1929: Norman Paulsen was born.
1947: Paulsen joined Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).
1951: Paulsen left SRF.
1969: Paulsen founded the Brotherhood of the Sun in Santa Barbara, California.
1970: Paulsen bought farmland, calling it Sunburst Farm.
1971: The Brotherhood of the Sun incorporated as Sunburst Communities and founded Sunburst Natural Foods.
1975: The Brotherhood of the Sun gained national media attention for its organic food operations; local newspapers reported on Sunburst’s stockpiled firearms and military drills.
1978: Sunburst opened a supermarket; Paulsen was arrested amidst myriad allegations.
1980: Paulsen published his autobiography, Sunburst.
1981: Most members had left the group after a series of crises; Paulsen and remaining members moved to Nevada.
1983: The group moved to Utah, where they were called The Builders.
1987: Sunburst opened its first New Frontiers natural food store in Utah.
1991: Paulsen relocated the group’s headquarters to California, renaming the group Solar Logos.
2006: Paulsen died, and his wife Patty became spiritual director; the group reincorporated as Sunburst Church of Self Realization.
2014: Sunburst sold all remaining New Frontiers stores except one in Solvang, California.
Sunburst was formed in 1969 in Santa Barbara, California, by Norman Paulsen (1929-2006). Over the years, the group has called itself several names: The Brotherhood of the Sun, The Builders, Solar Logos Foundation, and Sunburst. In 2006, it incorporated as Sunburst Church of Self Realization.
Norman Paulsen was born in 1929 in California. His father, Charles Paulsen (d.1970), was a judge and Buddhist minister (known as the “Blind Buddha”) in Lompoc and San Luis Obispo. As a child, Norman had visions of illumined beings who visited to give him guidance or teach him skills (Paulsen 1980). Years later, he would claim these figures were Paramahansa Yogananda, Melchizedek, and Jesus Christ (Paulsen 1980). At sixteen, Paulsen became a merchant marine, traveled to Asia and the Middle East, and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, receiving an honorable discharge after his mother’s death in 1947.
After reading Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), Paulsen entered Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles in 1947 to study at SRF’s Mount Washington monastery and be initiated as a monk. [Image at right] There, he studied Kriya Yoga, a meditation technique for obtaining self-realization and cosmic unity through directing mental energy along the spinal chakras. He also read widely about various religions. At SRF, he learned gardening, carpentry, and construction, and in 1951 helped build one of the first vegetarian restaurants in California, SRF’s India House Café.
Paulsen’s fellow students at SRF included his friends Bernard Cole (c.1922-c.1980), who as Yogacharya Bernard became an independent spiritual teacher; Daniel Boone (1930-2015), who helped build the Integratron, a large rejuvenation chamber and “time machine” in California’s Yucca Valley; Roy Eugene Davis (b. 1931), who would found New Life Worldwide and later lead the Center for Spiritual Awareness; and J. Donald Walters (1926-2013), better known as Swami Kriyananda, the founder of the Ananda Cooperative Communities (Kriyananda 2011; Paulsen 1980; Walters 1977).
While at SRF, Paulsen had a dream where he saw young people living on the land near Santa Barbara, a vision that presaged Sunburst (Hansen-Gates 1976; Paulsen 1980). He later wrote in his autobiography, Sunburst: Return of the Ancients (1980), that this dream would fulfill “Yogananda’s vision of self-sustaining world brotherhood colonies where men, women, and children could live harmoniously together practicing plain living and high thinking” and thus achieve union with the divine (Paulson 1980:485). For Yogananda, world brotherhood colonies could cure society of the root causes of depression, namely selfishness and consumerism (Yogananda 1939; Yogananda 1959). They involved a vow of simplicity, fellowship, joint ownership of property, living communally, perennialism, and spiritual exploration.
