The week before, as I sat in a very inspirational teen worship service in a large, well-known church on the Southside of Chicago, I made a mental note that I needed to venture out and make a choice to worship somewhere that placed me far, far from my comfort zone.
I have had many lives in Chicago. I have lived on the Northside, the Near West Side, and Near South Side. I spent a few years in Evanston, and during some of my years, was a member of a health club that was located not far from the storefront that houses the Chicago Branch of the Church of Scientology. I had never really given it a second look. Never really thought I would ever enter their doors.
There were a few weeks during my 52 weeks, where I realized I had to really clear my mind, open my heart, and approach an experience with as few pre-conceived notions as I could muster. This was one of those weeks. Anyone who has ever turned on the TV or surfed on the Internet has an opinion about the Church of Scientology.
The website for the Church of Scientology-Illinois invites everyone to “Come in and find out for yourself what Scientology is and how you can use it to be happy and successful in life.”
So I decided to take a deep breath and do just that.
When I opened the door to the storefront on N. Lincoln in Chicago, there was a woman sitting behind a desk sitting by the door. I told her I was there for the 11AM service, and she looked at me confused, before saying “Oh! It’s Sunday!” – suggesting to me that perhaps there wasn’t really a regular service like in other places I had worshipped.
She asked me to sign in and I did, but to be honest, I was hesitant to put my full name and correct contact information down (terrible, I know). I signed my name Pam Bass (not proud of that, but it is what it is), left the contact information blank, reminded myself to keep an open mind, and walked in.
There was a lot of activity in the location – it appeared as if they were setting up for something, which I assumed was the 11 AM Service – turns out I was wrong. They were setting up for some other training or meeting in the front of the building , which I learned by reading a black board near the door.
Where was this 11AM Service going to take place, I wondered?
Not knowing exactly what to do next, I decided to make my way to the restroom as I waited for the service to begin. I went back to the restroom, and when I emerged a man was waiting for me and asked me if I was Pammy, which startled me a bit. He told me that he had spoken to me on the phone the day before when I called about the service, which made things a little less weird, but still…memorable. He told me that they would be starting shortly, and to sit and wait in the outer room.
So I did.
As I made my way to the outer room, I found it slightly amusing, and extremely…memorable… that Michael Jackson was playing from a radio somewhere.
Why in the world is Michael Jackson’s Thriller playing in the lobby of the Church of Scientology’s building on the Northside of Chicago?
Forgive me, I am a philosopher and a comedian, so I had to commemorate this portion of my experience with an internal chuckle.
“Wanna be startin something…got to be startin something…”
Then I thought, “Next time I go so far out of my comfort zone, I am bringing a friend with me.
When I went to sit, the couch was covered in bags and jackets, and a woman asked a young girl to move the stuff off the couch. She was about 6 or 7. I told the young girl I was fine, and perched on the edge of the couch. The young girl looked at me intently, and I figured she was having a chocolate girl moment (In my experience, sometimes young children who have not been around a lot of Black people tend to…stare. But I generally give them a pass. They’re kids.) My hair was in long twists, which to some look like locks, and I was imagining that perhaps she had never seen anything like that. But who knows.
I decided she would be my new friend. So I introduced myself as Pam, and engaged in conversation with her – asked her about her dad and her brothers, who were running around and crawling around the location (Actually her dad was just sitting, her brothers were running/crawling and they were not much older than she was).
I noticed that she was holding a book by L. Ron Hubbard – The name of the book was “Learning how to Learn” which was also…memorable.
It appeared to be a children’s book, and I was struck by that. Children’s books by L. Ron Hubbard. I asked her if she liked the book, and she basically said she was just looking at the pictures, which made me smile. Kids will be kids.
Whenever I enter a place of worship, or a community religious space, I am always interested when I see kids –I assume that the parents that are responsible for them think that this religion, this way of life, is the best framework within which they can raise their kids. Every church, every family is doing the best they can by their children. Even in religions where there is so much opposition to a way of worship/thinking. So, I had to assume that this little girl’s parents thought that the Church of Scientology was the best context within which their children could grow up to be productive, happy, individuals.
