Ann Arbor - Parishioners trickle into a recent Sunday service, some forced to stand in the cramped quarters as the folding chairs are quickly filled. Those in attendance on this frigid, winter afternoon come from across Michigan and surrounding states to the 12:30 p.m. Church of Scientology service. Some shuffle in from the classrooms in the back. Others stand in the hallway just before the service, trying to rush a quick lunch before the service begins.
Many of the 30-some parishioners traveled several hours to come to the church. There's a few from Indiana, a handful from northern Michigan and plenty from the Ann Arbor region. Yet when the 25-minute service concludes, there isn't a rush to get out to the back parking lot in this suburban-like strip mall section of Ann Arbor. For many Scientologists this Sunday, their day is just beginning - or reaching the halfway point.
The service is just a highlight of a day filled with study, course work and counseling. And even in a relatively small congregation, space is tight. That may soon change. The Church of Scientology plans to buy the former Hart Hotel in downtown Battle Creek, much larger than the small office building it has leased in Ann Arbor the past eight years.
The move is also important for geographic reasons, said Mike Delaware, an executive secretary for the Church of Scientology and overseer of the move to Battle Creek. The church has two locations in Michigan - one in Ann Arbor and the other about 25 miles to the east in Farmington Hills. Delaware said many of the parishioners who come to Ann Arbor live on the west side of the state.
The new location will cut travel time and be more convenient for parishioners, who are expected to spend plenty of time at the church studying the writings and life-improvement techniques of Scientology's founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard.
Mention the Church of Scientology to average residents and they typically know a couple of basic facts: that the church has a somewhat controversial image and that actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise are among Scientology's large contingent of celebrity members.
The Church of Scientology is a relative unknown to those who haven't studied it thoroughly, and descriptions vary dramatically from the words of Scientology officials and the often harsh words of critics. The words Delaware speaks during the Sunday service - both his own and those he recites of Hubbard's work - relate to tips for Scientologists to live their lives.
Church officials say Scientology is "inter-denominational," meaning it has members who also practice other religions. When asked if God has a part in Scientology, Delaware says, "Absolutely, God has a part in it."
During his service, neither "God" nor "Jesus Christ" was mentioned often. The service begins, as it does every week, with the minister reciting the Creed of Scientology. (See "The Church's Creed" on next page.) Delaware then reads one of Hubbard's articles and gives a sermon based on that.
Delaware, one of 10 ministers who alternate at the Ann Arbor church, highlights the "two rules for happy living" featured in one of Hubbard's voluminous writings.
The rules: "Be able to experience anything" and "cause only those things which others are able to experience easily."
The rules sound similar to the Golden Rule - originated by the Buddhist religion and adopted by several other faiths - yet Delaware said Hubbard did not believe the Golden Rule was all-encompassing because it does not explain that "to be happy, one must be able to confront."
"Unhappiness is only this," Delaware said at the lectern, with a bust of L. Ron Hubbard seemingly looking over his right shoulder, "the inability to confront what is. If you can't confront, you won't be happy."
Parishioners of the church are then asked to share their thoughts and ask questions about the rules and the sermon, such as how they've applied them in the past week.
"Who could rule you with evil," Delaware asked as he concluded the sermon, "if you knew these rules and practiced them?" Many Scientologists then head to study those and other rules and courses after the service. Sundays usually consist of at least three hours of study and course work for parishioners, partly because many commute for the weekend and cannot come during the week.
The students are gradually working their way up the elaborate and lengthy "Bridge to Total Freedom," a journey that requires a strong work ethic and dedication. When parishioners are taking a course, they are required to be in the church studying or taking other services at least 12 hours a week, said Margarita Davis, executive director of the Church of Scientology Ann Arbor.
While midweek visits to churches of other denominations may consist of choir practice or a few hours of Bible study, Scientologists can be found in their church - which is open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. seven days a week - at all hours taking courses or being counseled in "auditing" sessions.
While no collection plate is passed during the weekly Sunday service, money changes hands for the services. The courses and the auditing sessions, which are one-on-one counseling periods for the members, can cost up to $3,200 for 12 1/2 hours, according to a course list provided by the church.
Scientologists readily compare the cost of the church's courses - all written by Hubbard, who wrote in a variety of genres, including science fiction - with the cost and benefits of a college education at a four-year university.
Church officials point to thousands of success stories showing people who've benefited from Hubbard's techniques for studying and improving communication skills. Critics, including former members of the church, say Scientology is a "destructive cult" and both sides seem entrenched in a bitter war to discount the other's credibility.
Where does it come from, this controversy that surrounds this religion, which has more than 150 churches internationally and nearly 50 in the United States? The foundations of the church stem from Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, Hubbard's signature book first published in 1950. The book details a philosophy that formed the basis for the first Church of Scientology that sprouted in 1954 in Los Angeles, a city that still serves as the headquarters, or "mother Church," for the religion.
