TAMPA, Fla. – The Rev. Charles Kennedy travels the country preaching the brilliance of L. Ron Hubbard‘s words. Children in his after-school program learn with the Scientology founder’s methods; church members study one of his books. The minister calls Scientologists the kindest people he’s met and their programs the best he’s found.
One thing sets Kennedy apart: He and his congregants are not Scientologists. They are Christians.
The Glorious Church of God in Christ here is among a number of houses of worship across the U.S. – how many is not clear – that have begun to embrace some of the Church of Scientology’s programs.
Scientologists say their interfaith partnerships show people of all faiths clamor for solutions to real-world problems. Detractors say it amounts to a cloaked effort to burnish the oft-maligned church’s image and attract new members by appearing less clandestine and more diverse. And the clergy that have adopted aspects of the Scientologists’ outreach say they’re simply making use of programs that work.
“When I see something effective, I embrace it. I took what we could use,” said Kennedy. “I haven’t found anything that deals with man better than what Mr. Hubbard has written.”
Kennedy isn’t alone among clergy outside the Church of Scientology in his steadfast appreciation of programs linked to it.
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In neighboring St. Petersburg, Imam Wilmore Sadiki’s mosque has participated in a human rights campaign sponsored by Scientologists and makes use of one of Hubbard’s texts. At Wayman Chapel in Houston, the Rev. James McLaughlin’s drug treatment center is built on Scientology principles and refers addicts to Narconon, its rehabilitation program. And at Word Evangelism Ministry in Washington, the Rev. Catherine Bego has helped distribute thousands of booklets spreading Scientologists’ messages against drugs and for moral living.
“We’re getting out the word to anybody,” Church of Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney said in a phone interview, “and wherever it falls, the corn grows.”
Scientology was founded in the 1950s by Hubbard, a science fiction writer. It teaches followers they are immortal spiritual beings, or thetans, who live on after death. The church says there is a supreme being but its practices do not include the worship of a god.
The Scientology programs being established in other faiths are under the umbrella of the Association for Better Living and Education, a nonprofit established in 1988 to oversee various outreach efforts connected with the Church of Scientology. ABLE has four main programs: the anti-drug Narconon; the criminal rehabilitation program Criminon; the morality code of The Way to Happiness; and the literacy and educational efforts of Applied Scholastics.
ABLE considers all of its programs secular and the non-Scientology champions of them say they are no affront to their faith.
Sadiki has allowed Scientologists to stage a “Good vs. Evil” skit at his St. Petersburg Islamic Center, offers a children’s class using “The Way to Happiness” and is considering offering Narconon and Applied Scholastics programs too. Not all of his followers were pleased.
“What is in it that’s not advantageous to everyone else?” he asked those who voiced opposition. “They couldn’t say anything.”
McLaughlin said he was searching for a drug program that had more staying power than the one his African Methodist Episcopal Church was running. He heard about the Scientologists’ efforts and established a new outpatient center after training from Narconon.
He says he’s seen nothing but good come of it: a higher success rate, saved lives and his own strengthened faith.
“I went in a Christian, I came out a Christian,” he said.
Those who doubt the Church of Scientology – and there are many – see something more sinister at play. One of the loudest such voices is a man in Tananger, Norway – Andreas Heldal-Lund – whose anti-Scientology Xenu.net Web site airs all sorts of claims about the church.
Heldal-Lund says most faith leaders see Scientology as incompatible with their beliefs and voicing acceptance for their programs as bad. He said most Scientologists are good people with good intentions, but its leaders simply want to expand their reach and buy credibility.
“People need to understand that this is used deliberately by the management of Scientology to get a foothold,” he said. “They are good at infiltrating. They are good at luring people.”
Harney says that simply isn’t true.
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“The detractors have very little actual information and base their opinions on prejudice and hypocrisy,” she wrote in an e-mail response to questions. “The results of these programs speak for themselves. And it is those results which attract people of other faiths to work with us.”
Throughout Scientology’s 53-year history, Harney said, members of other faiths have used aspects of Hubbard’s teachings: Buddhist priests in India and Sri Lanka trained in the Scientology Volunteer Minister program; Hindus in Nepal and Muslims in Egypt using Narconon; Jews and Muslims in the Palestinian territories distributing “The Way to Happiness.”
In all, Harney said, people from about 30 religious traditions utilize Hubbard’s work. She said the church has not tallied how many non-Scientology congregations use such programs.
None of the efforts are aimed at attracting new Scientologists, Harney said.
“Their faith choices are left up to them entirely,” she wrote.
Some who have been approached by proponents of Scientology-linked programs say they felt as if the representatives weren’t upfront about the connection to the Church of Scientology itself. The programs are technically separate but are built around Hubbard’s teachings and Scientologists help expand them, promote them and fund them.
The Rev. Prentiss John Davis, pastor at Unity Temple of Truth in St. Petersburg, said he was contacted by two “Way to Happiness” supporters after he participated in a community rally. He said they asked for a meeting to hear about his views and gave him a copy of the booklet. He didn’t realize until he saw the back cover that it was written by Hubbard; he said those he met later acknowledged they were Scientologists.
“I don’t mind communicating, but I don’t support all of the stuff they do,” Davis said. “Using my image and my words, my position as a supporter of L. Ron Hubbard – that’s what I don’t want the community to see from me.”
Ahmed Bedier, a Muslim who heads the Tampa office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was given a “Way to Happiness” booklet at a community event. He said a representative gave him a business card and asked to take a picture with him.
Later, he realized the connection to Scientology and found the photo posted online.
“It was a feeling of discomfort and mistrust,” he said.
Scientologists see their efforts as fulfilling an obligation to ease society’s ills. But even those who advocate the programs make a distinction between what they believe and what the Scientologists do.
Sadiki likes the simplicity of “The Way to Happiness” but says the Quran is needed for life’s full story. Bego is overcome by Scientologists’ kindness but says Christ is necessary in everyone’s life. And McLaughlin is amazed by Narconon’s success but makes one thing clear.
“There’s no connection between me and the Church of Scientology,” he said.
Kennedy talks proudly of his links to Scientologists, how they’ve sung in his choir and attended his picnics. He calls Hubbard “a wise man” and wishes Christians showed the determination of Scientologists. And yet a line is still drawn.
“I embrace the technology, not Scientology,” Kennedy said. “Scientology is nothing but a curriculum.”
Several years have passed since Kennedy first told congregants the idea he had. He laughs when he thinks of how riled some got. He didn’t care, though. He says he found something that works.