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."