Images by Jayson Tundland, David Chatsuthiphan, and John Hook Illustrations by Mitchell Fong
Some call themselves intentional communities. Others are considered alternative spiritualities. At times, they have been labeled cults.
On August 25, 1975, Jim Baker, aka Father Yod, aka Ya Ho Wha, who sometimes considered himself God, and at other times realized he was merely a man with a following who believed him to be divine, jumped off Kamehame Ridge on O‘ahu’s east side. A number of his wives, who had joined Baker at the launch site overlooking Rabbit Island, begged him not to make the leap—it was to be his first attempt at hang gliding, and the 53-year-old had received no prior preparation or practice. He pushed off anyway, and after a heavy drop and short glide, he landed hard on a nearby beach. His companions rushed to his side and brought him, breathing but in pain, back to a house in Lanikai.
These enchanting, long-haired people wearing mostly white garb were members of the Source Family, and the followers of The Eternal Now, started in Los Angeles by Baker—a U.S. Marine-turned-restaurateur and spiritual leader—at his eatery on Sunset Boulevard, The Source. Here, the party-loving businessman pioneered holistic organic fare that he said was inspired by a trip to Samoa, where he saw a population suffering due to a diet of processed foods imported from the United States.
Wanderers were drawn to the restaurant for work, and it was here that Baker started hosting his own Sunday classes and meditations that were spins on the mysticism he had experienced in Los Angeles while studying under Yogi Bhajan, the Punjabi Sikh who introduced Kundalini yoga to the United States.
Over several years, this loose group of staff and devotees turned into a tight-knit community, living communally and delving into magic, meditation, marijuana, mushrooms, rock and roll, and sex rituals. At the helm was Baker, influencing the twists and turns of their spiritual adventures.
By 1974, at which point Baker had become YaHoWha and had traded monogamy for 13 wives, the group of roughly 100 to 150 was living in a crowded space in the Hollywood Hills.
Source Family children were born at home and were homeschooled. Authorities began to look into the group after a baby arrived to the hospital with a staph infection, and other children, it was discovered, were not attending local schools. Having visited Hawai‘i on a honeymoon with his third wife, Robin, in 1968, Baker sent all Source Family mothers, children, and a few of its male members first to Moloka‘i, then to Maui, in order to avoid prying eyes. The new arrivals were also tasked with looking for the collective’s new home.
Baker told anyone who would listen of this imminent relocation to Hawai‘i. He painted a picture of a self-sufficient future with large orchards of mangos, macadamia nuts, and limes; a dairy operation; a boat for fishing; an alternate power system. Once established on Maui, the group would set up a profitable retreat. His devotees also spread the word.
A letter addressed to “Dear Friend” and signed “I. David Warren, Ph.D, for The Brotherhood of The Source” mentioned that they would take “precautions for our own protection … if law and order should ever break down.” The letter called it “The Ultimate Community.”
“Since [the] island was mostly rural and undeveloped, we imagined it would be the perfect place for us to live together without being hassled by authorities.”
A few months later, all members of the Source Family had relocated to Kaua‘i. “Beyond its natural splendor, Father was convinced that during giant geological shift and world wars to come, Kauai’s mountains would rise rather than sink, and the Hawaiian islands, being further away from the continents than anything else on the planet, would be spared nuclear fallout from the mainland,” writes Isis Aquarian, the community’s historian, and one of YaHoWha’s wives, in The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWha 13, and The Source Family.
“Since [the] island was mostly rural and undeveloped, we imagined it would be the perfect place for us to live together without being hassled by authorities.”
But when the Source Family arrived on the Garden Isle in the end of 1974, the island’s population was already fed up with Taylor Camp, a commune in Kalalau where squatters from the mainland, avoiding the draft or searching for meaning, lived, often in the nude, in elaborate treehouses. Baker tried to counter being associated with the “dirty hippies” by proposing to the local newspaper that the Source Family rid the islands of Taylor Camp residents.
But the conspicuous attire and bizarre spiritual language of Baker and his associates, as well as their inability to find employment or feed themselves, estranged them from Kaua‘i residents. “We came to realize that perhaps we were not the gods we’d been named after,” Isis writes. “We were human, vulnerable, on our own.”
Unable to survive the surprisingly harsh conditions, the Source Family relocated to San Francisco while Baker traveled the world, searching for a more satisfactory home base. He came nearly full circle, settling in Hilo on Hawai‘i Island in June 1975. This time, those who joined him found work and acceptance, and also bonded with the Love Israel family, a similar new religious group that was residing in the town. But while many of the Source Family followed their god to Hilo, the broader group had begun to disband.
