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A Summer Camp for Christian Youth Used to Belong to a Different Cult

The Washington Family Ranch in eastern Oregon is a ready-made backdrop for glossy brochure photos of Middle American wholesomeness. The resort has been the home of a Christian youth camp for 15 years now, but before they moved in it was home to a...

Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. Photo via WikiCommons

The Washington Family Ranch in eastern Oregon is a ready-made backdrop for glossy brochure photos of Middle American wholesomeness. Golf-green grass, spiraling water slides, and spick-and-span camp cabins separated by 12 miles of scrub brush from the nearest hamlet of Antelope (population approximately 47), the resort has been the regional mecca for summer fun in the sun for Young Life for 15 years now. But before the Christian youth ministry moved in, the ranch was home to a militarized, expansionist cultic utopia that, at its height, took over the town, waged biological warfare against the county, and plotted the assassination of federal prosecutors.

That history is not readily apparent from the 7,000 or so kids frolicking around the rural landscape today. It’s a chapter of the place’s history that Young Life says is gone and largely forgotten. But Antelope residents remember all too well, and still display a plaque on the post office to remind themselves of the half decade when their town was almost taken over by an Indian cult. Antelope’s acting mayor, Robin Moats, speaking outside her official capacity, told me locals are still a bit wary of any new big group in town.

All photos by Samvado Gunnar Kossatz unless otherwise noted

Although the Ranch’s story centers on a desiccated patch of Americana, it begins 40 years ago and 8,000 miles away in Pune, India. It was there in 1974 that the charismatic spiritual guide Chandra Mohan Jain, a.k.a. Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho, began a religious refuge known as an ashram that attracted followers from far and wide. By 1974 Rajneesh had amassed 10,000 followers and was raising hackles across the nation for his group’s vocal support of aggressive capitalism, free love, and ecstatic meditation in search of a detachment that would both allow and entitle one to do anything to anyone else. To spice things up, Rajneesh liked to lace all of his teachings with a few dirty jokes, ethnic punch lines, and, allegedly, drugs.

Unsurprisingly, he got the boot from India by 1981, fleeing allegations of tax evasion, smuggling, and violence, and landed in eastern Oregon, where his follower and lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela had, with the aid of her wealthy husband, Marc Harris Silverman, recently purchased a 64,000-acre ranch to create an isolated commune for 7,000 of Osho’s red-clad followers to farm and worship in peace. It helped, of course, that two of those followers were heirs to the Baskin Robbins and Learjet fortunes, flooding the retreat with millions to build up infrastructure and, why not, buy a pile of diamond-studded Rolexes and 93 Rolls-Royces for Rajneesh, whose goal was to have 365 of them so he could drive by his jumping, waving followers in a new car each day of the year.

Rajneesh drives by his followers in a shiny new Rolls-Royce.

As might be expected, the sudden influx of thousands of capital-cultic neo–flower children all done up in red uniforms into rural America was met with some resistance. Especially as the Sannyasins, as the followers were known, began to overstep their promises of limited development to local communities by building hotels, restaurants, a fire department, sewage reclamation plant, public transit system, and even an airstrip. By 1983 regional hunting groups had proposed declaring "open season on the central eastern Rajneesh, known locally as the Red Rats or Red Vermin"—invasive and threatening pests that they were. Even at the state level, the rapid growth of the commune cum de facto city met stiff opposition from environmentalists and government officials, who fought Rajneesh’s efforts to claim more territory and incorporate a city. The sense of isolation and hostility heightened in 1983 when a group of Muslim extremists bombed a Rajneesh-held hotel in Portland, Oregon. Rajneesh upped his legal battles, formed a Peace Force armed with Uzis and a Jeep mounted with a .30-caliber machine gun, and started sending residents to live in Antelope. By 1984, his followers outnumbered the locals. They soon took over the government, renaming the town Rajneesh.

Photo via Wikicommons

Rajneesh claimed he didn't know what kind of tactics were being used by his followers, but shortly after gaining control in Rajneesh, née Antelope, his movement had positioned itself to take over the entire government of Wasco County, Oregon. At one point, in an effort to expedite the outnumber-and-outvote strategy they had used in local elections, they tried bussing in 2,000 homeless people to vote Rajneesh partisans into state government, but local towns refused to let them cast their ballots.

