"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.
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.
King, 38, Guru Ma's third husband, was promoted from manager of the church kitchen to its president after he married Prophet in 1973, following the sudden death of church founder Mark L. Prophet. King split with Guru Ma in 1980 and left the church shortly before it purchased Royal Teton Ranch, as it renamed the Forbes spread. King says the sect was looking for an isolated refuge somewhere in the Northwest even before it moved to Camelot in 1978.
Church Universal and Triumphant's land in Montana sounds just like what Prophet was seeking a decade ago, King said in an interview.
"We had been looking since 1974 or '75 for property where we could build the ultimate town, the New Jerusalem," he said. "We wanted something that was away from towns, where we could build our survival camp."
Sect's Paranoid Phase
That was a paranoid phase in the sect's history, according to King, whom Prophet sued for divorce after she discovered he was having an affair with his secretary. King has since sued his ex-wife and other church leaders, asserting that he was defrauded and forced into involuntary servitude.
Prophet is now married to 35-year-old Edward Francis, business manager of the church and manager of Royal Teton Ranch. King is now married to another former church member and lives in Canoga Park.
"We didn't think the United States government was going to last six months," King said, in recalling Prophet's views a decade ago. To prepare for the impending chaos, she and the other hierarchs, as the church's leaders are called, became spiritual survivalists. They appealed to members for "supply," the word the church often uses instead of "money." Its leaders used the donations to cache things like freeze-dried food and four-wheel-drive vehicles, King said.
"We bought $250,000 to $300,000 worth of equipment in a few months, including a couple of truckloads of guns and ammunition," said King, a contention repeatedly denied by the church.
The church has also pointed out that King served a prison term for marijuana possession before he joined the group and that he is currently negotiating with the Internal Revenue Service, seeking immunity in exchange for information about tax violations he allegedly participated in while married to Prophet.
"Mother," as King called Prophet throughout their marriage, also feared that the government was about to persecute offbeat religions such as hers.
Ready for Flight
Prophet wanted to be poised for an escape into the mountains if the government ever tried to suppress the faith she had inherited from her late husband, a one-time vacuum cleaner salesman, King said.
"We also wanted a place that was sparsely populated where we could have political influence," he said. "We wanted to get some people in office." As King outlined the sect's political game plan, Sean, the oldest of Mark and Elizabeth Prophet's four children, was destined for the White House.
In addition, the church was convinced that geological catastrophe was about to rend the planet, King said. Earlier in the century Edgar Cayce and other prominent psychics had forecast floods, earthquakes and other major "earth changes." Some predicted that when the shaking stopped, Livingston would be on the beach. Those predictions had brought settlers to Park County before.
King said one of the frustrations of being married to Prophet was that it was so hard to win a fight with someone who would simply claim that Jesus or some other celestial authority was on her side. Characteristically, Prophet told her followers that the decision to look for a retreat had been OKd from on high.
"Elizabeth had a dictation from one of the ascended masters saying that was a good area," King recalled. He couldn't remember which of Prophet's cosmic advisers had sent the message--Buddha, El Morya or another of the 14 who allegedly use Prophet as their earthly messenger.
On a frigid winter day, a herd of 50 bighorn sheep grazed through the thin snow covering Royal Teton Ranch. Technically the ranch is in Corwin Springs, Mont., but if you sneeze at the right spot while driving south of Livingston on the road to Yellowstone, you'll miss the town altogether.
Church Universal and Triumphant bought the property five years ago for about $7 million. Today it is the heart of the church's rural Montana empire.
Royal Teton is a working ranch, with a difference. Called the Inner Retreat in church literature, it is considered holy ground. Believers flock to the ranch for summer conferences that feature patriotic sermons by Guru Ma and dictations from various ascended masters delivered in her voice.
Interestingly, the name Royal Teton also belonged to a mysterious mountain retreat alluded to in the teachings of the Mighty I Am cult, a Depression-era religion that attracted thousands of followers, especially in Southern California, until its leaders were imprisoned for mail fraud.
As Guru Ma does now, Guy and Edna Ballard, founders of the Mighty I Am movement, claimed to be divinely appointed messengers who took dictations from ascended masters, including St. Germain. Prophet's church reflects the Mighty I Am movement in everything from its theology to the repetition of the words, "I AM I AM I AM," in specific prayers called decrees.