One member, Mercury Aquarian, had moved to O‘ahu’s east side community of Lanikai, where he was pursuing competitive hang gliding. On July 30, Baker decided to visit Mercury, who was living with a small contingency of wives and children. The Mokulua Islands resonated with them immediately.
“We instantly sensed that the energy between the islands was a portal to the ‘other side’ and was very sacred,” Isis writes. “We were told that the lines of the earth align from Lanikai to Bethlehem to Egypt, creating a pyramid/triangle. There is an ancient saying among Hawaiians that this area is the navel of the planet.”
It was here, in this temporary home overlooking the ocean, where Baker spoke of dissolving the group. Having sold his restaurant and depleted the assets, financially supporting his needy extended clan was becoming increasingly difficult, and he felt it was time for them to make do on their own.
Or maybe he had wearied of his elaborate leadership role and the rituals he had created. Whether hang gliding was a way to shake off the shroud of age, or to move on to another plane of being, Baker accomplished both. Three days after Baker crashed on that east O‘ahu shoreline, he died at the house in Lanikai of complications resulting from the rough landing. For another three and a half days, members kept his body there, chanting over it as had become their tradition.
The 1960s and ’70s saw a boom in the formation of alternative spiritualities across the United States. Some groups practicing them lived communally, like the Source Family. Often, their founders mixed Eastern mysticism with Christianity, and appropriated practices and terminology of indigenous populations, like shamanism. Others revolved around ancient astrological beliefs, or encounters with aliens. A number of academics associate the start of this expansion of new religions with the time shortly after World War II, when the world began to rapidly globalize, and Americans at home and abroad increasingly encountered Buddhism, Hinduism, and yogis swiftly debuting in India. Along with this increased exposure to other belief systems, the injustices of the Vietnam War and the aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement spurred the U.S. population to question the status quo, and to search out better ways of being, and living.
In 1968, Victor “Vic” Baranco founded Morehouse. Like Baker, Vic was a former U.S. Marine and businessman searching for greater meaning, and preaching his discoveries along the way.
When Brian Shekeloff, one of Vic’s longest companions, met him in 1967, he saw someone “with the demeanor of a slick salesman,” “a flashy thug” who “spoke something that sounded like a mixture of Existentialism and Buddhism,” as Shekeloff describes in an online essay titled “How I Met Vic.” Shekeloff had come with his wife to one of Vic’s gatherings to work on their marriage, and despite his initial impressions of the man, he was drawn to his charisma and guru-like understanding of female-male relationships. Soon, Vic’s philosophy diverged from mysticism, focusing instead on the present experience.
“I am perfect, you are perfect, and the universe is perfect” became his mantra.
In 1968, Vic and his first wife, Susie, with whom he cofounded the organization, bought a home with several followers in Oakland in an attempt to live communally. Thus, the original Morehouse was born, named for a spin on Vic’s teaching that the world is already good, so more must mean better, something those in the house would strive to perceive. They painted the place purple. “We think it only fair to let people know that they are entering an unusual situation,” explains the Morehouse website. “Besides, it’s a fun color.”
Alongside other devotees around California who started their own purple houses, Morehouse members explored and documented the best ways to live together, enjoy sex, and be responsibly hedonistic (pursuing pleasure not just for oneself, but for all). “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do” and “serve the world unselfishly and profit by it” became mottos for members, and remain so today. By 1976, Morehouse preached the importance and machinations of the female orgasm, which Vic publicized by way of a three-hour demonstration with a female student.
By this time, the group had a central house in Lafayette in northern California, along with other abodes that came and went, like the Venice Morehouse in Los Angeles. These communes functioned by democratic rule, which required complete agreement amongst members (one way in which Vic excused himself from daily leadership roles).
To get things done, like building a pool, the residents threw parties that all attended. The group became so confident in its practices that it started providing courses on sexual pleasure, relationships, and communal living, even offering a Ph.D. from its More University from 1979 to 1997. Vic’s second wife, Cynthia, who goes by Cindy, joined him at the organization’s helm in 1976 and helped structure the courses.
In 1988, Vic, Cindy, and a few other Morehouse members moved to O‘ahu. They renovated a decrepit sugarcane shack in Pupukea on the North Shore, adding a pool and an annex, and painting their new home, Morehouse Hawaii, purple. They were friendly with the community, but were quickly embroiled in a legal battle—in January 1989, upon searching the house, police found “approximately fifty units of the drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in a Bible.” The Barancos got off scot-free due to a mistrial, and any noted scandal in Hawai‘i stops there. While other Morehouse locations remain as active communes that host gatherings, the O‘ahu house seems to have receded into the horizon of the group, becoming more of a retreat for core members, a stopover for those traveling through, or an occasional gathering place.
