Big, ugly “spaceship-looking” building or beautiful “sacred place?” Religious group’s sanctuary plans divide once tranquil WC/Lafayette neighborhood

Readers, sorry, this is a long post, but it’s one of the weirder, more disturbing neighborhood disputes I’ve ever come across. The illustration at left says a lot.

On a rainy night two weeks ago, more than 200 residents of Saranap, an older unincorporated neighborhood between Walnut Creek and Lafayette, gathered together. It was the first general meeting of a new campaign called Save Our Saranap.

These were a fraction of the nearly 750 residents who have signed onto this campaign, many anguished and frustrated by a series of disturbing events that have taken place in their neighborhood over the past year.

These events all swirl around on a development, a massive, 66,000-square-foot white domed sanctuary, or “school of worship,” that a Saranap-based religious organization wants to build in their neighborhood.

The organization is called Sufism Reoriented, and the aerial view is above. Sufism Reoriented is based in Saranap and has some 350 members, about half of whom live in there. Save Our Saranap members say they have co-existed with Sufism members peacefully for decades.

Why wouldn’t there be a long history of harmony with Sufism members? After all, Sufism Reoriented says its teachings are “designed for individuals who strive to devote their lives to the love of God through service” and whose members “work in harmony with all religions.” Despite its name, the organization is not affiliated with Islam, but follows the teachings of the late Meher Baba, a spiritual leader from India who chartered the organization in 1952.

Sufism Reoriented also runs the well-regarded White Pony preschool and Meher K-5 Schools in the neighborhood. Some Save Our Saranap members send their children to the Meher school. I, myself, have friends and acquaintances who send or have sent their children to these schools; all report positive educational and social experiences for their kids.

By the way, I don’t live in Saranap, but have friends who do and who have signed onto the Save Our Saranap campaign.

So, what happened to make everything go so wrong?

Late last spring, these friends started telling me head-shaking stories about how their Sufism neighbors were bombarding them with press releases, expensive newsletters, and aggressive door-to-door visits to disseminate information about the project. My friends say the information and the manner in which it was delivered was misleading, evasive, downright deceptive, and condescending. They say Sufism members subtly or overtly played the religious-intolerance card—as in, if you don’t agree with how wonderful this project is, and how wonderful we are, then you are a religious bigot and anti-Sufism.

I myself was contacted by someone advocating the project. He didn’t identify himself as a Sufism member, even though I knew he was. To sell me on the project, he made false claims, such as that there was no opposition even though I knew there was. The communication reminded me of something voiced by a functionary from an Orwellian horror story, a “Freedom-is-Slavery,” denial-of-reality style of propaganda. I immediately understood why my Saranap friends shuddered at the memory of their encounters with Sufism members over this project.

On the face of it, the project sounds oh-so wonderful. The sanctuary would rise on a 3.25-acre site along Boulevard Way. The sanctuary would house classrooms, chorus rehearsal studios, and offices, and those 13 domed structures would be “inspired by Mt. Diablo and surrounding hills.” Sufism Reoriented also claims that the building would be environmentally friendly and would “have little visual impact” on the surrounding neighborhood because two-thirds of it—46,000 square feet—would be built underground.

Best yet, according to Sufism leaders, the project’s designer would be top drawer. The architect would be the world-renowned, Manhattan-based architectural firm Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie, which built the 101 California Street building in San Francisco, the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California, and Manhattan’s Trump International Hotel and Tower and the “Lipstick” building (from where Bernard Madoff operated his Ponzi scheme) in Manhattan. Meanwhile, the landscaping would be handled by SWA Landscape Design firm, whose clients include the California Academy of Sciences.

So proud is Sufism Reoriented of this proposed project that its leaders say they wouldn’t be surprised if it landed in the pages of Architectural Digest.

My friends and Save Our Saranap leaders contend they never had any objections to Sufism building a new sanctuary in the neighborhood. But, as details emerged, they became concerned about the size and design. They couldn’t see how this big white building—18,000 square feet larger than the new Walnut Creek library and 20 percent larger than the White House—would fit into their neighborhood. It also didn’t make sense that it was being built just to accommodate the activities of Sufism’s 350 members.