After some time her mother came back (the woman who tried to clear the couch) and appeared to be somewhat frantically looking for someone to lead the service. Again, an indication that the service might not be as regular an occurrence as one might imagine. I wanted to say “Hey, if there is not really a service, I can go home,” but I had to resist the urge. I was there, and I wanted to know how this story would unfold.
Someone was located, and we were all guided to a small black room, which looked like a film viewing room, with a small number of “Stadium seats” so everyone could see the screen (which was not used during the service). And by “we were all” I mean, a handful of us. There were about 15 chairs in the room, and about 7 people in the service, including myself, my young friend, her two brothers, and her dad. So, besides us, there were two other adults. Interesting.
The ‘service’ started with the minister saying: What is Scientology? It is a new slant on life.”
I buckled my virtual seatbelt, and got ready for the ride.
He continued by reading the Scientology Creed, which can be found at: (http://www.scientology.org/what-is-scientology/the-scientology-creeds-and-codes/the-creed-of-the-church.html):
“THE CREED OF THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY
The Creed of the Church of Scientology was written by L. Ron Hubbard shortly after the Church was formed in Los Angeles on February 18, 1954.
After Mr. Hubbard issued this creed from his office in Phoenix, Arizona, the Church of Scientology adopted it as its creed because it succinctly states what Scientologists believe.
We of the Church believe
That all men of whatever race, color or creed were created with equal rights.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives.
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense.
That all men have inalienable rights to conceive, choose, assist or support their own organizations, churches and governments.
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind.
That the souls of men have the rights of men.
That the study of the Mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.
And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.
And we of the Church believe
That Man is basically good.
That he is seeking to Survive.
That his survival depends upon himself and upon his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the Universe.
And we of the Church believe that the laws of God forbid Man
To destroy his own kind.
To destroy the sanity of another.
To destroy or enslave another’s soul.
To destroy or reduce the survival of one’s companions or one’s group.
And we of the Church believe
That the spirit can be saved.
And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body.”
When I am in the presence of a worship tradition that is not my own, I am very careful about what I say, do, ingest, or profess. As I read along silently while the “minister” read it aloud,” I thought, well that sounds reasonable, and I waited for what came next.
This reading was followed by a discussion of personal integrity. The sermon was titled, “What is Greatness” which appeared to be a reading of a chapter out of a big black book. Upon later research, I realized it is really an article by L. Ron Hubbard, which can be found at (http://www.freedominla.org/issue07/page18.htm). The article was read from beginning to end, and this is what it said:
What Is Greatness? By L. Ron Hubbard
The hardest task one can have is to continue to love his fellows despite all reasons he should not.
And the true sign of sanity and greatness is to so continue.
For the one who can achieve this, there is abundant hope.
For those who cannot, there is only sorrow, hatred and despair. And these are not the things of which greatness or sanity or happiness are made.
A primary trap is to succumb to invitations to hate.
There are those who appoint one their executioners. Sometimes for the sake of safety of others it is necessary to act. But it is not necessary also to hate them.
To do one’s task without becoming furious at others who seek to prevent one is a mark of greatness — and sanity. And only then can one be happy.
Seeking to achieve any single desirable quality in life is a noble thing. The one most difficult — and most necessary to achieve — is to love one’s fellows despite all invitations to do otherwise.
If there is any saintly quality, it is not to forgive. “Forgiveness” accepts the badness of the act. There is no reason to accept it. Further, one has to label the act as bad to forgive it. “Forgiveness” is a much lower level action and is rather censorious.
True greatness merely refuses to change in the face of bad actions against one – and a truly great person loves his fellows because he understands them.
After all, they are all in the same trap. Some are oblivious of it, some have gone mad because of it, some act like those who betrayed them. But all, all are in the same trap — the generals, the street sweepers, the presidents, the insane. They act the way they do because they are all subject to the same cruel pressures of this universe.
Some of us are subject to those pressures and still go on doing our jobs. Others have long since succumbed and rave and torture and strut like the demented souls they are.
To resave some of them is a dangerous undertaking.
We can at least understand the one fact that greatness does not stem from savage wars or being known. It stems from being true to one’s own decency, from going on helping others whatever they do or think or say and despite all savage acts against one; to persevere without changing one’s basic attitude toward man.
