Group readies Scientology toehold in Battle Creek
Saturday, May 26, 2001
"Church" members renovate historic Hart Hotel for meeting place.
BY CHRIS MEEHAN
BATTLE CREEK - Jason Blowers scooped clods of dirt and grass from a
small area behind the historic hotel once owned by cereal giant W.K.
For the past few weeks, the Kalamazoo man had been helping others haul
trash from inside the four-story Hart Hotel to make way for a meeting
space for the Church of Scientology of the Great Lakes.
On this sunny, spring afternoon, Blowers and fellow church members
were working on a flower garden designed to attract butterflies.
"I'm really glad that we are moving here," said the 30-year-old
handyman. "Until now, I've had to drive back and forth to Ann Arbor
every week for services."
The Church of Scientology - which has been criticized in California,
Florida and other states for its business and spiritual practices -
has two churches in Michigan, one in Detroit and the other in Ann
Now that the group has purchased the 71-year-old, four-story downtown
structure from a Grand Rapids bank for $235,000, the Ann Arbor church
may eventually close.
Parishioners in western Michigan and northern Indiana will likely be
able to attend services in a temporary location in Battle Creek by
early July. It will take at least a year to refurbish the first floor
of the hotel for church purposes.
"I hope if people in this area are curious, they will honestly check
us out for themselves," said Blowers, taking a break from his
landscaping duties. "Scientology has brought me closer to God. But it
also helped me in other areas of my life as well."
Science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, founded the Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology in 1954 to teach techniques that he believed can expand the mind and help solve problems. Celebrities such as John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Jenna Elfman have publicly promoted the religion, which Scientologists estimate has about 9 million adherents worldwide, with about 10,000 in Michigan. Critics claim church members are not nearly that numerous, here or worldwide. They also charge that Scientology is a religion that seeks to control the mind, life and finances of its believers. "People in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek should be wary," said Kristi Wachter, a California anti-Scientology activist. A former student of Scientology, she organizes regular pickets outside the Los Angeles headquarters of the faith. "Power is what this religion is all about," said Wachter. "They want influence, to expand their program and to have people embrace all of what L. Ron Hubbard taught." James Bratt, professor of American history and religion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, said the Church of Scientology has the reputation of "being a cult that is involved in mind control." The church seems to attract people who have not been very active in other churches. "They tend to bring in fairly upscale people who are effectively secularized and looking for a system of meaning and a web of belonging," said Bratt. The church, as far as he can tell, does not hold traditional religious beliefs and has developed its own world view that offers its members "a way of believing and acting." "My impression is that the people who belong are very intense about it, and those who oppose it are just as intense," said Bratt. Made a difference
Sifting through a variety of items going up for auction in the former lobby of the hotel, Judy McCrimmon quietly refuted criticism of her faith. A few years ago, she was so depressed that living was not easy. But once she got acquainted with Scientology - and especially its counseling approach, called auditing - she finally found hope for herself, she said. One-on-one sessions with trained church auditors steered her thoughts into more positive and personally satisfying directions, she said. "Scientology has helped me feel free and confident and is teaching me how to get happy," said McCrimmon, a South Bend, Ind., resident who serves as public executive secretary of the Battle Creek church. Part of her happiness right now comes from long hours spent working on cleaning out the old Art Deco-style hotel. She envisions the day when upstairs rooms are turned into offices, the ground-floor ballroom is restored to accommodate services and the lobby area is transformed into a welcome center for the public. "Scientologists like to find old buildings to restore," she said. "We like to honor history, to bring back a neighborhood to its original condition." Bringing glory back
Opened in 1930, the hotel was built in Indiana limestone with terra-cotta trim. It had an illustrious history, hosting visitors from around the world until 1996, when it was sold to Calhoun County Alternative Programs. The program used it as a halfway house and eventually defaulted on the mortgage. Much of the rehabilitation work - the cost of which will probably top more than $1 million - is being done by church members. Eventually, licensed contractors will be called in to do specialized work such as wiring and plumbing. "We are generally thrilled to have the church come in to rehabilitate the old hotel and keep it from getting any more deteriorated than it already is," said Ted Dearing, president and CEO of the Battle Creek Area Chamber of Commerce. As for the controversial nature of the church, most people in Battle Creek are taking a wait-and-see attitude, he said. "It remains to be seen how the community will react until they are operational," he said. Jai McFall hopes people keep an open mind about her church, its teachings and practices. Scientology, she said, doesn't force people to think or live or even believe a certain way. "This is a religion that can help you overcome the ups and downs of life," said McFall, who has sold her landscape business in Ann Arbor and is buying a house in Battle Creek. "We provide services that can benefit just about anyone. We have classes to help people improve their marriages, to deal with problems in school, even how to recover from drug abuse."