Peggy Keathley, 61, is a tall, handsome, white-haired member of Guru Ma's denomination. It was Keathley, the church's accountant in Montana, who dealt with a reporter who ignored the "No Trespassing" signs and knocked on the office door at Royal Teton Ranch.
The press has not always been kind to Church Universal and Triumphant. But Keathley was gracious as she talked about joining the church after watching Prophet lead a conference that was, for Keathley, "a feast of truth and light."
Keathley described Church Universal and Triumphant as one of several possible roads to salvation, albeit one lined with uncommon beliefs.
"The church is made up of little people just like you and me," she said. "We've found something we believe in, and we're willing to give up a lot of the so-called pleasures of the world to lead a more wholesome, healthy, godly way of life.
"We run the whole gamut. I don't think we have any real strong liberals, but we're very into freedom."
Church Universal and Triumphant urges a demanding, even austere life style on its practitioners. Members pray several times each day, sometimes for hours at a time, repeating jet-speed chants called decrees. Single believers are expected to be celibate, married members to abstain from oral sex. Homosexuality is deplored, as is the use of drugs or alcohol. A cleansing regimen that includes juice or water fasts followed by high colonics is also practiced within the faith.
"They love to hear about the colonics," Keathley said of the press, her courtesy briefly downshifting to mild acidity.
Critics of the church claim that Prophet, a rather stern-looking woman with a sweet voice and the faint traces of acne scars, controls every detail of her congregants' daily life--what they eat, what they wear, even whom they wed.
A vegetarian regime of "raw food" is the diet Prophet usually sanctions in her sermons and writings, which include weekly "Pearls of Wisdom" mailed to thousands of subscribers.
That not all the faithful love this regime is evident from a memo distributed at Camelot several years ago, apparently in response to grousing about church food. In "Mother's Teaching on Clare's Lunch," Guru Ma reminds her flock, "If you went to the Last Supper and ate with Jesus, you'd eat what was served and you wouldn't say, 'I don't like that kind of bread. Give me pumpernickel.' "
Keathley has nothing but praise for the prescribed regime. She said she has recovered from cancer since she joined the church. "I'm getting younger all the time, thanks to this," she said. "I've given up all the vices. I ate well, but now I eat better. I drink better water. It's a whole healthier way of life."
Styles of Clothing
Church Universal and Triumphant once sold members a line of clothes under its own Guru Ma label, including tunics and drawstring pants for men. According to former members, a scruffy period in church dress ended abruptly around 1980 when Prophet advised her followers to spiff up. They are now admirably groomed.
The church also associates certain bright, clear colors with divine qualities and different days of the week. The turquoise that Keathley wore, for instance, is linked in church literature with the first of seven mystical rays, the will of God, omnipotence, the throat chakra and Tuesday.
Keathley pooh-poohed the assertion of church critics that its members are indoctrinated through a form of mind control that makes them do whatever Elizabeth Clare Prophet wants. In Keathley's view, Prophet is a beloved spiritual counselor with a compelling message, not a religious Svengali who lives like a millionaire on the donations of the faithful. "When you find someone who's a good teacher, you follow them," Keathley said.
"They talk about us being brainwashed," she said, disparagingly. "I have my own car. Right now I have my own mobile home. I have my own clothes. I'm a realtor. I was a successful person out in the world, and I'm a successful person here. And I certainly exercise my free will all the time."
Keathley said that she did not turn over all her worldly goods to Prophet or the church, as Randall King and other former insiders say permanent staff members have routinely been required to do.
She has money of her own. She has purchased a lot and is building a house in a community for church members only called Glastonbury that the sect is developing near the ranch. That community is named for the British monastery where the Holy Grail is said to have come to rest. A recent issue of the Coming Revolution, the sect's glossy magazine, included speculation that the young Christ visited Glastonbury. The article bore the headline, "Did Jesus Go to High School in Britain?"
Keathley said no guns are stockpiled on the ranch, as some locals fear and ex-church members maintain. "And it's not true we have stashes of gold," she added. "I wish it were true."
