Where Scientology Makes Its Case

Washington City Paper/August 9, 2010

You've done the rounds of the Smithsonians. You may even have checked off the more minor museums, like the Textile Museum, the Postal Museum, and the Navy Museum.

But have you been to the Scientology museum?

Last October-the day the St. Petersburg Times published a long expose of the Church's pursuit of defectors-the new Founding Church of Scientology at 16th and P Street NW opened to a welcome of some 3,000 devotees and a speech by Church leader David Miscavige (a.k.a. Tom Cruise's best man and secret videotaper). The Church had bought the edifice for $17.35 million in 2005, and after extensive renovations, all 49,000 square feet and seven floors were put to use for a chapel, classrooms, bookstore, offices, and a "purification center."

To access the top floors, you might have to advance further in the actual pursuit of Dianetics than Housing Complex was willing to go. But the first floor, open seven days a week, is enough of a spectacle.

After entering through the front doors, you'll notice the "Office of L. Ron Hubbard," which has never actually been occupied by the religion's founder, who died in 1986 (to actually feel his spectral presence, you'll need to visit the L. Ron Hubbard house, just a few blocks away at 1812 19th Street). A friendly receptionist will ask you to sign in and call another uniformed staffer to give you an orientation. The attention isn't overwhelming; they've struck the right balance of warmth and distance, allowing you to explore at your own pace.

And the pace could be quite slow, if you allowed yourself to fully absorb the materials available. The relatively small visitors center floor has every kind of pamphlet and textbook the Church has produced, displayed with, um, Scientological precision. It packs in perhaps a dozen video bays with elaborate features documenting each aspect of Scientology, from the life of the founder to Scientology's "volunteer emergency ministers" to its take on drug addiction. Look at all these Indonesian public officials and 9/11 firefighters who value Scientology! I thought. What if there actually is something to this crazy religion? Back away slowly.

It was a fleeting moment. Upon wandering all the way through to the back of the visitors center, I came upon a video theater, an apparently unused open kitchen, and then a "testing center." That's when I started to back slowly away, smiling weakly as the attendant asked what exhibits I had enjoyed. I told her it was getting late, and that I might come back later. Any time, she said. They even have an outdoor barbeque on Saturdays.

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