The Spirit Moved Them: Scientology Church Grows

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The first thing many subway riders hear as they exit the subway station at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue often is, “Ma’am, do you have stress in your life?”

It’s an initial hint of one newer brand of religious outreach that continues on street level – and 125th Street in particular has seen its share of street-corner religion, from mainline Protestant denominations to the Nation of Islam. The latest comer is the Church of Scientology in Harlem, which last week purchased two new properties on the street and is planning a major recruitment drive. The church is significantly enlarging its space and programming – and nearly doubling its office staff, from 43 to about 80. The church’s growth comes at time when real estate pressures have created challenges for some smaller religious institutions, but with support and financial backing from its California base, the Church of Scientology in Harlem is planning to expand.

Developed in the 1950’s by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology relies on belief in a higher power, but its practitioners say it is compatible with all religions and is steeped in self-help approaches to problems like drug addiction, illiteracy, and as subway riders know – stress. But many consider it a cult-like group religion that comes too close to being a for-profit institution.

Currently, the Church of Scientology in Harlem is more of a spiritually than physically distinctive presence in the area. The building it now occupies is about 5,000 square feet, tucked into the Bank of America on 3rd Avenue, estimates director Jerry Hines. Were it not for the sandwich board sign on the sidewalk, few would know it exists. But Hines claims that in the four years the church has been in Harlem, its congregation has grown into the thousands and the current space is no longer adequate.

In 2003, to accommodate new members, the church spent $3.5 million to buy 220 125th Street – a six-story industrial building the organization has begun renovating into a church. Within the coming year, its 30,000 to 50,000 square feet (according to the real estate broker’s and Hines’s figures, respectively) will have a sauna – part of the church’s anti-toxin purification program – a film center, and a variety of classrooms and training rooms. All of this is standard in a Scientology church, but this one will be decorated to suit the people it’s aimed at serving: Computer renderings of what the place will look like show rooms with African motifs. Even the current office, however small, has a few well-placed gourds.

The large, architecturally impressive building is being remodeled and, once complete, will take the place of the small-scale operation on 3rd Avenue. Sandwiched between the soon-to-be church and the new properties is a branch of the New York Public Library.

The two just-bought properties – 230 and 232 East 125th Street – were purchased for a collective $10.2 million. Both properties were formerly owned by St. Samuel Church of God in Christ, which has moved one block east. According to Hines, the two properties will be remade into one community center, offering reading programs for children, drug rehabilitation programs, and a program called “A Way to Happiness” which Hines said teaches “a nonreligious moral code based on common sense.”

“Primarily, this is aimed at helping black people,” said Hines, who is black. “Black people have been in a struggle for such a long time … so [Hubbard] wanted to make Scientology available to them so they can increase their ability and intelligence.”

Hines was eager to discuss Hubbard’s “Message for Black People,” in which he extols the virtues of his creed and the benefits it can bring to followers. Hubbard writes, “Completely aside from what it means to whites, Scientology offers to the black people of America a wonderful chance.”

Harlem was chosen for the church’s location because of its historic role as the center of the city’s black community, but few of the church’s members are from there, said Hines. Most are from the Bronx and Brooklyn, where small pockets of faithful Scientologists form “Dianetics groups” and are supported by the church in Harlem. Eventually, the church plans to build centers in these boroughs. Manhattan already is home to two other Scientology churches, on West 46th and East 82nd streets.

In a predominantly Christian community like Harlem, the emergence of Scientology may seem out of place, and while some Harlem churchgoers have expressed ire with the organization, on the whole there has been little opposition.

“We’re not concerned with their faith. We would be concerned with how they would be good neighbors and actively improve living conditions,” said Lucille McEwen, president and CEO of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement. “Our long-term residents certainly need things like recreational centers, and to the extent they’re providing those, and providing them without trying to promote their faith, we welcome them,” she added. McEwen said that she did not know much about Scientology’s practices.

Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, echoed that perspective. “One of the things they deal with is a lot of stuff about stress. And I can see why that’d be very appealing to people in this neighborhood,” he said.

Kooperkamp, who has worked in Harlem for more than 25 years, was surprised at the church’s growth, but said the neighborhood has always been tolerant of alternative spiritual paths.

– Anna Phillips