Smith Center, Kan. – A couple of minutes with the morning coffee klatch at the Second Cup Cafe is all it takes to get a feel for how these locals see plans by a global meditation empire to build a utopian city just north of town.
The white limousine that movement leaders arrived in recently is a running joke. So is the fact that at a get-to-know-you picnic, they served vegetarian food in a Kansas county known for its cattle.
“I could eat a dead cow in the street, but I never felt so bad as after eating that (vegetarian) spaghetti,” jokes Stan Hooper, 78, who came to Smith County to retire among the small towns and farm silos that dot these gently rolling hills.
But it’s gallows humor: The Smith County that Hooper knows is about to disappear.
This conservative corner of north-central Kansas is set to become a new headquarters for the followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an octogenarian, Indian-born guru with a multi million-dollar meditation empire and a global vision for world peace.
Followers of the Maharishi’s brand of New Age spirituality, known as transcendental meditation, or TM, bought more than 1,000 acres of prime corn and bean fields north of town this spring. And the steel for the first three buildings of what’s described as the capital of the “U.S. Peace Government” – complete with fountains, palatial architecture and a university – began arriving on trucks last month.
Attracted to this spot because it sits near the exact geographic center of the lower 48 states, the movement plans a new community that will house 2,000 professional “peacekeepers,” a spokesman said.
Followers of the Maharishi believe mass meditation at the country’s center can bring peace and invincibility to the United States.
“The feeling is that unless you reduce the stress in collective consciousness, no (other) effort to create peace is ever going to bear fruit,” said Bob Roth, a spokesman for the movement in Washington, D.C.
“That will be our contribution to supporting the U.S. government and the governments of the world to make a better world.”
Around here, those are fighting words.
“They say they’re not a religion. I say they’re a sect of Hinduism,” said Greg Hubbard, pastor of Smith Center’s Evangelical Free Church. “Bottom line is, I don’t buy you can be a Christian and a Hindu at the same time.”
Hubbard and eight other local ministers recently signed an open letter decrying the proposed new city as a threat to “the eternal souls of people.” A large Christian crusade spurred by the controversy is scheduled in Smith Center this month.
Meanwhile, the county’s three commissioners recently passed a moratorium on land-use changes, though even the county attorney, Allen Shelton, said he believes it comes too late to stop the project.
A group called the Smith County Alliance has invited cult experts and former practitioners of TM to town to debunk the movement.
“Their way of life and this community’s way of life are just about as opposite as you could get,” said Randy Archer, mayor of Smith Center.
“Is it going to affect us? Yes. Because cultures will clash,” he said. “We just hope we can co exist.”
Outpouring of anger
Standing in a soybean field north of Smith Center that four months from now will be a two-story, marble-and-brick “peace palace,” Eric Michener, a follower of the Maharishi who is supervising the first phase of construction, said he’s puzzled by the anger.
He’s overheard grocery clerks say the local farmers who sold the land should be shot, and he’s had local contractors he works with lose other jobs because of their connection to the project.
“It’s a shock to think this is a situation where people could feel that strongly,” said Michener, 55, a soft-spoken man who meditates six hours a day.
Recent medical studies have shown that transcendental meditation can reduce blood pressure and increase life expectancy. In 1993, officials in Washington cooperated with a study that tested the effect of mass meditation on the city’s crime rate.
First gaining fame as guru to the Beatles in the 1960s, the Maharishi has served as spiritual guide to stars and millionaires. Among an estimated 4 million people who practice TM are actor Clint Eastwood, author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and director David Lynch.
But former practitioners say followers can pay tens of thousands of dollars to reach the most advanced levels, lured by teachings that tout the possibility of levitation, even flying. A Washington, D.C., jury awarded $138,000 to a real estate developer in the 1980s who claimed that, after being promised a “perfect state of life” by TM leaders and being told he’d learn how to fly, he was instead taught only to hop in a lotus position.