“We are not anti-Sufi,” SOS leaders say on their website. “We have neighbors who are Sufis. We have friends who are Sufis. Our concern is that the proposed Sufism Reoriented sanctuary is too large for the site, and needs to be redesigned to be appropriate for our residential neighborhood.”

The situation between Sufism members and non-Sufism members degenerated into outrage and recriminations last summer. There were the two flattering—and in IMHO, insufficiently reported—articles in the Contra Costa Times about Sufism Reoriented and the sanctuary project. One notable thing the Times reporters failed to do was contact the Saranap Community Association, the body that, back then, represented the neighborhood to county planners on development issues. The association was on record as opposing the project because of its size and design.

Also, in documents distributed to neighbors and the press at this time, Sufism was cagey about their project’s size. Even, in its original, supposedly handy-dandy Frequently Asked Question document, it failed to cite square footage in this basic question: “How big will this building be?”

Then came the Saranap Community Association’s annual general meeting on July 10, 2008. My friends and SOS leaders describe the meeting as disintegrating into a “hostile take-over” of the board by Sufism members.
“It was like when the Panzers rolled in as part of their Blitzkrieg,” one Saranap friend told me. He and others say Sufism Reoriented packed the meeting with people sympathetic to its project, and elected two new Sufism members to the seven-member board.

Sufism leaders deny that the takeover was hostile, but one leader, Pascal Kaplan, in a statement that Sufism posted on its website, acknowledges that the meeting got so tense that “three of the three of the incumbent board members and all four of the alternates resigned in a block, leaving a strong majority on the board who are members of Sufism Reoriented.”

Now, with five of the six Community Association board members being Sufism members (as of last count), an alternate neighborhood group has sprung up, called the Saranap Homeowners Organization. Because of this project, this neighborhood now has two associations claiming to represent its interests.

The sanctuary proposal remains in the hands of county planners, who will determine whether an environmental impact report will be required. Meanwhile, the SOS campaign is growing, with its numbers now dwarfing the Sufism membership more than 2 to 1. SOS leaders say Sufism members continue to play the religious-intolerance card and to make misleading claims. One example I found on Sufism’s website: that only “small core of individuals” oppose their project. Check out the online list of residents who have signed on to the SOS campaign and see if those represented constitutes a “small core.”

Here are other key SOS concerns about the project:

— With regard to the eco-friendly, the project will be “very brown” before it becomes green, SOS says. With 46,000-square-feet of the sanctuary underground, the excavation will need more than 3,400 dump truck loads over five months. Rather than “sit lightly on the earth,” as Sufism claims, the project would crash onto the earth, “like a meteor, complete with crater,” SOS says.

–Although Sufism Reoriented describes the sanctuary as “nestling in a glade of trees,” to build it, the plan calls for the destruction of all vegetation and buildings on the site and the removal of all 42 existing trees, including six heritage oaks.

–While the plan describes a park-like setting and two acres devoted to open space, “the development is so massive” that “portions of the garden are grass pavers within the parking lot.”

–This is not a public neighborhood park, as Sufism implies, but private property. Unlike other religious groups, Sufism doesn’t have a tradition of regularly welcoming outsiders into its events or its facilities.

–Those 13 “sloping, saucer domes that mirror the shapes of the surrounding California hills”: SOS says “that’s like saying an oil refinery mirrors the shape of a redwood forest. Stark white, saucer-shaped domes have nothing in common with the hills of California.”

Overall, the 66,000-square-foot size leads SOS members, and me, to question what true long-term goal Sufism Reoriented has in mind. In its online literature, Sufism likes to project an image of modesty and to claim that it doesn’t prosthelytize.

But its own statements also show that it wants to build an architecturally ambitious, internationally admired project. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether this sanctuary is actually designed to host a much larger number of people on a regular basis. Sufism adamantly denies it has grander designs, but the organization’s prior tactics have left my Saranap friends unable to trust what Sufism representatives say.

