A California group that lives communally and believes in extraterrestrials will move its businesses to Gardiner
GARDINER — The former headquarters of a forest-industry giant soon will be home to a New Age religious group from California that espouses love, spiritual power and communal living, while selling liquor-license consulting services.
Residents of this former mill town don’t know quite what to expect.
Living Love Fellowship, a nonprofit religious corporation, and its for-profit sister Compliance Service of America, a consulting firm, are moving in April into one of the finest office spaces on the Southern Oregon coast: the former International Paper mill office.
The owners of the former Santa Rosa, Calif., companies, who are renting a ranch in Roseburg, call themselves Amadonians and spread their message via the Internet. Amadon is a figure in “The Urantia Book,” purported to be a bible authored by extraterrestrials who refer to Earth as Urantia, according to religion scholars. Amadon is a heroic character who keeps his faith when those around him give up and follow Lucifer.
It might take awhile for the Amadonians to fit in, but residents are happy for any new business. Compliance Service is the first company with more than three employees to open in Gardiner in at least five years.
Townsfolk had hoped the company would hire local employees. About 300 people in Gardiner and Reedsport lost their jobs in February 1999 when International Paper closed its mill.
Compliance officials said they are bringing their employees with them, but they anticipate spending about $175,000 a year in the area, including payroll. Sara Schorske, Compliance Service’s principal partner, said the companies, which employed 30 in California, are more efficient with fewer employees.
About eight of the 11 employees will live on the second floor of the 17,000-square-foot mill office. The first floor will house office space. The business arm of the group, Compliance Service, helps restaurants, bars and resorts apply for liquor licenses by guiding them through the thicket of regulations that differ by jurisdiction.
As for the new companies’ spiritual and communal side, locals are reserving judgment.
“That’s funny,” said Garry Whitcomb, a former marine mechanic, when he learned of the companies’ background. “You can’t believe how funny that is.”
Compliance employees run Living Love Fellowship in their spare time, answering spiritual and relationship questions online at www.livinglovefellowship.org. Their leader, Steve Arden, also known as Amadon Amadon, will publish his spiritual works online.
The blend of New Age religion and entrepreneurship didn’t work for two former employees in Santa Rosa who filed a sexual harassment and religious discrimination lawsuit in 1996 against the companies, known then as Compliance Specialists and Havona.
Karen Rothaermel and Lisa Hertel said in the suit that employees were encouraged to touch one another and to allow themselves to be touched. They also said they were urged not to repress their sexuality at work.
Schorske said the lawsuit forced the companies to file bankruptcy and settle out of court for an undisclosed sum in 1996. The partners re-incorporated as Compliance Service of America and Living Love Fellowship and moved to Oregon last year.
Schorske said the companies were in the midst of developing software for the alcohol-licensing business and had sunk most of their money into the project when the lawsuit hit.
Schorske denied any sexual harassment or religious discrimination as described in the lawsuit.
“They weren’t trying to get some sort of moral victory. They just wanted to sue us for money,” she said.
Rothaermel disagreed. “It was not about money,” she said. “It was wrong, morally wrong.”
The lawsuit portrayed Arden as a foul-mouthed zealot who psychologically controlled his workers. The two women said he walked through the office daily to evaluate the spiritual and psychological state of employees’ minds, frequently touching them and asking about their personal lives.
Rothaermel, a receptionist, and Hertel, a saleswoman, said Arden went too far several times, asking Hertel about her sex life and telling her she needed to show more cleavage. Rothaermel said Arden kissed her on the lips during a weekly spiritual meeting that the employees were pressured to attend.
Rothaermel said she recalls seeing two employees kneel to rub Arden’s feet at the end of the last meeting she attended.
“It was the weirdest experience I’ve ever had in my life,” she said.
Arden couldn’t be reached for comment. Schorske said he doesn’t talk to the news media.
Nontraditional religious and spiritual communities historically have found room to settle in rural Oregon, but the state’s experience with the Rajneeshees in the 1980s left many suspicious of such groups. The Rajneeshees turned a ranch in Central Oregon into a small city in defiance of state land-use planning laws. Two former leaders were sentenced to prison for plotting to kill the U.S. attorney. Others pleaded guilty or were convicted of crimes including immigration fraud, attempted murder, burglary, arson, illegal wiretapping and poisoning 700 people with salmonella in The Dalles.
Founders of Heaven’s Gate, whose members committed mass suicide in California in 1997, believing they would be taken aboard a UFO, recruited members in Waldport, Newport and Eugene.
Scholars who study U.S. religions had not heard of the Amadonians but were familiar with Urantia, which one professor described as a “quiet, tame little group.”
“Within the movement, you get a whole range from bored housewives to fringe hippie types, all of whom have found some inspiration in the book,” said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“It’s not a classic religious cult. It’s more like somebody trying to build an extended family . . . an artificial family,” Melton said.
The Amadonians refer to their group as “the family” or “the community.” Susan Ingalls spent five years with the Amadonians in Santa Rosa before leaving to pursue a different career. She lived communally with them for a month.
“When you connect with them, you feel like a family, a family you can count on, people you can talk to,” Ingalls said.
One of the Amadonians bonded so closely with Arden she changed her last name to Nedra — Arden spelled backward.
Unlike Amadonians, Urantia followers usually don’t live communally. Instead, they meet in study groups to discuss “The Urantia Book,” according to Melton.
The 2,097-page book, which the faithful believe was channeled through an Earthling more than 50 years ago, includes Jesus, Adam and other religious figures, but it gives a new spin to the stories and the history of the world.
According to the Urantia Foundation’s Web site, the group promotes all humans as one family under a single God. It does not advocate a new religion and builds on other religions.
Amadonians promote a similar belief.
“We feel what we have to offer people should not take away from what people follow otherwise. It’s a supplement,” Schorske said.
Former Amadonian Elise Baril said it’s challenging for conservative people to accept the group, and she wasn’t sure how no-nonsense mill workers would receive them.
“They think outside the box. They’re a family structure that’s not blood,” she said. “In general, I support them. I have some specific issues with them and their philosophies, but they’re certainly not anything to be afraid of. They’re well-intentioned people.”
Schorske said the group will be good neighbors.
“We’re very mainstream people,” Schorske said. “We are not trying to control anybody’s thoughts or get anybody to join our group.”
Gardiner residents might simply be thankful the Amadonians are saving the only office building in town. Residents worried that the Cedar Palace, as they call it, would be demolished, like most of the other mills.
International Paper built the 200-employee office in the late 1970s for $1.6 million; Living Love paid $350,000 for the building and seven acres. Two-million-board feet of clear old-growth timber went into the building. Only one knot hole exists in the structure, said Ted Walters, chairman of the Business Recruitment and Retention Committee in Reedsport, just south of Gardiner.
“It’s a pretty awesome building.”
Researcher Lovelle Svart assisted with this story.