Throughout the years, there have been many theories surrounding Scientology and its followers. In fact, if you ask the general public about this religion, the answers are similar, but rooted in hearsay, rumour, and innuendo.
“They are the ones who don’t believe in doctors,” said Maggie.
Hector answered along the same lines, “Doctors and blood transfusions are against their religion.”
“I’ve seen them guys in airports,” said Mike. “They sell books and other sundries.”
While Mike’s answer seems to follow along the lines of seeing Scientologists as akin to the Hare Krishna organization of 50 years ago, it seemed no one I spoke to had a clue what Scientology really is, or what makes someone a Scientologist.
Adding to the mystery surrounding this religion, a quick internet search doesn’t always lead to straight forward answers.
Like those I questioned, the internet is awash in ideas that range from the fanciful — that Scientologist worship shape-shifting lizard people — to the ever-present confusion with other religious beliefs, such as they’re not utilizing physicians when ill, which they do.
In fact, some of the rumours have caused to Church of Scientology to create a FAQ entitled “Do Scientologists Believe They Are Descended From Aliens.”
I am by no means a Scientologist, nor do I know any, personally. The fact is, the only contact I’ve ever had with the Church of Scientology was during the six years of my life spent in Sheridan, Oregon.
I’ll get to that at the end of this piece.
Like most people, I wanted to know more about Scientology, who they are and what they believe. So, I reached out to the Scientology Mission of El Paso, where I was put in touch with the Mission Holder, Joni Superville.
We met in a quaint, old, shotgun-style duplex close to downtown El Paso, near the Community College. The setting was nothing like I had imagined.
Initially, I pictured something akin to a church with a pulpit, pews, and various works of L. Ron Hubbard lying about. Except for the latter, nothing could be further from the truth.
The books of L. Ron Hubbard are there, lining the shelves in the front room. Yet, there are also copies of Freedom Magazine, and other items the Church uses in bringing the message of Scientology to the masses.
The building I entered still retained the feeling of the home it had once been — welcoming and peaceful, allowing for quiet contemplation and introspection.
As we sat down, I began the interview with the obvious question: just what, exactly is Scientology?
“Well,” began Joni, “Scientology is an applied religious philosophy based on the works of L Ron Hubbard. And he gives us a precise path to spiritual awareness for oneself, for the family, for groups, for mankind, for all living things, for the material universe, for spirituality and God.”
The name itself, I was told, is a combination of two words: Scio, which is Latin for “knowing, in the fullest meaning of the word,” and the Greek word logos, which means “study of.” The knowledge or truth of knowing how to know.
“But in Scientology, we don’t tell you what to believe,” said Joni. “Instead, we give you the basic, fundamental principles, and you apply them and see how they work for yourself. So, if it’s true for you, it’s true.”
Ms Superville went on to say that some of the basic principles include that “we are spiritual beings, our experiences span many lifetimes, and that we are basically good.” She also said that we are far more capable than we seem to be or allow ourselves to be.
In the grand scheme of things, Scientology is one of the newer religious faiths or movements on the world stage. As one friend put it, “They can’t do anything else that the [Catholic] Church can’t do.”
Next, I asked Joni how Scientology can benefit humanity.
“The answer to that is actually three-fold,” Joni began. “The first is we have a one-on-one counselling technique that we call auditing, and it comes from the Latin word to listen. And so basically, we have someone trained to audit someone, and they address the specific problems that he’s facing and helps the person realize for himself what those answers are. And we don’t preach or evaluate for anyone. He finds his own answers, and we find that that’s very workable. He can cope with his problems better. He’s happier in life after auditing, and he’s just doing a lot better. And then the second way is through education. We have a lot of courses that we offer at all the Churches of Scientology and even online. And so, these courses are the life improvement courses. So, they help individuals say, have a happy marriage, or learn how to bring up children, or raise their own self-esteem, or know who they can trust. Things of that nature.”
The Church of Scientology does, in fact, offer many courses aimed at helping someone improve. Some of the course material that filled the bookshelves covered subject like raising children, how to better communicate with others, as well as many other topics.
“Then we have a large array of study courses, which actually teach you how to study,” said Joni.
Still, something troubled me. Most religious organizations and this is solely based on my own experience, don’t seem to do very much to engage the community at large. We may attend a mass on Sunday and listen to a beautiful sermon, but does it inspire us to walk out the doors and do something to benefit the community? Or, as in my case, you attend Shabbat, the Rabbi speaks, but are his words enough to push you out of your comfort zone and do something? I wondered if Scientology was the same: go read a book, do a course, and then just go home and maybe watch a football game?