It is hard to learn anything about this location beyond what is shared on its Facebook page (the most recent post was in 2015) or the Lafayette Morehouse website. What is mentioned is that Vic Baranco died in Hawai‘i in 2006; Shekeloff met his wife at the house in the 1990s and died there in July 2014; and Cindy Baranco called Pupukea home through 2015, and still resides there at least periodically. (I reached out to Lafayette Morehouse about the Pupukea house multiple times, and to a few Hawai‘i residents associated with it.
The only individual to respond was a woman on the North Shore who said Lafayette Morehouse doesn’t operate in Hawai‘i, only California, where its communal house is located, and where the group’s classes are based.)
Today, residents at the Lafayette home teach about aging gracefully in communes and about the sexual potential of menopause, in addition to their staple courses. Other Morehouse locations, including the original one in Oakland, and another founded in Atlanta in 1989, continue to follow the model set forth by Vic and his gang.
The organization’s longevity may be accredited to Vic’s limited role in daily communal operations, and to his choice to preach relationships instead of divining spirituality. Its staying power could also be due to the fact that he shared the helm with his wives, including Cindy, who continues to shape Morehouse philosophies to this day.
Such communities aren’t only products of the 1960s and ’70s. In the early 1980s, when conservatism and consumerism were rising in reaction to previous decades, a failed actor, aspiring dancer, and trained hypnotherapist gathered his own following in Los Angeles. Born Jaime Gomez, he went by the name Michel. To those who joined his group, which came to be known as Buddhafield, he was The Teacher. Later, in Austin, he changed his name to Andreas. Today, on O‘ahu, he identifies as Reyji.
In 1985, Will Allen became one of Gomez’s avid students. That year, Allen had returned to Los Angeles from Texas, where he had majored in film at Southern Methodist University. When he told his parents he was gay, they kicked Allen out of the house, and his older sister Amy, who now goes by Emiliana, invited him to Buddhafield.
“Constantly, you were being fed. Your soul was being fed, with love, and with inspiration, and awe,” she says in Holy Hell, the documentary about the group that her brother made after he left Buddhafield. Gomez led his followers to frolic in the ocean, dance in the forest, and experience vivid spiritual encounters through his touch. They meditated, did yoga, and aspired to be beautiful—externally as well as internally. Their bonds, as well as the group’s finances, were strengthened by members living together in houses of up to eight, sharing expenses, responsibilities, and social lives.
“It was a sort of microcosm of a community, and we loved it,” Allen says. “It was an experiment without us realizing it. … It was getting deeper and more involved, and we were all a part of that creation.”
Gomez was the epitome of a modern guru. “He wasn’t some little old man with a grey beard in a dhoti, he was wearing Speedos and Ray-Bans and dancing to contemporary music,” says former member Radhia Gleis in Holy Hell. The teacher slowly tightened his control over the group, denouncing sex and romantic relationships, selectively offering coveted spiritual encounters, demanding financing for—and participation in—elaborate theatrical performances for which there were no audiences, and requiring everyone to meet with him for one-on-one regression hypnotherapy, or “cleansing” sessions, which cost $50 each. Throughout this time, Allen was one of Gomez’s closest devotees.
By 1990, there were between 100 and 120 members in Buddhafield, and Gomez was feeling the tension of having been labeled a cult leader. “The group think, the isolation, having a leader tell you what to do—they all have to be present to be a cult,” Allen says. “We used to laugh knowing we had all these things. We thought we were on top of it.” The sociological classification of a cult is a religious or social group with deviant or novel beliefs and practices. Today, the preferred academic terms for such organizations are “alternative spiritualities,” or “new religious movements,” broader categories that avoid the negative connotation of “cult.” The latter also implies that they may manifest mainstream religions, such as the trajectory of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
To evade prying eyes, Gomez flew with a select few, including Allen, to Maui, where they vacationed and searched for a new location for Buddhafield. “It was the weather,” Allen says of Gomez’s attraction to Hawai‘i. “He’s a sunbather, he’s a swimmer.” But unable to find a suitable spot, in 1991, Gomez instead relocated the group to Austin, Texas, a liberal city with economic opportunities for its members. Over the course of 15 years, members followed his direction, which became increasingly bizarre as he exploited his power and pursued physical beauty. Loathe to have any children in the group, Gomez insisted that pregnant members get abortions.
