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Guru Ma Nettles Montana Town : Residents Fear Takeover if Calabasas Sect Emigrates to 33,000 Acres Near Yellowstone

March 30, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer and

LIVINGSTON, Mont. — "A lot of the people around here are afraid of the church," Sandy Buchaklian said recently, nursing an iced tea.

Livingston natives Buchaklian and Marie Mar were sitting in the coffee shop of the Yellowstone Inn, the town's premier motel, explaining their concerns about Church Universal and Triumphant.

None of the 12,000 residents of Park County, including these two articulate anti-cultists, wants to go to war with the sect, which is based in Calabasas. But since 1981, when the church started to buy land here, there's been an uneasy peace in this starkly beautiful country.

The local ranchers and entrepreneurs tend to be tolerant of newcomers. They didn't balk when movie star Peter Fonda moved in, or writer Tom McGuane or Sam Peckinpah, the late director of splatter Westerns.

But Church Universal and Triumphant didn't slip unobtrusively into Park County. Its arrival was announced in the newspapers, which discovered that the new owners of a choice Malcolm Forbes spread were leaders of a secretive church headed by a 46-year-old mother of four known as Guru Ma, a church that gives its blessing to, among more conventional religious practices, therapeutic enemas.

Imposing Presence

Odd religions aren't all that uncommon in Montana. It is home to everything from communes of peaceful, Amish-like Hutterites to members of the rabidly racist Order. But this newcomer wasn't just bizarre by Methodist standards, it was big.

The Forbes place was 12,000 acres, right next to Yellowstone National Park. Since the purchase, the church's holdings have grown beyond 33,000 acres. That is more of Park County than is owned by any private entity except the Burlington Northern Railroad. And that troubles cult-wary locals such as Buchaklian and Mar, especially now that the railroad is moving out, positioning the church to buy even more land at bargain-basement prices.

"In Montana, if you own a lot of land, you own a lot of power," Mar explained. She and fellow church-watchers are unsure how the church's leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, will wield all the clout that land gives her. They wonder what impact the church will have on the fragile wilderness. They wonder if the church is good for the grizzlies and how Guru Ma will deal with the bison that have put the church and the National Park Service at odds.

But, most of all, the people of Park County fear that the church plans to abandon California and move en masse into the Livingston area. They say that such an invasion could result in a theocratic coup like the one that for a time turned Antelope, Ore., into Rajneeshpuram.

For the present, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's church remains headquartered in Calabasas, on an estate fancifully named Camelot.

Santa Monica Mountain Tract

Built by razor-blade mogul King C. Gillette, Camelot is a 260-acre tract in the Santa Monica Mountains. Prophet preaches there and may live there, as do dozens of others who practice her unique pastiche of Eastern and Western faiths, Arthurian legend and borrowings from earlier cults.

There have been no signs of a mass move to Montana. But in the course of a current $253 million civil trial pitting Prophet against an unhappy former disciple, church members testified that the sect plans to relocate in the Livingston area "eventually."

If Camelot, with its swans and smiling staff members, is Church Universal and Triumphant's Disneyland of the spirit, Montana is its vastly more ambitious Disney World. Come to Montana, Guru Ma urges in church literature and videotaped sermons. Settle down alongside fellow followers of Jesus, Buddha and other "ascended masters" and build "a new beginning for the Aquarian Age."

So far only 200 or so devotees have answered the call. The majority of the faithful appear to have been put off by the paucity of jobs in the area and by winter nights cold enough to jell diesel fuel.

But rumors of a mass migration, like the hot chinook winds, still sweep regularly through Livingston, unsettling locals, who ask how many more church members, if any, Park County can comfortably absorb and just what the group, with its bright clothing, right-wing rhetoric and 24-hour prayer sessions, is all about.

The latest rumor in Livingston: 20,000 of Guru Ma's followers are driving east from California, "I love St. Germain" stickers on their bumpers, in disillusioned retreat from Camelot and the City of the Angels.

Members of the church, which may not total 20,000 internationally, scoff at such stories. They insist that they want only to create a self-sustaining community where they can raise carrots and babies and practice their unusual religion. (Prophet herself has been advised not to talk to the press until the current trial is over.)

A lot of people around Livingston have yet to be convinced.

Randall L. King isn't the least bit surprised that Church Universal and Triumphant has bought up a significant chunk of Park County.

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