Hundreds attend as the church celebrates the opening of a new facility in Plant City [Florida].
PLANT CITY – John Travolta? In Plant City?
Word spread at a late-morning bingo game Sunday that the famous actor might make an appearance at a nearby downtown park.
He’s a widely known member of the Church of Scientology, which was celebrating the opening of a new Life Improvement Center in the historic district of Plant City’s Collins Street. So Robert Connor didn’t think it was too far fetched and decided to check it out.
Turned out, Connor and his bingo buddies had the wrong celebrity.
Instead, he found actor Erika Christensen, who currently appears in ABC’s drama series Six Degrees, and has also starred in movies that include Flightplan, Swimfan and Traffic.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Connor, 30, of Auburndale. “This is the first time I’ve seen a crowd like this here before.”
Several hundred people showed up for Sunday’s ribbon cutting ceremony at the 11,000- square-foot center in what used to be Hooker’s Department Store at 102 N Collins St. The event featured a family carnival, held inside McCall Park, and tours of the facility, which plans to operate seven days a week.
– The Selling of a Church: The Courting of Celebrities
The Plant City center has 44 displays depicting the principles of Dianetics, Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. It will be staffed by 14 full-time church employees who will supervise introductory Scientology courses offered there.
The church began an education program in the area during the fall that teaches English as a second language. It had been meeting at a local restaurant, but will now hold classes at the new center, said Pat Harney, a spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology in Clearwater.
Harney estimates there are 12,000 Scientologists in the Tampa Bay area alone.
“Who can find something wrong with this?” the Rev. Charles Kennedy, pastor of the Glorious Church of Christ, asked the crowd before he gave an invocation. “And this park, I don’t think it will ever be the same after today.”
Kennedy’s gospel choir sang during the ceremony. He said he moved his church service up to 8 a.m. in order to attend.
“One thing I appreciate about Scientologists is they let us be who we are,” Kennedy said.
Christensen, the actress, said she has been involved with the Church of Scientology for 10 years. She’s spoken to Congress on behalf of the church’s antidrug programs and uses her fame in other ways to educate.
“People of all faiths need to unite so we can solve the problems that plague us,” Christensen said.
The Rev. Lynn Irons, co-executive director of the Church of Scientology, Tampa, said that’s what the new center is there to help facilitate. He gave a historical view of Plant City during his remarks and pledged to help preserve that history.
“We believe man is basically good,” Irons said. “He is seeking to survive and his survival depends on working with others to create a better, more cultured world.”
Scientologists also have a Life Improvement Center in Ybor City, where church staffers regularly stand outside to persuade passers-by to come inside for personality or stress tests or to view a video or lecture about Scientology.
Gayle Lozier, 58, of Dunedin has been a Scientologist for 30 years. She joined because she said the church teaches things that she already believed.
“You realize you’re not alone in your thinking,” she said.
Chester Cercone, 71, of Lakeland had planned to spend the day exploring the antique shops in Plant City’s historic downtown.
When he found out they were closed, he decided to stick around for the gospel music and fried chicken.
“I check everything out,” Cercone said, pointing to a stack of pamphlets he collected on Scientology. “I wouldn’t mind checking this out. That’s how I became a Baptist.”
As for Connor, he wasn’t too far off with his Travolta rumor. The actor is scheduled to speak today, at the opening of another new Scientology center in downtown St. Petersburg.