Oregonian Rajneesh Story Brings Back Memories

The Oregonian's recent five-part series on a checkered piece of Oregon's history – the invasion by Indian guru Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh and his followers – brought back lots of memories for me, some of which had receded with the passage of more than 25 years of time.

Not all good memories mind you. Threats. Poisoning. Dumping homeless persons. Harsh rhetoric. 

But, in the end, memories that testify to the staying power of resilient Oregonians and their political leaders who found a way to withstand the challenges of a sect no one understood very well back then, or even now.

I was involved in that period as a staff member in the office of Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh, so my colleagues at CFM suggested that I recount a few of my memories of this episode.  With their encouragement, I will do so, prompted, at least in the part, by ground covered by Oregonian reporter Les Zaitz in his series.

  • I remember being part of a number of confidential calls between the governor's chief of staff, Gerry Thompson, and Krishna Deva, who became a source of at least partial reason within the Bhagwan's camp. Late into the night, we talked with him about ways to tone down the inflammatory character, comments and confrontation that had festered at the Big Muddy Ranch in Eastern Oregon. In a perverse kind of way, Krishna Deva performed a service by being at least one person authorities could talk to in a relatively reasonable fashion.
  • Think of the kind of perverted mind that would propose gathering up homeless persons around the country, buying them bus tickets and sending them en masse to Portland. That was one of the brainstorms of Ma Anand Sheela, the leader of the cult who eventually did time in prison for her misdeeds. When we saw the reality of homeless persons being dumped in Portland, we knew charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission would be hard-pressed to respond. So the governor's office dispatched me to Portland to help the charitable community respond. Eventually, with the large numbers of persons descending on Portland, the only real alternative, with the best interests of the homeless in mind, was to buy them bus tickets back "home." That's what we did.

As I reflected on The Oregonian coverage, I was struck by how serious all of this was 25 years ago, more serious than many of us knew at the time.  There were some new facts in Zaitz' account, facts about the oft-bungled attempts on the lives of high-level public officials in the state, including the U.S. Attorney, the Attorney General and officials in Wasco County. We also worried about such threats or potential threats 25 years ago, but when see and hear them recounted today, we realize how brazen Rajneesh leaders were and how fortunate we were not to see any success in these attempted murders.

I cannot help but recount these events without commending the actions and attitude of Governor Atiyeh. Demonstrating his substantial abilities as one of Oregon's best governors, he mediated the crisis with a cool hand, with patience and with strength. When actions were called for, he took them. When talking and diplomacy were called for, he did that.  When a strong response was necessary, he ordered that, too.

Looking back, his steadiness was absolutely critical to get Oregon through a crisis that could have been much worse without his leadership. 
And, where does this end?  Well, in an incredible turnabout we have witnessed in our lifetime, the Big Muddy Ranch, once the territory of a sect, has become a Christian ranch for young people operated by the very credible Young Life organization. 

Who would have believed that a place for polluted minds would become a sanctuary of solitude and faith?


Footnote:  The writer, CFM partner Dave Fiskum, worked for the Atiyeh Administration for eight years in the Department of Human Resources, in the Department of Economic Development and in the Governor's Office.

Photo Caption: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, left, with Ma Anand Sheela.