Jun 19, 2018

Why The 'Cadillac Of Cults' Is Serving $8 Organic Lunches

An image of John-Roger hangs in the parlor of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. (photo by Sophia Kercher for LAist
June 19, 2018

Los Angeles is a city of seekers, a magnet for those who want the perfect body, the perfect soul. Seeker Lunch is the first entry in our series about the diverse and offbeat faiths in our city — and the food on their tables. Consider it a snack for the spiritually curious.

I was buzzed past a secured gate to a tree-lined walkway leading to a shadowy West Adams mansion. At the door, I signed my name and put on a visitor's badge. "You're a beautiful person," a smiling, glassy-eyed man with a walkie-talkie told me. "I know this because I have very good intuition."

In the Beaux Arts entryway under a Renaissance-style fresco, I spotted my friend. "I'm so glad you're here," she whispered "I don't know if we're going to make it out of this place alive."

This "place" is the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (or MSIA), headquartered in a sprawling, wedding cake-like mansion with two beautiful gardens and a "peace labyrinth" where there is no right or wrong turn.

Located in South Los Angeles's historic West Adams district, the MSIA's compound is open to the public by appointment only. It includes tours of the mansion, built in the early 1900s by an Italian winemaker, and its lush gardens. For those who know to ask, there's also an $8 organic lunch.

MSIA, often pronounced "messiah," was known as the "Cadillac of cults," according to a 1980s story in the Los Angeles Times. The shadows of its misdeeds remain in the mansion — it's almost palpable when you walk into the room. It's a place of locked doors, blanketed in an eerie silence. Every wall feels like it's full of secrets.

In its heyday, MSIA had multimillion dollar ventures and thousands of followers including celebrities Sally Kirkland, Carl Wilson and Arianna Huffington (whose image still sits in the some of the rooms). It also had its share of controversy.

Photos of MSIA's late founder, John-Roger, hang on the walls of the ornate parlor. MSIA bought the mansion in 1974 and christened it "the Purple Rose Ashram of the New Age" or PRANA. As many as 100 MSIA initiates once lived there.

Today, residents or people working or studying with MSIA, dine in the cafeteria and anyone can join them if you arrive at 1 p.m. with $8 cash.

Unlike the other parts of the house, the dining area is modern with clean lines and a steel buffet table. An MSIA meal won't impress foodies or earn a Jonathan Gold shoutout but dining in near silence at the headquarters of an alleged cult while you gaze at its luxuriant greenery has a peculiar, only-in-L.A. charm.

After filling our plates with green salads, boiled vegetable and steak (unremarkable but not bad) my friend and I found a spot on the veranda, which looks out on the reflection pond and the tranquil, winding peace labyrinth built to mimic the Chartres Cathedral in France. It's dedicated, as is almost everything here, to spiritual leader John-Roger.

John-Roger preferred the term "way-shower" to guru. He believed that our souls, which are tethered to the earth, can be liberated through expressing unconditional love by praying, meditating and tuning into the right sonic vibrations. MSIA sees John-Roger as the embodiment of the Mystical Traveler, a term John-Roger invented (and had emblazoned on a vanity license plate) to describe every individual's inner spiritual force.

The present-day sound baths at the mansion, led by MSIA President Paul Kaye, attempt to conjure the Mystical Traveler. Like the low key lunches, no one will try convert you to the spiritual practice. In fact, it wasn't until my fourth visit that someone handed me a pamphlet about MSIA's spiritual enrichment classes — and that was only after I pestered them with questions.

One afternoon, I introduced myself to a smiling man in the MSIA cafeteria. He asked if I wanted to join him and another stranger in prayer before the meal. I clasped their hands, we thanked god and sang a few words of prayer. Then we headed to the buffet. Boiled potatoes, light salmon croquettes, sausages and the usual assortment of salad greens. I never spoke to my fellow seekers again.

"We're not a proselytizing organization," Kaye told me. He should know. He's worked there since the 1970s.

The guides also might not tell you how John-Roger was the founder of the unaccredited University of Santa Monica, which is still active today. And they will most definitely skip the part where former initiates in 1988 denounced it as a cult to the Los Angeles Times and accused John-Rogers of abusing his power with monetary and sexual misdeeds.

The guides are more likely to focus on the fact that Busby Berkeley bought the mansion in 1937 and lived there with several of his six wives. Or they'll share stories about how the early 1900s mansion's intercom system still functions, and the work they've done to restore the estate and build the Asian-influenced gardens. And they'll do it as photos of the cherubic John-Roger hang all around them.

After spending hours in the gardens, eating $8 organic lunches and meditating in sound baths on multiple visits to MSIA, I always think of Sylvia.

I met her during one of my lunchtime sojourns. The peace labyrinth was built 16 years ago but whenever she talks about it, her eyes get a far-off look. "It allows you to take the time to recover yourself, and go back to who you are," she told me.

Sylvia Giussani came to Los Angeles from Argentina to study at MSIA. She planned to stay for three or four months. She's been here for 20 years.

Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness
Open for tours 12 p.m.-4 p.m., Tue.-Fri. and some Sundays.
3500 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, 90018


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