Hubbard's writings and lectures on Scientology - more than 500,000 pages of writings contained in dozens of books and hundreds of lectures - make up the church's "scriptures." Church officials say Scientology is an "applied religious philosophy." As Davis explains, "We address every individual as a spiritual being." "In that sense, it is a religion and that's why, in principal, it is a religion," she said.
The Internal Revenue Service agreed in 1993, granting the Church of Scientology and all its secondary programs full tax-exempt status. Church officials considered it a major victory, especially coming off the heels of a 1991 article in Time Magazine depicting the church as a "cult of greed." The church then sued Time -- another long-standing legal battle. This time the courts, most recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York in January, ruled the suit should be dismissed, according to Church of Scientology International vs. Behar.
The major tenets of the Church of Scientology don't shed much light on the origin of controversy. The creed of the church includes beliefs that "all men have unalienable rights to their own lives ... their sanity ... to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others."
The tenets more closely resemble a philosophy for life, and members of the church speak glowingly about how the teachings of Scientology, which they say are so simple in nature, have made monumental differences in their lives. A glimpse at a course list echoes that simplicity and the self-help aisles of Any Bookstore, USA: Success Through Communication, The Way to Happiness, How to Improve Conditions in Life.
Halfway up the "Bridge to Total Freedom" lies the state of "Clear." The term refers to "a person who no longer has his own reactive mind and therefore suffers none of the ill effects that the reactive mind can cause," according to the What is Scientology? book based on the writings of Hubbard.
Students must take a series of courses to become "Clear," and there are seemingly infinite combinations of courses and audits that parishioners can take to get to that state. On average, it will cost between $18,000 and $35,000 to become "Clear." The process can take anywhere from three months to a few years, depending on how often the student takes courses, Davis said.
John Green of Flint said he was first drawn to Scientology in the 1970s by Hubbard's methods for study. Green, a former teacher, now works as a learning consultant for General Motors companies. "All of a sudden, it led me to wonder what else is here since I built my career on that first course," Green said. "One of the basic things you find yourself doing every day is communicating with other people, and there are so many ways Scientology can help with that."
Those services likely will be available soon in Battle Creek, triggering the curiosity of some local residents. The Battle Creek Enquirer has received about 10 letters from residents - about evenly split between church supporters and critics - regarding the church's plan to move here.
Todd Phipps of Battle Creek authored two of the letters and was greeted with a surprising message on his answering machine less than a week after the second critical letter appeared in the paper. The message was from John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology of New York. Carmichael, in Battle Creek at the time, requested to meet with Phipps to speak with him about why Phipps, an Evangelical Christian, was so opposed to Scientology.
"He was trying to get me to a point where I would be quiet and play nice," said Phipps. Phipps, who gathered information through the Internet from former members and other critics of the church, said the meeting lasted about two hours. Carmichael declined to comment on the details of the meeting. "That's just between him and me."
Is it common practice for a high-ranking church official to meet with a private citizen who writes two letters to the local newspaper? "I don't know that it's common practice," Carmichael said. "If I find someone who's got a problem with Scientology, I talk to them. The way the Church of Scientology deals with people who don't know about the Church of Scientology is to educate them.
"In every case, we feel we can resolve misunderstanding through education." Phipps said he was somewhat surprised by Carmichael's phone call but added there was also a part of him that expected it, from what he's heard about the church's aggressive nature in talking to critics.
"If an organization feels it has to do these kinds of things, coming in from New York to talk to me because I wrote a couple of letters to the editor, they have to be hiding something," Phipps said. "There has to be something to it, or their reaction wouldn't have to be that adverse." Carmichael said he had a variety of things to attend to in Battle Creek and also visited with the Battle Creek Enquirer several times.
Chuck Trammell, who grew up in Battle Creek, lived in Clearwater, Fla., for 16 years and moved back home in August. His main reason? "To get away from the Church of Scientology," he said. "They never did anything to me personally, I just don't like what they do. I want the people of Battle Creek to know that once they're in, they're in for good.
"They ruined the city of Clearwater," Trammell said. "It wasn't bad when they first snuck in there. "They slowly took it over ... All the Scientologists are going to do for this city is make it look like a busier city. That's all they'll do - bring more people in that don't spend any money."
The church's spiritual headquarters are based in Clearwater and the church now owns more than 38 parcels of land in Pinellas County, which includes Clearwater, according to Pam Dubov, chief deputy property appraiser for the county. The land has a total value of about $43 million and the church, while tax-exempt, is required to pay taxes on about a third of the property, Dubov said. The church has several buildings it uses as hotels for parishioners from out of town who come to Clearwater for courses and the church must pay property taxes on that land, Dubov said.
The church pays about $350,000 a year in property taxes in the county, Dubov said. Clearwater and Los Angeles are home to Scientology's two advanced organizations in the United States, where parishioners can take higher courses, including the Operating Thetan (OT) levels that are confidential.
