Spiritual symbiosis: A surprising one
Some area churches are embracing teaching methods devised by the Church of Scientology. Tutoring. Anticrime. Antidrugs. Everyone seems comfortable, as long as it all stays secular.
By ROBERT FARLEY
Published October 30, 2005
TAMPA - It's Monday night, and 13 teenagers gather at the Glorious Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American church in a working class neighborhood of East Tampa.
The teens bow their heads and pray Jesus will make this a productive evening. Then one hands out pamphlets titled The Way to Happiness.
"Be worthy of trust" is the passage the kids read before launching into a discussion of moral issues touching on race, sex and honesty.
The concepts aren't unusual for a Christian teen group, but the author is. The Way to Happiness is a moral code written by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology.
And the Way to Happiness class is just part of a relationship between the Glorious Church of God in Christ and the Church of Scientology.
About 20 Glorious Church members have been schooled on Hubbard's study technology at Scientology's Tampa facility on Habana Avenue. Soon Glorious Church parishioners plan to teach Hubbard's so-called "study tech" to children in their neighborhood, where one in five live in poverty.
The Glorious Church also hopes to host Narconon and Criminon programs based on the teachings of Hubbard and aimed at drug treatment and criminal rehabilitation.
Both programs have been labeled ineffectual and thinly disguised recruiting tools by Scientology detractors. But the Rev. Charles Kennedy, the pastor at Glorious Church of God in Christ, is convinced they could help his community overcome illiteracy, drug addiction and crime.
"I need what they are doing to fulfill what I've been praying about," he said.
Next month, Glorious Church parishioners will begin tutoring neighborhood kids through an afterschool program known as Bright Sky. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires Hillsborough school officials to use public money for private afterschool programs, which will get up to $1,300 per child.
Although Bright Sky is not connected to the Church of Scientology and does not use Hubbard's study tech, it was created by Scientologists as a for-profit company.
All of this adds up to an unusual, if not unheard of, alliance between a Christian church in the Tampa Bay area and the Church of Scientology and its members.
To understand the relationship, one must look first to Pastor Kennedy.
"I'm not your normal pastor," Kennedy said. "I'm an enigma."
Kennedy, 63, is a Tampa native. But he left town as a young man and traveled the world as a professional saxophone player before returning to Tampa in 1972. Glorious Church of God in Christ started with a five-person prayer group and was chartered in 1980. Kennedy has been its pastor from the start.
Kennedy said he learned about Scientology while in Clearwater for a business deal unrelated to his church last year. He met Ed Best, a Scientologist and president of Ebony Awakenings, a small chapter of black Scientologists.
Kennedy attended an Ebony Awakenings banquet and learned about various Hubbard-inspired programs. He knew of the church's often-controversial image, but his brother-in-law got off drugs through Narconon, he said.
So Kennedy and about 20 others from his 154-member church began taking weekly courses at the Church of Scientology in Tampa, located in two renovated cigar factories on Habana Avenue.
Kennedy said he cried when he took one course on learning.
"Where has this been all my life?" he asked.
Kennedy's wife, Yolanda, calls the basic study tech "one of the most exciting courses I've taken."
But she draws the line when it comes to Scientology's "auditing" sessions and other religious practices.
"I'm of a different spiritual persuasion," she said. "I'm very happy with the balance I have between the two of them."
Pastor Kennedy said he doesn't worry that some of his flock may decide to become Scientologists.
"One thing I appreciate" about Scientologists is "they don't care what your faith is," he said. "They don't recruit people."
In its three decades in the Tampa Bay area, the Church of Scientology has never before enjoyed such a level of acceptance and cooperative interplay with another local church.
Lynn Irons of the Church of Scientology Tampa said his first conversations with Kennedy touched on religion only briefly.
"We made an agreement," Irons said. "When we help with literacy and crime and drug addiction, then you and I are going to talk really seriously. How about that?"
Study tech concepts are purely secular, Irons said. There's "word clearing," which means not passing over a word you don't understand. Another core concept is "mass." Or, as Irons said, "if you are studying about a tractor, it's good to have a tractor in front of you."
The program also stresses progressing from simple ideas to more complex ones. Trying to learn too fast on "too steep a gradient" impedes learning, he said.
Kennedy isn't the only local pastor planning to use the study tech.
