Los Angeles -- A 1996 Subaru Outback swerves through Thai Town, Little Armenia and other inner-city recesses, making U-turns and street-side stops so its occupants can feed homeless outcasts with nicknames like Buddha Boy, the Toenail Man and Sinbad.
As they cruise their regular route, two devotees of controversial guru Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati search for people sitting in bus stops though they have no place to go, human wreckage hidden under layers of blankets beneath a bridge, and telltale grocery carts loaded with bedrolls, clothing and, in one case, a flute.
When a sighting is made and the car stops, a 69-year-old man wearing shorts fishes on the floor for a bottle of water and a paper sack filled with a brownie, banana and ham-and-cheese on a bagel. He bounds out and asks, "How about some lunch?"
Arnold Pomerantz was once a vice president and division director for Payless Shoesource. Now retired, he and about two dozen other core members of an interfaith community in West Hollywood devote themselves to the teachings of Bhagavati and explain to outsiders why they shouldn't be viewed as a cult.
Described by her students as a loud, effusive woman who comes from a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Bhagavati founded the community known as Kashi nearly 30 years ago. It melds Hinduism with other faiths, as illustrated by a prayer room filled with statues of gods like Ganesha but also represen-tations of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Known simply as Ma, Bhagavati leads more than 500 students and associates across the country from a Kashi ashram on Florida's Atlantic coast, making conference calls once a month.
Though she has been accused by former members of controlling her students' lives and abusing her authority psychologically and financially, Pomerantz and others say they are free to sever the connection at any time. They stay, in part, because of their teacher's emphasis on providing care for people with AIDS, giving food to people on the street and finding other ways to serve.
"I asked, 'How do I find God?' She (Bhagavati) said, 'Feed the homeless, take care of the sick and take care of the dying,' " Pomerantz said. "My purpose is to serve others and in that way I'm ultimately serving myself."
On the last Saturday of each month, the Los Angeles students split into groups of two and three and deliver about 800 meals to the homeless, sometimes dispensing toothpaste and condoms as well.
Pomerantz and Janice Engel, a documentary filmmaker and student of Bhagavati's, deliver meals on a shorter route every week. They once paid for the food themselves but now it is either donated or bought with money set aside for the program, called Under the Bridges and on the Streets.
Some of the homeless they feed seem to reside in another world. One man's jeans are drenched with an unknown liquid. Another is engaged in intense conversation with himself. Others wait weekly at the same street corners or camps for their lunches, showering their servers with thanks. One or two insist on a hug.
Pomerantz and Engel talk of how one regular seems to be losing teeth and another seems to have disappeared. Some weeks, they mark the lunch bags with hearts encircling the words "Ma loves you," in reference to their teacher.
But ask Louis, who wears a Domino's cap and on this day camps on a shady hillside, about the guru and his face registers a question mark. If he's heard of her, he doesn't remember. He'd rather talk about his recently stolen bicycle. And that's fine with Engel. "I'm not here to proselytize," she said. "I'm just here to feed people."
Engel has made films about everything from singer Jackson Browne to motorcycle women. She is a transplanted New Yorker who still drives and swears like one. Until meeting her first teacher, Guru Mayi, and then joining the Kashi community and Bhagavati about 11 years ago, Engel viewed such spiritual leaders with a leathery layer of cynicism.
"I was like, 'Guru shmuru. Give me a ... break,' " she said.
But she watched and helped Bhagavati care for people diagnosed with AIDS and other illnesses, moved by the leader's fearlessness and empathy.
"I think service is the path to God," said Engel, who donates about $2,500 a year to various Kashi causes. "If you don't reach out to help your fellow human beings, you're living in the dark."
About 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday in June, seven students practiced yoga in a tented back yard in a neighborly, almost suburban community a few blocks from Beverly Hills. This tiny ashram is Kashi's Los Angeles center.
Only two devotees live here, a swami and an acharya, or instructor, who are married and, for spiritual reasons, celibate. Others live throughout the area with one man coming from Santa Barbara. They drift in during a breakfast of scrambled eggs and soy sausage, later forming a backyard assembly line to piece together lunches for the homeless.
The Los Angeles students once concentrated largely on caregiving for AIDS patients. They're still involved but now also emphasize feeding the homeless.
Years ago, when the focus was squarely on AIDS, Bhagavati would visit the Los Angeles center every few months for intense gatherings of storytelling, mourning for people who had died and vegetarian feasts. Folk musician and Bhagavati student Arlo Guthrie would perform.
Now she comes once a year but also leads phone conferences and blessings called darshans every month. Many devotees visit her several times a year at the ashram in Roseland, Fla.
The bond is apparent in the photos of Bhagavati that along with her abstract paintings seem to anchor every wall. Students quote her often about how there is no such thing as throwaway people. She gives them Kashi names with translations like, "Always at the Feet of the Guru." An e-mail address incorporates the phrase "ma4me."
"It's the closest bond there is," explained David Nelson of Santa Barbara, who has two gurus. "It's closer than the biological bond between parent and child. This is a bond that is not even severed with one person's death."
Students say the connection mystifies some westerners who associate gurus with cults. They talk of lives and friends outside of Kashi. They say core members aren't forced to turn over their income, though some pay voluntary dues of about $25 a year and contribute several times that to a Kashi school, the Under the Bridges and on the Streets program, AIDS funds and other causes.
They say they balance absolute trust in their teacher with the free will to make their own choices. They quote Bhagavati saying that people should run away from any leader who claims his or her path is the only option.
"If I was suspicious in any way," said Engel, offering what is almost a mantra at the West Hollywood center, "I wouldn't waste my time. I wouldn't stick around."
But many of the accusations published in Florida newspapers come from former devotees who say Bhagavati controls her students' lives by brainwashing them. They say she has used nonprofit money to gamble and even condoned a beating at the Roseland ashram.
Some of the Los Angeles students follow the controversies closely. Others say they're weary of the battles. They all defend Bhagavati and refute any and all allegations.
"I would have nothing to do with her or the ashram if that was true," said Peter Nava, a real estate agent who has been a devotee for about 13 years and considered himself a close friend of Richard Rosenkranz, once a Bhagavati student and now her harshest critic. Nava said the controversies do have an impact.
"I think it affected everyone because it put them in shock," he said.
An ashram leader said the controversies may have scared away some people interested in Kashi. Others like Pomerantz talk about their trust in absolute terms.
He views himself as sort of a lamp connected by a cord to a divine sense of power. God provides the charge. Bhagavati is the conduit.
Pomerantz is openly gay, as are several people at the Los Angeles center, and he credits his guru for showing him that a person's soul has neither gender nor sexual orientation.
Though his corporate success led him to a position where he supervised 600 stores, Pomerantz said he feels more fulfilled tramping out to jerry-built tents and shelters to offer someone lunch.
"We go where they live without fear," he said. "When I get so many God-blesses from people, I feel protected."