Scientologists visiting Va. Tech to help

Scientologists address man as a spiritual being and say they help people to improve their lives.

The Roanoke Times, Virginia/April 26, 2007
By Pamela J. Podger

Blancksburg -- Brian Grogan, 26, was chomping on a hot dog before heading to work Wednesday when he noticed people in canary yellow T-shirts handing out religious pamphlets.

A moment later, he realized they were Scientologists.

"They're leeches," Grogan said. "They show up wherever something bad happens and use that to spread their propaganda."

Scientologists say they're no different from the Southern Baptists, Catholics or Buddhists who've given solace since the April 16 shooting spree on the Virginia Tech campus.

"We try to help people with the initial panic and upset," said Sylvia Stanard, a spokeswoman with the Founding Church of Scientology in Washington, D.C. "We offer a calming presence."

Stanard said the 20 or so volunteers minister in many ways, from offering massages on the Drillfield to kicking soccer balls with grieving students. They arrived early last week and intend to remain as long as they are needed.

"We're offering spiritual counseling to help people get over what they've experienced so they don't have to feel alone," Stanard said. "We're here to help."

But detractors say it's help with a hook.

"They are trying to recruit members," said the Rev. Scott Russell, associate pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, who said he called the Blacksburg police Wednesday when he saw their yellow tent erected on a grassy plot on Church Street. "They're vultures and they're taking advantage of people's pain."

Scientology is based on the works of science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and has attracted Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. Scientologists address man as a spiritual being and say they give people tools to improve their lives. Spiritual counseling, which they call "auditing," helps people reduce and eventually erase the "reactive mind," which is a source of irrationality and fear.

Ray Giunta, a chaplain with "We Care," a type of quick-response ministry that offered counseling in the aftermath of the 1991 shooting spree in Killeen, Texas, the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina, said the Scientologists' tactics on the Tech campus irked him.

"... Kids can't walk across the Drillfield without being hit up," Giunta said. "People are vulnerable and we need to give them permission to grieve in a safe environment and not take advantage of it. It's not fair to impose an agenda. The Scientologists are being inappropriate."

But Aaron Carson, 19, who was carrying boxes of pamphlets to the new tent, said he was excited about his first day in Blacksburg with other Scientologists.

"I just hope people understand that all we're trying to do is help, just like any other church," said Carson, of Alexandria.

Bill Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, said religious plurality comes into focus in crises.

"Now, along with dealing with the tragedy, people have to sort out, 'whose grief therapy do you want?' " he said.

On a downtown corner, Tom Wells and another volunteer from Oregon handed out Scientology pamphlets and yellow cards reading, "No matter how bad it is ... Something can be done about it." The two men said they've been well received.

"We've had a lot of people thank us for our work," Wells said. "That is our pay."

Scott Schneider, 25, a doctoral student in computer science, said he was angered by Scientologists' dismissal of psychology and psychiatry.

"I think that is dangerous, particularly for people getting over a tragic event," he said.

He said their shirts, which have a white cross on the back and Scientology Volunteer Minister printed on the front, were misleading.

"On the back of their shirts is a cross and I think that is deceitful," he said. "I think they are just exploiting people."

Pris Sears, an assistant administrator in the Department of Horticulture, said she spoke with Scientologists who have traveled to Tech from Florida and Washington, D.C. She said she's called university officials to complain.

"They are very aggressive," she said. "I observed our students being polite, but I do believe our students are smart enough to not get involved with them."

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