In 1951, Paulsen was pronounced a “minister” of the SRF, but he left the group later that year after a disagreement with Yogananda over maintaining chastity and the departure of his close friend Daniel Boone (Paulsen 1980). Paulsen spent the ensuing years working as a tradesman, particularly in construction and masonry, and researching spiritual movements. Soon after returning to Santa Barbara he had a direct encounter with what he variously called I AM THAT I AM, Christ, the Divine Solar Logos, or the Divine Mother and Father (Paulsen 1980). He saw a vision of a Golden Age of human beings living in cosmic consciousness, in which all are rightly recognized as sons and daughters of God.
In 1952, inspired by the publication of I Rode a Flying Saucer (1952), Paulsen met its author, famed UFO contactee George W. Van Tassel, and joined Van Tassel’s UFO study group at Giant Rock, California. Paulsen married and later divorced (1954-1957) Van Tassel’s daughter Glenda, had a son, and became an expert mason and novice electrician. Paulsen would have at least five wives during his life. Paulsen wrote that after one public recounting of Van Tassel’s alien contact experience, Paulsen and his friend Daniel Boone picked up an alien hitchhiker named Waldo who had arrived on earth in a spacecraft (Paulsen 1980). Paulsen also said he had his first encounter with an alien spaceship in 1953.
Throughout the 1950s, he continued to have visions, especially of visiting beings of light, whom he would later interpret as Christ and Melchizedek as well as enlightened beings he understood to be Lemurian space travelers or cosmic angels that he called the Ancients or, alternately, The Builders (Cusack 2021; Grünschloß 1998; Paulsen 1980; Trompf 1990). The beings told Paulsen that 500,000 years ago they came to earth to establish an ideal civilization, the lost continent of Mu, but that eventually war with an invading intergalactic malignant force caused them to leave. One day, they told him, the Ancients would return and Paulsen’s job was to help prepare the way for their return. Upon their return, an apocalyptic battle would take place between the “Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness” (Paulsen 1980:285).
The early 1960s was a period of injury, illness, and poverty for Paulsen, including a medication overdose, his being involuntarily committed to a state mental institution, and having a near-death experience. But in 1964, after leaving the psychiatric hospital, The Builders instructed him to gather a community ready for them as a base station (Paulsen 1980). Much later, Paulsen would write that he was an ancient ruler of Mu who flew a spaceship on the side of Christ and that he would head the return of the Ancients when they arrive to establish “God’s Empire of the Sun” (Paulsen 1980; Trompf 2012).
By the late 1960s, living in Santa Barbara, Paulsen taught meditation classes and led spirituality discussion groups for disaffected youths seeking mystical experiences and clean living. In 1969, Paulsen and his followers formed the Brotherhood of the Sun, the name reflecting both their vision of the Spiritual Sun (the white light of the Creator, communion with which was the highest goal of the Brotherhood’s members) as well as a homophone of Jesus as the Son of God. As the group grew, they began meeting in an old ice cream factory. They supported themselves through construction jobs, housecleaning, and babysitting. However, members instead wanted to live communally on a farm, grow organic foods, and sell natural foods to the public as their means of support (Paulsen 1980).
In 1970, Paulsen bought a 160-acre farm near Santa Barbara with proceeds from a workers’ compensation claim and donations from his followers. He called it Sunburst Farm. [Image at right] For Paulsen, the farm was a spiritual center and he described having visitations from intergalactic ancestral beings, The Builders or Ancient Ones, who blessed his project (Paulsen 1980). The next year, Sunburst bought a 220-acre farm that he called Lemuria Ranch.
In 1971, the Brotherhood of the Sun incorporated as a religious nonprofit, called Sunburst Communities, Inc., and created Sunburst Natural Foods as its member-run for-profit corporation to manage their health foods businesses. That same year they opened Sunburst Community Store to sell their organic produce, and soon formed a trucking company, also called Sunburst Natural Foods, to distribute organic food and natural dry goods to other stores and restaurants. The company became “one of the largest distributors of naturally grown foods in the United States,” trucking their own foods and those grown by other organic farms to health food stores and restaurants across America (Paulsen 1980; see also Chandler 1974; Corwin 1989; T. Miller 1999).
