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Recently, the Church of Scientology announced that it was purchasing three buildings on East 125th Street for an estimated $10 million. Since 2003, the controversial religion had been running a mostly overlooked storefront on Third Avenue between 122nd and 123rd streets, but the new expansion marks a major move into Harlem. The buildings will be fully renovated and turned into not only a church, but a community center with the usual Scientology programs: job training, literacy and drug rehab. Media reports about the announcement, however, failed to ask a key question:
What’s the mostly white Church of Scientology doing in a mostly black part of town?
Although gentrification is bringing increasing numbers of non-African-Americans to the uptown neighborhood, Harlem is still largely made up of black people who tend to have strong mainstream Protestant and Muslim identities. Other groups have targeted the area for recruitment—young Mormon missionaries can be seen walking up and down 125th Street, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are a common sight in train stations.
But Scientology? Though the L. Ron Hubbard–worshipping sect, which covets movie stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, enjoyed decades of relative obscurity, enabling it to recruit heavily among young white college students unfamiliar with the stranger elements of Hubbard’s writings, that situation ended a few years ago, when Cruise suddenly became more public about his religion in the media. Cruise’s antics started a media feeding frenzy that has brought years of mockery and bad publicity for the church. If newspapers once risked lawsuits just to make public what court documents had long since established—that Scientology asks its members to pay tens of thousands of dollars before revealing to them that Hubbard’s grand scheme is based on the belief that a galactic overlord named Xenu banished space aliens to the ancient Earth, and that the disembodied souls of those aliens now live inside (and plague) humans—these days Hubbard’s unusual ideas, once jealously guarded church secrets, are now as much a part of pop culture as Buddy Christ.
Ministers in Harlem, however, appear not to have been paying attention.
“That’s news to me,” says Father Thomas Tunney of the Church of St. Mark the Evangelist, when told that Hubbard’s followers are making a big move into his part of town. “I don’t think their being here is going to be an earth-shaking issue in Harlem.”
Several black ministers that the Voice contacted were completely unaware of Scientology’s practices and beliefs—for example, that, according to Hubbard, Jesus was a figment of the imagination implanted by Xenu in the human psyche . Most didn’t even know that Isaac Hayes has been in the religion for decades.
Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood of Brooklyn’s St. Paul Community Baptist Church says that he’s even been using Applied Scholastics in his church’s elementary school. In many parts of the country, school districts have rejected Applied Scholastics materials, which were developed by Hubbard, complaining that the church uses the materials as a way to spread Hubbard’s ideas. But Youngblood was evasive about his knowledge of the connection between the school materials and the church: “I am sure and hopeful that anyone who embarks upon any programming as it relates to our youth especially will practice their due diligence. . . . We want to know things will work for us—not just because it’s a program for youth, but that we can cut the material and tailor it to meet the needs of our community.”
As principal of St. Paul Community Christian School, Rita McCormick did see some apprehension from non-church members about the use of Hubbard’s materials. “They were skeptical at first,” says McCormick, who has since left the school, “but their comfort levels were increased once they knew that we were not trying to evangelize them.”
The Scientologists themselves, meanwhile, say they see big opportunities in Harlem. “There are so many social issues that need to be addressed in the Harlem community,” says Jerry Hines, executive director of the Harlem church. “A lot of black people have a hard time—not a lot of education, problems achieving goals. L. Ron Hubbard offered technology,” he adds. Hines, an older African-American man, presents a large portfolio with mock-ups of the new Harlem church, which is expected to open in the fall of 2008. He points to “A Message to Black People,” written by Hubbard in 1961, which states that black people must change their situation in order to take their place among the most brilliant on earth.
Rick Ross, a nationally known cult expert who lives in New Jersey, says Scientology has some other motivations in mind. The organization has been buying up real estate recently in places like San Jose and Philadelphia as well as Harlem, he says. “The church is trying to achieve three things: greatly increase real- estate holdings for their long-term portfolio, and find new paying members and workers.”
Ross says that Scientology relies on a steady stream of new recruits, some paying modest amounts for classes that start as low as $25, but others buying into expensive training. Rev. John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology in New York, says the classes that believers take to learn how to become “auditors” start at $2,000.
Those prices are steep, particularly in Harlem. But for ardent believers who can’t afford those rates, there’s always the Sea Org, a quasi-military group of workers who sign billion-year contracts, wear naval outfits, and do low-paid work filing papers, answering phones, and anything else that needs getting done. “By setting up in Harlem and offering stress tests in New York City, what they are looking for is workers,” explains Ross, whose rickross.com chronicles the many complaints against the church. “I think that people in Harlem need to wake up and know who their new neighbor is.”
Hines and Carmichael think differently. “None of the paid classes are mandatory,” says Hines. And he says that Hubbard’s teachings are intended to help better equip people for achieving greater things in life. “You take these courses, read the works of Mr. Hubbard, and you’ll see a change in your life. You will be able to afford better things.”
The new expansion will include an office for Hubbard. (It’s a tradition at major Scientology locations to include a desk for the “commodore,” who left this dimension in 1986.) And, as a nod to the new surroundings, the Harlem center includes plans for decorations using African motifs: cowrie shells, beaded gourds, and kente cloth.