SMITH CENTER, Kan. — The land is flat, roads are straight and churches are plentiful in this town of 1,800 near the geographic center of the USA’s lower 48 states.
So here in traditional Kansas, the recent purchase of land by representatives of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to build what they’re calling a World Capital of Peace — just outside town — where meditators will send “waves of coherence” across the country — has many residents riled.
The group plans to spend at least $15 million to erect 12-15 buildings for a retreat, training center and residences.
“Some people call them a cult, and some little old ladies are locking their doors,” says farmer Bryce Wiehl, 50. “You’re in the Bible Belt, and this is a Hindu-based religion. People don’t like that idea.”
The maharishi’s followers practice transcendental meditation, silently focusing on a mantra to achieve what they call a state of pure consciousness. They believe TM has the power to reduce stress and crime, help end poverty and create peace.
Positive energy or a ‘cult’?
Those beliefs are “not compatible with Christianity,” says Greg Judy of Faith Community Bible Church. He’s one of nine pastors who wrote to the editor of the Smith County Pioneer warning that they will compete with what everyone here calls “the TMers” for residents’ “eternal souls.”
Not everyone is upset. Mayor Randy Archer says the town is “very divided … but we’re looking at it with open eyes, open minds.”
Archer says he doesn’t know enough about the TMers “to really make any judgments.” People around town, he says, “are going to make their own conclusions, and so be it.”
– Is TM a religion?
Burke Phelps, president of First National Bank, says, “Sometimes people forget that this country is based on freedom of religion. If what they want is peace and understanding, I’m all for it. We need to wait and give these people a chance. I don’t see anything scary.”
Eric Michener, 54, who is helping coordinate the TM project, says all his group wants is a chance.
“The community has reacted perhaps in a traditional way to any outside idea: with apprehension, some fear but basically not out of any knowledge,” he says. “I’ve heard people say we are some type of satanic cult. I would love to meet with anyone who is concerned about what we are really about.”
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the transcendental meditation movement, became famous in the 1960s, when his followers included celebrities such as the Beatles. He’s now somewhere between 89 and 95 and living in Holland.
In 1971, he conceived a university now called the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. In 2001, his followers incorporated Vedic City just outside Fairfield.
The maharishi also is building “peace palaces” around the world where meditators try to reduce crime and conflict. They are planned for New York City, Minneapolis and Denver; they’re already open in Houston, Bethesda, Md., and Lexington, Ky.
Maharishi supporters founded the Natural Law Party in 1992. Its leader, John Hagelin, has run for president three times and heads the U.S. Peace Government that will be headquartered here.
The World Capital of Peace won’t be a traditional government. Instead, it will include buildings for training and meditating and a broadcast center, according to its website.
Michener says Smith Center was chosen because it’s close to the USA’s center. Construction will begin later this year, but plans and the final price tag are fluid, he says.
The TMers originally bought 480 acres here, but problems acquiring water rights prompted them to recently buy an additional 600 acres. Michener says 300 meditators will use the retreat facility to “create waves of coherence that will benefit everybody in society.” The site’s central location will allow those waves to spread across the USA, he says.
The current plans probably wouldn’t be a big economic boon for Smith Center, Michener says. Eventually, local farmers might want to grow organic produce to market with crops produced by the TMers, he says, and a biodiesel plant might be built someday.
Smith Center’s population is shrinking and aging. It has lost more than 100 residents since 2000, 5% of its population. The biggest employer is an RV manufacturer with about 150 workers. Archer doesn’t know if the newcomers will help the economy. “We hope so, but there’s no way of knowing,” he says.
Praying it won’t happen
Opponents of the TMers’ plans organized a community meeting a few weeks ago. Several hundred people showed up to hear critics of the group from Fairfield, including Kai Druhl, a former professor at the maharishi’s university who has left the TM movement, and Greg Crawford, pastor of Jubilee International Ministries.
“People in Smith Center need to be cautious,” Crawford says in an interview. The presence of the maharishi’s followers, he says, “is going to have an effect on the spiritual climate. The churches need to organize and pray and really believe that God isn’t going to allow these people to move in.”
But Dian Gilmore of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce says TMers have started businesses and created jobs in her town of about 10,000. Fairfield “would die if we didn’t have them,” she says.
Judy, the pastor here, says there’s talk of new zoning regulations to prevent the TMers from building and a petition drive to ask the maharishi to stay away. Maybe water-rights issues will stop their construction plans, he says.
Michener says the TMers who move here will prove they’re not a cult, not against Christianity and can be good neighbors. “This is a traditional, conservative community,” he says, “and fear is probably their first self-defense.”
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