Throughout the early 1970s, Sunburst opened two local restaurants, a whole-grain bakery, a dairy, and a fruit juice-bottling company, among other enterprises, and bought a 2,000-acre farm. Paulsen hired lawyers, accountants, and investment staff to maximize profits in their commercial arm, the Brotherhood of Man, so that they could reinvest them in the community and in their farm properties. Sunburst marketed their products as healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and more spiritually nourishing than industrially processed or chemically-grown non-organic foods. Sunburst Organic Apple Juice sold well nationally. Commune members largely worked without pay, yet they received nutritious food, simple clothing, medical care, shared land, and housing. [Image at right] As its organic foods businesses grew, it helped create standards for the emerging organics industry (Hoesly 2019; S. Leslie 1979). Sunburst was an important part of 1970s back-to-the-land communes and the development of natural foods stores (Dobrow 2014; Edgington 2008; Hoesly 2019).
Sunburst’s operations diversified and expanded in the late 1970s as it became America’s leading grower and retailer of organic foods, what one journalist called a “Natural Foods Empire” (Meade 1981). [Image at right] The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune reported on the success of the movement, which totaled over 340 members and earned over $3,000,000 in profits in 1975 (Chandler 1974; Nordheimer 1975; Zyda 1976). In 1976, Sunburst bought a 3,000-acre farm called Tajiguas Ranch, and a member, Susan Duquette, published the Sunburst Farm Family Cookbook (1976), which sold well in two editions and promoted the group and its spiritual intentions. Paulsen bought four large sailboats (the group owned only one at any given time) to catch fish for their Sunburst Pierce Fisheries business and for pleasure cruises. Sunburst also experimented with non-polluting energy sources, such as a homopolar free-energy generator (Schiff 1981; Zachary 1981a).
In 1978, Sunburst opened a large alternative supermarket, selling its own organic foods, organic produce from other farms, and other products. The store pioneered selling bulk items in clear, airtight food bins. Sunburst also distributed produce from other organic farmers throughout California and the Southwest, including shipping to Chicago, New York, Canada, and other major markets by truck and air freight. By 1980, Sunburst earned $16,000,000 through twelve wholesale and retail outlets in five cities (Meade 1981).
By 1978, a number of factors began to drive people from Sunburst (Beresford 2007; Black 1977; Cass 1975; Chandler 1981a; Corwin 1989; Every 1982; Hurst 1975a; Hurst 1975b; Ibáñez 1975; King 1980; Nordheimer 1975; Trompf 1990; Weaver 1982). Accusations in 1975 that Paulsen had brandished guns in public, stockpiled firearms, and oversaw military training drills in preparation for a coming apocalypse resulted in defections and bad publicity. As a result, Sunburst was investigated by anticult groups, leading to the kidnapping of two Sunburst members in 1976 by famed “deprogrammer” Ted Patrick (Brantingham 1977a; Brantingham 1977b). Later allegations that Paulsen abused painkillers, sexually abused minors, and evaded taxes, in addition to a threatened shoot-out with law enforcement after he was arrested for drunk driving and resisting arrest in 1978, led many members to turn against him publicly. These charges also led to increased government scrutiny, including by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Justice (Hoesly 2019). Paulsen claimed that he took medications to soothe lingering pain from an earlier injury and to restore energy depleted by providing spiritual counsel, but many members were turned off by his alleged alcoholism and drug abuse, which violated Sunburst community rules (Corwin 1989). Sunburst’s arsenal and apocalypticism drew increased attention after the 1978 Peoples Temple mass suicide in Guyana and during the 1980 presidential campaign, since one Sunburst farm abutted Ronald Reagan’s ranch.
