Rumors spread through the backcountry town of Campo the way a wildfire spreads through the local hills. It starts with a passing comment in the feed store, an off-the-cuff remark in the post office. It's repeated in casual conversations between neighbors who bump into each other at the clustered mailboxes along Highway 94, or maybe in the parking lot at Campo Elementary or Mountain Empire High School after dropping the kids off, or over an evening beer at the Old Oak Inn. A wave of e-mails follow, and soon everybody knows the story, but nobody is sure where it started. "Well, I heard..." the account always begins. But press the storyteller for more information and you're likely to hear, "Talk to Jim down at the end of the road. He probably knows more than I do."
A current subject for rumor in the area has been God Unlimited/University of Healing, which occupies 90 acres, in the southeast corner of the valley that Campo sits in, at the end of unpaved Far Valley Road. The group -- a federal, state, and county nonprofit religious organization whose seven onsite members are registered with the state of California as ministers -- has been in that location since 1985 after moving from land fronting Highway 94 closer to town. It was founded in 1975 by Herbert Beierle, now 73, a former real estate broker and small-town newspaper publisher turned religious science pastor who, in 1987, was convicted of child molestation.
"I think what started the buzz," says Nancy Slaff, a ten-year Campo resident, "was the child-molestation thing."
Beierle was sentenced to 42 years in prison after his conviction on eight counts of child molestation, oral copulation, forced sodomy, and rape with a foreign object. The victim of the crimes, which happened between June of 1982 and September 1984, was a boy under ten years old. That conviction was followed by a no-contest plea by Beierle on three more counts. He was sentenced to 42 years but was released in 1996 after "they found evidence that those things couldn't have happened," says Stefan Strassle, president of God Unlimited. "We know that none of these accusations are true. We know what is behind them. We know that we were sometimes a thorn in people's eyes because of our teaching. This has happened to many great philosophers; they tried to put them away because they didn't appreciate their teachings."
Since his 1996 release, Dr. Beierle has lived so quietly in his single-level modular home on the University of Healing campus that most Campo residents didn't know whether he was there or not.
"I heard they are all Swedish," says another longtime Campo dweller, "and they make money selling stuff mail order, and they send the money back to Sweden."
"No," Strassle responds, "we're Swiss. I'm from Switzerland, and many of our staff are from Switzerland. We have one lady who is from Germany and Italy, and our founder is American."
As to sending money back to Europe, Strassle, sitting in a well-appointed office in a converted house in the center of the God Unlimited property, chuckles and shakes his head. "No," he explains. "We have a correspondence school. People study at home and send in their lessons. We have a few people living here who correct the students' lessons and also maintain the yards."
In their correspondence courses, the University of Healing teaches "self-awareness, how to be aware of the inner man, the inner man that is beyond what you can touch -- the spiritual essence, the soul of the person. And we teach spiritual healing. Each person has the power inside to heal himself. Our philosophy is eclectic; we have gathered the essence of all the world philosophies and made it our own, wrote our own textbooks. We've tried to extract the essence of every religion because there's only one mind, one spirit, one soul, one belief, one God, one creator, one consciousness. That power that lies inside of us, we tap into it knowingly and unknowingly every day."
Students who complete a 30-week undergraduate course titled the Art and Science of Wholeness receive a "Bachelor of Philosophy" degree. Those who wish to be ordained take the ministerial course simultaneously and receive ordination upon completion. From there, a student may move on to the graduate course, Song of the Spirit, to earn a "Master of Healing Science" degree. Finally, a "Doctor of Philosophy" degree can be earned by completing "Illumination -- Handbook of Ascended Masters." The degree courses cost $1600 each, the ministerial academy is $600. Strassle says the money from the correspondence students -- in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and New Zealand -- isn't enough to cover the cost of printing textbooks and pamphlets, running the central office, upkeep of the 90-acre campus, and food and necessities for the seven full-time members who live onsite. The difference, he says, is made up by doing seminars around the world and by pooling the resources of those living on the campus. "Each individual here brought his own assets," Strassle explains, "and, because we are monks, we turn it over to the organization. We have invested it."
Strassle continues, "A monk, in our understanding, is a person who is on an inner journey, who listens to the inner divinity. That's why we call ourselves monks. The monk is free from worldly possessions that might hinder him from going inside. We spend lots of time in meditation, introspection. We have miles of meditation trails here on our property where people can go and sit on a rock and relax and tune themselves to the inner self."
