SMITH CENTER, Kan. – Supporters of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi see his Transcendental Meditation movement as fostering world harmony. But in this farm town in the heart of the heartland, the movement‘s plans to build its “World Capital of Peace” here are creating more tension than tranquility.
“It hasn‘t split the community, but it has caused a lot of tension,” said Mayor Randy Archer. “We‘re an older community, and new things that come to town are scary for some people.”
Eric Michener, who works as project coordinator out of a storefront office on Main Street, conceded his group, the nonprofit Maharishi-affiliated Global Country of World Peace, probably could have made a better first impression.
Altogether, the Maharishi wants to build 2,400 peace palaces in 250 U.S. cities and has opened ones in Houston, Bethesda, Md., Lexington, Ky., and Fairfield, Iowa, where his group also has operated the Maharishi University of Management for three decades.
TM traces its roots to India. The movement began in the 1950s and is best known for its celebrity disciples, who have included Clint Eastwood and the comedian Andy Kaufman. Practitioners repeat a thought — a mantra — over and over to achieve relaxation, typically for 15 or 20 minutes every morning and evening.
– Is TM a religion?
But Pastor Greg Hubbard of the Evangelical Free Church, countered, “They say they aren‘t a religion, and I say baloney.” In April, he and other pastors signed a letter to the local newspaper saying: “They are welcome, but they must understand we are competing for the eternal souls of people.”
Others in Smith Center — a dwindling town of 1,800 with an aging population — are withholding judgment.
Boyum held out the possibility of an economic boost for the town, where folks raise wheat, corn, soybeans and cattle about 175 miles from Topeka, near the Nebraska line: “Our intention is to funnel as much finances and work through the local community as we can. We all are consumers and will bring resources into the county.”
“They came in and, boom, here we are,” the mayor said. “People thought they were sneaking in.”
Recently, a dozen people showed up at Michener‘s office for a question-and-answer session. Some were curious about TM. Others were a little upset. They wanted to know why Michener didn‘t show up the night before for a public meeting, the usual means of hashing out problems around here.
Michener said there had been some miscommunication and his superiors had not authorized him to speak to a large gathering. He started using terms like “silent zero point.”
“It‘s just like they are pulling stories out of the sky,” farmer Mark Overmiller said after the meeting. “Baby, this will split this town wide open.”
Not everyone opposes the new neighbors. The Rev. Sharon Patton of the First Christian Church grew up near Fairfield, Iowa, and recalled the same concerns there when the Maharishi opened the university and supporters moved into town.
“Those who are secure in their faith aren‘t worried about these people coming,” she said. “We are going through the same thing as the folks in Fairfield and that passed. In time, it will die out.”