In addition to these concerns, members alleged that Sunburst did not fairly distribute the wealth from its businesses, instead aggrandizing wealth only for Paulsen’s inner circle. In 1980, store employees agitated for a union and later filed a grievance about anti-union intimidation by Sunburst’s management (Hall 1980; C. Miller 1981). Increasing competition in the organic foods market whittled away at revenues by undercutting Sunburst’s prices, and the national economy soured amid rising inflation, high unemployment, and a looming recession. By 1981, two-thirds of members had left, leaving the farm and markets with fewer workers. These economic and labor woes brought about Sunburst’s financial downfall. A 1981 lawsuit by over seventy former members, which was later dismissed, sought $1.300,000 of the group’s profits, and a separate lawsuit concerning Sunburst’s inability to pay its debts caused Sunburst to have to sell its Tajiguas Ranch (Mann 1982; Meade 1981; Zachary 1981b). Sunburst liquidated its other California properties by 1982.
In 1981-1982, Paulsen and about one hundred of the more committed members left California for a large ranch in Wells, Nevada, called Big Springs Ranch, and to a mobile home park in nearby Oasis, a small settlement where members operated a gas station, mini-mart, hotel, and restaurant (Chandler 1981b; Greverus 1990; Paulsen 2002). The half-million-acre cattle ranch was less hospitable for agricultural production, especially due to long, cold winters and short growing seasons. By 1983, after enduring harsh winters and facing a lien on the new ranch, Paulsen took most of the remnant to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he renamed them The Builders.
During the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, the community dwindled further, eventually down to about two or three dozen people (Corwin 1989). In Utah, they mostly abandoned farming to find other employment, living in a four-story mansion and then in an apartment complex they managed, meditating daily to sustain unity (Paulsen 2002). Others lived in the Nevada trailer park. Members stopped pooling resources collectively and began earning income individually. In Salt Lake City, they bought, remodeled, and sold houses; ran an excavation-demolition business; began offering weekend retreats for spiritual seekers; and opened several natural food stores, called New Frontiers (Hoesly 2019). Some members went to Arizona and opened three additional New Frontiers stores between 1988-1995.
Paulsen, who spent time in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, returned to California in 1988, looking for land for a new commune (Corwin 1989). In 1991, he renamed the group Solar Logos and bought a 53-acre ranch near Buellton, California, calling it Sunburst Farm, where he relocated the group’s headquarters the following year. Paulsen soon bought a second property called Nojoqui Farm (also called New Frontiers Farm) to raise organic produce for their markets. In 1995-1996, most of the members moved back to the Santa Barbara area and built homes and a retreat center on the ranch.
New Frontiers natural markets has been the primary income generator for the community since the 1990s and serves as a pathway for Sunburst’s organic foods and spiritual values (Spaulding 2008). [Image at right] Paulsen said that each store was a “vortex of healing energy” that could be felt by customers as well as employees (Paulsen 2016:339). Yet, as the group relocated to California, operating the stores in other states became difficult. In 1996, they sold the three Utah stores to Wild Oats, a natural foods grocery chain. In 1997, they opened two new stores in California.
Norman Paulsen died in 2006 (Nisperos 2007). That year, his wife, Patty Paulsen, became spiritual director of the group and changed its name from Solar Logos to Sunburst, incorporating it as Sunburst Church of Self Realization. Since then, Sunburst has built a new sanctuary and retreat center at Sunburst Farm, from which it runs weekend retreats, permaculture workshops, meditation and yoga classes, and weekly services. About two dozen members live on the farm, which continues to grow, serve, and sell organic food (Knapp 2019). In 2014, Sunburst sold a New Frontiers store in California and all three Arizona stores to Whole Foods, leaving only their store in Solvang, California (K. Leslie 2014). Despite the declining membership, the group continues its spiritual practice of “personal and planetary awakening” through organic foods, meditation, and self-realization (Sunburst website n.d.).
Paulsen espoused an eclectic, esoteric combination of spiritual beliefs. These include mystical Christianity, the Judaism of the Essenes, Hopi traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Theosophy, and Ufology. The largest influences in the Sunburst community are Paramahansa Yogananda and Jesus Christ (Paulsen 1980; Sunburst website n.d. “Spiritual Lineage”). Details of Paulsen’s complex, synthetic beliefs can be found in his autobiography, which he published in four versions during his lifetime (1980, 1984, 1994, 2002). His wife Patty published a fifth revised version posthumously (2016). Several scholarly articles have focused on Paulsen’s UFO visions and beliefs (Grünschloß 1998; Gruenschloss 2003; Grünschloß 2004; Grünschloß 2006; Trompf 1979; Trompf 1990; Trompf 2003; Trompf 2012; Trompf and Bernauer 2012).
