Growing up in the Philippines, Eden Stein spent her childhood attending Catholic schools run by Jesuit priests. She never was much of a boat-rocker during her primary and high-school years, but she nonetheless felt that there was more to the universe and life’s meaning than what the Catholic Church alone could teach her.
When she went away to college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in 1974, she learned for the first time about the Church of Scientology. Stein immediately felt a connection to the tenets of Scientology’s primary religious text, “Dianetics,” agreeing with its contention that the tome represented “the science of the mind,” and believing the lessons therein could help one overcome nearly any obstacle in life and clear the way to total success in any arena.
She soon devoted her life to working for the church and climbed through its ranks until she was named the president of the Pasadena branch of Scientology in 2006. That year, the church bought one of Old Pasadena’s most historic and prominent structures, the Braley Building at 35 S. Raymond Ave., for what Stein terms vaguely as “$5 to $10 million,” in the hope of establishing a major center in the tourist-laden shopping district.
Everything seemed to be going great. Sure, Stein had endured seeing and hearing plenty of critics and outsiders mock and deride her adopted church over the years — saying it was a glorified cult, that it brainwashed its members and made it extremely difficult for members to leave the faith, and that its courses charged members up to tens of thousands of dollars at a time for tuition before revealing that much of its deepest beliefs are rooted in tales of alien earth visits and intergalactic warfare — but they faded away. The church has made special effort to blend into the societal mainstream since 1993, when it finally achieved tax-exempt status as a nonprofit religion after decades of battles with the IRS.
But last February, an international group of Scientology protesters calling themselves Anonymous started organizing and producing street protests with astonishing precision via the Internet. Dressed in masks — often resembling Guy Fawkes, the English insurrectionist who attempted to blow up England’s Parliament in 1605 as a pro-Catholic protest and whose distinctive razor-sharp beard became iconic in the 2006 film “V for Vendetta” — Anonymous showed up in crowds of sometimes hundreds at a time in up to 60 cities around the globe, waging loud and colorful street protests. They’ve also hacked into Scientology Web sites and databases, in one case so severely that a no longer anonymous New Jersey hacker named Dmitriy Guzner was arrested and is facing federal charges. At least two other Anonymous members across the country have been charged with crimes or given restraining orders in response to their anti-Scientology activities.
It’s easily the most organized and cohesive enemy that Scientologists have ever faced, and with a battle about to take place on Pasadena’s streets as the Braley’s remodeling and reopening process begins, they raise a fundamental question key to the national climate as we transition into the era of Barack Obama: Can’t we all just get along? And if not, what does it say for Scientology members’ ability to worship and live life as they choose?
“Scientology has saved my life on many occasions. It helped me going through life in the US facing a new culture, with my job and relationships. Life is not perfect but you need to have a way when something hits you in the face, to help you deal with it without drugs or alcohol,” says Stein, speaking in her still sparsely furnished office in the Braley Building, located just south of Colorado Boulevard. “I think someone’s paying Anonymous to do it. For them to do this and target us specifically … I think they have their own hidden agenda. It doesn’t make any sense otherwise. We’re not harming anyone. We’re helping people. But the world has seen Jews and Armenians persecuted, so it’s not just us.”
Indeed, the very history of religion both around the world and inside America is rife with battles caused both by misunderstandings and by nearly every major faith’s contention that its way marks the only path to salvation.
Even in Pasadena, Scientology isn’t the only faith to face persecution from outside protesters. All Saints Church has long been the center of controversy for its proud stance as the nation’s most influential progressive church, but even they had to face down the ugly interference wrought by ultraconservative minister Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who led a group of his congregants in a nasty protest outside All Saints in the late 1990s.
“Fred’s been out front before because of our stance in favoring and providing gay marriage ceremonies, and we mostly ignored it. In some situations, there’s not a lot of room for constructive dialogue and in those cases you just have to deal with it,” says Keith Holeman, director of communications for All Saints Church. “We believe there are many roads to God and harassment for beliefs is just not right. Persecuting anybody for what they believe is just morally reprehensible. So, many times there are going to be people opposed to what you believe and vehemently vociferous against what you believe, and in a democratic society there should be room for both sides of the argument and, at the same time, both sides need a place of dignity and integrity in which they speak, not from animosity but from respect, whether you agree with them or not.”
That sort of dignified dialogue isn’t happening much at Anonymous events, including a Nov. 8 protest along Raymond Avenue that brought out about 30 members wearing not only Fawkes masks, but also a woman in a medical mask with a sign saying “Scientology disconnects families,” a man in a Catholic bishop’s pointed headdress holding signs saying “Does this church spy on people?” and “Scientology makes millions without taxes.” Another man wore a shirt reading starkly, “Scientology Kills,” and yet another small faction walked together to portray the satirical Sea Orgasm, a spoof on a prominent Scientology division called Sea Org.