In September of 1984, the group finally and officially pissed off the entire state when a group of followers discreetly sprinkled a brown fluid—which turned out to be homemade, weaponized salmonella—on salad bars throughout local chain restaurants in an effort to suppress voter turnout. The stunt sent 45 people to the hospital, gave 751 a bad day, and galvanized locals to vote against the Sannyasins at the polls. Subsequent investigations of the commune uncovered a bioterror lab, where the group had originally planned to manufacture typhoid fever, as well as a library of explosives-making literature, a wire-tapping surveillance project against its own followers, and a plot to assassinate obstinate US district attorney Charles H. Turner. Within a year, Rajneesh had fled and disavowed any knowledge of the plots. Sheela and another ringleader were arrested, and the commune was abandoned and lay fallow as the community tried to move forward.

By the close of the decade, Rajneesh had died of a heart attack in India, Sheela had evaded the bulk of her three concurrent 20-year white-collar jail sentences after just two and a half years, and Oregon had finally decided to sell off the commune’s property under its pre-cult name: the Big Muddy Ranch. In 1991, Montana-based philanthropists Dennis and Phyllis Washington purchased a chunk of the property (65,000 acres of land and 700,000 square feet of Rajneesh’s buildings, valued at $20 million in total) at auction and decided to gift the property to an organization they thought could turn the bleak spot into something happier and holier. They chose Young Life, the Colorado Springs–based ministry popular in high schools throughout America, rapidly spreading into international communities, and just then opening some of the largest non-denominational Christian summer camps in the nation.

Fortunately for Young Life, a fire in 1996 conveniently burned down many of the structures built by the Sannyasins so that, by the time the first sites opened in 1999 all signs of the cult had given way to skate parks, zip lines, and pools. That might be why, according to Betsy Branscombe, Young Life’s public relations specialist, the issue of the cultic history just doesn’t come up among campers. She and Young Life acknowledge Rajneesh and his legacy in a basic way, but when asked about it Branscombe simply says, “that period certainly offers a backdrop against which the ministry of a thriving Young Life camp looks especially bright. However, this is a small part of the story of what is happening at this or any Young Life camp—it’s a great story regardless of what came before.”

Yet there is a strategic vagueness in Young Life literature about things like the origins of the 4,200-foot runway nearby (they say they are blessed to have it, but don't go into detail about its history). That’s probably useful for the ministry’s forward-looking narrative, which is useful for avoiding raised eyebrows from campers and local communities alike. The lack of comment from locals, too, most likely stems from a similar urge to put this chapter of history behind them. Places like the Dalles, Oregon, the seat of Wasco County, does not particularly embrace its reputation as the site of the first and largest bioterror attack in America (ignoring, of course, that smallpox-blanket business at Fort Pitt).

But not everyone’s forgotten, nor does everyone accept the presence of another religious community on the Ranch as a necessary good.

“I was not a resident yet when Young Life came to the old Rajneesh compound,” says Moats, still speaking outside her official capacity. “I do gather that there was quite a bit of mistrust and hesitancy on the part of the locals toward any large religious group acquiring the property at that point in time.” Young Life easily smoothed over early fears, but their recent expansions have raised eyebrows. In 2011 the camp launched a new resort complex, Creekside, to host 400 middle schoolers every week of the summer, and according to Moats, in 2013 they began petitioning to be exempted from land use laws in order to expand beyond what she views as their original promised extent. “We found out about the latest plans when we read it in the newspaper just like everyone else,” she says. “We were not considered whatsoever and had to write a letter to ask for a meeting.”  

To be clear, Young Life has been fairly open about most of their developments. They try to invite local communities to use their facilities and meet yearly to hear about recent developments. They even do some much-appreciated volunteer work in local communities. But even one or two twitches without warning can raise mild concern in a community so recently dominated by an expansionist religious community.

Obviously Young Life is nothing like the Rajneesh—they seem to be mild, well-intentioned, and basically kind individuals. But contrary to what they may believe, says Moats, the history of the Rajneesh period is still a strong pole of memory and reference in the surrounding areas. Although the Ranch’s cultic history will likely be no problem for them moving forward, nor their presence a problem for the region, it’s not something that can be ignored or forgotten so easily in a town that was literally occupied for several years. “Suspicion still runs deep,” says Moats. “No one wants a repeat.”