According to the documentary, he even had members test plastic surgery procedures on themselves before he underwent any himself. But everything came crashing down in 2006 when a member sent an email to group members, accusing Gomez of sexually abusing male disciples. In the months and years following, more than a dozen men in Buddhafield came forward to corroborate the claim. The group imploded as its members resisted and then confronted this new knowledge. Gomez denies the accusations to this day.
Some of the men threatened to press charges if Gomez didn’t give up his role of teacher and guru. Other members insisted he stop his work. To bring an end to everything, they decided to send their fallen leader away. “There was a girl in the group who always lived on the islands, and she knew O‘ahu very well,” Allen says. “She said Lanikai is the best place you’ll want to live.” They found a house in the neighborhood to rent, and 12 faithful disciples accompanied Gomez to Hawai‘i. Allen, feeling obligated to his teacher, was among them.
According to Allen, there were numerous reasons to come to the islands. For one, it was a place of spiritual acceptance without judgment. “A lot of people have come here before to find themselves, or are looking and searching,” he says.
For a few months, Allen helped Gomez get settled, while coming to terms with the fact that the leader had also sexually abused him for years. “I had compartmentalized it, I never spoke about it, I was never able to come to terms with it or call it abuse at the time,” he says. Allen extricated himself from Gomez’s companionship, and found solidarity in Honolulu’s gay community. A couple years later, he moved back to the mainland.
Over the last two decades of his life, Allen had served as Buddhafield’s de facto videographer, and he decided to turn this footage into a documentary. To film the ending of the story, he returned to O‘ahu, where he and other former members thought Gomez was pursuing a normal, quiet life with his few remaining followers. But back in Hawai‘i, Allen realized his former teacher was again recruiting, bringing local residents into his fold via his participation in Kailua’s holistic yoga community. “That was really shocking for everyone,” Allen says. “We would have stopped him a long time ago if we felt he wasn’t going to stop himself.”
In 1974, hundreds of followers of James Warren “Jim” Jones relocated from San Francisco to the South American country of Guyana. A decades-old religion rooted in equality and Christianity, The Peoples Temple had been labeled a cult, and Jones led the intercontinental move to avoid potential persecution.
He chose Guyana because its official language was English, and because its socialist government seemed more aligned with his principles. The group obtained land and attempted to grow its own food, catch rainwater, and establish a self-sustaining religious community. This community became known as Jonestown, the now infamous site where more than 900 inhabitants downed cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in an act of mass suicide in anticipation of U.S. officials cracking down on the compound.
Like Guyana, Hawai‘i has been perceived as a sanctuary where individuals can find freedom from persecution, with the ideal land on which to create a sustainable community, and neighbors who are open to different spiritualities and daily practices. And like California, Hawai‘i has also become a hub of new-age spirituality, drawing people searching for holistic health and alternative lifestyles. Millions of vacationers to Hawai‘i have perpetuated the picture of the islands as a welcoming paradise where money, in the form of fruit, grows on trees.
Right now, on the website of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, which is dedicated to planned residential communities in which members support each other and pursue shared visions, there are 46 intentional communities looking for others to join them in Hawai‘i. Most don’t yet exist. One listing on the site welcomes circus performers to a decades-old group living on Hawai‘i Island.
Another is looking for members to help establish a location in Puna, where residents would reject consumerism and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. A third hopes to start a community for transgenders, with Hindu god and goddess Ardhanarishvara as its spiritual center. Its online profile explains that Hawai‘i is the perfect place for the community, an island paradise with a Polynesian culture that honors transgender persons.
But these communities have a hard time getting off the ground. (Most on the Fellowship for Intentional Community site seem to have gone stagnant.) Maintaining them is another struggle. Such lifestyles require wholehearted devotion, a fair amount of funding, and shared goals—difficult with different politics, spiritual stances, personalities, and ideas of employment. Perhaps what aspiring communal inhabitants need to do is review the Morehouse philosophy. Perhaps they need a unifying faith. Perhaps they need a leader. Then again, perhaps not.
At the house in Lanikai, in the days before his ill-fated hang gliding attempt, Jim Baker surrounded himself with his wives and spoke of his unforeseen death. “He had told us that when he did go, it would be to prepare our next home on Sirius, the brightest star in the galaxy,” Isis writes.
After the family notified the police of Baker’s passing, the Honolulu Advertiser ran a story about his death and the group’s three-day posthumous ritual. On the same page, alongside this piece, was an unrelated article about a literal celestial body, titled, “New star shines its light on Hawaii.” Its brightness had increased suddenly, so that it was, for the first time, visible in the night skies.