True greatness depends on total wisdom. They act as they do because they are what they are — trapped beings, crushed beneath an intolerable burden. And if they have gone mad for it and command the devastation of whole nations in errors of explanation, still one can understand why and can understand as well the extent of their madness. Why should one change and begin to hate just because others have lost themselves and their own destinies are too cruel for them to face?
Justice, mercy, forgiveness, all are unimportant beside the ability not to change because of provocation or demands to do so.
One must act, one must preserve order and decency, but one need not hate or seek vengeance.
It is true that beings are frail and commit wrongs. Man is basically good but can act badly.
He only acts badly when his acts done for order and the safety for others are done with hatred. Or when his disciplines are founded only upon safety for himself regardless of all others; or worse, when he acts only out of a taste for cruelty.
To preserve no order at all is an insane act. One need only look at the possessions and environment of the insane to realize this. The able keep good order.
When cruelty in the name of discipline dominates a race, that race has been taught to hate. And that race is doomed.
The real lesson is to learn to love.
He who would walk scatheless through his days must learn this.
Never use what is done to one as a basis for hatred. Never desire revenge.
It requires real strength to love man. And to love him despite all invitations to do otherwise, all provocations and all reasons why one should not.
Happiness and strength endure only in the absence of hate. To hate alone is the road to disaster. To love is the road to strength. To love in spite of all is the secret of greatness. And may very well be the greatest secret in this universe.
Much like my experience at the Savior’s Day event months before, most of what was being said made perfect sense to me, except the parts that didn’t. I really tried to understand the “sermon’s” stance on the concept of forgiveness. In addition, there was a story in the middle of the sermon about someone who was trying to help people by teaching them Scientology, and somebody got killed, but it was not that person’s fault, and I had no idea what the minister was talking about. But then there was an invitation to love your fellow man not hate them, and never desire revenge, and I thought, on the face of it, that makes sense.
Suffice it to say, I was a bit confused by the whole experience.
After the ‘sermon’, there was a prayer. I bowed my head and closed my eyes, but wondered if other’s were doing the same, as it appeared that the prayer was not a spontaneous one, but one being read from a Scientology text. As was my practice when visiting any unfamiliar place of worship, in my heart, I thanked God for the opportunity to be exposed to many different things, and to seek his face, and to know that wherever I was, I was going to be ok.
With my ears, however, I listened to the prayer, which was called the “Prayer for Total Freedom”:
May the author of the universe enable all men to reach an understanding of their spiritual nature.
May awareness and understanding of life expand, so that all may come to know the author of the universe.
And may others also reach this understanding which brings Total Freedom.
At this time, we think of those whose liberty is threatened; of those who have suffered imprisonment for their beliefs; of those who are enslaved or martyred, and for all those who are brutalised, trapped or attacked.
We pray that human rights will be preserved so that all people may believe and worship freely, so that freedom will once again be seen in our land.
Freedom from war, and poverty, and want; freedom to be; freedom to do and freedom to have.
Freedom to use and understand man’s potential — a potential that is God-given and Godlike.
And freedom to achieve that understanding and awareness that is Total Freedom.
May God let it be so.
Nothing in the prayer seemed wildly out of the ordinary. I realized when I opened my eyes, that I was praying within my own religious context – checking – hey is there anything about this prayer that I might not feel comfortable saying or praying? When I came up with the answer no, I felt relief and contentment. Weird.
The “service” took 30 minutes. That was it!
I look for common ground. I was hyper aware, despite my desire to come with an open mind, that this church has quite the reputation. I kept waiting for something out of the ordinary to happen. I kept waiting for something overly controversial to be said.
After it was over, I was in the lobby looking over all the materials, and the same woman/mother asked if I had any questions. I really did not. She asked if I was there to do a report or if I was there for myself. When I said I was there for myself, she lit up and asked me if I wanted to take a personality test.
I had heard about said personality test and thought, well what the heck. But the problems arose again where the test asked for my personal information, which I really didn’t want to give to the Scientologists, or anyone who wasn’t my friend.(full name, address, phone number). I decided to start the test and make that decision later. Well, after 25 questions, I flipped over the document and realized it was hundreds of questions.
Too many questions.
I decided at that point I would take it with me, and that I might fill it out and might not. As I left, I let the woman at the front desk know that I would take it with me and fill it out at home. She said to me that I should just bring it back the next time I came, and that she knew I would be back.
