NEW BEDFORD — The controversial Church of Scientology set up camp at the Whaling City Festival yesterday, maintaining it can help solve the city’s violence and drug problems.
“The plan is to get scientology solutions everywhere,” said the Rev. Robert W. Castagna, the church’s community outreach director, who presided under a bright yellow tent at Buttonwood Park.
He said those solutions include learning about issues underlying violence, such as family values and literacy. He also advocated following the teachings of the late L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder.
Revered by followers who include actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, critics say Hubbard was a cult leader, charlatan and con artist.
New Bedford resident Kristen Schofield, a volunteer minister and member of the Scientologists since 1997, dismisses the criticism.
“If you really understand what’s going on you can really get the answers,” she said.
It was Ms. Schofield who asked church representatives to come to New Bedford after witnessing violence on her doorstep.
“We have a lot of shootings, drugs and a lot of gun violence,” she said. “I was really fed up with the problems that were happening. I could actually see drug dealings … going on in front of my house.”
“It got me worried that nothing was being done,” said the South First Street area resident. “This a step in the right direction.”
Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr., who was visiting the festival yesterday afternoon but hadn’t been to the Scientology tent, said he is willing to listen to what the Scientologists and other faith denominations, have to say.
“Many solutions can be found through the faith-based community,” he said, adding that his community liaison Walter Moniz planned to stop by the tent and he might, as well.
“These are folks who are making a presentation in conjunction with the festival,” he said. “Allow people to make their own judgment.”
The tent, which has been to other cities across the state, opened at 4 p.m. yesterday but initially, at least, drew little attention. Mr. Hubbard’s books and pamphlets were for sale and offered in English, Portuguese and Spanish.
The Rev. Castagna also was seeking people to sign up as volunteer ministers. He said they didn’t have to join the church formally.
He added that the Scientologists aren’t setting up shop permanently in the city yet, but volunteers like Ms. Schofield could help that happen.
“At this moment we’re just trying to show people what we have to offer,” he said.