feasible reality. Or the way his ocean-blue eyes so readily latched onto my own, as though there were something genuinely fascinating about the half-awake mind behind them. Whatever it was, I was hooked. As he spelled out his New Age agenda, I found my New England-bred skepticism dissolving in a growing desire to support this idyllic vision. Humanity, he explained to me, had gone astray. Caught up in a digital age rat race, we had lost touch with our planet; our world was marked by environmental pollution and social and economic inequality. Who could deny that it was time for change?

My enchantment, however, was short lived. Barely a week after I’d returned to the east coast, I found myself laughing with friends at my oddball cousin’s ambitious vision and pseudo-scientific beliefs. How, after all, could a small group of So-Cal hippies aim to transform the whole of human society? Not to mention that these hippies were supposedly not actual human beings, but a group of humanoid aliens, specially selected by some supreme being to lead a God-sent revolution. It didn’t help matters that, on one of our last days, AJ had apparently told my twelve-year-old sister that she, too, was a starseed. That my charismatic, Jesus-haired cousin was a spiritual leader—that I could at least imagine, if not fully believe.

That my younger sister was some kind of alien angel, however, was pushing things too far.

Skeptical as I was, this strange philosophy wasn’t something I could simply forget, any more than I could forget the way AJ’s whole body seemed to light up when he spoke. As I explored his sci-fi spirituality, I felt myself beginning to understand if not his beliefs themselves, at least his impulse to believe them.

According to PAO, starseeds become aware of their identity because they “feel excitement and longing upon learning that they might have originated from another world.” So long as you felt this excitement, it seemed to me, no one could really tell you that you were, or were not, a part of this special order. I couldn’t help but wonder: who doesn’t want to believe that they’re special? Who could read this, and think No, if I learned I’d been chosen by some divine being to save humanity, I really wouldn’t care? The cynical part of me immediately dismissed this as a ploy to ensure that just about anyone naïve enough to believe in aliens would jump on board. Yet as I continued reading, I found myself questioning my own initial doubts. So what if this was, as my father took every opportunity to condemn it, just “drugged-out hippie bullshit?” If you could get yourself to believe that you really were a supernatural savior—that every moment of your life, even the most banal, was part of an indispensible quest to rescue the human race—well, that would be pretty damn exciting.

PAO goes on to list several other criteria, including feeling “aloneness and separateness,” struggling to fit into mainstream society, and reluctance to become involved in social and political institutions. Starseeds, it seemed, were social outsiders, individuals longing for purpose but unable to find direction. I thought of the way AJ spoke about the Golden Age, the earnest passion with which he painted a world marked by peace and “unity with the natural world.” I had never before met anyone who was that excited about an ideological cause. How many other young people had been lonely, aimless, alienated from mainstream society, before coming across this bizarre but dynamic movement? By adopting AJ’s unconventional belief system, these individuals had gained not only a unique sense of identity, but also a renewed sense of direction and importance.

It’s easy to dismiss this sense of purpose as a mere illusion. I imagined my father arguing that AJ and his “army” of followers were simply “wasting potential,” throwing away time and energy that would be better devoted to a “real” cause. While it’s true that the starseeds’ vision may be less than practical, I think dismissing this mission as illegitimate would mean dismissing the work of any faith-based institution. Aliens and the Golden Age aside, AJ is doing what just about every charitable organization is doing on some level: striving, first and foremost, to improve the quality of life of those it serves. The ideology guiding this gesture might seem dubious to most people—just as many dismiss the notion of a Christian heaven, or Jesus’ second coming. Yet, like many Christian charities, AJ has channeled his controversial spiritual agenda into tangible service efforts.

After spending several years as a Curriculum Innovator at the University of Southern California, AJ recently designed his own educational program, which is scheduled to launch next month. The “full spectrum” online curriculum offers subscribers “expert” training in a variety of different spheres, from spirituality and “inner mastery” to physical fitness and professional development. Notably, the program is not related to Nidle’s cult philosophy—or, at least, not overtly. Though the idea for the course arose out of AJ’s desire to prepare people for the Golden Age, the curriculum itself focuses on self-improvement and makes no mention of aliens or alternate universes. Instead, it is, first and foremost, AJ’s attempt at rectifying what he perceives to be a hole in “conventional education.” By purely focusing on the academic, AJ believes, schools leave out important lessons in character development, and encourage students to hone in on a few specialties at the expense of other key “intelligences.” Claiming to help subscribers “learn everything they didn’t teach you in school,” AJ’s course ultimately sells itself as a unique and valuable opportunity for high school and college grads to patch up this hole and set themselves up to lead fulfilling adult lives.

Whether or not the program will, as it promises, actually furnish students with the “skills they need to thrive in this modern world,” is for time to tell. Yet it represents a degree of initiative and selflessness that is certainly rare in a time when we so rarely question established systems and conventional notions of success. From a practical standpoint, the course is pure lunacy. At the moment, enrollment is free, and its unconventional programs are no replacement for a college education. What it is, however, is ambitious, innovative, and more genuinely committed to the good of those it serves than any large, impersonal University.

On one of our last days in San Diego, AJ, my aunt, and I went out for breakfast at The Mission, a hip vegan café that served scrambled tofu alongside standard breakfast fare. When I asked AJ about his spiritual life, he grew serious. He was close, he explained. He’d had a vision—somewhere, on some other strand of the space-time continuum, his army was waiting, ready for revolution. He just had to figure out how to get to there.

Update 8/15/2017: Certain identifying information that appeared in a previous version of this article has been removed at the source’s request.