The higher levels are kept confidential, according to What is Scientology?, because parishioners must have the information from the other courses to understand fully the upper levels.
"Scientologists believe that one must be properly prepared - spiritually and ethically - to receive these materials and that premature exposure could impede spiritual development," according to the book.
Clearwater, Los Angeles and New York City are the only places in the country the church has more than one building, Delaware said, and stressed the church only has plans for the Hart Hotel here.
"We're not going to hide the fact that we have a giant presence in Clearwater," Delaware said. "This (Battle Creek) will never be like that. That's like our senior organization on the planet, that is a completely different scenario." Delaware disagrees with Trammell's account of the church's effect on Clearwater, saying the Church of Scientology has revamped plenty of crumbling buildings in the city's downtown area.
"Clearwater, prior to the church's arrival in the 1970s, was a dying city filled with vacant buildings, and the church has really changed that," Delaware said. In regard to revamping an older, historic building, there is a similarity between Clearwater - where the renovations began with a historic hotel - and Battle Creek.
The church's local plans are to restore the former Hart Hotel, built in 1930 by W.K. Kellogg, to its original state, Delaware said. While Battle Creek Mayor Mark Behnke said about six residents have contacted him with their concerns, he said he does not see a problem with the church locating in Battle Creek. He applauds the willingness to renovate a historical landmark.
"I think you need to look at the economic development factor, and that's exactly what they're doing," Behnke said. "They're coming into a community and renovating an existing landmark that has not been practical for anyone else in the community to rehabilitate."
The church has not been a problem at all in Ann Arbor, according to the city's mayor, a University of Michigan spokeswoman and a family that owns a bakery right across the street from the church. They say you wouldn't even know the church was there if it wasn't for the sign in front of the building. Yet nationwide there are dozens of staunch critics of the Church of Scientology - including former members and mental health professionals who say Scientology controls its members' minds and urges people to separate from their friends and family.
"Scientology is one of the most destructive cults separating our country today," said Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], a licensed mental health counselor and author of Combatting Cult Mind Control. Hassan's statement echoes those in the Time article, the case which appears to be over after a nearly decade-long legal battle.
What can Battle Creek expect when the Church of Scientology comes to town? "Unfortunately what they can expect is people to come in and recruit their loved ones and friends," Hassan said. "The best possible thing for them to do is to educate themselves on this group and how its members operate."
Church officials, however, say Battle Creek can expect a group that will beautify a now-vacant building, a group that will be active in volunteering throughout the community and a group that will contribute to the quality of life by holding concerts and other events in and around its church.
Scientology is extremely active in defending itself from critics. Carmichael discounts the claims of Scientology's detractors. He says for every person who speaks critically of Scientology, there are thousands of success stories.
Scientology officials say those who speak against the church have a "vested interest" in doing so. When asked about specific claims, Carmichael produces arrest records against those making the claims.
Carmichael calls the reports "false information correction packs," but when asked directly, he did say they have also been referred to as "dead agent packs," the term Scientology critics used to describe the reports. Carmichael said the term "dead agent" is borrowed from Art of War, by Chinese strategist Sun-tzu.
"When somebody is out there telling lies, you can prove they are telling lies so they are considered 'dead' for the enemy," Carmichael said. Stacy Brooks and Jesse Prince, both former Scientologists, are among the most vocal critics and also considered "dead agents."
Both now work for the Lisa McPherson Trust in Clearwater, Fla., a group that has as its mission statement: "to expose the abusive and destructive practices of the Church of Scientology and help those who have been victimized by it." Carmichael said both Brooks and Prince are "paid anti-Scientologists" and are making up stories about the church.
"How come these two people are spending their lives saying lies about Scientology, saying vile things about Scientology? You've got to ask yourself that," Carmichael said. "I'm telling you why: because they can't get another job and they're getting paid well to do this."
Carmichael says the church does have files, which include criminal records, on critics of the church.
"Do church attorneys employ private investigators to keep up on people who are making a dedicated effort to attack the Church of Scientology?" Carmichael asked before answering his own question. "Yes. We find all kinds of things when we look into these people."
Delaware says Scientology's stance against drugs - including all psychiatric drugs such as Prozac - makes the church an easy target. "We don't believe that you can achieve spiritual awareness if you are on any mind-altering drugs, including psychiatric drugs, and that's not a very popular opinion with the drug companies," Delaware said. The controversial image isn't likely to end for the Church of Scientology, now approaching its 47th birthday, a young age considering the centuries of history behind most mainstream religions.
The success stories aren't likely to end either as hundreds of thousands of Americans - and hordes of parishioners across the globe - are dedicated to the teachings of the church and continue to practice Scientology and its beliefs.
"Our belief is that our technology works," Delaware said. "We have a technology of communication where people learn to communicate and state their views and not back down from it."