Also, consider that throughout history, religions—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims—have built architecturally grand monuments to make grand statements about their world view, to attract new followers, and to spread the word about what they stand for. Sure, these organizations do good works. But history has also shown that religions want to expand the power and wealth of their organizations, and, sometimes, of their leaders.
“I’m beginning to believe that they have their whole identity and future staked on this building,” one Saranap friend told me. “It seems to be the essential centerpiece of all their dreams and illusions of grandeur, and I think they will stop at very little to achieve its establishment.”

SOS just wants Sufism Reoriented to do a better job listening to their concerns “and reduce the size and bulk of the project, provide adequate parking, retain trees, and reconsider the design so it blends in with the Saranap community.”

To sum up, SOS is asking Sufism Reoriented “to be the good neighbors that they have been for many years.”

217 thoughts on “Big, ugly “spaceship-looking” building or beautiful “sacred place?” Religious group’s sanctuary plans divide once tranquil WC/Lafayette neighborhood

  1. Being of the “on the fence” crowd – Ya know – – not to start the heat all up again, but this is what’s starting to gnaw at me. There’s been some repeated accusations here that Sufis are putting their friends “up to” posting here, i.e. getting them to do their “dirty work” for them.But, after thinking through who exactly will benefit the most if the design is changed (i.e. Rasmussens and Trenors), how is it that we are not facing facts: The folks who most benefit if the design changes are also “putting their friends up to it” by taking advantage of our fear. This will be even more embarrassing than the name calling if they do sell their adjacent houses to the Sufis. So, here we are, yammering against the folks who are probably going to be staying, and yet we’ll have spent months or years essentially doing free labor for a few others who will benefit financially if we keep the pressure on – particularly if it goes through as designed. I know I did not sign up for that.There are still some major trouble spots on this thing that I want more info about: 1) I’ve asked myself if I can tolerate 3-4 years of tree growth and the answer is yes, if that were the only thing. 2) I’m also re-thinking my opposition to the 66,000 sq ft. I can see why they can use that much space IF indeed they are not using the top floor for events other than worship services. Kind of weird, but whatever floats yer boat.3) BUT – I think I need to understand a bit more about the parking. I went by there last night and there were few cars along Blvd Way, so they really seem to have done what they said they have done on that, but what about overflow for perhaps the occasional larger event where they invite maybe even some more of us (assuming they’ll still be talking to us by then)? 4) Also, I would like to understand more about the construction process. It is a huge amount of soil to be moved. Can we get a draft of what the expected schedule of excavation will be? (BTW: I feel totally stupid in not questioning the number of trucks – of course they won’t use trucks that small, and it’s just illogical to think they would.)Fact is, I have to be honest and say that I do not want the SOS guys in my way if I want to get a variance. This thing has quickly spiraled and I am very unhappy with my so-called “leaders”. I know these guys a whole lot better now after that SOS meeting and so I find myself believing what’s been posted about the SCA transition. I think Dennis needs to do less complaining and more explaining. If the old board has any SCA property, they should give it back – period, end of story – including the website, the mailing list, and office supplies. The leadership undermines everything we say we are doing if they do indeed possess any such items – it makes the rest of us look complicit and untrustworthy to anyone else who is taking a look at this situation, in fact, they may have already indicted us.

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  2. 9:40Check out the third blog thread Crazy in Suburbia has created. It is under “Community News & Controversies”, and listed under “Anonymous Comments on this Blog.”More info.

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  3. has anyone heard of sarcasma?it appears to cause a bit of constipation in those who feel that name-calling will succeed in moving discussions forward… :o}that said, a couple of the more recent posts have been moved to the most recent blog on Anonymityblessings

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  4. Dear Anon 4:57: I received your message and hear what you are trying to say. Nonetheless, I removed this post because it included certain kinds of attacks on a specific person that I am not going to allow on my blog. If you would like me to explain my reasons, feel free to e-mail me at crazyinsuburbia@gmail.com.

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  5. Check out the 40′ ginormous white trailer and 22′ truck on Blvd Wy just south of Warren Rd! It is parked right next to the banner of the white sanctuary building. A member or a kindred spirit perhaps?

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  6. Seems the giant looming RV has gone back to the mother ship. Now, if they would just come get the tractor and trailer.

