Meher Spiritual Center celebrates 75th anniversary this year
A handful of people gather silently and meditate around what was once Meher Baba’s bed.
One person sits with eyes closed in a chair, another looks at Baba’s portrait above the bed, one woman is on the floor in a prostrate position.
The home looks exactly the way it did when Baba stayed there while in the country more than 50 years ago — a salmon-colored duvet drapes across the bed, the kitchen just like one out of a 1950’s movie with an old-timey refrigerator, the bathroom still has decades-old toiletry boxes and bottles.
Some consider it the most sacred place at the Meher Spiritual Center, which is sandwiched between North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach, said Buz Connor, the center’s executive director.
“It’s meant to be a place where people can rejuvenate,” Connor said of the center.
The organization — a nonprofit on 500 acres of undeveloped land — celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
With about 15,000 visitors a year, 25 employees maintain the property. The original Kings Highway once ran through the quiet space, but was moved in 1931 to where it is today. There are no concrete sidewalks — instead there are trails that wind through the virgin forest. Rustic cabins without air conditioning or televisions are positioned throughout the property. There’s a library, reconstructed barn, community kitchens, public restrooms and, of course, Baba’s home.
It’s a glimpse of what the Myrtle Beach area once looked like a century ago — before any Walmart, condos and pancake houses existed.
Standing in the middle of the property, you can hardly hear the traffic on U.S. Highway 17. It’s quiet, even in Baba’s home when it’s filled with a dozen people.
But just outside of the property is a different, developed world. The Myrtle Beach Mall sits across from the center’s entrance. Walmart is located south of the property, and the Briarcliffe Acres neighborhood is just north.
An aerial look of the spot looks like a forest patch in the middle of developed land.
Who is Baba and what are some misconceptions?
Baba, who died in 1969, was known to his followers as God in human form or the avatar. When his followers refer to God, Connor, the center’s executive director, said that includes the Judeo-Christian God. Baba’s followers are monotheistic, he said. (Editor’s note: The Associated Press instructs journalists to use God with a capital “G” when referencing “the deity of all monotheistic religions.” God with a lowercase “G” is used to reference “the deities of polytheistic religions.”)
Baba, who believed he was the reincarnated version of God, told his followers he was born to help a suffering humanity, Connor said.
“People regard him as their spiritual master,” Connor said. “He’s someone who helps people on their own inner journey to God. The atmosphere around him was very loving and kind.”
Ron Green, associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Coastal Carolina University, said Baba’s followers believe he is the “God-Man” for our age. Instead of describing followers as people who “worship” Baba, it’s more accurate to say he is someone people love, Green said.
“Meher Baba followers love God and they see God as manifested through Meher Baba,” Green said. “His teachings and the example he provided obviously enriched the lives of many people and continues to do so. Meher Baba followers only want to love God completely and welcome others to experience the joy they find in doing so.”
Baba took a vow of silence in 1925 and remained silent until he died at 74 years old in 1969. He communicated using an alphabet board, and later with hand signals he created.
Because the center is tucked away and there’s no formal marketing, there are misconceptions about the center and those who follow Baba.
Connor said people think the center is a nudist colony or a cult, but those are myths.
“We welcome anyone to come here,” Connor said. “There’s nothing about us that is secretive. It’s kind of an open secret — this love for God.”
Following Baba, Connor said, is not a religious experience.
“People are free to believe what they want to believe,” he said. Many of Baba’s followers in the country have called themselves Christian or Jewish, he said. But Baba was “much more akin” to Buddhism and Hinduism, Connor said.
Baba made an influence in the world of pop culture during the hippie era. In a time where drugs were prevalent, Baba was against using them and drinking alcohol. He urged his followers to stay away from those behaviors, Connor said.
He was also on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 and Pete Townshend, a band member of The Who and Baba follower, wrote a story headlined, “In Love with Meher Baba.” The story details how Townshend first learned about Baba and his journey following him, though they never met, Townshend wrote.
“It was a big deal back then,” Connor said of the magazine cover.
How the center was created
Before the center was created, the Woodside family of Greenville, South Carolina, tried to develop a resort called Arcady in the 1920s, but the project failed. The plan spread across thousands of acres of what is now the City of Myrtle Beach, which just celebrated its 81st birthday.
“The genesis of the center came from the failed Arcady project,” said Horry County Registrar of Deeds Marion Foxworth. “That 500 acres and the 750 acres that became the Dunes Club were basically horse trails for that resort.”
Born in India, Baba considered the center his home in the west. He asked Elizabeth Chapin Patterson, the daughter of Simeon Chapin, and Norini Matchabelli, a princess, actress and co-founder of perfume company Prince Matchabelli, to help find a center under five guidelines.
Patterson and Matchabelli, who both followed Baba around the world and were considered his disciples, were to find a place with an equable climate, more than ample water, virgin soil, land that could be tilled and acreage that was given from the heart.
The women unsuccessfully searched for three years before Patterson identified land her father owned through a partnership in Myrtle Beach Farms Company. At first, her father declined, but then he spoke with the partners and they clipped off part of their tract of land to give for the center, Connor said.
The Meher Spiritual Center was set up as a nonprofit or 501(c)(3), and according to the International Revenue Code, a nonprofit may be tax exempt. Those considered to be tax exempt include charitable, religious and educational organizations.
Work began at the center in 1944 with the building of the structures that still stand today. Baba wanted the place to be somewhere for people to meditate, rest and renew their spiritual life. It’s a place of pilgrimage for some people, Connor said.
The center will have a celebration for its 75th anniversary May 18.