It was a Thursday night, normally a slow time for churches and synagogues, but the sanctuary of The Source Spiritual Center in Venice was packed.
When a diminutive woman stepped to the front of the room, people paused in their scramble for a chair or purchase of a T-shirt and engulfed her in cheers and applause.
She called for a moment of silence. The audience stilled. She dedicated the evening ahead "to all that is good … to the fulfillment of love" in everyone.
"And so it is," concluded Marianne Williamson — friend of Oprah, associate of Hollywood elites, best-selling author and charismatic spiritual leader.
Williamson has spent three decades offering a path to inner peace for those who seek it. Now she's entering an arena in which inner — and outer — peace seems in particularly short supply: She's challenging Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) for the congressional seat he first won when Gerald Ford was president and the country was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial.
"This is a journey we're all taking together over the next few months," Williamson told the crowd of 200 or so who had shown up that night to volunteer for her campaign. In the cadence of a revival-meeting preacher, she talked of a corrupt system in which the two major parties and the corporations that fund them have "locked out" citizens and ignored some of the country's most pressing problems.
She rattled off a list of her concerns: child poverty, mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos, government spying, a growing gap between haves and have-nots, even the "corruption of our food supply" via genetic modification and high-fructose corn syrup.
Using words that wouldn't be out of place at one of her spirituality lectures, she said that getting involved in the campaign could become "a transformation in your life" and an "act of love" for country and others.
Such comments seem to resonate in parts of Waxman's largely coastal district, which includes some of the nation's wealthiest, most politically active communities, including a good chunk of those in the entertainment industry who have admired Williamson.
Had she followed a more conventional course, Williamson would have run in the district that includes her West Hollywood home, represented by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank). But candidates for Congress aren't required to live in the districts they seek to represent, and Williamson believes that Waxman's is a better fit.
"This district is filled with some of the most creative people in the country," Williamson said over oatmeal and Earl Grey at a West Hollywood bakery on a recent morning. "It's filled with people who are starting new things, who are known for breaking the mold and initiating new conversations."
"I have an organic, authentic connection to this community....I hear people here, and I feel heard by people here."
Some political observers, including longtime Democratic political strategist Garry South, give Williamson very long odds.
Waxman is vulnerable, said South, who lives in the district and is not working with any of the early candidates. But he said it would take another Democrat to defeat the congressman in the party stronghold. And Williamson recently re-registered with no party affiliation.
"I just don't think that somebody running as an independent in the fall is going to do it," South said of the district, where producer-director Brent Roske is also running as an independent.
Williamson said she registered as an independent because she doesn't believe either mainstream party is capable of remaking the political system. Under the state's new open primary system, in wide use for the first time last year, the two top finishers in a race move on to the general election, regardless of any party affiliation.
Williamson said she would caucus with Democrats if elected and agrees with Waxman on most issues. But she thinks the 74-year-old has been in office too long.
In a recent phone interview, Waxman said his tenure in Washington is an asset.
"I have a long record of accomplishments that I think are very important to the public interest," Waxman said. He cited his leadership on climate change, children's health, tobacco regulation and the Affordable Care Act. "I've been fighting these fights, fighting against a lot of special-interest groups, for years.
"Sometimes people don't realize it takes time to get things through," Waxman said. "They think you can just show up and wave a wand and get things done."
Williamson vows to decline any special interest money even in the unlikely event it is offered. A spokeswoman said the spiritual leader put some of her own money into the congressional bid at the start but declined to reveal her personal net worth or how much she has raised for the campaign until required to do so in federal filings due later this month.
After launching her campaign with a splashy Oct. 20 announcement at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills — Alanis Morissette performed — Williamson has been putting on political events, including a "yoga fundraiser" this month.
The events are similar in tone and format to her Monday night spirituality lectures at a Los Angeles theater, which are based on "A Course in Miracles," a set of books published by psychologist Helen Schucman in the mid-1970s that aim to help people achieve spiritual transformation.
Williamson said she discovered the set on someone's coffee table when she, like many of her generation, was searching her way through the social turmoil of the time. As a Jew, she said, she was initially put off by the Christian references but eventually came to appreciate the work and, in 1983, began giving talks on it at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz.
Her message focuses on love and forgiveness, which she believes open the way for changes she describes as miracles. It especially resonated in L.A.'s gay community, then beset by the AIDS epidemic and ostracized by many. She had found a niche.
"Gay men in a very real way created my career," said Williamson, a youthful 61, single and the mother of a 23-year-old daughter.
In 1987, she helped found the Los Angeles Center for Living, a support facility for those with life-threatening illnesses. Two years later she began Project Angel Food, to deliver meals to AIDS patients.
Williamson quickly drew celebrity support for the charity, but some complained that she was temperamental and imperious. "The bitch for God" is how Williamson wryly described her reputation during the controversy that preceded her 1992 resignation from Project Angel Food amid conflicts with staff members attempting to unionize.
That same year, Williamson's first book, "A Return to Love," dubbed on its jacket a "spiritual travel guide," was published, soon landing on the New York Times best-seller list. Nine additional books, including six more best-sellers and the just-published "A Year of Miracles," followed.
In early December, an animated Williamson addressed potential supporters at a Redondo Beach spiritual center. Put aside discouragement, she urged listeners. Get involved! Make a difference!
"Yes, the thieves are stealing our democracy," she said of the moneyed interests who dominate Washington, "but we left the doors and windows open." The line, which she uses frequently, brought nods and applause.
Microphone in one hand, gesturing with the other, Williamson wove among the audience, taking questions and accepting compliments, the red soles of her black stilettos flashing as she walked.
"Does that make sense?" she asked after nearly every response to a question. Each time, the audience clapped its affirmative answer.