I asked Joni what successes the Church of Scientology has had over the years, but I didn’t want to just take any one person’s answer for it. I wanted to meet someone who had a positive change based on something the Scientology Church, itself, has done.
Joni told me about the effort the Church of Scientology made in passing out booklets to the people of Juarez during the peak of cartel violence that was causing more deaths than those killed in Afghanistan.
“Here along the borderland, we have also made great strides in our community,” said Joni. “What we did is a campaign called the Way to Happiness where we distributed these little booklets with 21 precepts in them for good living. It’s like a moral booklet. And we took those booklets to what is in the height of their criminal chaos over there. And we got them there. And as a result, we saw a decrease in crime, and the exact same program was done in Columbia with the exact same results. So anywhere you see Scientology being applied, you’re going to see success.”
Over three weeks, during my regular trips to Juarez, I wanted to see if I could find anyone who had read the booklets given out and if it had effected a change in their lives. That’s when I met Pedro De La Cruz.
Pedro has lived in Juarez his whole life. As he’ll tell you, the city has seen many changes, all the cause of violence.
“The people who give to me the small book,” said Pedro, “were for making a change from peace and not violence.”
Pedro (whose name has been changed for reasons that will become obvious) told me about his son, Mundo.
“Mundo was for bad things,” said Pedro. “He had for himself dreams of owning a business. As he grew to manhood, he took for himself the wrong type of friends.”
Mundo began to run with members of a gang that served the cartels.
“His mother would cry in the night because he would not make his way home,” said Pedro. “My son thought manhood was behind a gun. I was feeling I had failed him and failed my family.”
Pedro, a cab driver, told me that one day, he was outside a Zippy pharmacy, waiting for a fare. As he was standing there, a couple of people approached him and began to speak with him.
“I thought they were needed to be taken to some stores or places for the tourist,” said Pedro. “It was not a time for vacations in our city.”
“They want to give me this book. This thing to be reading in my spare time. I needed to make an earning, not to be having something to clutter the car,” recalled Pedro.
Over the next few days, as he was waiting for fares, he began to read the book.
“I learn some of this from the priest,” says Pedro, “but here was more!”
Throughout the month, Pedro read and reread the booklet. He began to follow the principals taught within. As his life and way of thinking were changing, his family noticed.
“My wife says I become more of a person you can depend on. I was keeping the word and promises I would make to others,” said Pedro. “Mundo, my son, when he would stumble for home, he saw from me the changes.”
One day, when Mundo was home, drunk and passed out in the small living room, Pedro left the little book by the couch. “I wanted him maybe see something there.”
Pedro says he never knew if his son was reading the booklet or not, but he was seeing some changes.
“My wife, she was not spending most nights crying. Mundo started home most of the nights,” recalls Pedro.
In the end, Pedro said that Mundo was reading the Way to Happiness. He related how he came home one evening and found Mundo playing with his younger brothers and sisters. On the kitchen table was the Way to Happiness book.
“I picked it up,” said Pedro. “It was dirty, pages folded and from page to page was my son’s small notes.”
When I met Pedro and his family, I would never have believed they had ever worried about their oldest son, or that he spent time in a gang. The only stark reminders are the tattoos and the two visible bullet wounds on Mundo’s arm.
I decided to chalk this up as a success for Scientology. Yet, there was another coming from Dr Juan Alvarez, the owner of Vista Hills Family Dental, in El Paso.
The Church of Scientology runs a series of drug rehab facilities called Narconon. These differ from other programs and twelve-step programs in that they do not believe drug addiction is incurable. They genuinely believe that one can take their life back and live drug-free.
“I’ve had some employees in the past that were addicted to drugs without me knowing,” said Dr Alvarez. “I pretty much got them up there. We send them to Oklahoma. They got them clean. They were there for about six months, and they go through this whole detox program, teaching them courses and stuff. And when I get them back, I mean, they’re clean as a whistle, and they always thank me for saving their lives.”
Dr Alvarez and his staff felt that it was their duty to make sure their friend and co-worker was treated. After six months, he came back to El Paso and back to work.
So, we’ve learned how Scientology benefits the community it serves, as well as the individuals within that community. But, how does one become involved in Scientology? Before the interview with Joni, I asked a few people I know, just to see what they would say.
“I think you can just go online and find one of the centres or churches,” said Todd.
“Remember Waldon’s Books?” Maria asked me. “I bought a copy of Dianetics there. I recall it having a card thing you could mail in.”
Okay, but how does one actually become involved in Scientology?
