When English teacher Roger Hinkins appeared, chalk to blackboard, in the 1970 Rosemead High School yearbook, nothing in his pleasant demeanor suggested that a peculiar occurrence had radically changed his life.
Eighteen years later, Hinkins--who now calls himself John-Roger--is still a teacher of sorts, but these days his image appears in more auspicious places: Posed next to Mother Teresa in an Interview magazine spread, or alongside best-actress nominee Sally Kirkland at this year's Academy Awards.
He is the founder of a Santa Monica foundation that, until recently, bore his name, and which oversees an alternative university, holistic health center, various media enterprises and the well-known Insight Seminars. At least 50,000 people around the world have taken Insight's intensive, transformational-type training, and its productivity seminar has been instituted in such corporations as Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Chemical Bank and by the U.S. Social Security Administration.
How far John-Roger has come can best be seen, however, through an annual event called the International Integrity Awards. Since 1983, John-Roger's foundation has presented this award to Mother Teresa, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, polio researcher Dr. Jonas Salk, Mayor Tom Bradley and singer Stevie Wonder, among others. In 1986, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa's unsuccessful attempt to leave Poland to accept one of the awards drew worldwide news coverage.
At least 47 states and 200 cities and counties now declare an annual Integrity Day, and the Beach Boys, Diana Ross, Gene Hackman and William Shatner, among many others, have sent messages for Integrity Day promotions.
At last year's Integrity Awards gala, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, consumer activist Ralph Nader, "Platoon" writer/director Oliver Stone, and--in absentia--UCLA bone-marrow specialist Dr. Robert Gale, were given warm applause as they received leaded-crystal pyramids and checks for $10,000, payable to a favorite charity. But the celebrity-laden, black-tie audience of 1,000 gave its most enthusiastic ovation when actor John Forsythe introduced the 53-year-old man known to disciples simply as J-R.
"Health, Wealth and Happiness"
To thousands of supporters, the awards are just another way in which John-Roger is helping the world find "health, wealth and happiness."
But some critics share the belief voiced by a top staffer on the eve of the first Integrity Awards: That the "suicidal plunge into the spotlight of media" was yet another example of John-Roger's self-aggrandizement and would subject the man's own integrity to more public scrutiny than it could withstand.
In fact, little scrutiny has been focused on the figure behind the polished public image, a cherubic, almost frail-looking man who followers see as the embodiment of a Christlike power known as the Mystical Traveler Consciousness. Nor has much light been shed on the international New Age empire that has blossomed around him and his church, the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (pronounced "Messiah"), which some former followers now call "the Cadillac of Cults."
Like most of John-Roger's supporters, John Morgan, a Los Angeles aerospace systems analyst, scoffs at the notion that he is involved in a cult. He prefers to think of John-Roger's story as "the American Dream turned spiritual."
Any way you look at it, though, this tale of one man's rise from obscurity to black-tied avatar to stars is unusual--even by California standards.
A New Age Dawns
Back in the 1960s, before the Age of Aquarius was redubbed the New Age, word of yet another spiritual leader spread among Californians hungry for enlightenment. Seekers--many of whom had sampled the era's mind-expanding potluck, including Silva Mind Control, Eckankar, est, yoga, astrology, occultism and drugs--drifted in to try this new offering.
The "way shower" was the Rosemead High School English teacher. He called himself Dr. John-Roger Hinkins, later Sri John-Roger, and offered followers hope of escaping from the wheel of rebirth and karma by ascending Earth's negative realms into "a totally positive state of being" called "soul consciousness."
According to John-Roger's teachings, reaching the "soul realm" is virtually impossible without the assistance of the Mystical Traveler Consciousness, a metaphysical power John-Roger claimed to embody, along with the mantle of the "Preceptor Consciousness," an even-more powerful presence said to exist on Earth only once every 25,000 years.
"We bring forward the 'close' of one age and unlock and fling open the doors to the New Age," John-Roger wrote in a 1973 MSIA book of teachings called "Baraka." ". . . Soul Consciousness is again being presented to those Souls who can recognize it. This is the work of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness--this is the work that I have come to do."