MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - It is the single most valuable piece of undeveloped waterfront property left along the Myrtle Beach Oceanfront, and it's the family that developed most of the oceanfront that has made sure it will never be developed.
You've probably driven past the Meher Baba Spiritual Center a thousand times and wondered what really goes on behind its gates. WMBF News is the first to get a new crew on the property in more than 30 years.
It is one of the most densely-developed oceanfront strips in the nation. From border to border, Myrtle Beach's Grand Strand is a Grand Canyon of high rise hotels, timeshares and parking garages, with the obvious exception of a stretch of coastal forest that seems to come out of nowhere directly across from the Myrtle Beach Mall: 500 acres of prime real estate, woods, fresh water lakes, high plateaus, massive dunes and oak hammock.
Since the mid-1940's, this has been one of the most "un-Myrtle Beach" locations in Myrtle Beach - the Meher Baba Spiritual Center, dedicated to the spiritual leader, Meher Baba. The native of India traveled the world spreading his message of peace - not a new religion, but a guide for life away from materialism, jealousy, anger and worry.
It's been more than 30 years since a news crew took a peek inside the Meher Baba Spiritual Center. It's not that those who run it have something to hide. In fact, our invitation came with no rules, and no limits on what questions we could ask or where we could go. But the privacy and the silence of this facility may convince some that something sinister is going on beyond the gates. What we found, might surprise you.
Buzz Conner has been a follower and volunteer at the center for decades.
"There's no kind of hidden thing going on here," Conner explains. "There isn't anything to join. It's not a religion. There's no initiation. There's no money to pay, no prayers you have to say. There's no hierarchy of disciples you have to follow. There isn't any kind of benchmark of anything you accomplish to say aha, I've made it, I follow Meher Baba. There's none of that, and there never has been."
The question has to be asked, why the secrecy? Why the low-key existence?
When Elizabeth Chapin (yes, the daughter of the most famous developer) befriended Meher Baba, he was looking for a home in the west. In 1943, the Chapin family donated these 500 acres for the Spiritual Center. The land may have been worth a few thousand dollars at the time. But the spiritual leader warned that decades later, the land would be priceless, a void in an otherwise over-developed landscape. Many might resent the Center having such a rare and beautiful piece of land.
"Their advice to us was to keep it quiet around. Because it was very conservative, it was religiously conservative down south here," says Conner.
Today, our culture has changed. A Spiritual Center is hardly the strangest thing we might come across during single day. However, the message here has not changed.
"Our job, those of us who live here and work here at the center, is to help preserve this place as it was when he was here, so that people can come and enjoy it," Conner adds.
And, every day the individual cabins are filled with both followers and those curious, for overnight stays.
"I think it's so important to have a quiet restful space," says Mimi Hay. She was looking for a way to gain spirituality and wasn't finding it until she found the Spiritual Center. "We're right here on a natural lake right next to the ocean. It's the only place on the east coast that has this kind of natural landscape, and people can drop the business of the world and go within."
Mimi Hay has been "going within" here at the Center for more than 20 years. And while she says God is a big part of why people come here, religion is not.
"I could join Buddhism, Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. into beads on one string, as Baba would say. It's really about your love relationship with God," she explains. "And then the ethics of how you deal with the world, with people around you. Trying to find a harmony with all of that."
Weekly musical programs, readings, hikes - they all help to build that harmony. And it's all open to the public, to anyone who wants to be part of it.
While the welcome mat is certainly out for anyone and everyone, whether you're staying the night or just wanting to hike the trails here for the day, it does come with conditions. After all, this is considered sacred ground, and the staff and volunteers here at the Spiritual Center want you to know that comes with responsibility.
The Spiritual Center wants you to respect what they have worked so hard to maintain over the last 65 years. And yes, they want to leave with a better understanding of who Meher Baba was. There are rules.
"When you're here you can't talk about politics, you can't backbite," says Conner. "You can't talk badly about other people, no use of drugs - no telling drug war stories or drugs or alcohol on the center."
Meher Baba himself only visited the Center three times, but those visits are what made the place so personal for him, and so special for his followers.
Charles Haynes met Meher Baba twice as a child. That's all it took for him. He has been returning ever since. His visits are a way of renewing his faith with a break from his home and church in Washington D.C.
"People drive by, they should stop and see if they have the question, because the wonderful thing is that it is a place for anyone to come and enjoy the atmosphere," says Haynes. "And take away from it whatever is meant for them. People come from great distances just to spend a few days here. Not because it's a beautiful place. It is. Or not because of it being on the ocean, but because he was here."
If you stay here, chances are you'll meet people from all walks of life, all faiths and some who consider Meher Baba their only faith.
Aenon Kumar is one of them. She found Meher Baba in 2007 the same way others discovered him in the 60's and 70's.
The Who's Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend were devoted followers. The Grammy-winning rock opera Tommy was dedicated to Meher Baba, and is even considered their interpretation of his work.
"I had wanted spirituality in my life that I really hadn't gotten and wasn't finding anywhere else," Kumar said. "And I thought it really fit how I was feeling about the world and myself and a void that was in me."
The Who not your cup of tea? This spiritual leader continued to influence Pop culture decades later when Bobby McFerrin discovered one of his writings and turned it in a Grammy winning hit called, 'Don't Worry, Be Happy'.
"I think people do have kind of a fear because they don't understand, so they kinda fill it in with, ya it's kind of a cult, it's something different," Kumar added.
That 1988 record of the year puts this place in perspective. Those here will tell you there are some things they will never allow inside these gates: the towers, traffic and tension of life outside the gates.
Meher Baba told the founders of the Spiritual Center to keep it as it was for the next 700 years when he returns. The Board has done all it can to ensure that. It is protected as a 501-C3 non-profit. The entire property is protected as part of the Coast Barrier Resource System, and it is a certified State Wildlife Preserve.