Church blends quietly in progressive Ann Arbor

Parish kept a low profile

Battle Creek Enquirer/February 25, 2001
By Matt Galnor

Ann Arbor -- Here in Ann Arbor, the impact of the Church of Scientology is minimal. Neighbors across the street from the church say they've never heard a peep. The mayor, a lifelong Ann Arbor resident, say he knows the church is there, but has never heard of any problems. A longtime city councilwoman gives the same response.

A Lutheran pastor in the area says, although he's somewhat surprised, the Church of Scientology doesn't seem to have much of a presence in the diverse, university town. Many attribute that to the progressive nature of Ann Arbor, a city known in the Midwest for its accepting attitude toward a variety of cultures.

"You could be in Ann Arbor in a religion that required you to walk down the street wearing purple socks and no shirt, and no one would even notice," Mayor John Hieftje said. "Ann Arbor is the kind of place that attracts all sorts of people of diverse backgrounds. It's the kind of place where everybody really fits in." Will Battle Creek be the same way?

The Church of Scientology plans to move from its Ann Arbor location at 2355 W. Stadium Blvd. to Battle Creek's former Hart Hotel this year. Church officials say they hope to have at least part of the historic building renovated by late April to begin moving some of its office staff to the Cereal City. Critics of the Church of Scientology say the church often looks to recruit young people who are away from home, such as college students and those in the military.

Yet officials from both groups in Ann Arbor speak to the contrary. "There have been no reports of any problems that we are aware of with that organization and our students," said Julie Peterson, a University of Michigan spokeswoman. "We haven't had anyone complain that people from that organization were where they shouldn't be," such as in dormitories or in a booth on campus without a permit, she said.

Peterson added there also have been no reports of students complaining to any counselors or the Dean of Students' office about the group's recruiting. "I'm not aware of it at all, either here in Michigan or nationally," said Lt. Col. Christopher Lucier, chairman of the Army Officer Program at U-M, who has been in the military 20 years and in his current position for the last 3 1/2 . "I've never run across it."

Much of that could be attributed to the small number of Scientologists that actually call Ann Arbor their home. About 100 people visit the church each week, said Mike Delaware, an executive secretary with the Church of Scientology. Only about 20 members live in Ann Arbor, while the majority commute from places as far as Toledo, Ohio, and northern Indiana, Delaware said.

The Church of Scientology has a representative, Laurie Gailunas, on the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County. The executive director of that organization said Gailunas' participation has been welcomed. "I think image and stereotypes are counteracted by first-hand engagement, and our first-hand engagement with Laurie has been nothing but positive," said George Lambrides, a Protestant chaplain at the University of Michigan Hospital.

He oversees the roundtable that has delegates from 31 churches in the county. Mark Schulz, minister of worship and community outreach for the Saint Luke Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, said he is aware of the church and its critics but he says he also has not run across any problems with Scientologists. "It doesn't have a very high profile as far as I know," said Schulz, whose church does not participate in that particular roundtable. "It's sort of surprising, actually, that they don't have a higher profile."

While Schulz is familiar with the beliefs of the church, Cynthia Royal and Nikki Swap - two sisters who own Dough Boy's Bakery across the street from the church - are not.

"I don't know anything about the philosophy, but as far as being neighbors, we've never had any problems at all," Royal said. "You would never even know they were there. It wouldn't be something for anyone to be concerned about. We've never had any problems or concerns ever."

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