Goal of Self-Sufficiency
Instead, Royal Teton has sheep, cattle and a greenhouse in which the church tries to beat the odds against raising tomatoes in Montana. As Keathley explained, the church is enthusiastically pursuing the goal of becoming self-sufficient here. Ranch-raised lamb is a specialty of the church-owned restaurant in Corwin Springs. And the church has successfully raised carrots and a few other hardy vegetables during a growing season of only 90 days.
"We've shipped thousands of pounds of carrots and potatoes all over the country," she said. "That's our only commercial crop so far."
But even in the sect's upbeat Royal Teton Ranch News, edited by one of Prophet's daughters, self-sufficiency is always described in the future tense.
Keathley said that most church members would rather be in Montana than in Camelot. "They complain about having to stay down there," she said. "We don't like the pollution down in Los Angeles. It's hard to raise children down there with TV and newspapers, and all the crud they put in them."
Although Keathley and other enthusiasts praise the full complement of seasons Montanans enjoy, the fierce winters may explain why the ambitious project centered on Royal Teton Ranch hasn't moved forward faster. "It's Not That Cold," was the headline of an article in a recent issue of the Royal Teton Ranch News. The piece included one believer's contention that Montana is warmer than California.
According to Keathley, about 100 church members now live or work at the ranch through the winter. As for herself, Keathley, who once lived in Hawaii, said she doesn't want to be anywhere else.
"It's beautiful country up here," she said. "It's God's country."
The thing Marie Mar feared the most hasn't happened. Church Universal and Triumphant hasn't recruited local youngsters, although she has heard that college students are being drawn into its study groups in Bozeman and Billings.
Mar, 39, is Livingston's most vigilant church-watcher. Those who manage the Royal Teton Ranch attend no public meeting, file no legal document, without word getting back to Marie Mar.
Five years ago Mar had never heard of the church. Today she knows more about it than some of the initiated.
Her kitchen bookshelves are cluttered with the collected works of Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Her files spill over with letters, newspaper clippings, videotapes and documents. She is happy to share her collection with anyone trying to make a coherent whole out of contradictory fragments of information about the church.
A soft-spoken woman with a sharp wit, Mar believes Church Universal and Triumphant has little genuine interest in the community at large.
"It's not that we're adverse to people moving in," she said. "We're people-loving people. But we feel that our life style here is threatened by a large influx of church members."
Mar said she once thought that Elizabeth Clare Prophet would never be able to get her people here from California. Now she is not so sure. Last fall Burlington Northern Railroad, the company that built Livingston and once its major employer, announced it was pulling out. In February the railroad folded its last local operation, a maintenance and repair shop.
Three hundred and sixty jobs were lost, including that of Mar's husband, Ben, a crane operator. She estimates that 2,000 people were affected and says that many of them are moving to other states. As the Livingston area becomes poorer and less populous, she says, the power of Church Universal and Triumphant could grow. She can imagine the church snapping up houses thrown on the market. She fears that church votes will become a larger force in local elections.
Another resident suspicious of the church is Tim Cahill, one of Livingston's disproportionate number of successful writers. Cahill, who covered the Jonestown massacre for Rolling Stone, said of Prophet's church, "We would be fools not to keep our eyes on these guys, and we'd be fools to ignore the potential for violence that exists in all totalitarian societies."
Mar rarely mentions it, but she is personally offended by the teachings of Guru Ma. Mar is a convert to Roman Catholicism. In contrast with the dozens of pictures of Prophet in her files, the picture of the Virgin Mary hangs on her kitchen wall.
Mar is disturbed by what she regards as Prophet's distortion of certain Catholic teachings and of such practices as saying the Rosary. In contrast to Catholics, Prophet's followers finger their Rosary beads counterclockwise and say prayers to an expanded Trinity that includes the Mother as well as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Mar is particularly offended by Guru Ma's claim, repeated recently on the witness stand, that the late Pope John XXIII, now an ascended master, transferred the power of the Catholic Church to her and named her Vicar of Christ.
But Mar says that the Prophet's teachings are not the issue here. "If they would just stay up there and hold their church services, nobody would mind," she said, voicing alarm that the church may secretly be building a power base from which it could dominate Park County.