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  7. Yea, it’s OK when they want to park heavy equipment everywhere, make noise and do construction, but when someone else does…GOTTA stop that! Classic NIMBY do as I say, not as I do.

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  8. The only reason that the Sufis are doing community work is because they want their sanctuary. End of story. They have always been secretive and members do not talk about Sufism with non-Sufis.

    They have said for years and years that they are not a church but now conveniently they have changed their filing status.

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  9. Wow.
    Been a long time since I went back to Walnut Creek.
    Reading the posts was very entertaining, a little disturbing, and utterly revealing.

    My grandmother was Ivy Duce, the one who led the placement of the group in Walnut Creek after leaving S.F. I was right in the center of the building of the first center there, lived next to it most of my childhood.

    The amazing claims by some of the people about the Sufis (I am not one and was never encouraged to be one, but to seek for myself what was best, and this by the religious leader of the group, my grandmother), are somewhat stunning. I'm happy to clear up such things, but I'm nobody in the organization (leadership is NOT hereditary, thank goodness). They were wonderful people to know and I respect the heck out of them, though I am not religious myself.

    There are legitimate concerns but misguided additions by their detractors from this project. The opponents to the building allow a few of their members to contaminate any complaints and obscure the real issues. The attempts to insinuate strange and obscure motives is just TOO funny to me, not that I expect others to change their minds on my say-so. It's just strange to hear someone do the equivalent of saying you were raised in, say, the Congo when you've never lived anywhere but the U.S.A. All you can do with such claims is wonder at the person's motives and sanity.

    Most of you are too busy to really look into the group and see them the way I did, growing up right in the middle of it all.

    They have kind hearts. I hope they aren't suffering too much from this nonsense. Most would happily talk about concerns and such from the neighborhood, but frankly, I can see why they might avoid a few of them. They did talk to and work with neighbors when they first put up the original center there. And the comments about the improvement in the neighborhood due to Sufis was simply very true. I remember that at one point we had a few unknown young people who were tire slashing. A group of the Sufi's went to the houses who had the problem and invited them to come and help as they first discussed all the legal and ethical concerns for stopping the vandals, then proceeded to hide in every location for HOURS until the vandals showed up and they all rushed them shouting (with utterly no intention, as agreed and discussed) of actually laying hands on them (I think it would have been a surprise to me if anyone had actually suggested physically manhandling anyone). The police could do nothing (bless them), but that surging group of adults who would have just as soon hugged the kids, was so funny. They never came back, and there were NO more slashings anywhere that we ever heard about. The group laughed, afterwards, while having coffee, and then commiserated about the youths and their behavior, hoping they would grow from it. That was the most violence, in heart and words, I had ever seen from them.

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  10. They help their neighbors, actively. Most people would probably never even know they were a Sufi unless they went into their apartment or house. I watched my grandmother turn away people who were after power, or were looking for a place to retreat from life, or sought her as their personal guru. They were turned away. A lot of people were very sour that this organization turned away people. I asked once if, should I want to be a Sufi, could I be? I was told, “If it is the right thing for you and you are ready for it, but I can't promise.” It was like an anti-cult.

    I don't, truthfully, know it's place now, or what changes have occurred, but I'm betting they're not that different and don't deserve any of the garbage being thrown at them.

    It was wonderful to see neighbors speak up, and the charge that they might have members post to sway things is silly in my experience. They always told me to not respond to negative things about Sufism or the organization, and not to judge others. Integrity and honesty were primary to their beliefs, and affected me deeply.

    I'm not a Sufi, so frankly, I'll speak up, once, in fifty years:

    They are a wonderful group of people who believe something I don't, despite being one of the two grandsons of the leader that led them there (Ivy Duce) (not the older grandson, in case someone I know is reading this).

    Love you guys, even though it's been many years. Thank you for raising me with love and balance, and a respect for all peoples.

    Hope one day to get out and see you all, but it's hard to do at present. Be joyful.

    And I wish the same for those who want to stop the project. I hope they find some balance in this argument and that they speak up against the nonsense being spoken in their group. It discredits their arguments unjustly, and they need to police their own so that people can calmly listen to their concerns. We should all, respectfully, speak up for what we think is ethical.

    They taught me that much.

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