Church-run charities abound by the dozens in Roxbury, but they are not usually operated by the oft-controversial Church of Scientology, which last month kick-started classes at its Washington Street literacy center with a grand opening that offered free food and sidewalk chalk for children.
The church members who staff the literacy center, in a storefront marked with bright-yellow “Boston Scientology Ministry” signs, say they wanted to do something about the increase in violence in Boston, which they attribute in part to poor education.
The ministry used to be in Dorchester’s Codman Square, but moved in May to Roxbury to be closer to the main church and to share space with another Scientology organization, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, focusing on antipsychiatry efforts.
“My goal is to infuse the community with tools they can use,” said Robert Castagna , a Scientology minister who heads up the literacy program. “I’m not here to save your soul, but if you can’t read, you have a major handicap spiritually.”
Scientology, founded in the 1950s by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is a religion that has often drawn the suspicion of the American public. Billing itself as an “applied religious philosophy” that believes humans live many lives and can achieve higher states of awareness, the church teaches that psychiatry is a hoax. It also has been criticized as a cult that extracts money from its followers.
A number of parents who use the literacy services say they enjoy the tutoring as long as proselytizing is left out.
“I’m not really into the ministry because I’m a Christian, but they’re good as far as helping your child,” said Tycia Feagin , 28, of Roxbury, whose 6 -year-old son attends the program. “They helped me to help him. I like what they’re doing.” The program runs from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Yet, Feagin, like many who work and live nearby, remains cautious about getting too close to the group’s teachings.
“It seems the way they go about it, you trick your mind,” she said. “It’s interesting, but I’ve tried many religions and I feel God is my way.”
Somalia native Ruqiya Bule , 23, of Roxbury, said her 7 -year-old son likes the program.
“I think it’s helpful for the kids,” said Bule, who is a Muslim and didn’t learn until recently that Scientology is a religion. “They give you one-on-one attention.”
Not everyone in the neighborhood appreciates the church’s activities, which include free handouts of a main Hubbard book, “Dianetics.”
“What they preach, I don’t think I have the same belief,” said Patricia Doely of Lynn, who works in a hair salon on Washington Street and worships at the 12th Baptist Church in Roxbury. She didn’t read the pamphlets that Scientology ministers left in the shop. “If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them go there. They bring their books by and try to bring people in.”
Salon owner Helen Roy said people on the block have noticed the Scientology center but many won’t walk inside.
“People talk about it. They talk about how crazy Tom Cruise is,” citing the actor’s well-publicized statements backing Scientology.
Yet the program appears to meet a community need.
– Justice Anderson, Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia, quoted at What judges have to say about Scientology
“I’ve contacted other places, but they said I had to sign up in January,” said South End resident Brenda Powell, 55 , who is working on a general equivalency diploma, or GED. “And that’s why I’m here.”
Most of the volunteer ministers, like Castagna, are graduates of a Scientology program that they say qualifies them to teach Hubbard’s study techniques. They say they don’t intend to bring people into the religious fold.
“Yes, we’re proud of our founder, but I don’t have a plan of action to recruit anyone here,” said the Rev. Gerard Renna , leader of the church’s Back Bay congregation. “I have a plan to help the mayor and the police.”
To that end, the Washington Street church collected nearly 100 guns in the buy-back program launched this summer by the city.
Northeastern University professor Susan Setta said Scientology, like the Boston-based Church of Christ, Scientist, and the Church of Latter Day Saints before it, is now the nation’s preferred anti religion. Their Roxbury outpost is no different than any other religious program, she said.
“Some religions help by example,” said Setta, department chair for religion and philosophy. “The Scientologists believe they have the answer and they believe they can help people. They think that if you’re a Scientologist, it would be better, but I think they think they can help you even if you’re not.”