I just nodded and smiled.
It is my understanding that further training would have been based on the result of that test, which, not surprisingly, I never ended up filling out – I am imagining that is why I didn’t really experience any of the stereotypically idiosyncratic behavior that one hears about Scientology in the media.
Nobody shows you anything bad the first time you meet them. That’s a pretty universal truth, methinks.
One thing that was a little curious was that after my time with the Scientologist, before I put the key in and started the ignition, I sat in my car and made a decision to visit my home Church, which I hadn’t visited since January. It was the mother’s day service and I got there in the middle, but I realized that I yearned for something familiar after the very-not-familiar experience of visiting the Church of Scientology.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share the reactions of others when I told them I visited the Church of Scientology in Chicago. As this year went by, I chronicled my journey on my Facebook page, posting only the picture of the church, the date, and the name of the church. Those who saw that I visited the church of Scientology had some interesting things to say:
- “Ooooh…details if you can. If there’s a danger you’ll go missing if you do share, I’ll totally understand mum’s the word.”
- “Didn’t know they actually had “church” Do tell.
- “Very interested in your thoughts on this experience!”
After I didn’t post a response (as I generally did not write much about each experience until I started writing this book in earnest), I received this comment.
- “…She’s obviously still going through auditing”
For some reason, this prompted me to give a synopsis of my visit, which ended with the following admission that this was the first time since January that I decided to visit my home church after I was done with my Scientology experience. The same friend, perhaps, jokingly, posted the following in response:
- “Going back to your home church is a psychological response. Kinda like when you see something totally gross and feel like you have to shower. Be prepared to be hounded to the ends of the earth if you send the questionnaire in and also to just give them your wallet. Obviously I would be declared an SP.”
I had no idea what an SP was (and heard no mention of it in my initial visit. Upon doing some research, I found out that an SP is a reference to “Hubbard’s ‘Suppressive Person’ doctrine, in that any person that is perceived to impede — directly or indirectly — the expansion of Scientology is seen as ‘criminal,’ with no regard of how honorable are their motivations. If someone criticize some intrinsically harmful Scientology practices, this person becomes a ‘Suppressive Person’ in Scientologists’ worldview, regardless of how substantiated is their criticism.” – http://www.xenu-directory.net/practices/sp.html
Others asked me to tell them when I visited the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which also has quite a reputation out there in the world of worship, and I let them know that I would.
Another told me that his wife came close to being a cult specialist who worked with people trying to get out of cults, and she had told him numerous times that Scientology is a cult, nothing more or nothing less.
A favorite comment stated:
You gotta come to LA to really experience Scientology in its full flower. The temple they’ve constructed in Hollywood would put any mega-church to shame. And who knows, you might run into a celebrity.
To be fair the woman is made my wedding dress is a Scientologist and she’s totally normal. Apparently the faith really helped her through a tough time and is really doing right by her kids. After hearing her account of it, I tried to be less quick to judge and give it more the benefit of the doubt.
It still seems quacky to me, though.
Gotta love an invitation to Los Angeles, a change of heart based on interaction with a real, live Scientologist, completed by an honest opinion!
The last comment took me from the City of Angels to Music City, where a friend posted:
They have a huge bldg in Nashville & have cute college-looking people handing out sheets with questions like “Want a free personality test?” or “Want to know what you are really like?” or “How do other people see you?” during music festivals and football games, etc. Interesting techniques. Glad I had strong anti-cult psychology classes.
My response to the cult-related posts was this:
I think when you are searching, any number of options can sound like a solution. It really takes knowledge of self, and knowledge of the people/organization/religion you are interested in so that you don’t end up in a situation that ends up being wrong for you.
I think the key for me during the whole 52 weeks was that I was not searching. I was not looking for a “Replacement Religion.” I was not looking for a better way to worship, or a better way to be a better me, or the one true way to find God. I simply wanted to stand in as many places that I could where the people there believed that they were in a place that was helping them to become who they were born to be, a place where they believed that what they were learning or doing was helping them to move closer to God, and to deal with whatever hand life had dealt them – good, bad or ugly.
For me, personally, that place is not, and will not be the Church of Scientology. But for many others, apparently, it is.
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