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Church Group Swaps Views with Gaskin's
by Albert Gore
Mar 13, 1972
The Tennesseean
Citation:   Gore, A. "Church Group Swaps Views with Gaskin's". The Tennesseean. Mar 13 1972.
Twenty-one years ago, Albert Gore was a staff correspondent for 'The Tennesseean', a newspaper out of Nashville, Tenn. On March 13, 1972 the paper published the following article by this now better known reporter. Unfortunately, the good copy machines were not handy at that time, and no one thought that a little known reporter's article about The Farm was important enough to make a high quality copy, so the copy that was made is in very poor condition and I have difficulty reading some words. None of it is readable enough to copy directly and so I am having to transcribe it in its entirety to publish it here.

Ramon Sender Barayon



NOTE: for the unfamiliar, Stephen Gaskin was the teacher of "Monday Night Class" in San Francisco for six years and later together with many of his students founded a communal settlement known as The Farm in Tennessee. At one time it had as many as 1,700 people living there, but now is more successful as a smaller community of about 300. Here's the article:

SUMMERTOWN, Tenn. A barn decorated with oriental rugs and bleachers made of straw has become the unlikely meeting ground between members of Stephen Gaskin's commune and a Church of Christ congregation.

Every Sunday afternoon and every Monday night for the past four weeks, the minister of Sandy Hook Church of Christ has come with 30 to 40 members of his congregation and several other ministers to share "the word of God" with Gaskin and the estimated 450 members of his commune who live on a farm near here.

IT BEGAN as a brave attempt by the churchmen to ...(unreadable line). Overshadowing all the disagreements, the real importance of the debates is that representatives of two groups of people who are mortal enemies in many parts of America are learning to listen quietly to each other.

...(bad line) "save" the souls of those who came here seven months ago from San Francisco to start a new life here in Lewis County. But it has developed into a series of electric debates. Each side presents its beliefs and then both sides hash out their disagreements. Unlike most communities, the Gaskin group is committed to leading a religious life. His followers look to him for spiritual guidance and he is more than willing to give it to anyone who asks. Gaskin describes his group as a ...monastery.

TO THE SURPRISE of both sides, they found they share a lot of common ground in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, the value of working hard and trying always to tell the truth - and most important, a deep faith in God.

"I think it's been profitable for all of us", said Bobby Williams, minister of Sandy Hook Church of Christ. "Our first impulse was to associate them with Charles Manson and their first impulse was to associate us with their unfavorable religious background." There have been some surprises on the other side, too. Gaskin, the "Spiritual Leader" of the commune which is known simply as "The Farm" said of all the persons he has debated in San Francisco and around the country, "These Church of Christ folks are some of the toughest, a lot tougher than the Hare Krishna people".

A WEEK AGO yesterday the crowd began to gather for the fifth meeting between the two groups shortly before 2 p.m. The atmosphere inside the barn was electric as bearded young men in overalls sat down beside the well groomed Church of God ministry who had driven out from town. The ministers had planned in detail their strategy of the meeting. Harry Anderson, minister of Spring Hill Church of Christ had come to listen to Williams and his parishioners. Anderson said he had been studying tape recordings of what was said the previous week. He wanted to be ready.

Ralph Gilmore, 23, minister of Main Street Church of Christ ... (three lines unreadable) Williams turned out the lights and for the third week began showing the "Jewel of all Gospel Films", a series of slides accompanied by a recorded explanation of the way to salvation" For the third Sunday in a row the members of the commune sat patiently in silence throughout the presentation, a feat that delighted the Church of Christ members and made them glad they had the foresight to buy the slide projector and screen just for the occasion. "You must admit that the soul needs a bath", said the recorded voice. When the lights came back on Williams thanked everyone for his patience and formally opened up the floor to debate. Immediately a member of the commune went on the offensive.

"IT SAYS in there that God preaches to all creatures, not just man, all creatures", he began. Williams shifted his weight in anticipation of a continuing argument over whether it is a sin to kill animals for food. Gaskin's followers eat no meat because the say they have made a "spiritual agreement" with the animals. "There would be a lot more vegetarians if everyone had to kill his own meat", Gaskin said later. Gilmore raised his hand and asked why, if eating meat were wrong, did Jesus give the multitude fishes and loaves ? There was a slight pause and then a dozen people in the audience picked up an answer simultaneously: "Because they were hungry". It was the first of many times that afternoon the two groups forgot their differences and laughed together.

OVERSHADOWING the disagreements, the real importance of the debates is that representatives of the two groups of people who are mortal enemies in many parts of America are learning to listen to - and like - the other. "One of the most important things we found out", said Anderson of the commune members, "is that these people are extremely kind and courteous. I'm impressed by their sincerity. Anderson and Williams are quick to add that they by no means "condone" many of the practices of the commune - particularly the use of marijuana. Gaskin and three of his followers are awaiting appeal on a conviction of possession of marijuana.

WHILE GASKIN says they no longer grow marijuana, he admits that his followers smoke it and occasionally do stronger drugs like peyote and psylocybin - or "mushrooms" as they refer to it. "We strongly disapprove of their use of these things" said Williams, "but we feel it is our duty to teach them New Testament Christianity." In other words Williams and other ministers feel it is more important to try to teach them than merely to condemn them. "We're trying to be patient and understanding with them", he said, adding he feels the world would be a better place if people would try to reach out and understand those with whom they disagree.

