Behind Scientology's veil
Glenville Ashby, Contributor
It's muggy and the heavens open. I hurry past 42nd street towards the imposing building that is the Church of Scientology.
It soars, not in terms of size, but its presence is commanding as if making a definitive statement.
Somehow it dwarfs the many theatres and restaurants that dot the hub of New York City's entertainment district.
It's a surreal scene, near impossible to fathom.
I am greeted with utmost cordiality as I await the Reverend Verlene Cheeseboro, the church's public affairs officer.
She is apologetic for not having been the first to welcome me. She is African American, petite but striking, wisdom etched in her countenance.
For a moment, I am taken aback. Surely, this is not the face of Scientology, the organisation that is known to court the well-heeled. Hollywood celebrities, the likes of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman, Greta Van Susteren and Leah Remini are outspoken members.
I am dead wrong, according to Cheeseboro.
"We are about to open a Scientology church in Harlem and we have a strong presence and impressive centre in the inner city of Englewood, California." I stand corrected.
As I am given a tour of the premises, she relates the influence of the church in her life.
Born a Baptist, Cheeseboro joined Scientology in 1998.
"It was a decision that revolutionised and shaped my view of myself, mankind and the world."
She has worked in Harlem and is proud of helping at-risk children learn and form healthy identities using the resources garnered from the philosophical teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the church's founder.
Scientology, she is convinced, is for everybody, but "the benefits to battered black communities are immeasurable".
She touts the organisation's work to reduce inner-city violence and the proliferation of drugs among young people.
"Scientology," she notes, "is also committed to educating children on the Declaration of Human Rights. A document that so many of us are oblivious of."
Understandably, Hubbard is revered and his likeness is visible on every floor.
In his honour, a vacant but well appointed office is a fixture in every church.
repository of teachings
We ride the elevator to the higher floors, at times preferring to take the stairs. Each floor serves as a repository of Scientology's several philosophical teachings.
We move from the Public Course Room, a multimedia complex on the ground floor where the basic teachings of the church is taught.
As the neophyte increases in knowledge, the doors to wisdom is ever open.
More advanced teachings are promulgated on the second floor, its setting conjuring images of a college. Trained personnel abound.
I am quieted when we open the doors to the Guidance Centre. "This is where individuals in need of healing come," I am told.
It is where auditing takes place. An apparent recording from an authoritative male voice resounds throughout the floor piercing the silence, but I am unable to decipher the words.
"We have to move along," Cheeseboro advises.
My curiosity is piqued. I ask about auditing. "It means to listen," she says. "If we listen to ourselves, we will know the answers and solutions to everything, all our problems."
It's cryptic, especially for one unfamiliar with the fundamental tenets of the church.
She then assails psychiatry as a pseudo science that has destroyed lives with over-reliance on drugs, resurrecting images of Tom Cruise who was equally caustic on 'The Today Show', NBC's popular morning programme.
I am later promised literature on Dianetics, the book that catapulted Hubbard on the global stage and helped launch the Church of Scientology.
To my surprise, he proved to be a remarkably prolific and impressive writer on subjects ranging from theology and ethics to business and technology.
That much is evident as I tour the library, bookstore and gift shop. The Chapel is off limits, at least for the time I am there. There are people going in. Some event is in progress. I am none the wiser.
But I am offered a glimpse of their 'Bible', titled, The Background, Ministry, Ceremonies and Sermons of the Scientology Religion - a voluminous work that includes teachings on ethics and survival, the human mind, responsibility, states of existence and more.
Cheeseboro describes the church service with a measure of nonchalance.
"It's like any other religious service, but a lot more interactive." A sermon is read and explained and questions are fielded from the congregants.
"And yes, we pray and ask for God's guidance," she asserts, astutely anticipating my next enquiry on the church's theology.
"You can keep your religion and be a scientologist. We have Jews, Muslims and Christians of all sects who are members."
On eschatology and karma, she is vague and non-committal.
"We are spirits and we pass on from this body to another existence."
heaven and hell do not exist
But of heaven and hell, she is unambiguous.
"No, they do not exist," adding, "we are spiritual beings who are essentially good, and evil in itself does not exist."
I need some clarification. "We do evil acts," she responds, "but our essence is not evil."
Cheeseboro explains evil action as the consequence of the "reactive mind," a state of instability that emerges from an incident or experience of which the individual is unaware.
"Auditing," she says "can identify and erase the root of the reactive mind."
We move on to the Purification area, where an intriguing form of wellness is in session.
This process of cleansing the body of toxins can take three to six weeks.
During that time, the client is treated for five hours daily. Treatment entails the ingestion of niacin and a host of other vitamins and minerals; a cardiovascular routine and intermittent periods in the sauna under the guidance of trained personnel.
It is an expensive procedure, but it is said to achieve remarkable results.
Equally interesting is Narconon, a treatment centre for alcohol and drug addiction.
Now on the final leg of the tour, I am handed a magazine called FLAG and given a brief explanation of its content.
It outlines the pearls, the core of Scientology's most advanced training which is undertaken in Florida in a facility of jaw-dropping opulence.
The material speaks of the "infinitesimal potential of the human spirit".
It's ontological in scope and philosophically esoteric, enigmatic - almost coded - scrambling the mind of the uninitiated.
Although this is hardly a reason to label the organisation a cult, one can understand why many of its detractors are emboldened to condemn its teachings in the harshest terms.
I continue to scan the pages with one item immediately catching my attention. The words prove perplexing.
"You are about to embark on the most intense adventure in all the eons of your existence - the rediscovery and rehabilitation of your true 'OT' abilities."
OT stands for Operating Thetan, an evolved spiritual state.
"OT III has been called the make-break point for a thetan. It is here you know the truth and are freed from the overwhelm of the great catastrophe 75 million years ago that has trapped and crippled all beings in this sector of the universe and reduced civilisation to a desert."
And the testimonials of the programme glow: "OT III ... is like being sunk into the ocean gradually coming up. I feel reborn as a thetan. I am getting used to my new self ... I feel so light ... I want everyone to do this level," writes one member.
And the spiritual evolution continues with OT IV and OT V training.
But suspicions and condemnation of the group persist. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Lisa Pulitzer and Jenna Miscavige Hill are just two of the many books by ex-Scientologists that have attacked the group.
They contain grave allegations of brainwashing, forcing members to dissociate from family members, blacklisting and unsettling interrogation of members who do not sheepishly tow the line.
The harassment of former members, and worse, are also included.
I raise the issue with Cheeseboro. She is unmoved and is dismissive of every scurrilous charge thrown their way.
She is taciturn for the most part. Her response is curt, "ridiculous".
There is nothing to respond to," adds Cheeseboro.
I do not press further, nor am I about to dabble in hearsay and sensationalism.
But surely, the Church of Scientology is a regimented outfit that promotes an inscrutable mélange of philosophy, contemporary thought, social science, theology, and metaphysics.
These are well fitted within a Sci-Fi carapace.
A wondrously compelling but disturbing brew from the brilliant mind of L. Ron Hubbard.