Yogananda inspired Sunburst’s belief that meditation, and Kriya Yoga in particular, is the pathway to self-realization. Self-realization is the embodied understanding that one is divine and merges into oneness with universal energy or God. [Image at right] This realization produces harmony in the world. For Sunbursters, self-realization through yogic mediation also produces Christ consciousness. Jesus Christ, according to Paulsen, taught that humans have God within them and that every person has divine potential. For Paulsen, Jesus taught the same self-realization as Yogananda (Paulsen 1980; Sunburst website n.d. “Spiritual Lineage”).
Sunburst members believe that living the group’s eightfold path and twelve virtues leads to Christ consciousness and cosmic consciousness, which Paulsen also called self-realization and God-realization (Paulsen 2000; Sunburst website n.d. “The Rainbow Path”). The Eightfold Path of Conscious Living includes meditation, conduct, study, speech, association, nourishment, work, and recreation. The twelve virtues are charity, faith, loyalty, patience, honesty, perseverance, temperance, humility, courage, equanimity, continence, and compassion. Through meditation and right living, people will awaken to the pure self within and realize their oneness with the Divine Spirit, the light of all creation, the consciousness and energy of Christ (Paulsen 1980; Sunburst website n.d. “The Rainbow Path”).
Sunburst’s website lists several other “Aims and Ideals” (Sunburst website n.d. “About Sunburst”):
To seek to know, by direct personal experience, the Infinite Being of eternal existence, pure consciousness and ever-new bliss. This is Self-realization!
To create inner and outer environments that encourage and cultivate Self-realization individually, collectively, and globally.
To offer love and energy to others and to the Divine through selfless service.
To embrace the timeless codes of virtue and paths of conscious living.
To recognize and study the sacredness of Mother Nature.
To use the gifts of imagination and will to design regenerative solutions, and become true caretakers of the Earth-garden.
To honor the truths underlying all wisdom traditions, and to embrace opportunities to share the teachings of Self-realization with those who seek to know their own true nature.
Sunburst members believe that UFOs and aliens inhabited this planet long before humans arrived and that they have come again to lead humans to a path of righteousness. Paulsen was familiar with Theosophical texts about Lemuria and Mu, which were popularized by authors such as W. S. Cervé and James Churchward, whom Paulsen had read and cited in his autobiography (Paulsen 1980). Paulsen connected these teachings to accounts of UFOs and intergalactic spiritual beings, formed in part by his involvement in Van Tassel’s UFO study group and reading of Ufological literature.
Building on Helena Blavatsky’s idea of “root races,” Paulsen developed a color-coded hierarchy of races corresponding to intergalactic beings and racial genealogies on earth (Cusack 2021; Paulsen 1980; Trompf 1990). Four human races (Red, Yellow, Blue, and White) originated in a heavenly realm in outer space and came to Earth as The Builders. Meso-American and Pacific Island civilizations were built by these Lemurians in human form. For Paulsen, these first people were White and they first landed in Latin America (Paulsen 1980).
Paulsen and Sunburst were also heavily influenced by White Bear (Oswald Fredericks), a Hopi writer who befriended Paulsen and who the recorded source material for Frank Waters’ bestselling Book of the Hopi (1963). Book of the Hopi was influential for Paulsen and popular within Sunburst (Blumrich 1979; Fredericks and King 2009; Paulsen 1980; Steiger 1974). Paulsen considered the indigenous Hopi people to be the remnants of the Red race and peaceful caretakers of Mother Earth. White Bear also inspired Paulsen’s view that the South Pacific marked a sacred place of wisdom and that Lemurians had created the earliest earthly civilization there.