So who, then, is behind Anonymous? Many of them are in their teens and 20s, the kinds of people who passionately join chat groups, message boards and other causes while flitting in and out of groups like Anonymous after a few weeks or months.
“Thelema93” is the code name used by the woman who organized the Nov. 8 Pasadena protest. She called the Pasadena Weekly and asked for the pseudonym to be used after initially agreeing to be named and then finding that her boss would be upset if her name came out publically in connection with her Anonymous activities.
Yet Thelema93 still expresses her anger toward Scientology in vehement terms, despite her self-described status as a Wiccan witch — something that countless others would surely have a beef with. Yet she says it’s that very factor of being part of a “marginalized religion” that ought to prove she’s not merely an unthinking bigot, but rather has well-developed arguments.
But why single out Scientology for scorn, rather than the Catholic Church in the wake of its own ample pedophilia scandals?
“The Catholic Church provides health insurance for its religious workers, nuns and priests. Scientology’s religious workers, known as the Sea Org, who sign a billion-year contract, are [medically] treated on welfare. They do not have health insurance. Can you imagine that? That’s reprehensible,” says Thelema93. “They work 16- to18-hour days and receive $50 a week. The Catholic Church doesn’t charge $300,000 to reveal its core tenet that Jesus Christ died on the cross and came back to life. You learn that right away for free.”
In a written statement, Stein rebutted the claims about Sea Org: ‘The Sea Organization is a religious order with staff who devote long hours to the service of their religion, and live communally with their housing, meals, transport and their medical and dental matters taken care of. The Church of Scientology provides health care for Sea Organization members with a mixture of self-insured coverage and insurance plans as appropriate. All churches and organizations are and have been in full compliance with all federal and state laws.”
Thelema93 also focuses on Scientology’s battles against the field of psychiatry, claiming that the church’s “volunteer ministers” actively interfere in tragic events like Sept. 11 by trying to keep traumatized victims from receiving psychological counseling. Add in her claims and those of other protesters that they’ve been stalked and chased after protesting, and that flyers linking them to homosexuality or criminal behavior have been handed out to their neighbors in an attempt to scare them off, and one can easily see why Thelema93 feels entitled to push back, invoking her freedom of speech and assembly against Scientology members’ freedom of assembly and religion.
“I don’t personally want to abolish them completely, because people are free to believe whatever they want. I know some very good things happen within it. I think they’re more a philosophy than a religion and they use the religion title to get away with things in the name of [it],” says Thelema93. “I want them to change and stop doing things that way. Communication courses are something everyone talks about: how to be confident, speak your mind and be eloquent. They teach people not to live inside themselves and that’s a great idea, but lots of other places teach the same thing. Buddhism is also more a philosophy than a religion and lots of Buddhists will tell you that.”
And yet – with eight-million members worldwide and 10,000 in the San Gabriel Valley alone – there are plenty of Scientologists who are quite happy with their experience. Stein arranged for longtime members to meet with this reporter and discuss how the belief has affected their lives.
Among them was Ron Penner, a 57-year-old Pasadenan who recounted joining the church at age 20 after a Scientologist friend helped him break free from an eight-month bender on drugs and alcohol. He credits the church’s communication techniques and confidence-building approach with his success not only in kicking deadly habits but in establishing his own successful career designing Web sites, maintaining a 31-year marriage and volunteering with the Pasadena Police Department.
Fellow member Dave Tourje joined the church 20 years ago in an effort to seek better balance of his time between work and family. He claims that since joining, his work hours have shrunk dramatically even as his profits as a contractor have boomed — and he feels that even if the church’s courses can sometimes be expensive, they’ve been well worth the investment.
“My view is that, compared to a university course, it’s cheap. I’ve seen my income go up seven times — 70 percent in my normal work — and my time spent making it cut 20 times from 100 hours of work to five,” says Tourje. “Is it worth it? I probably would have been dead without it due to overwork. I was working 16 hours a day.”
Ultimately, with millions of dollars invested into the Braley Building and extensive plans already conceived
for its redesign and new uses by Scientology, the church is here to stay in Old Pasadena. With recent events like a Dec. 10 ceremony hosting Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard in honor of the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights showcasing the local church’s desire to be part of the city’s mainstream, it’s clear that they feel it’s time to stay put and exist on their own, constitutionally protected terms.
“Any organization, but especially a religious one, if they’re successful, will face someone attacking them,” says Penner. “Whether it is Christianity 2,000 years ago, Jews in the ’40s or Scientologists now, I don’t see any difference between Anonymous and the other hate groups that afflicted earlier religions. If they weren’t, why not be out in the open saying what they want to say? They have the right to say anything about my religion. They just don’t have the right to stop me.”