Torkelson: Scientologists bar negativity, interviewing

Rocky Mountain News, Oct. 21, 2002

Given nearly 50 years of controversy, it’s probably fitting that a Sunday visit to the Church of Scientology began in the office of a steamed church official, Pat Post.

Post didn’t know I got permission last week to attend the church – much less interview members, who follow the teachings of science fiction writer and all- around Renaissance man L. Ron Hubbard.

I began innocently with Chuck Herdkamp, 56, a software consultant I met as we strolled into the converted office suite in Englewood.

“I was having problems in life; a couple of weeks into Scientology, it all started making sense,” Herdkamp said, just as Post intervened.

I told Post that in six years of covering religion, from mainline churches to witches’ covens, this was the first time I was forbidden to interview members.

“We have survived incredibly vicious (media) attacks,” Post said, implying the church would survive me, too.

Nevertheless, I had to promise not to talk to members and to stay for an orientation film that explored Hubbard’s core idea, Dianetics.

His complex message involves “rehabilitation of the human spirit” contaminated – though this part isn’t in the film – by alien space beings, eons ago.

If it’s possible for a church with worship-mansions worldwide and an actual “Celebrity Headquarters” in Hollywood to feel put upon, Scientology does.

Lawsuits have embroiled the church and ex-members, including in Colorado.

The media? Grossly unfair, says the church. It offers a whole booklet to rebut one 1991 Time magazine article that asks if Scientology is “a ruthless global scam.”

Lawsuits and dark suspicions seem far away in the cheery Sunday buzz. The meeting room is ordinary, save for the church symbol, an eight-pronged cross. A photo shows Hubbard, who died in 1986, looking meditative. The 10 members range from an elderly gent in a flannel shirt to several clean-cut youths.

At the podium is executive director Deanne Macdonald, 46, wearing an electric-blue shirt and a white clergy collar. Her sunny and hospitable demeanor extends even to the media visitor. With a laugh, she says she was “a girl of the ’70s” who left the Methodist Church seeking more spiritual answers.

“Hello, Bruno!” she says, touching off a chorus of greetings.

Much of the hour is spent in “group processing,” a form of mental exercises to plump up positive thoughts and wring out the bad: “Think of some things your father wanted unchanged about you,” she invites. “That takes some doing,” somebody says wryly.

In another room, 20 people continue banishing negative ideas, which the church says promotes good lives and reduces crime and drugs. One woman bends over clay figures with a chess player’s intensity. A man in combat fatigues holds a teddy bear.

Perhaps they can’t speak to reporters, but they have the freedom powerfully put forth in their orientation film, “What’s true is what’s true for you.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday October 22, 2002.
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