In the 1970s, Sunburst members lived by formal rules structures initially but later gravitated toward community guidelines, allowing independence within spiritual belonging. Healthy living norms included no drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or premarital or extramarital sex; wearing simple clothes; living outdoors cleanly and naturally; and eating a nutritious, organic diet, preferably vegetarian. According to members Dusk and Willow Weaver, “For the member of Sunburst all physical endeavors are natural outgrowths of this divine plan,” of “attunement with nature and attainment of communion with the Creator” (Weaver 1982:10-11).
Today, the Sunburst community considers themselves a “global community of light workers, as well as an intentional cooperative community” (Sunburst website n.d. “About Sunburst”). This means creating a fertile environment for personal spiritual growth and self-realization. According the Sunburst’s “Spiritual Lineage” webpage: “Each one of us, made in the image of God, is destined to awaken the Christ consciousness, the pure Self within our souls. This is Self-realization, through whose emergence God is realized. Enlightened, God-realized souls from all spiritual paths continually exist in this consciousness, and can come forth to assist you on your life’s journey.” Sunburst members strive to guide people along this path of self-realization.
Sunburst’s practices are rooted in yoga, meditation, and natural foods. The goal of Kriya Yoga and meditation is self-realization. The group’s organic farming and food cultivation, along with its natural foods stores, feed this goal by providing members conscious living and spiritually-sustaining work (Sunburst website n.d. “Earth Stewardship”). Organic food production and distribution also contribute to promoting Sunburst and its spiritual ideals. Paulsen’s goal was to create a “New Age” society of harmonial living and spiritual self-realization (Lillington 1979).
Kriya Yoga, which Norman Paulsen had studied with Yogananda, is a daily practice of sitting meditation and breathing that directs energies along the spinal chakras. Sunburst presents Kriya Yoga as a sacred science that leads to self-realization (Paulsen 2000; Sunburst website n.d. “Kriya Yoga Initiation”). Today, Sunburst also teaches the Hong Sau technique of meditation, guided visualization, and other pathways to self-realization.
Farm labor has also been a spiritual practice at Sunburst (Hoesly 2019). Cultivating and consuming organic foods, conscious living, and self-sufficiency converge with and were outgrowths of their spiritual aim of divine communion. Members woke up early for daily meditation, then ate together, then worked at farming, trucking, selling, and baking; evenings were spent in communal dinners, small group meditations, and social time (Allen 1982; Arcudi and Meyer 1985; R. Miller 1978; Paulsen 1980; Roth 2011). Meals were mostly fresh dairy products, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and grains. Fish or meat was served several times a week by the late 1970s, although originally the diet was exclusively raw food, then lacto-ovo vegetarian, then choose-your-own.
In addition to growing hundreds of acres of fruit trees, vegetables, wheat, nuts, and other crops, members raised hundreds of naturally-fed, hormone-free goats, sheep, cows, and chickens. [Image at right] They made wool clothes and an array of dairy products, including butter, yogurt, cheese, milk, and smoothies. They sold honey through beekeeping. Paulsen bought horses to work the farm pulling plows and to show competitively. The farm included machinery and tools for making furniture, brickmaking, welding, blacksmithing, pottery, and necessary items for the community and for use or sale in their businesses. A gift shop above the restaurant sold items crafted by Sunburst members. Today, Sunburst also sells Norman Paulsen’s books and CDs, religious literature, and other spiritual items online and at its gift shop.
As a “center for holistic learning, healing and conscious living,” Sunburst offers Sunday meditation gatherings, weekend retreats, Kriya Yoga initiations, spiritual and permaculture workshops, kirtan and song circles, and classes on the science of yoga and the path of self-realization (Sunburst website n.d. “Sunburst Farm & Sanctuary”). Weekly Sunday services include a guided meditation led by rotating leaders and communally performing original songs created by members of the group, followed by fellowship and a brunch of organic foods grown on the farm.
