It’s cold in Buffalo, and signs of the housing recovery are hard to see. Take the long walk down Main Street and you’ll pass foreclosed homes, a shuttered hospice, and more than a few yellowing FOR SALE signs.
But make it downtown, and you’ll see something different: a pristine, ornate cathedral, glowing against the parking lot gray. As of this June, central Buffalo has been crowned by a newly opened Church of Scientology: a gleaming, 41,000-square-foot temple, rising from the ruins with “glazed white terra cotta,” “limestone trim,” and “elaborately sculpted crown moldings,” as one lyric church press release described the newly erected “Ideal Organization.”
On Jan. 14, a widely read (and now removed) sponsored post that appeared on TheAtlantic.com went further, extolling these churches, or Ideal Orgs, as proof of the religion’s 2012 “renaissance” — a “milestone year” that saw 12 of these lavish buildings open around the world. “The driving force behind this unparalleled era of growth is David Miscavige, ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion,” the advertorial read. “This new breed of Church is ideal in location, design, quality of religious services and social betterment programs.”
The Ideal Orgs certainly look great, make headlines, and serve as flashy totems of Scientology’s (literally) unspeakable wealth. The Church of Scientology International (CSI) headquarters in Los Angeles says that it has built 34 of these cathedrals worldwide since 2003, with 60 more underway. Almost all were paid for by local parishioners, who had been lobbied by roving teams of fundraisers.
But inside the church, the Ideal Orgs are sparking insurrection. Across the country, donors and high-ranking executives say that the aggressive fundraising and construction scheme is used to enrich the central church at the expense of the rank and file, helping to grow the Scientology war chest to over a billion dollars. Two former members, Mike Rinder and Mark Elliott, went so far as to call the project a “real estate scam.” To some of these defectors, the structures are metaphors for the religion itself: garish on the outside, empty on the inside. The irony is that the very expansion that Scientology lauds as its renaissance is actually a symbol of internal dissent and decline.
According to ex-executives, the Ideal Org money play is simple: Find beautiful buildings; get local parishioners to foot the bill; keep them closed; keep fundraising; open them; and finally, have the parishioners pay for renovations, buy supplies, and send money to the central church for the right to practice there.
When Bert Schippers forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars to help build an Ideal Org in downtown Seattle, he thought he was helping save the world. “I thought I was in the best religion on the planet,” he says. But as he gave more and more from 2001 to 2008, the new cathedral’s doors remained locked shut: to people, but not to money. Schippers, who had joined the church in 1986 and spent more than a million dollars on donations and courses, started asking questions about what, exactly, he was paying for; church leaders barred him, his wife, and his friends from setting foot inside.
“We gave that money because we wanted our local church to have its own building,” says Schippers, who runs a circuit-board company with his wife. “But when I found out the church had changed the original teachings of L. Ron Hubbard to make so much money… I felt absolute, complete, total betrayal.” Nonprofits often tell you that a donation can change your life, as well as its recipient’s. For Schippers, losing so much for so little was a disturbing wake-up call. “It was around then I realized, I was in a fucking cult.” He pauses, can’t quite find the words. “It’s…a mindfuck. Just a total mindfuck.”
And he’s not alone. With donors bled dry, and ex-executives staging new assaults on the church, Scientology is facing its biggest challenge since it won tax exemption in 1993. And, again, it’s over money.
“Scientology was always in it for cash,” says Tony Ortega, the former editor of The Village Voice who has spent almost two decades reporting on the religion. “The difference is, before 10 years ago, the money you were being asked to spend was for your own case. Now, it’s all fundraising for the central church. These people are exhausted.”
It’s no secret that Scientology is pay-to-play; the prices for its services and teachings, from books to audits to seminars, seem to know no ceiling. But this moneymaker is different: The building drives ask for straight-up cash donations of fixed amounts — many times larger than traditional Scientology buy-ins — and, according to former executives, go straight to the central church’s kitty. For years, those who’ve long questioned Scientology’s legitimacy mocked the religion’s sci-fi-tinged teachings, called Hubbard a fraud, and lampooned those gullible enough to be taken in by its feel-good myths.
But that didn’t work. Why? All religions have their Xenus, multi-armed elephants, or magic babies, their morally ambiguous prophets, their tall tales and scandals. They even ask for millions of dollars from the faithful.
But the defectors who claim to have been bilked say this scheme is different, manipulating local parishes for the sake of central church finances. And once you talk to them, the stereotypes start to fade. These donors weren’t brainwashed weirdos. They were more average joes than creepy cultists — searching, like the rest of us, for a pew, a community, a how-to guide for life. They’re not familiar with corporate intrigue or mass donation drives.
To Continue Reading: http://www.buzzfeed.com/alexklein/is-scientology-self-destructing
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