But when the word monk is spoken, and there are no Buddhist or Catholic monasteries around, the C-word often follows. "It's a cult, is what it is," says Mike Mikesell, a 30-year Campo resident who lives on Shockey Truck Trail, near the God Unlimited campus. "They're nuts."
Asked why he considers them nuts, Mikesell answers, "Well, anybody -- this happened when they were on their other place -- who will walk out to the mailbox bare-ass naked with the schoolkids going by on the bus.... And a couple of them rode up and down the road on a motorcycle bare-ass naked. They run around naked and go to an old tree they've got out there on their property or up on a big rock and they chant, 'I am God, I am God.' And, being God, they don't have to abide by anything. They do as they please. They're nuts."
Strassle is aware of opinions such as Mikesell's among his Campo neighbors and says he understands why people view his group as such. In fact, he believes God Unlimited has brought some of it upon itself. "Over the past years that we've been here," he says, "we were sort of incognito; we were doing our own thing at the end of the valley here, and we were busy with what we did."
But in recent months, Strassle and the other monks -- both men and women -- have gone visiting with neighbors. One neighbor they met was Jan Foster, a 4-year Campo resident and a 12-year Mountain Empire resident. "They're very, very nice," Foster says. "When they came to visit, they stopped by and said they wanted to introduce themselves. They weren't trying to convert me, they didn't want to know any gossip, they didn't ask questions about anybody. That's fine with me because, up here in the mountains, rumors are rampant. You don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see. When they were getting ready to leave they said, 'If you need anything, just call us. If you need help, call us, we'll be here.' That's what you like in a neighbor. If you needed to call someone, you could call them, but otherwise they're not going to bother you, they're going to leave you alone. You couldn't ask for better neighbors. They're very quiet, they keep to themselves, and they do not generate any extra traffic. That's the mountain way, and they fit into that very well."
People in Rancho Santa Fe described the 39 Heaven's Gate cult members who committed simultaneous suicide in 1999 as nice, quiet neighbors too. But Strassle wants to assure the community that that won't be happening at God Unlimited. "No," he chuckles, "we enjoy life. We believe in the inner presence of the divine, not something out there; no spaceship or a God out there on some cloud that is going to take us away. But I can understand people being concerned about that. The media is into selling stories about [cults such as Heaven's Gate], and they do happen. But we definitely aren't like that."
Talk to any Campo resident about the University of Healing, and the word naked or nude will come up before long. In addition to the motorcycle and mailbox/school bus incidents in the '80s, which Mike Mikesell mentioned, neighbors have occasionally caught glimpses of naked monks sunbathing or walking the paths through the chaparral. Word of it has spread. Brian Elmore's 10-acre plot borders to 200 acres God Unlimited used to rent before they moved to the Far Valley Road property. "I met Herb Beierle on a few occasions," he recalls. "He came by once and asked my wife and me if we minded if he walked around in the buff. We said we didn't mind as long as he stayed out of our sight."
Strassle admits that outdoor nudity goes on at God Unlimited but insists it's not part of their religion and that they are not a nudist camp. "It's just that the sun is there," he says. "We enjoy nature, we like the sunshine, and some of us like to go out and sunbathe naked and even walk around naked. It has nothing to do with the inner divine. We feel it's natural, and the body should be something sacred and beautiful, and we shouldn't feel any part of it is bad in any way. Nobody has to go naked here. Some do, some don't. Nobody is offended, and it's not misinterpreted for anything else like free sex or anything like that. But we recognize that in American culture, things are a little different. That's the reason for the fence."
Which brings up another bit of meal from the Campo rumor mill. In the Mountain Empire, fences are discouraged because they detract from the wide-open feel of the area and prevent the free movement of wildlife. So when the cedar fence was being built across the front, or north, side of the God Unlimited land, close neighbors and other Campo people worried that the whole 90 acres would be fenced off. Strassle says they shouldn't worry. Only the side that borders neighbors will be fenced "as a courtesy to them," Strassle says. The rest of the campus adjoins Bureau of Land Management land.
Along with neighborhood visits, God Unlimited is planning a neighborhood party around its swimming pool in an effort to improve relations with the Campo community. And Strassle invites anyone from the community to visit the God Unlimited campus anytime. "I believe it's good for us to get to know our neighbors," Strassle says, "and for them to get to know us to realize that we are normal people who enjoy nature and like to take time to find the inner self."