Cahill also wonders about that. "It's a phenomenon that these groups tend to leave large cities and move to smaller cities where they claim they can better practice their religion," he said. "They know they can't take over Los Angeles."
Cahill cited the example of the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation, an anti-Catholic cult formerly based in Saugus. "They virtually took over two towns, Dyer and Alma, in Arkansas," Cahill said. "You couldn't buy gas in that town without buying it from Tony and Susan. I wouldn't want that to happen in Park County."
When asked if Church Universal and Triumphant wants to run the local show, Peggy Keathley answered, "No way. We want to run a ranch and a farm."
But Mar reaches into her vast files and pulls out documents that reveal a politically ambitious side of Prophet's church. The most explicit of these is Lesson 29 of the course of instruction given to members of the church-affiliated Keepers of the Flame Fraternity.
That lesson (which church leaders say has since been revised) urges the faithful to cooperate in the ascended masters' plan to "take hold of this government at every level, beginning with the White House, the Supreme Court, the Congress, state governments, local governments. The seven mighty Elohim are just waiting to be invited by you to come in to turn this government upside down, inside out, to shake it up and down, right and left, until when the dust settles, the right hearts, the Christed Ones, will be in possession of authority."
Less Restrictive Laws
Mar believes that the church came to Montana, in part, because it has fewer laws than California that would restrict its ambition. It is illegal in California, for example, to discriminate in real estate transactions. But both Glastonbury and a church-owned trailer retirement community are open only to tithing members of Church Universal and Triumphant.
According to Glastonbury town documents, the church's community consists of two tracts of local ranch land totaling about 5,000 acres. The church has subdivided these into 171 parcels of 20 acres or more. Church members are encouraged to buy a plot for about $30,000 and build a house on it. But, in fact, buyers own the property only for their own lifetimes or for a predetermined period. At the end of that time, ownership reverts to Royal Teton Ltd., the church entity that owns the ranch.
Mar has gone through her copy of Glastonbury's official Declaration of Covenants, highlighting passages she regards as especially telling with a pink Magic Marker. The residents must agree to exclude studios that "allow the recording of rock, blues or jazz music." Each homeowner must promise to build a blast-resistant fallout shelter and to cache "the necessary food reserves, provisions, supplies and equipment to survive any such warfare or social disruption for a period of at least one year."
The church's impact on the environment also worries Mar.
"There's a crucial grizzly bear habitat next to the ranch that we're concerned about," she said. The U.S. Forest Service has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to get Royal Teton Ranch to approve an access road through the property that would facilitate public view of this habitat. The church has opposed the road because it would cut through a portion of the ranch regarded as the holy of holies, the heart of Guru Ma's retreat.
The Buffalo Issue
Mar is also concerned about the church's stand on the buffalo that roam onto its property from Yellowstone National Park. One recent morning Peggy Keathley said she found 110 bison in the field outside her office when she went to work at the ranch.
The church wants to keep the bison out because they carry brucellosis, popularly called bangs, a disease dreaded by ranchers because it causes cattle to abort. Last year the church sanctioned the shooting of buffalo that wandered in.
This year it has asked the National Park Service to take responsibility for keeping them on the Yellowstone side of the boundary.
The Park Service hasn't decided yet what it will do about its meandering bison. Bob Barbee, Yellowstone superintendent, points out that there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission in the wild. Barbee says the Park Service might institute a "boundary control program" if no better solution can be found.
"That means we shoot the animals," Barbee explained.
The church has now joined forces with Cleveland Amory's Fund for Animals, which has offered to build a $30,000 buffalo-proof fence.
Barbee is opposed to Amory's fence, which would interfere with the free movement of elk and other less controversial wildlife.
Amory is opposed to the slaughter of even one more buffalo. "I don't think they make a hunting animal anymore than your mother-in-law does," he said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Mar is geared up to write letters to the editor chiding the church's decision to fence out the bison.
Although her approach is a more active one, Mar's attitude toward Church Universal and Triumphant is not so different from that expressed by another Livingston resident over a beer. As Joe Hartkopf, who owns the Broken Stirrup Saddlery, said, "I wish they'd go back to California."