Harlem, home to the Apollo Theater and the Renaissance of black literature, doesn’t come to mind when one thinks of Scientology.
But every Sunday morning at 11:30 a.m., a small, but dedicated group of brothers and sisters bypasses the dozens of traditionally black churches to squeeze into the storefront-sized Church of Scientology on Adam Clayton Powell Avenue and 142nd Street.
When you step inside, it feels more like a bookstore than a place of worship. The walls are lined with books written by church’s founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard. To the left side of the entrance, a poster-sized image of the late Isaac Hayes greets you.
Phyllis Mack, the Executive Director of the Harlem branch, serves as the presiding preacher-one of her many responsibilities. In one service, she focuses her sermon on being a better person. True to the cadence of her black church roots, Phyllis moves her body left and right when stressing a point she wants her small congregation to narrow in on. She has a penchant for invoking James Brown lyrics into her sermons.
“When life has you down, you just have to…get on’ up,” she says to the approval of nodding heads in attendance.
Phyllis doesn’t read from a Bible, as do traditional preachers. Instead she refers to a thick, encyclopedia-sized book of teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.
“It’s interesting because I was able to read the Bible after Scientology,” Phylis explains after service. “I couldn’t really make heads or tails of it. It really enhanced my understanding of that holy book.”
That Phyllis says Scientology helps her better understand the Bible may disconcert some Christians. The church has been a magnet of less-than-complementary press. Many critics feel Scientology is a cult.
Patricia Foster, Executive Secretary of the Harlem branch, says she too thought it was a cult when she first heard of it. But once she began attending Scientology services in May of 2010, Patricia feels her new faith has positively changed her in a way that she could not do through her traditional Baptist upbringing alone.
“There is something about Scientology where I feel that I have more of a part in my own life as far as far as changing it and also having a connection with God,”
Scientologists interviewed for this story say one of the major misconceptions outsiders have about their faith is that it tries to change your religious beliefs.
“We’re not trying to change anybody’s religion or politics,” Phyllis says. “We’re just trying to help people to be better.”
How influential the church is in the black community is not easy to gauge. John Carmichael, president of Church of Scientology in the New York region, says there are no exact breakdowns of church membership based on race.
There are several fundamental truths that Scientologists believe such as man is an immortal spiritual being, his experience extends well beyond a single lifetime and his capabilities are unlimited, even if not presently realized.
Another distinction of Scientology is that the religion you walk in with is the same one you are more than free keep when you leave.
This is one of the reasons Moni, who prefers to go only by her first name, says Scientology is appealing to her.
She grew up in Methodist and non-denominational churches and still holds on to her Christian faith. When asked how she feels about the perception that Scientology is a “white religion,” she recommends that people simply need to go to a service and see for themselves.
“A lot of people say ‘oh there are black people in Scientology’ which is very interesting to me because its something for everybody,” Moni says. “I am not someone who is a color person who asks ‘where are the black people and where are the white people.’”
Chevonne Brown-Johnson, who is black and Jewish, has been a Scientologist for six years now. She is a course supervisor for the church-a teacher who helps new or prospective members better understand the teachings of Scientology and how they can use them in their daily lives.
The Queens native, who is also Moni’s niece, says one of the best aspects of being Jewish is doing Mitzvahs (good deed, in Hebrew). She says being able to help people improve their lives through her position makes her feel like she is actively practicing her faith.
“I feel like I am doing mitzvahs all the time,” she says.
Since 2004, the Harlem church has been in several locations. In 2012, this small church is moving into a much larger space on 125th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, a busiest street in Harlem.
Phyllis says that prime location will help the church do more of the community outreach she feels residents of Harlem and the black community need. It will also provide the church with more opportunities to reach far more people than can fill the limited confines of the current 142nd street location.
Moni hopes that more people, especially African-Americans, will view Scientology more objectively rather than rely on secondary information and rumors. When some of her friends and family ask her if she is in a cult, she replies with a question of her own.
’”What is a cult?,’” she asks. ”’ What is the definition of a cult? (The Church of Scientology) is open for anyone to visit. But a lot of people don’t want to come and look. You know what people tell me? ‘Well if you know what it is, you can explain it to me.’ But I say come in and look for yourself.”