Tom Cruise aside, church satellite passes 1 quiet year
A walk through Codman Square past the shoulder-to-shoulder houses of worship can put you in a spiritual state of mind: Greater Life Baptist Church, The Temple of Restoration, Global Ministries Christian Church.
But one storefront in particular, with its eight-pointed cross, has piqued local curiosity.
“Dorchester Scientology, Something Can Be Done About It,” a poster on its window declares.
Amid the 35 churches and temples in the Codman Square area, Dorchester Scientology opened a year ago as a satellite of the Church of Scientology of Boston’s main office in the Back Bay.
How has the church of Tom Cruise and high-profile controversy fared in its Dorchester digs?
“As far as I know, they have not been particularly visible in our neighborhood,” said Vicki Rugo, of the Ashmont Hill Civic Association, near Codman Square. “There hasn’t been any leafletting. You think of them being more Back Bay or Cambridge type. Not Codman Square.”.
In fact, for the past 12 months, the Dorchester ministry has quietly tutored local children and adults with free reading programs, and held anti-violence discussions with community leaders and residents. And it has garnered some positive reviews — including one from its landlord there.
Some members of the business community “had problems” with it, said Joe Onujiogu, owner of the Codman Square Pharmacy, which rents space to the ministry.
“They had doubts it was a good organization,” he said. “They have done a tremendous job for the community. Children have improved in their learning and in their school work.”
The Rev. Robert Castagna, who heads the Dorchester operation and was ordained by the Church of Scientology, said he doesn’t pay much attention to the controversy that has touched on the religion and its stance against antidepressant drugs.
He said he just wants to help a community that he believes needs help, as part of the Church of Scientology’s outreach.
“There’s not much of a need in Back Bay,” said Castagna, dressed casually in slacks and a loose-fitting gray shirt, as he sits inside the Dorchester Scientology Volunteer Ministry. “A key component in Scientology is the ability to study. I feel like I can do something in the community here. The area could definitely use a hand.
“Scientology is an applied religion that provides tools for a person to handle everyday problems in life. I am trying to have our church do something for the community regardless of race, color, or creed.”
Castagna’s volunteers currently tutors 15 youngsters and young adults one-on-one in reading, and have tutored about 200 residents over the past year, he said.
He also reached out to area ministers and local community policing officers for occasional discussions on combating drug use and street crime.
“I am trying to provide alternatives for people to improve their lives that [they] may not see out there,” adds Castagna, sitting in a study room filled with colorful student chairs and posters that encourage reading. “What they may see out there are ads to take antidepressant drugs.”
Celebrities like Cruise and Kirstie Alley say Scientology can cure addiction and depression without the use of drugs. Cruise publicly criticized actor Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants for postpartum depression, and he challenged the psychiatric profession during a June interview with NBC’s “Today” co-host Matt Lauer.
The debate has helped stir interest locally in Scientology as well as spread the church’s message, Castagna said. On the Fourth of July, two banners blasting the use of psychiatric drugs on children were draped outside the church’s Beacon Street headquarters, according to media reports.
Castagna said the church in Boston had received about 20 inquiries a week on average before the publicity, from people curious about the religion, and the number went to 200 inquiries a week on Beacon Street after Cruise’s statements. Castagna has also noticed more people stopping by the Dorchester site with questions about the religion.
Dorchester resident Shandrina Burns said she heard Cruise talk about the religion on TV and it made her wonder what the big fuss about Scientology has been all about.
“He was on ‘Extra,’ ” the syndicated TV show, “but I don’t know what the beliefs are,” said Burns, a lifelong Methodist, as she waited for a doctor’s appointment at the Codman Square Health Center across the street from the Dorchester ministry. “I may drop by and see what they are all about, since I know where they are now.”
Scientology was founded on the principles in L. Ron Hubbard’s best-selling self-help book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,” first published in 1950.
Four years later, he founded the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, and began promoting “Dianetics” as part of a religious movement.
Followers don’t pray. They believe they are immortal spirits inhibited by mental blocks, called engrams, which must be cleared in order to achieve spiritual awakening. Scientologists attest that once cleared, a person can lead a happier life, free of addictions.
The ridding of engrams is done in a process called “auditing,” a two-person question-and-answer counseling session that involves dealing with painful memories.
By reviewing past traumatic emotional events, the person being “audited” can reach “a state of clear,” according to the book “What is Scientology?” based on Hubbard’s works. But Castagna said none of this happens at the Codman Square site, which is open three days a week from 3 to 7 p.m.
“This is a reading and study skills program,” he said of the site, which resembles more of an after-school community program. “If someone asks about Scientology, I tell them to go down to the church on Beacon Street and check it out.”
Northeastern University religion professor Susan Setta said Scientology has always had its skeptics and critics. Some have described the religion as a cult that exploits its members for money.
Opening a tutoring program in an urban neighborhood like Dorchester is part of the religion’s community outreach work, she said, and is also a way to eventually enlist new members.
“Scientology conjures up such negative images that it looks suspicious,” said Setta, who appeared on National Public Radio’s “On Point” program on WBUR last month to talk about the religion. “If the Episcopal Church had a tutoring program in Dorchester, no one would worry about it. The assumption is that they [Scientologists] are doing something for an ulterior motive, that there is something sinister. That’s a problem for them.”
She called the Dorchester location a “face-based ministry.”
“They want to show by example what they have to offer,” she said. “They really are interested in social outreach, and they think they can change people’s lives.”
Corrine Desseau knew very little of Scientology before becoming a volunteer. The retired housekeeper and grandmother of two, who was looking for a way to stay active in the community, heard about the ministry and its search for tutoring volunteers.
Now she stops by several times a month to help her two grandchildren and other kids with their reading and coloring.
“It gives some of the kids something to do to get out of the streets,” said Desseau, 72, who said she is also brushing up on her Scientology with literature Castagna gave her. “They read and draw and get a lot out of it.”
Castagna hopes to grow out of his 1,500-square-foot storefront ministry, and doesn’t rule out establishing a bigger Scientology anchor in the neighborhood one day.
“The Church of Scientology can have its name on the marquee,” he said, “and we can help the community.”
Johnny Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.