HOMER — Brother Asaiah Bates' weekly letters to the Homer News would begin, "Dear Editor and Beautiful Citizens in this Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea…" They touched many subjects, but always with the general theme of love and compassion and the firm belief that our town was special in the universe.
Brother Asaiah's education ended in third grade, but the paper's publisher, Tom Gibboney, arranged for the typesetter to be ready for his weekly call. She keyed his dictated thoughts directly into print.
Readers loved the letters. They were joyous, thoughtful, and flowery to the point of beyond incomprehensible. Repeated passages became catchphrases, including "cosmic hamlet by the sea," which many adopted as Homer's nickname.
Brother Asaiah died in 2000. He was a dear old man whose generosity made others generous. He also lived one of the strangest lives of any Alaska pioneer I ever had the opportunity to know.
On Saturday, Homer finally unveiled a bronze statue of him in the Cosmic Kitchen restaurant.
[How a barefoot sawmill owner avoided making too much money]
The statue had been sitting in an artists' studio after being rejected as a gift by the City of Homer in 2014. Unintentionally, a man dedicated to kindness and reconciliation became a source of bitterest controversy.
Asaiah was born Claude D. Bates in South Carolina in 1921. He became homeless at age 6 and lived in an orphanage as a teen until joining the Army two years before Pearl Harbor. He saw brutal combat across the Pacific and returned from war with a series of medals, but deeply broken psychologically.
[From 2000: Homer's Brother Asaiah passes into the cosmos]
He was in Denver, getting in fights in bars, when he had an awakening at a lecture about the Ten Commandments given by a guru named Krishna Venta.
"Krishna Venta found me when I was going insane from what I had done in the Army, what I had been in the Army and as a child," he told me, in 1992. "He told me some things about my life as only someone with the power of telepathy would know."
Venta renamed him Brother Asaiah and indoctrinated him into the Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love Fountain of the World, known as WKFL for short.
Venta started WKFL in the late 1940s claiming God had created him directly without being born. He spun out a series of lectures, transcribed and mimeographed by his followers, comprising a complete religion, with sacred dates and prohibitions, and teachings complex enough to require intense study.
Brother Asaiah served as Venta's aide as he lectured across the country.
WKFL members lived communally. They were famous for responding to natural disasters and other emergencies, especially wildfires. They always went barefoot and wore cotton robes.
In 1956, Venta dispatched Asaiah with 40 followers from his California base to Homer to homestead a second communal center called a "Fountain."
They became known as the Barefooters for going shoeless year-round, although an elderly former member confided to me that they were barefoot only in public in the winter months and also wore boots while firefighting.
A few years later, Venta was assassinated by a pair of suicide bombers who had been kicked out of the cult. By 1965, WKFL had fallen apart.
Asaiah and a few others stayed in Homer and became solid citizens. But only he continued to follow Krisha Venta's teachings, including keeping a long ponytail that turned gray, as he had been taught never to cut his hair until the world was at peace.
In a bygone time when Alaska easily accepted odd people, Asaiah thrived. He became a town ambassador, attending every church, greeting newcomers and calming disagreements.
Homer pioneer Hazel Heath said the town council appointed him as a member in the late 1960s because the old guard liked him and he could also communicate with a new flood of young hippies. He taught them enlightenment away from "the chemical path."
On its 25th anniversary, in 1989, Homer designated him one of its 10 greatest citizens.
[How an old boat is teaching me to put down the burden of the past]
Asaiah ended up owning valuable property from WKFL, but lived in a one-room shack and earned his money as a janitor. He constantly gave money to promote community activities — such as prizes for the Winter Carnival Parade — and donated a prime piece of land in the center of Homer to be a peace park.
That created conflict. During the first Gulf War a veterans group proposed a memorial in the park. As a pacifist, Asaiah opposed it. Although he offered $5,000 cash for a memorial somewhere else, veterans erupted and some attacked him personally.
The issue never really died.
In 2014, John Nazarian, a former WKFL member from California, offered to commission a bust of Asaiah for the park. It was rejected.
Opponents of the gift testified to the Homer Public Arts Committee that Brother Asaiah, now long dead, wouldn't have wanted the honor. That was a dubious point, in my view, as he loved publicity. Homer sculptor Leo Vait even had a photograph of him posing for an early version of the sculpture.
Then a lifelong Homer resident wrote in the paper saying he was sexually molested as a teen by an unnamed former Barefooter, although he made no implication against Asaiah himself.
Vait said the issue became toxic after that.
"That really did it. No one wanted to touch it anymore," Vait said.
But Nazarian went ahead and paid $18,000 for Vait to complete the statue and cast it in bronze.
It sat in Vait's studio until this year, when Asaiah's friend and biographer, Martha Ellen Anderson, stopped into the Cosmic Kitchen. Over a meal she swapped Asaiah stories with his close friend Will Files and the restaurant's owners, Sean Hogan and Michelle Wilson.
The idea hatched to put the statue on the restaurant's deck. Hogan said they started Cosmic Kitchen with him in mind. (The food there is terrific, by the way.)
Saturday, a few friends gathered for the unveiling.
"I think it's really nice to have it here and be reminded how Brother Asaiah could resolve conflict," Hogan said. "We really need someone like that today."
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