From an isolated wooded estate in the Netherlands, the Maharishi – which means “great seer” in Hindi – uses global webcasts and his own cable channel to direct a spiritual empire, including property in dozens of countries, and a small city, called Maharishi Vedic City, outside Fairfield, Iowa. (The Maharishi had planned a TM community for Denver in the 1980s, but the deal fell through.)
The Smith County project is part of a major push to create a worldwide peacekeeping network, TM followers say. They hope to build a least one “peace palace” in every major city in the country and create mass meditation centers around the world.
“Afraid of change”
But residents say that despite the central role of their county in that plan, they first heard of it on a global webcast by the Maharishi in March, after the land had already been purchased. That sparked fear, then a bitter debate, sometimes divided along generational lines.
“This has been a very protected community. … It doesn’t understand that the rest of the world lives differently, nor does it want to find out how the rest of the world lives,” said Sharon Patton, pastor of First Christian Church in Smith Center.
“We’re seeing a lot of un-Christian behavior exhibited while we proclaim ourselves Christians,” she said.
Some Smith Center residents concede that a project that may not have caused a stir in a bigger city has badly shaken this town, both because it’s fiercely protective of its identity and because it’s in the heart of the prairie Bible Belt. Smith Center has 12 churches for a population of 1,800.
But like other out-of-the-way communities in rural America, it’s slowly dying.
With one of the oldest average ages in Kansas, the town has three nursing homes, but just 17 students graduated from the local high school in May.
“People leave because there is no work,” said Justin Dube, 26, a professional house painter. “We have a lot of older folks who run this town. They’ve lived here all their lives and are afraid of change.”
The TM project offers the possibility of months, even years, of painting work, Dube said.
“All they want is to meditate for peace. How could people like that be so bad?” Dube asked. “These people will stimulate the economy.”
Working with locals
There’s evidence he might be right.
The similar project in Iowa has attracted thousands of meditators from around the world. The movement established a university there in the 1970s and incorporated Maharishi Vedic City on Fairfield’s outskirts in 2001.
Gold-domed buildings constructed by TM architects dot the community, and children learn meditation at a private K-12 school.
Often well-educated and entrepreneurial, the meditators have helped the area flourish, said Dian Gilmore, vice president of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce. An organic farm sells to stores as far away as Chicago, while the newcomers have started businesses employing hundreds of people, she said.
In Smith Center, the plan is to develop the community in several stages, starting with a few hundred people and eventually reaching a population of several thousand.
It will include a university specializing in preventive medicine according to ancient Hindu principles, spokesmen for the project say.
Michener, the movement’s local representative, said he believes opponents eventually will be won over by benefits the project can bring, like teaching communities how to use wind power or buying organic produce from local farms.
That talk only tends to confirm the suspicions of local farmers, who point to the Texas sandburs infesting their new neighbors’ chemical-free fields or the plan to have all the new buildings face east, the same direction from which Kansas’ bitter winter winds blow.
“I never saw a group in my life with such screwed-up ideas,” said Don Yenne, 80, whose brother Raymond was one of two local farmers to sell land to the movement.
Other neighbors have vowed not to sell if the group tries to expand and to boycott any business that helps with the construction.
Farmer Hiram Lambert said many of the Maharishi’s ideas just don’t fit among locals whose families have carved a hardscrabble life out of the tough Kansas prairie.
“Out here in rural America, we don’t deal with as many off-the- wall things as in the big city,” Lambert said. “It’s a little more foreign to us.”
Lambert said he believed the new countywide zoning begun in Smith County last month would at least limit the project’s scope. And if it doesn’t, there are plans to form a watchdog group to keep the movement from recruiting local members.
“The land is important to me, and the rural life is important to me. It’s not like if things get bad here, I’m going to pick up and move somewhere,” said Lambert, 54, a fourth-generation farmer.
“Whatever challenges (these people) bring to our community, I’m going to have to live with it,” he said.