Inglewood Scientologists greeted with caution

Los Angeles Wave/October 12, 2011

Inglewood -- With the imminent opening of a new, $5 million Church of Scientology facility downtown — and a nearby community center set to open at the end of the month, on the site of the former Vermont Village Plaza in South Los Angeles — those who will share a community with the controversial faith are divided over its potential impacts.

Earlier this year, the church successfully won reversal of planning commission denial of its plans for the 45,000-square-foot building at 315 Market St., a property it purchased in 2008 by outbidding the city's redevelopment agency.

A former retail jewelry store, the site had been empty for at least 12 years.

According to the applicant's proposal, the new space features a chapel/multi-purpose room, a display area, seminar rooms, course rooms, a 2,424-square-foot book store, exercise/sauna rooms and related offices.

The 1,855 square-foot chapel is scheduled to be used from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sundays and the remaining 28,774 square feet of usable floor area from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays, and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

During the Sunday gathering times, the counseling rooms will remain closed, and the church indicated that it will employ two shifts of employees with a total of 37 full and part-time staff workers.

The controversial organization — which some have likened to a cult — teaches that people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature.

Through a method of spiritual rehabilitation known as "auditing," practitioners aim to consciously re-experience painful or traumatic events in their past in order to free themselves of their limiting effects. On Oct. 3 — a Monday and usually light business day, as many stores on Market Street are closed — The Wave found opposing views among local residents, workers and business owners.

Ron Clark, a three-year resident who stopped by the front of the building, revealed he was a born-again Christian and called the church's arrival "not good."

"To me, it's a bad religion," he explained.

"I live my life according to the Bible … Really, they think because people are wealthy they made it because of Scientology. It's like people mention [celebrities followers of Scientology] and how successful they are. They use that as a recruiting [tool]."

Clark added: "They want to help people, but it's all about recruiting. They are trying to get people to start believing in this new religion. Have you seen their building on Sunset, near Vermont, it's a huge, beautiful edifice, but it's all about recruiting. And where did they get the money from? Hello?"

However, Mark Brulee, who owns a hair salon across the street, saw "absolutely no problem with it."

"I have no problem with them coming here to boost their message," he said.

"Why should someone look, or talk down to them just because they are another section of religion that's coming in? I think we should fully support them and welcome them with open arms."

Asked whether he believes the church is seeking to recruit Inglewood residents, Brulee replied: "Yeah, but OK, what's the problem? I did the questionnaire, so I'm open to go and see. I believe in God and it's not a problem."

According to Nick Banks in the International Scientology Media Center, the director of the Inglewood facility and community center is Juan Bogen, who has been prepping for the opening of the two facilities.

In an email response to questions about Scientology's plans for Inglewood, Patricia Harris, a church director of public affairs, noted that the organization has been in the city for eight years.

The new facility, she said, is a natural progression of that outreach.

"The Church will offer the full complement of church services, including Life Improvement Courses that apply Scientology basics to the problems of everyday living, such as marriage, financial success, how to get motivated, knowing who to trust, raising children and more," she wrote.

"It will be a place where people can come to study L. Ron Hubbard's books and lectures on Dianetics and Scientology."

Harris added: "We are actually still finalizing our opening arrangements, including the date. I think everyone is aware we are opening up very shortly, but once we get everything squared away we plan on inviting all our local representatives and we hope with their busy schedules they can attend."

At press time, council members Judy Dunlap and Mike Stevens did not return calls for comment and Mayor James Butts and councilmen Eloy Morales and Ralph Franklin were on a Washington lobbying trip.

"I don't know if I am going to be available," said Butts.

"I haven't had time to tour the building and wasn't on the council when the approval was made. [So] I would defer to my colleagues."

Nation of Islam Minister Tony Muhammad, who spoke before the City Council in support of the Scientologists offered wholehearted support.

Reached by phone, he said, "No, we've never received a donation. We don't mind being allied to them. Who are we to stop another group from practicing their religious freedoms? The constitution gives them that right.

"They have some fabulous, free programs about drugs that they distribute to elementary and high schools. Have you seen their Museum of Psychiatry and Pharmaceuticals … it's terrific. They're fighting against psychiatry and the bogus conditions that mostly target Black people."

Asked if a church was the best enterprise to regenerate the Market Street corridor, he replied:

"That is the best looking building on that street, the other stores need to do the same. The community should go experience it for themselves; be a scientist, go get the truth. We don't hate Caucasians, we just want to make sure they do right by us. I think they will do as much good there as any church in the city and will be an asset."

Nevertheless, local activist Kokayi Jitahidi, did question the economic impact.

"I'm not against the church or any religious organization buying property," he said.

"[But] particularly on Market Street, we need to find businesses that generate a strong tax base. It couldn't be better placed, with the airport, accessible to freeways, but it's struggled for decades to find anchor businesses.

"I think this just raises the urgency for Inglewood to come up with a master development plan. At some point, someone on the council needs to say what downtown Inglewood should look like. I want to be able to have a nice meal, take in a show and take a walk with my partner."

Photo: Some residents have reservations about the imminent opening of the new Scientology Church on Market Street and its companion community center, located on Vermont Boulevard and 81st Street. Cedit: Olu Alemoru

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