Nambhiarinagar Village, India -- By trade, Randy Meyers is an auto mechanic. Back home in Battle Creek, Mich., he would be tending to his repair shop, perhaps navigating the intricacies of computerized fuel injection. Instead, he stands on sandy earth on the other side of the world, running his fingers over traumatized people -- the wounded, the frightened, the lost souls of the great Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 400 people from this village alone.
Meyers is healing the survivors, he says, employing the techniques he has learned from Scientology. More precisely, he is helping them heal themselves, eradicating pain waves and allowing energy waves to flow, clearing pathways for nerves to run errands of anatomical necessity, liberating the spirit to align with the body as described in the confident prose of the late L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology and the applied practices known as Dianetics. Amid the grief and loss in southern India, against a clamor for food and attention to the threat of disease, the Scientologists are here, offering up "locational processing," cognition and "spiritual beingness."
"Volunteer Minister," Meyers's yellow T-shirt proclaims. You do not know the sound that a tree makes when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it. You cannot imagine the sound of a wave big enough to clear coconut palms and smash houses into bits. But you now know the sound of a Scientology minister tending to survivors. "Feel my finger," Meyers says, as he touches the ankle of a man with back pain. "Feel my finger," he says again as he touches the opposite ankle. "Feel my finger," he says for hours unending as he probes points of which you were only vaguely aware.
What he is doing, Meyers explains later, is conducting a "touch assist," which helps someone in pain "get back into communication with their body." When he applies his fingers -- strong fingers, fingers skilled in identifying faulty brake lines -- he is "drawing the being's attention to that point that gets us back to communication."
It is an inexact science, this Scientology. "Sometimes, one minute, two minutes, it's like, boom! They just cheer right up," Meyers says. "Sometimes, it's 30 or 40 minutes. You don't end until you get a change. Sometimes, stuff will just turn off. They might be, like, numb and it'll kind of get worse while you're doing it, and you've got to keep going."
Two days before he left Michigan, a very pregnant woman came into his repair shop and told him she was being induced to go into labor and would have a Caesarean if it didn't work out. "I'm there to fix cars, but if there's something else going on. . . . "
He conducted a special assist, designed to get this particular job done: He took her into his office and told her to hand him things. "Hand me that stapler. Hand me that tape."
Did it work? "I don't know," he says. "I had to leave. I'll find out when I get home."
Auto mechanic as healer: Meyers does not need your affirmation. The team of 28 volunteer ministers in southern India is a crowded lot of confident self-actualizers. There is Iain Cochran, 31, who normally works as an accountant for a vitamin company in the United Kingdom, overseeing payroll and bill payment, now laboring to "restore communication with an ill or injured area of a being." There is Tim Ford, who sells sunglasses in Clearwater, Fla., now squatting over a man lying face down on a straw mat as he prods him here and there in what is known as a "nerve assist."
They work quietly, in a circle, as their patients close their eyes. When village children gather behind them, giggling, a Scientologist photographer with bright Chinese dragons tattooed on his forearms scolds them mightily. "Go away!" he commands.
When a tractor comes by, driven by a man wearing a face mask, spewing a cloud of white dust -- an insecticide named Doom -- the ministers halt their work and glare until the spraying ceases.
Say what you want about its informational tables on the street corners of American cities, the ads for Dianetics on late night cable television, those people trying to get you to submit to their tests: Scientology has solid institutional backing here. In the eyes of the local public, its operations are indistinguishable from those of UNICEF and CARE and the Red Cross.
The nurse at the village medical clinic sends patients to the Scientologists when they complain of chronic pain. The deputy health officer for the district government formally blessed the inclusion of Scientology in the local relief effort, then submitted to a training so he himself could assist with the assists. Then he arranged for the training of the nurses at the local hospital, their medical techniques now augmented by a clearer understanding of "the body communication process." An eclectic roster of disciples now includes a class of local culinary students, polytechnical students and some mechanical engineers.
"They asked for training," says Robert Anderson, the team's operations manager, who hails from Boulder, Colo. "They heard what we were doing and asked us to set it up."
The Scientologists are here and everywhere in this disaster -- in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. They are doing their assists and handing out little blue booklets in local languages, "The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living."
The book says nothing about Scientology per se in its 64 pages of moral and medical instruction -- "Don't be Promiscuous . . . Preserve Your Teeth . . . Don't Do Anything Illegal." The ministers stress that they are not here proselytizing and, in fact, are not part of a religion, that their Scientology is compatible with any and all faiths.
"If your car is broken down and you fix it with a spanner, you might also pray," says Cochran. "Scientology is the spanner."
Yet this avoidance of the label of religion might not be necessary here, in a nation that amounts to a rich stew of overlapping faiths spiced up with animism and beliefs in the arcane, the sublime and the bizarre. Every day seems to be a festival for some group of adherents to something. A local Catholic church is thronged as a pilgrimage place for people of every religion, from Muslims to Hindus, because it is said that praying there delivers what one seeks.
Besides, what just unfolded here is a disaster so vast and unthinkable it could give any nonbeliever religion. To absorb the pain and fear inflicted across vast areas is to confront the feeling that somebody or something just smote a whole bunch of people.
So, they are open to it, these people here, open to anything and everything that might work. Chinaachi Ammai has been unable to go near the ocean since it roared across the land and washed away her house. As Meyers and an Indian trainee accompany her down to the water -- sort of a contact assist and sort of a location assist, it is explained -- Ammai bends down, touches the sea and laughs. A small wave hits her, wets the bottom of her sari. She laughs some more. "Now I feel fine," she says as she stands on the beach afterward.
Singaravel Sakuntala pronounces her leg pain diminished after a touch assist from Cochran. She said the same after some doctors came and gave her an injection a few days earlier. She's still willing to try whatever else might be left on the shelf.
"If you give me medicines," she says, "I'll be happy."