Regular weekend retreats revolve around themes such as permaculture, connection with Mother Earth, sacred silence, and Kriya Yoga (Sunburst website n.d. “Sunburst Events”). These retreats are usually led by Sunburst members, generate revenue for the group, and promote its teachings. In the Karma Yoga program, participants help with gardening, cooking, cleaning, and upkeep. Sunburst also offers a 200-hour yoga teacher training.
Norman Paulsen founded the Brotherhood of the Sun, later known Sunburst, in 1969. During his life, he was the leader of the spiritual community, although a circle of twelve elders helped him make decisions (Trompf 1990). Paulsen gave up leadership of Sunburst’s businesses in the mid-1970s so that he could focus on spiritual development of himself and the group. Its businesses were led by various core members of Sunburst. Paulsen led the community until his death in 2006. Since then, his wife, Patty Paulsen, [Image 9 at right] who joined in 1975, has led Sunburst Sanctuary as its spiritual director.
In addition to the Paulsens, Sunburst has always had a small council of devoted members to guide the community and its for-profit enterprises. In 2021, other leaders of Sunburst include: David Adolphsen, who leads its community development; Jake Collier, who manages the New Frontiers store and chairs Sunburst’s council; Valerie King, who serves as finance manager for Sunburst and its businesses; Jonathan King, who is Sunburst’s treasurer and long led its business enterprises; Emily Wirtz, who leads the retreat center and youth ministry team; Heiko Wirtz, who leads Sunburst’s property services crew; and Elena Andersen, who coordinates events and outreach for Sunburst (Sunburst website n.d. “Staff”). Adolphsen, Collier, and the Kings joined Sunburst in the early 1970s and have long been leaders in the group and its businesses.
Sunburst has faced several challenges, primarily involving allegations of Norman Paulsen’s illegal and unethical conduct in the late 1970s. These issues, described above in greater detail, include his alleged drug abuse, alcoholism, and abuse of minors; arrests; amassing weapons and threatening police; financial self-dealing; and self-deification. As a result of conflicts within the Sunburst community and with law enforcement, most members left Sunburst by 1981.
While many Sunburst members shared Paulsen’s beliefs and visions of ancient civilizations and intergalactic beings, some of Paulsen’s beliefs also caused dissention. In the late 1970s, Paulsen claimed that he was Jesus Christ returned, that he rode in spaceships with The Builders as one of the ancient rulers of Mu, and that he would restore the Garden of Eden, also known as Mu (Paulsen 1980; Trompf 1990; Weaver 1982). Some members, such as Michael Abelman, rejected his self-deification and were forced out of the group (Corwin 1989; Every 1982).
The group struggled to survive during the early 1980s due to mass defections, financial struggles, and relocation to an environment less hospitable to farming. Eventually, they founded a chain of successful natural foods stores, called New Frontiers. However, despite the success of these stores into the 2000s, Sunburst’s spiritual community has remained small. With just a few dozen members at most, Sunburst’s membership remains far below the 350-400 members it had at its peak in the mid-1970s.
Today, Sunburst’s largest challenge is how to survive given its small cohort of aging members. [Image at right] Most of the core members are Baby Boomers in their seventies. While some younger people participate in weekly mediation gatherings, workshops, or retreats, few are committed members of the community (Hoesly 2019). During the 2010s, Sunburst sold all but one of its New Frontiers stores. As of 2021, it owns two farms, although Sunburst has struggled to maintain its Nojoqui Farm (Minsky 2020).
Image #1: Norman Paulsen at SRF, c. 1950.
Image #2: Norman Paulsen at Sunburst Farm, 1972.
Image #3: Apple pickers at Sunburst’s Cuyama Orchard, mid-1970s.
Image #4: Sunburst member with bottle of Sunburst’s organic apple juice.
Image #5: New Frontiers store, 2018.
Image #6: Paulsen’s autobiography, Sunburst: Return of the Ancients (1980).
Image #7: Group prayer at Tajiguas Ranch, 1978.
Image #8: Patty Paulsen.
Image #9: Members at Sunburst Sanctuary, c. 2018.
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