Archbishop Clarence Davis of Joy Tabernacle Cathedral in Tampa's Ybor City heard about the Hubbard programs from Kennedy and also is a fan.
Davis said he thought Scientologists were "kooks" before he took a course on learning how to learn. Despite holding three graduate degrees, Davis said the program taught him a lot. The religion of Scientology has been a non-issue, he said.
"I'm happy because they don't push the religious aspects," he said. "If they did, I wouldn't be involved."
Eight members of his church are training to become instructors in the Hubbard methods, Davis said.
But church critics say the study tech is simply a Scientology recruiting tool to introduce people to terms and concepts used in the Scientology religion.
In Missouri, a school district superintendent has taken on the Applied Scholastics program, which distributes the study tech materials.
Such materials reflect Scientology church doctrine, said Hazelwood School District superintendent Chris L. Wright. "Because of this association, we have elected not to participate or be associated with their programs," she said.
Some educators also question Hubbard's study program.
"I just think it's a lot of (garbage)," said Johanna Lemlech, a University of Southern California professor emeritus of education. In a review of the program in 1997, Lemlech said Hubbard has a confusing, unclear writing style and his study tech books belong "in the cylindrical file."
Along with learning about study tech, Glorious Church of God in Christ members have been trained as tutors for Bright Sky Learning, a Clearwater-based reading program that is branching into afterschool tutoring this year.
This year, the Hillsborough School district will funnel more than $8-million to private afterschool programs.
The Bright Sky program - to be taught in a building behind Kennedy's church - will not employ Hubbard's study technology, he said. Rather, it is a phonics-based program devised by Scientologists.
"It so happens they are Scientologists," Kennedy said. "But Bright Sky is not Scientology. It's just education."
Brendan Haggerty, CEO of Bright Sky Learning, said his company's program does not include any study tech. Glorious Church members were certified to teach the Bright Sky program at the Church of Scientology in Tampa only because they were taking other courses there and they asked to do it there, he said.
But there is potential for confusion. Asked whether Glorious Church tutors would incorporate Hubbard study tech concepts like "word clearing" into the Bright Sky program, Yolanda Kennedy said they would. Haggerty said she was mistaken.
This year the state certified the Bright Sky program to provide afterschool tutoring. The company said in its application that students who took its program in other states improved one to 21/2 grade levels.
In addition, in a Bright Sky tutoring program at the Boys & Girls Club of Jasmine Courts in Clearwater, teachers noticed significant improvement in the students' reading, writing and comprehension skills, the application stated.
"It wasn't bad," said Carl Lavender, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast. "There were a couple parents who saw it as very helpful."
The program, paid for through private fundraisers, specifically targeted some students in danger of being held back a grade, he said, and "it was effective."
At Glorious Church, Kennedy said he hopes to use some of the proceeds from the afterschool program to go toward a new community center behind his church.
Nancy Sardinas Lambert, who supervises the No Child Left Behind programs for the Hillsborough school district, said there are no restrictions on how programs spend the money as long as they provide the required services.
But the afterschool tutoring program will not bring as much as hoped. As of Friday, only nine eligible students had selected the Bright Sky program at Glorious Church. Haggerty said Glorious Church's take will be about $900 per student, out of which it must pay the tutors. The church had hoped for as many as 100 students, so the enrollment is disappointing, Haggerty said, but he noted it is an off-campus program in its first year.
Kennedy said he anticipates Scientologists will help donate money to build his church's new community center. Once built, the center will be a place where neighborhood kids can experience the Hubbard learning methods, he said.
It's unclear the degree to which the secular Hubbard programs such as study tech are evangelical, said University of South Florida religious studies professor Dell deChant.
"Do people join because of them? Well, of course, they must," he said. "Is it a self-conscious missionary tool? I don't know."
Scientology is a unique religion, deChant said. Its members claim you can continue to practice another faith and still be a faithful Scientologist. And many non-Scientology groups hand out The Way to Happiness, which never mentions the word Scientology.
Pastor Kennedy is comfortable with it. He said he can find a Biblical source for all of the morals in the booklet.
And just before the Monday night meeting ended with a prayer, Yolanda Kennedy made sure each student had a second Way to Happiness booklet.
"Make sure," she said, "you give that book to someone tomorrow."