The Cheesecake Factory has bankrolled a huge temple in an unincorporated California town

Saranap is an unincorporated, loosely governed town in Contra Costa County in Northern California; it is home to a 66,000 square foot temple built by a religion called Sufism Reoriented, which has little to do with traditional Sufiism, being dedicated to the idea that an Indian man called Meher Baba was the reincarnation of Buddha and Christ and God on earth and that he will return in 700 years.

The story of the Sufism Reoriented temple in Saranap is long and weird. First, there's the fact that it was largely bankrolled by the founder of the Cheesecake Factory, who is a "Baba Lover" (as Sufism Reoriented's adherents style themselves). Then there's the fact that the zoning for the extraordinary building — designed by the starchitect responsible for New York's Trump Tower, to last 700 years and survive any and all quakes, up to and including "the big one" — was only possible because Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000, to make sure that religions couldn't be stopped from building megachurches.

Then there's the opposition, which is motivated by a blend of uninformed Islamophobia (calling your groovy 60s religion after a mystical flavor of Islam might have played well in 1968, less so in the current moment), alarm about the changing nature of their community, and some aesthetic and political concerns.

The building is almost entirely underground and houses holy relics of the faith. Its protruding portions are Star Warsian white bubbles, like Hobbit houses for Tron fans, and all the interior decor seems to be made of transparent plastic, so woe betide those who dread a stubbed toe.

It was true. While part of the sanctuary's budget was sourced from the 500-plus congregation's personal finances, it would turn out that much of the money was coming from one member in particular: David Overton, the founder and CEO of the family-dining chain. Overton had founded the Cheesecake Factory, now renowned worldwide for its abundant comfort-food menu and its rich glass-cased confections, in 1978. In the decades to come the Cheesecake Factory would blossom to nearly 200 locations worldwide, from L.A. to Hong Kong to Beirut.

Nearly a decade before its launch, Overton had become a proud Saranap Sufi. Older versions of the menu cover incorporated a piece of traditional Sufi iconography, a winged heart. At the Cheesecake Factory location nearest Saranap, a ceiling mural features that same winged heart along with the Star of David, the Hindu Om, and other religious icons, presumably a recognition of Sufism Reoriented's respect of all world faiths.

According to Pascal Kaplan, a longtime member of Sufism Reoriented, the group "recognizes the underlying universal truth in all religions brought by the one God who repeatedly comes in human form as the World Teacher." As for the sanctuary budget, according to Kaplan, Overton generously told the order, "whatever you can't raise, I'll help fund."

Sacred Architecture [Amos Barshad/The Fader]

(Photo: Aaron Wojack)

(via Super Punch)