FROM GASKIN'S point of view, it is the Church of Christ that is "making progress" as a result of the meetings. "They're getting so mellow", he explained. "You should have seen them the first week they came." The series of meetings was arranged by one of Gaskin's neighbors. The ministers agreed to come out for two weeks, but now they feel the meetings may go on "indefinitely". While the ministers have charge of the Sunday meetings, Gaskin conducts the meetings on Monday night. "Monday Night Class" in fact was the original name of the commune group when it began around his lectures in San Francisco six years ago, and Gaskin has published a book outlining his philosophy entitled "Monday Night Class".

LAST MONDAY the barn was already filled when Gaskin tiptoed through a sea of crossed legs toward his place up front. The delegation from the Church of Christ was seated along the back. The ministers prefer folding chairs to the straw-covered floor and the bales stacked along one side. Now was the Church of Christ's turn to display some tolerance. Instead of a slide show, Gaskin began his meeting with thirty minutes of meditation in silence. Almost in unison the group begins to chant "hmmmmmmmmmm it's like a hymn", one of the members explains to Williams. When it was over, Gaskin got up to speak; "We've been spending so much time with our friends from Sandy Hook that it seems to me The Farm is getting raggedy", he said.

HE CONTINUED with one of the things he thought the commune was neglecting, some of the things they were doing wrong. Then like Williams the day before, he opened the floor to questions. During one of his answers Gaskin tried to remember a quote from the Bible. "Maybe you can help me, Bobby", he said to Williams. "It's the place where Jesus says: "Go on your way but keep yourselves together because if you don't you're going to get in worse trouble than you were before I cleaned you up - you know the place" There was a pause and then Park Boshears from the Church of Christ recognized the passage and spoke up: "Go and sin no more less a worse thing befall thee". "Yes, that's the one", said Gaskin, continuing with his answer. When he finished, Anderson stood and asked Gaskin where he gets his authority to make such sweeping pronouncements, "Who are your teachers", he asked. "EVERYBODY", replied Gaskin, and then elaborated. "I feel there's a lamp of holiness that's carried down through mankind for thousands of years and that we see people, one or another, carrying that torch. Some of them really carrying it high and really bright, some of them maybe just a spark, but as long as the flame carries, you know that it transmits -and I take as my preceptor and my teacher everybody that carries that torch." Douglas Davis from Spring Hill Church of Christ wanted to know what fault Gaskin finds in Jesus as a teacher. "I don't see any fault with Christ", replied Gaskin. In a flash, Anderson was on his feet. He hadn't studied those tapes for nothing. Quickly he reeled off a list of shortcomings Gaskin had ascribed to Christ the day before. Gaskin disposed of the rest with an explanation and then admitted, "I was a little flip as usual when I said that. We were tripping pretty heavy at that time as I remember". "we're making him read the Bible more", said Williams afterwards, "We heard from somebody out there that he is spending more time now with the Bible." Maybe, but Gaskin says he looks to Buddhist and Hindu texts to support many his beliefs. And other beliefs, he says he just "feels" intuitively to be true. For instance he feels that anger is bad and refuses to believe that Christ was ever angry, even when he threw the money- changers out of the temple.

WHEN GASKIN matches his own authority against that of the Bible, the Church of Christ ministers seem really to get upset. The Bible for them is absolute truth - the word of God. You either accept it completely or you don't. Gaskin, however takes from the Bible what he feels is correct and leaves alone what he disagrees with. In one of the early meetings, he buttressed a point with a reference to one of the Gospels. "Wait just a minute", said Anderson, getting to his feet, "The Bible is my witness." "Okay, but I've read it", said Gaskin continuing with his point. Gaskin seems to style himself as a new messiah figure - and that too, disgruntles the Church of Christ members. On one occasion, when Gaskin talked about healing, Anderson challenged him to "Come with me right now out to the cemetery to my grandmother's grave, and if you can raise her, I'll follow you for the rest of my life."

"I SEE HIM as a leader of men, said Williams of Gaskin, "But not a spiritual leader. He's shown that he's a leader of men by holding together 300 or 400 people through everything they've been through. But I don't see him as a spiritual leader. They obey his directions because they believe he can help them find enlightenment". According to them, the key to Gaskin's success is something more than Charisma. They believe he can communicate without words - by projecting his thoughts telepathically. Often when talking to people he straightens up his spine and stares intently into their eyes - at the same time opening his mouth to take a deep breath, yoga-style, filling up his stomach first, then his lungs - all the while maintaining his penetrating gaze into their eyes.

HE USED THIS technique several times during the Monday night meeting. At one point a girl who had left the group for Nashville and had come back to see if she wanted to stay, raised her hand to ask a question. With her voice shaking, she told Gaskin she wasn't sure what she should do. Then she admitted she had eaten a piece of bacon and an egg that morning before coming back to the farm because her parents warned her to beware of persons who don't eat meat. "If Dracula had been Jewish, would you have to wave a star of David at him?", asked Gaskin. Then he straightened up his spine and gave the girl an intense look in the eyes. He took a deep breath and when he let it out he had come to a decision. "I think you ought to go to Bobby's church for a while", he suggested. "I'm not just saying that, I really think you should". When the meeting was over, Williams and his wife went over to invite the girl formally into their church. She couldn't, she told them, because she had been raised a Southern Baptist. In spite of all the obstacles, Williams and the other ministers plan to keep going out to Gaskin's farm. "We're sowing the seed of God's word - whether it will grow depends on the condition of their hearts", said Williams.

A MORE immediate result, however, is that the people of Summertown area are learning to live with the strange people who have all of a sudden become their neighbors. "We had a lot of misconceptions about them", said Williams, "but the people who have come out here with us have a much better attitude toward them". "They have been misunderstood by a lot of folks in this area", added Anderson, "If more people came out to see what Gaskin's followers are doing, I think there would be more understanding."