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."