Lately I have been hooked on Leah Remini’s documentary on A&E regarding the “tology of science.” The first few episodes feature loads of footage from Clearwater, FL, the international hub of the church. Now that I live in Tampa, I was too curious and live too close to NOT go snoop around. It’s like watching Grey’s Anatomy and all of sudden the hospital sounds kind of thrilling. I have passed many of the buildings multiple times on my way to the beach, but didn’t really realize what everything was until I watched the documentary. This is my naive, outsider perspective on an evening stroll around one of today’s most feared entities.
[Disclaimer: I am honestly too frightened to type the Church’s name. There are thoughts in the back of my mind that tell me it’s better to stay off any radar for as long as I live in Florida. I want to tell you all of my raw thoughts, but I’m sure most of you are already thinking it, and they have too much power to be on anyone’s bad side.]
Driving into downtown Clearwater feels like driving into a dystopian society. You can go from beach-going tourists to dozens of uniformed church members just by crossing a bridge. I think most people who vacation in Clearwater year after year don’t even know it exists like it does, just miles away from their happy family time. It is in another world. Hoards of people wearing their silver vests were flowing in and out of “Flag,” the main and largest building in Clearwater for the Church, and the spiritual headquarters for the whole world.
It was incredibly easy to spot who was with the Church, but I’m not sure who else would want to hang around that area if they weren’t. The downtown area makes a large loop and at the start of the trek, my friend and I were too nervous to go to the Information Center where they explicitly advertise “All Are Welcome.” (You didn’t think I would go alone did you??”) We passed many of the vested individuals and smiled politely with not a lot of interaction in return. After we got past the nervousness of seeing so many staff members in one place, we were able to take in the scenery. It was an enjoyable walk and our ease lead us one step further.
We went into the information center. After doing the initial stroll, we felt there was no way we could leave without stopping into the information center- the most basic thing to do as an outsider. Like I always say, you regret the times you said no, not the times you said yes (to an extent.) We immediately came across a young gentleman working at the desk who was eager to answer our questions, though we were still on edge. Speaking with two members was interesting and made us come to a few conclusions.
- Maintenance– The landscaping around all of the buildings was gorgeous. The sidewalks were brand new. Everything was extremely well taken care of. It was a stark contrast to the side streets and establishments where the Church did not own the property in which sidewalks were crumbling and filthy. We were certainly impressed by their care taking. I read beforehand that in 2017 they wanted to purchase more storefronts to improve upon the area even more but Clearwater denied them. This seems to be an ongoing dilemma between the two, but, you have to admit they have done a nice job restoring some of the older buildings and properties (More here: Land Swap.)
- No Pressure– When we mentioned to friends we were curious to see some of this ‘cult,’ they pretty much felt we would be held hostage and turned to the dark side. Far from it. They never asked us for our names. They never invited us to anything. They strictly wanted us to seek the information from them directly rather than a negative source. They are well aware of the rumors and conspiracies so they have become excellent on devising ways to sell the public on their do-good initiatives. Unfortunately, the public isn’t selling them on life outside of the Church and they had no desire to consider the alternatives.
- Misinformed & Inconsistent– When we asked the information center staff members questions, some things just didn’t line up. Here are a few questionable responses we received:
- When asked if they could go to college the answer was “oh we can study all kinds of things! Whatever we want!” But, that didn’t really tell us that they could go to an outside college, which leads me to believe they do not. In this instance, they also deferred to “Meet a Scientologist.”
- When asked about having a child as an organization staff member, they responded that children deserve so much care that it’s ideal to either go have a family or work as a staff member. I completely agree! Except the fishy part is that one of Leah Remini’s interviewees recounted through tears how the organization forced her to have three abortions, rather than allowing her to choose having a family of her own. It’s one person’s word over another!
- One of the members told us “yeah, like I had friends who weren’t s/ologists!” Had? Had those kind of friends? Definitely threw up a red flag.
- Security– It only took us one block of walking to notice the security cameras, and I don’t mean one that happens to be on a storefront. We are talking three cameras on a single post, all pointing the same direction. Dozens and dozens of cameras were able to track our entire walk, which also made us fear taking any pictures. It did cross our minds, were they watching us, or their own people? On top of this, they have guards walking the streets downtown! There is security watching everyone. That is probably the most unnerving part of visiting.
In the end, it satisfied our curiosity, we left with a stack of informational brochures, and an updated outsider perspective on the Church. I am a big theology/anthropology fan so for me, this was like traveling to another, fascinating world, just one hour away.
What do I think of the Church now? Still horrifying, I would not trust them in a million years, but I feel less fear of it and more empathy towards the lifestyle that most of them are literally stuck in. If you aren’t too nervous, brush up on the local Clearwater news, watch a documentary on it, and take a big step out of your comfort zone. It is certainly an adventure and I’m still waiting for more drama to unfold. The main lesson I came away with: you don’t have to join the Church to learn about it.