“Well, there’s actually several ways they can get started,” said Joni. “One of the easiest is just to pick up a book that was written by our founder L. Ron Hubbard and read it as a starting point. And some people choose to come into a church and take a course or go to a lecture. Somehow, they end up with the data, and they see for themselves that it works for them. I want to read you a little something from an article that L. Ron Hubbard wrote, called Personal Integrity, to kind of give you an idea. He says, and I quote, ‘what is true for you is what you have observed yourself.’ And he ends with saying ‘nothing in Scientology is true for you unless you have observed it, and it is true according to your observations.’”
I think that speaks volumes.
“WHAT IS TRUE FOR YOU is what you have observed yourself.”
When I first visited the Scientology Mission in El Paso, I was expecting what so many others have said: you’ll see people who are bent on trying to sell you books; there will be unhappy people there; you’ll not be able to ask any questions because they don’t want to give answers…among other things.
What is true is what I have observed and what I have experienced.
The truth that I experienced was that every question I’ve ever had has been answered — regardless of what I asked. Nothing is kept under wraps, or lock and key. In fact, I think we’ve forgotten the difference between sacred and secret.
We tend to think that closely held religious beliefs that differ from ours are a secret. We don’t take the time needed to ask questions or visit the Church or Mission that we know nothing about.
We accept as truth, what inevitably becomes our reality, that which we are told by others who may know absolutely nothing about the subject. As L. Ron Hubbard said, we accept as truth what we see. I would add that without looking into the questions ourselves, we may be taking the wrong truth.
“I want you to give you a definition of the Scientologists because that was the question,” said Joni, referring to one of my earlier questions. “A Scientologists then is essentially one who betters the condition of himself and the condition of others by using Scientology technology. So there again, you see that’s what a Scientologist is. He’s caring for himself and other individuals.”
A Scientologist, as I learned, is one who cares first for himself — betters himself — and then those around him. Until this interview, I hadn’t really understood that I had done the same thing years ago.
I’ve been writing and shooting photos for just over thirty-three years. Yet, during that time, there was a period of my life that I decided to do the wrong thing — break the law — to achieve what I thought would be a positive outcome (a story that is the subject for a future article).
Suffice it to say, after turning myself into the FBI, I found myself serving a six-year federal prison sentence.
During the first two years, I raged against being in prison. Even though my actions put me there, I raged against it. Then, when I finally realized I could either become angry at the world for what I had done or better myself. So, I chose the latter.
I began teaching poetry, GED, and other classes. I also took every class that I could find. Teaching and learning had me in the education department daily. It was then that I noticed a huge book entitled The Scientology Handbook. It was in reading this book and following the exercise that I began to change myself.
I then began to teach several of the techniques to my fellow inmates, as well as those in my GED classes. Just by teaching them the Word Clearing technique, the pass rate skyrocketed within the lessons I taught.
The skills I’ve learned have remained with me to this day.
Was there a time that I thought the Church of Scientology was evil? Yes. However, that information was based on what others were telling me, rather than what I’ve observed for myself.
Yet, in meeting with different Scientologists, and speaking with others in California, my truth has changed.
The Church of Scientology does have a lot to offer society. Maybe it’s time we paid attention.
Dr Alvarez had a very similar experience with Scientology. His practice has become the largest in El Paso, the third-largest in Texas, all because of Scientology.
“Scientology has truly made me find my true self,” Dr Alvarez said. “Before Scientology, I would act and react in ways that were confusing to me. I didn’t know why I was saying certain things or react a certain way. Now, ever since I’ve been involved, all that has been stripped away. I can truly tell you that I am my true self. I’m no longer seeking approval and praise from people. I’m a very good father, a good husband, and I work hard. I produce well. My business is doing great. I’m able to use what I’ve learned in courses and to help other people, like I said, with the Narconon issues, or with other things. I help people around me to improve their lives, too.
Isn’t that what living is all about? To be truly living is to help those around you. To me, from what I’ve seen, Scientology and Scientologists are trying to do just that.
“Scientology is for everyone,” said Joni, as her final thought. “It’s easy to learn and easy to be a part of. And there’s something for everyone, and anyone can benefit from its knowledge. Now the thing about Scientology is you can be any religion and still be a Scientologist. It doesn’t conflict with any other religion. It only enhances the religion that you already are. From Scientology, you become a better, more ethical person. And we just want to encourage people to find out for themselves. And we invite you to go to our website, scientology.org, or tune into channel 320 on Direct TV, or download the app on your telephone. Go to your Google play or whatever it is, and type in Scientology network, and it’ll come right up. But look at it for yourself, and just call your nearest Church of Scientology and set up a time to come in. Our doors are always open, and you’re always welcome.”