500 get peek inside reclusive neighbor
YELM — The Ramtha School of Enlightenment made a move to throw off the hooded cloak of secrecy Thursday evening by inviting several hundred Yelm business people inside its walls.
The open house, part of the Yelm Chamber of Commerce’s After Hours Program, was intended to increase understanding and tolerance for the school, according to organizers.
The school was established in 1988 by JZ Knight; students believe she channels a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit named Ramtha.
Since then, some community members have been wary of the enlightenment school, which now lists 5,000 members who attend one or more classes a year.
Knight says she’s been blamed for traffic jams in Yelm and was once shot at while pulling weeds in her front yard, before the school’s white stucco walls were erected.
Now that the walls are up — partly in response to the reported shooting — people think the school is secret and mysterious, Knight said, adding that the school has nothing to hide.
“We’ve always had an open-door policy here,” the 59-year-old said. “You are welcome to come to class.”
But you’ll have to pay like the rest of the students, about half of whom come from different countries. A weekend introductory workshop costs $250, and a beginner’s eight-day retreat costs $1,000 if you haven’t done the workshop, according to a spokesman.
Thursday’s open house drew the curious, the supportive and the skeptical, while some Chamber of Commerce members stayed at home despite the unprecedented invitation.
Chamber members were shown the school’s bookstore and “great hall,” a renovated horse barn where pieces of notepaper taped to the walls display the results of a psychic exercise, where one person in a pair sends an idea to the other and each person draws a picture of their thought.
Bill Newcomer, president of the Yelm Area Habitat for Humanity, was familiar with the school’s grounds from his work with a septic system company that used to drain the septic tanks during retreats.
Newcomer would see hundreds of students in the field behind the hall, blindfolded and concentrating. He came to the open house so he could finally see the inside of buildings such as the great hall.
“I was never allowed in here during the classes, but I could go anywhere else,” Newcomer said.
He even shared meals with the students and made some good friends. But he wouldn’t join the school, he said.
“Of course, they wanted me to,” Newcomer said. “I can’t see putting out a lot of money and then sitting out in the field for two or three hours. They call it meditating.”
Former Yelm Chamber of Commerce President Gene Heuschel said the open house changed the way he thought about the school, and he would now consider taking one of Knight’s classes.
“Absolutely,” Heuschel said. “I was so moved by her presentation today, I went in and bought her book.”
It was the first time at the school for Heuschel, a stockbroker at Edward Jones Investments in Yelm. It also was his first encounter with Knight.
“I had a perception it was a private organization and they didn’t want encroachment from outsiders. She clarified that,” he said. “She’s also a very warm and inviting person. I had always assumed she was the opposite.”
Heuschel commended Knight for allowing nonstudents inside the school, although the function was limited to Chamber of Commerce members and their guests. He estimated about 500 people came.
“This, I think, was the first opportunity to get an insight into the school. If she has another I think you’ll get 1,000,” he said.
One chamber member who stayed away was Tim’s Pharmacy owner Tim Larsen.
“Most people I’ve had contact with are friendly and nice,” Larsen said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. “I’m just not interested.”
The pharmacist said he considers the school a cult.
“I don’t have a problem with it. I have a heart for all people who don’t know the Lord,” said Larsen, who prints scripture on his pharmacy receipts. “I don’t care if they go to her school or go to a different cult or don’t believe in anything.”