Saturday, December 10, 2005

Trips in the Field

Growing up in Southern California, I can’t help but be subjected to its freeway system. Most people who live in and around L.A. can’t avoid the 101. Sadly, I fall into this category as well, which sets me up nicely for my first “religious fieldtrip.” There have been many occasions when I’ve driven past the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International and thought to myself, “Hmmm. That’s very odd to me that a church would draw such a discriminating line between its patrons, let alone advertise it in neon lights on the side of a major freeway. I wonder if Tom Cruise is in there right now!” I met a woman in Australia while serving my mission who had made it to L.A., to this very building and as she was studying, Tom Cruise walked in! And now, Katie would be a possibilty too. I called up my friend Dave on a Friday and we drove to the Church of Scientology Los Angeles Center (unintentionally.) This building is off L. Ron Hubbard Way, a short fancily bricked street lines one side of this huge powder blue edifice. Interesting color choice if you ask me. I note that a big celebration will be taking place that weekend. They had a red carpet rolled out, minions of rented palm trees, and a white tented dinning area. (IAS anniversary.) We entered the building.

We walked straight into a book store filled with all sorts of Hubbard paraphernalia, Dianetics being the most abundant item for sale. Three girls were behind the counter, looking very professional. I believe we had to approach them for directions to more information, which struck me as odd because most times as a visitor to a new church, members go out of their way to welcome a newcomer.

We asked if they gave tours of the building. They quickly ushered us down several long hallways, all of which were similar in interior style to that of Disney’s Toontown. (A lot of bright yellows, blues, and reds, funky cartoonish furniture- it all added to the experiences of the place.)

The first thing we did was take a test, the Oxford Capacity Analysis Test. But before we could be tested we had to fill out a little personal information card. Before entering the building Dave has warned me, “Whatever you do, DON’T give them anything, no real name, address, nothing! If you do, they never leave you alone. I ended up using my real first name, but all else was incognito. Dave’s alias was Sam, Sam from San Francisco.

We were then escorted to a miniature classroom complete with chair-desks and all. “You have come to the right place…you are pre-clear, you can become clear.” The quiz we were administered had 200 questions on it! I repeat 200 questions! Here I was expecting 25, maybe 30 questions…needless to say this we poured over those questions for quite a while. Several of the questions are as follows: 39. Do you have only a few people of whom you are really fond of? 41. Do you circulate around at a social gathering? If you were invading another country, (because this kind of opportunity presents itself often to me) would you feel sympathetic towards conscientious objectors in this country? Would you use corporal punishment on a child age ten if it refused to obey you?” 124. Do you often make tactless blunders? 127. Can you get quite enthusiastic over some simple little thing? 132. Do some noises set your teeth on edge? (Yes, all three of them.) Do you go to bed when you want to or by the clock? (Interesting question, what kind of application could this have upon daily life?) 146. Do you have a tendency to tidy up the disorder of someone else’s household? (My favorite) 173. Do you cope with everyday problems of living quite well? (Ambiguous.)

Next we watched a movie. The opening music was SO scary! It was Halloween 5 meets the L.A. Philharmonic. The Orientation to Scientology…avail yourself of it. “And incidentally, he was the very first to publicly disclose what has since become known as the infamous Mind Control Program inspiring 100’s of exposés and congressional hearings, a very bold move. And the government never forgave him. They spent decades and millions to hound and harass him and prevent his work from spreading. Anyone else would gone under in such a vicious internal campaign…that’s one of the reasons people love him.” At the very end of the video viewers are given an ultimatum, “It’s your future. You can have it, or you can deprive yourself of it. The choice is yours. When you walk out these doors, you can choose Scientology OR, you can choose to shoot your brains out, or jump off a bridge.” I kid you not! These were the concluding words of the video’s orator! And he spoke them in a stern, almost angry tone.

The light’s and screen went dark, and Dave and I are just sitting there in shock. “Dave, are you feeling good right now?” “Ah, no.” “Me neither.” Nervous laughter ensued. We let ourselves out of the theater and found Shanab who would review our test results with us. (I forgot to call Dave by his code name. The whole time we were sitting with Shanab, our certified Thetan, I kept calling Dave by his real name when his test had Sam printed at the top. In retrospect it was quite funny.)

Shanab took our test results very seriously. He asked if we wanted to go over them one on one because they are very personal. Dave and I stuck together. I was told that I have huge issues with myself, the way I treat life and others. At the end of our session Shanab asked if we’d like to proceed with further courses. Although I obviously needed a lot of help according to Shanab, I declined, which was followed by, “I’m not surprised. You gave us fake names and addresses….” I also had a tape recorder with me, capturing mental notes etc. which led to questioning. Almost in a law-enforcement style Shanab asked, “Are you a reporter? What paper do you work for?!” I told him I was there for a school project, which was quickly followed by additional questioning. What an experience! Dave and I made it out alive, and managed to nip inside the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International on our way to the Spaghetti Factory. I found out the Celebrity Center is not just for celebrities, but for all the artistically inclined members. A band was rehearsing in the covered patio/mini concert hall, a murder mystery dinner was about to unfold, there were masking tape body outlines plastered throughout the courtyards. It looked like it was going to be a fun evening. Still I find it interesting that no one really made an effort to help us feel welcome at either location.

