By Ken Stone
Tom Cruise and John Travolta may be among the best known members of Scientology, but the founder of the movement, L. Ron Hubbard, has a stylish office in the latest remodeled Church of Scientology — even though the one-time San Diegan died 30 years ago.
“It’s a symbol of respect and our dedication to his ideals,” said Erin Banks, a Los Angeles-based spokeswoman for the downtown San Diego church called an Ideal Org (for organization). All 55 such churches devote office space for him.
But don’t call Scientology a cult, as Banks dismisses that as a decades old allegation.
The San Diego org features a Hubbard display next to the ground-floor Information Center, where 500 videos can be viewed about the religion spawned by his mid-20th century best-seller “Dianetics.”
Also here: a “Purification” area with treadmills and saunas, a small cafe, classrooms with seating for 400 to learn how to “audit” members, small rooms for “exams” with e-meters (ultramodern styles are on display; “we think they’re snazzy,” Banks said) and a bookstore — carrying Hubbard materials and lectures but not his science fiction or fantasy works.
- Photo gallery and video: Inside Scientology’s New Church at Old San Diego Home
The church — transformed in 16 months and designed by elite international firm Gensler — has no traditional sanctuary or signs of God.
But a 250-seat chapel, where members meet Sundays, is a multimedia wonder with built-in screens and projectors. It’s available free to community groups, says Banks, 32.
Hubbard quotations adorn walls throughout the building once considered an eyesore. Hundreds of his books rest on shelves, identical covers facing out. But this isn’t a cult, she said.
“I don’t hear that at all,” Banks said. “That’s something we used to run across, say, in the ’70s.”
She and her Australian-born husband, Nick Banks, 34, gave tours of the four-story 49,000-square-foot building after a Saturday afternoon dedication — which closed Fourth Avenue blocks from City Hall.
Even with Scientology’s controversial leader David Miscavige speaking, the event flew under local news media radar. It was by invitation only, said Erin Banks — “typically what we do with our new churches.”
Miscavige was here to greet parishioners.
“There are tens of thousands of Scientologists in the area,” Nick Banks said. “At the event there were some 3,500 in attendance.”
Said Erin: “We’ve experienced more growth (worldwide) in the past 10 years than in the previous 50 years combined.”
Does Miscavige give interviews? “Oh no,” said Banks, the daughter of Scientologist parents in New York.
Also in New York is Tony Ortega, a former Village Voice editor and Scientology watchdog and critic since 1995.
“I see they gave you the classic line, ‘We’ve expanded more in the last five years than we did in the previous 50 years,’” Ortega told Times of San Diego. “That’s a slogan [former Scientology spokesman] Tommy Davis came up with a few years ago. You’ll notice that after they said it, they then pointed to new buildings” in a full-color brochure.
But old buildings are being replaced by new buildings, Ortega said.
“They haven’t actually built a church in a new city in decades. And they can’t show any expansion in membership,” he said. “In fact, membership is shrinking fast.” Two years ago, Ortega estimated 30,000 members worldwide.
A Church of Scientology spokesperson disputed Ortega’s conclusions, and said completely new churches have opened in Inglewood, Harlem and Taiwan over the past five years.
(In May 2008, the San Diego Church of Scientology bought a former Coleman College property in La Mesa for $9.3 million. After languishing without development, the church sold it off in 2013 — for $9.3 million.)
Nick Banks calls Scientology an “applied religious philosophy. You’re not just blindly believing in something. You’re using it and applying it to your life and improving your life. … It’s a dynamic, moving, expanding religion.”
In San Diego, a wall plaque honors about 200 donors, topped by Rancho Santa Fe’s Kurt and Jenny Listug (“Ideal Civilization Builders”) with categories such as gold and silver humanitarians, premier benefactors and “Vanguard Club Members.”
“Silver Civilization Builders” are David and Denise Meyer.
In a 2011 KPBS interview, the husband was the “Rev. David Meyer.” Many online references label him church president. On Monday, Erin Banks called Meyer “parishioner executive.” His wife, Denise, is full-time church executive director who shares that title with Jennifer Gerson, Banks said.
They oversee a volunteer staff of 165, who work to cover daytime, evening and weekend shifts from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Unlike the Los Angeles church, with celebrity members like Travolta and Cruise, the San Diego Church of Scientology (also founded in 1954) doesn’t tout high-profile residents.
“It would be out of place to talk about specific members,” Erin Banks said. But she called them “diverse as they come,” ticking off a variety of professions and ending with “chandelier makers or Italian chefs.”
The church takes pride in its community outreach, including drug education, literacy efforts, work with the homeless and “character building,” the Bankses said.
Church critic Ortega, after hearing a taped interview with the Scientology reps, dismissed the statements as “the same tired lines about being engaged with the community, lots of expansion, Sunday services, etc.”
Sunday service is “purely for PR,” he said. “In Scientology, you don’t go to church on Sunday to hear a sermon. You work individually with your auditor, and they’ll have you doing it seven days a week if they can convince you to spend the money.”
Scientology has no group activities, Ortega said, “but as a way to appear less bizarre, they started putting a ‘chapel’ in the orgs years ago and having a Sunday ‘service.’”
In 2001, the San Diego church’s website capitalized on 9/11: “To help everyone overcome the recent tragedy in the US, we are providing spiritual assistance to relieve the fear, anxiety and depression many are experiencing,” the homepage said. “You can be helped. And in turn be able to help others.”
In 1976, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard himself recorded an audiotape addressed to San Diego church staff.
He began by recounting how, as part of a military family, he “got picked up by the scruff of the neck” at age 9 and moved to San Diego from Montana in the early 1920s. Later, he returned here as a pulp fiction writer “for long periods of times” and lived in Encinitas (boasting that he introduced surfing “to the beach”).
Hubbard also told of his “cottage on a cliff” above the Presidio and hailed “the quiet, utter absolute quiet of Mission Valley.”
Saying San Diego was “going into the higher velocity of modern times,” he added: “You have an almost unlimited vista.”
Hubbard’s personal message to San Diego 1978 — “Ron’s Journal 28” — is available to Scientologists in the church, Nick Banks said.
“You have a brilliant and bright future ahead of you,” Hubbard told San Diegans in the tape. “And my one hope is that San Diego is going to take off like a rocket.”
At Saturday’s hour-long dedication, Miscavige channeled Hubbard: “If ever was a day when ‘California Dreaming’ assumed a whole new meaning, it is now with the inauguration of this Ideal Church of Scientology.
“And if ever was a place predestined for this moment, then it’s your San Diego,” said Miscavige, 56. “So as we dedicate this Ideal Org, we do so in the name of our founder and in honor of this city where he once lived. And thus we pledge our commitment to employ his technology for life — broadly, unsparingly and indiscriminately for this ‘Finest City in America!’”
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