Miami's startled elite wish the guru, in short, a pleasant stay
By Barry Bearak
MIAMI - Some residents of quiet, regal Rivo Alto Island off Miami Beach thought their neighborhood was headed for a nightmare.
First came the kids - seemingly dozens of them - hammering and sawing on a $500,000 waterfront house with little let-up for three days. Cars, few looking as if they belonged in the elegant neighborhood, lined the street.
THEN CAME the real scare. The refurbishing, they were told, was for the comforts of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 19-year-old spiritual leader of the Divine Light Mission. And the Rivo Alto folks feared their block was about to become a temple for an exotic religious cult, a lure to the curious.
"They turned our neighborhood upside down," one resident grumbled. "We were expecting masses of weirdos to descend on us," remarked another.
But by Wednesday morning the panic had wilted. The house, painted white as cottage cheese, was restored and shining. The guru had arrived, guards were at the gate, peace soaked the air. And, best news to the neighbors, a real estate agent assured them that the place was rented for only 10 days.
"The house was too dirty; it had to be cleaned and repaired," said Joe Anctil, the guru's press secretary. "If Jesus was here, think what people would do for him."
Maharaj Ji, who claims to have four million followers worldwide, has summoned devotees to Miami Beach for a holy festival. Already, hotel lobbies are crowded with bliss-blitzed "premies" (lovers of God). About 12,000 are expected to give "satsang" (share their truth) Friday through Sunday in closed sessions at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
ACCORDING TO Anctil and Mission President Bill Patterson, they represent a church rather than a religion. Maharaj Ji, they say, has the power to awake an awareness of God in people, a light within, the path to peace through meditation.
The guru, his wife, two children, brother, sister-in-law and small staff are lodged in the palm-tree sheltered house.
Anctil says the house normally rents for $10,000 for 10 days. The guru got it, however, for $3,500 after mission members promised to make renovations.
Realtor Paul Wimbish won't confirm or deny the price. But he admits that the five-bedroom house does rent at an "exorbitant" cost on the short-term market. The house, he says, once belonged to the Farkas family that owns Alexander's Department Stores in New York and Jake Arvey, a long-time power in Chicago's Democratic party. "He's been renting it to rock 'n' roll stars," Anctil says. "The carpet was stained with wine, liquor, you name it. The living room was a party room. Its rug - an off-white - was almost black. We shampooed it and shampooed it and the stains wouldn't come out."
SO PREMIES put in a new carpet, Anctil says. And they painted some rooms, hung wallpaper, put a shade over the pool, fixed the water pressure, cleaned the drapes, washed everything, trimmed the lawn and shrubs, and brought in a bigger bed for Maharaj Ji. The cost: about $2,000.
"Those kids were industrious, and obviously fine craftsmen," said a neighbor. "And they were exceedingly kind and gentle."
Still, it was a relief to see them leave and Maharaj Ji arrive. The guru, who was born in India but now lives primarily in Denver, demands his privacy. He rarely talks to the press, seldom goes out, sees only his closest followers.
It's peaceful again on Rivo Alto.