The Crystal Cathedral, on the other hand, was a completely different experience altogether. This is another place I’ve heard a lot about and have wanted to visit. My first visit resulted in a time and service mix up. I gotten there an hour early (thinking I was on time) for a service I though would be held in the Cathedral, but it was being held in a different chapel. The Glory of Christmas was going on in the Cathedral. The music permeating the grounds. I walked up to the 80 foot Christmas tree in the center of the courtyard. Approaching it’s boughs intertwined with 100’s of 1000’s of lights all swaying softly in the breeze made me feel like a hippie on a acid trip. It was very intoxicating and almost dizzying. The tree looked like it would overtake me at any moment and then the trance was broken by a clippidy clip clop of animal’s hoofs. I turned to my left and there passing by were two wise men leading their camels, and trailing behind them, a single Roman soldier. This was a very spiritual moment for me. Time stopped, just for a second before swirling backwards to birth of the Common Era, or as I still like to call it anno Domini. The story of Christ’s birth and crucifixion came to life right before my eyes. I tried to stay with that moment as long as possible. That alone could have sealed my experience as being a positive one. However, I went back on the following Friday for the tour of the C.C. Once again I was with Dave.

When I told a friend in Australia last week that I was going to visit the C.C. he started going on about The Hour of Power. I had no idea how big this ministry is. A pamphlet I picked up at their “Welcoming Center” told me all about it. Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the worlds first walk-in/drive-in church, the abundance of books he wrote, which is, I found out, how he makes his living.

Dave and I walked into the C.C, first. The Glory set was standing there in all it’s glory (pun intended.) An usher greeted us, and corrected Dave when he told me this was a nondenominational church. It’s really Dutch Reformed, with teachings close to that of the Methodists. Our tour guide took us through all the major church structures. We passed by The Tower of Hope, the 10 story cross perched on top…The light “never goes out on the 8th floor…An eye that never shuts. An ear that never closes. A heart that never grows cold.” Our guide told us that 100’s of lives are saved each year through their 24 hour telephone crisis and suicide prevention hot-line. This was impressive to me.

The Tower is surrounded by water and almost as if it were floating, a bronze sculpture of Christ walking on water comes into view. The work is entitled, “Peace Be Still.” Which leads me to the thought of aspect touched me the most during this visit. The gardens and art work were amazing! One of their pamphlets boasts of the grounds bringing the Bible to life and I didn’t read this caption until after the experience I had on Sunday night, and after my visit on Friday.

I especially loved “Coming Home: The Prodigal Son.” Being an artist myself, my eye caught all the intricate detail of this piece. How the metals were treated with different chemicals to produce a slight color variation, and all the time it must have taken to etch every stitch of bronze cloth, the tears that ran down the faces of the father and his son. This is a favorite scriptural account of many, and I find it to be one of my favorites too.

The two last experiences I’d like to close with are the chapel at the base of the Bell Tower and the Ladies restroom next to the Prodigal Son. Before I write about them I want to comment on how inclusive this campus is. They have an art gallery, café, a cemetery, several different chapels tucked away in obscure places; it felt like a surprise around every corner, like this place kept on going, and going….

We get to the Bell Tower, which I actually thought, in my ignorance, was the C.C. when I’d see this structure from the freeway. We entered the small circular chapel which presented a ring of marble columns, lining that ring, benches to sit on, and in the center a prayer altar with a rotating acrylic sculpture of Christ. The sculpture looked like crystal encasing a 3-D laser cut image of Christ. The only appendage extending from the acrylic cube was his forearm and hand, symbolizing that although Christ was surrounded by the things of this world, He was reaching for something higher.

Instinctively I had knelt at the altar. I was starring at the rotating cube. Our guide’s words faded to a hum in the background. It was just me and the Lord, which is another interesting thought. People who I meet in life who have the ability to make me feel like I’m the only one in the room possess a gift. Not just because they make me feel special, but because usually they treat every person they come in contact with the same focused respect and attention. I drew a parallel between the way I was feeling that moment in the chapel and the way Christ must have made everyone feel in His presence while on the earth.

The ladies were strongly encouraged to check out the women’s bathroom on the way out. I ran towards it not knowing what to expect. What could possibly be so great about a church restroom? What waited on the other side was an extraordinary maze of black porcelain and gold. I can’t officially tell you what the building materials used were, but this bathroom belonged in the Ritz Carlton! Christian R&B was bumpin out the speakers, dark colored carefully carved wood made the arched doorways and the stalls and the frames of the multiple vanity mirrors. This bathroom had lobbies at either entrance! I made Dave come in and peek. I passed a small plaque which said the anonymous financial contributor of this facility wanted the women of this church to know that just like this bathroom; they were beautiful, elegant, and enduring.

As stated in the beginning of this account, I consider these experiences to be two of the most memorable school related ventures of my entire college career. I won’t forget either of them.

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