YELM - Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, after nearly 20 years of existence, has begun to give the public a glimpse of what goes on behind the high fences and massive gates of what some have called "the mystery school."
During the past year, the school's founder, JZ Knight, hosted an open house for local business leaders, spoke at a public event at The Evergreen State College, and led an event at the Yelm Timberland Library.
And she recently invited members of the City Council, the Nisqually Tribe and The Olympian to attend a three-day event at the 80-acre school to get a flavor of its activities.
Nearly a third of the school's 3,000 students live in South Sound.
Most of the students are Baby Boomers who feel a strong connection with Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit that Knight claims to channel.
The school has drawn its share of celebrities, too, including Linda Evans and Salma Hayek, who were in South Sound recently for one of its events.
Many students say they've learned how to improve their lives at the school, which teaches a mix of philosophy, science, history, psychology, self-help and paranormal activities, among other things.
"This school, these teachings and this truth has saved my life many, many times," said Stephany Ray, 56, of Yelm. "The school has taught me to love myself, has taught me and helped me to find the God within me. ... I always knew there was more to life, but I didn't know what or how."
Ray was living in Philadelphia and was a vice-president and certified financial planner for Prudential Bache Securities when she first attended a New York "Ramtha Dialogue" in 1984.
She spent a few years traveling around the country to attend other Ramtha events before moving to Yelm in 1988.
Ray said she doesn't see a woman when Knight channels Ramtha. She sees an entirely different "energy."
"It's a male energy, it's a loving energy, it's a powerful energy, and it's a truthful energy," Ray said.
In its early years, the school was considered extremely controversial in the community. A local church group picketed along the property, and Knight was called the "daughter of Satan."
"I think 20 years ago, it was looked at with a lot of skepticism due to the nature of the teachings," said Yelm City Councilmember Bob Isom. "At that time, it certainly wasn't the norm. It was a new and emerging philosophy, for a lack of better words."
During the late 1980s, Knight was shot at while working in her yard. The bullet missed her, and struck the lawn trimmer that she was holding.
Today, many in South Sound still don't approve of what the school teaches.
For example, Ramtha's teaching that people are God goes against traditional Christian beliefs, said pastor Dave Minton of Capital Christian Center in Olympia.
"There is an authority that we have as human beings, but to be equal with, or to have the position of God would be a false teaching," he said.
The channeling of Ramtha also goes against Christianity, Minton said.
"My take on it? The channeling she does would be of an unclean spirit or an evil spirit," he said.
Knight's invitation to her three-day "Fabulous Wealth Retreat" didn't go over well with Isom. "I guess my main concern is that they've been there for over 20 years. ... Why now?" he asked.
Isom said he felt the invitation was an "olive branch" from the school for past clashes that many of its students have had with City Council members over residential and retail growth in the area.
"If there are issues they wish to discuss that affect the residents of the city of Yelm, the appropriate place to discuss them is at a city meeting," Isom said.
Former airline executive Steve Klein, who has studied at the school since its inception and works as Knight's logistics and travel coordinator, said there wasn't an ulterior motive.
"This has been real consistent with what her practices have been," he said. "She's been attempting, in my view, to open up in a way - that this mystery behind the walls is no mystery. It's a teaching into the sciences and neurobiology that is unique in the world, and it's here in Yelm."
All of this comes at a time when Knight has started teaching many of the school's events herself - in years past, most of her classes were led by Ramtha.
"It's only been in the last year that she's shared her experiences," Klein said.
And there are several other changes at the school, which is redesigning its Web site and has reformatted events for beginning students so that more people can take classes.
"There's change on the horizon," Knight said during a presentation earlier this month. "And that's really encouraging."
Knight is preparing to open a new boutique in Bellevue. And she temporarily laid off many of the school's 50 or so employees and closed the school's business office until September.
"For the first time, we get a summer," Knight said.
For some residents, the changes at the school have gone unnoticed. And the school still seems a bit mysterious.
Barbara Lowe has lived in Yelm for almost a decade.
She read one of the school's books, but said she doesn't know much about Ramtha or the school's teachings.
"What people think they know about the school may be more rumor," said Lowe, 57, whose husband is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Yelm. "They seem to want to stay under the radar."
Lowe said the word "Ramtha" usually comes up when people learn that she's from Yelm.
The school definitely has had an effect on the community. For instance, the local library carries a wide selection of New Age and books from Ramtha's school, and there are several businesses in the area that are run by students.
But Lowe doesn't think the school's presence is as controversial as it was a decade ago.
"I don't think the Christian community appreciates their presence because they do stand for things that are contrary to our beliefs," she said. "But as far as any controversies - the school is so low profile. There are very few people who stand up and say publicly, 'I'm a part of this.'"
JUDITH DARLENE HAMPTON BECOMES JZ KNIGHT - A TIMELINE
• 1946: On March 16, Judith Darlene Hampton, who would become known as JZ Knight, is born in Roswell, N.M., to parents who are migrant farm workers.
• 1965-1976: Knight marries; has two children, Brandy and Christopher; divorces; begins a career in cable television. She gains the nickname "Zebra" because of her ability to make black-and-white decisions. She later abbreviates the moniker to JZ. After landing cable contracts in the Puget Sound area, Knight remarries and moves to Tacoma.
• 1977: In February, in her Tacoma kitchen, Knight has her first encounter with a being she later says is Ramtha.
• 1978: In November, Knight claims to channel Ramtha for the first time.
• 1979: Knight purchases an 80-acre site in the Yelm area, and opens an Arabian horse ranch.
• 1979-1988: Knight begins "Ramtha Dialogues," ranging from evening talks to one-week retreats. These sessions are held in 24 cities, including Seattle, Honolulu, New York and Denver.
• 1988: Knight establishes Ramtha's School of Enlightenment: The American Gnostic School. The school is started in Snow Mountain, Colo. in May with 532 students. Subsequent classes and workshops are held at Knight's ranch.
• 1996-1997: A team of researchers studies Knight, Ramtha and the RSE students. Knight repeatedly is given physiological, psychological and behavioral tests. According to ramtha.com, one of the results shows that Knight and the students display a marked growth in their spiritual and mental abilities.
• 1999: RSE launches a 5-year World Tour, with events in Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and Scotland.
Source: Ramtha's School of Enlightenment
Lisa Pemberton writes for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-704-6871 or firstname.lastname@example.org.