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Highway 50 Revisited

Exploring one of the busiest, yet most overlooked, roadways in our region

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Since 1982, this has been the nondescript home of Orlando’s Church of Scientology, the infamous religion based on the writings of sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard and embraced by celebs like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Given the ribbing the religion has taken in the media (including extended assaults on Comedy Central’s South Park) and the negative attention it has received from those who’d just as soon call it a cult as a religion (Scientology has, for instance, been the target of an extended campaign by hacker group Anonymous, which seeks to dismantle it and see its status as a religious, tax-exempt organization revoked), you’d think the church would be a bit more scrutinizing about those it lets walk through its front doors. However, as at most churches, walks-ins are welcome and visitors are greeted with a smile and a firm handshake. The storefront church is open every day of the week, and Sunday services are open to participants of any faith.

When you walk in the door you’ll quickly be asked “Do you want to know more?” by someone on duty, and if you answer in the affirmative, you’ll be whisked into the media room, a destination decorated in sharp and fashionable contrast to the rest of the space: flowing burgundy curtains, a podium and a flat-screen TV adorn the room where the damage control begins.

“What have you heard?” you may be asked. An innocent question but loaded, considering the controversies and negative attention Scientology has received in the media. You can answer what you want: stuff about Hollywood celebrities, the Dianetics commercials from the 1980s, Tom Cruise. They’ll tell you about local volunteer ministers who have assisted in local homeless shelters or at disaster-recovery sites around the world.

Then they’ll show you some DVDs. A disc is inserted into the TV, the lights go dark and you’re alone in the room when a Hollywood-crafted documentary about Scientology’s founder, L. Ron “Flash” Hubbard, begins. He’s an impressive guy. Twenty-one Boy Scout merit badges, Eagle Scout by age 13, worldly jetsetter, WWII soldier, amateur psychologist, self-help guru to the stars and, finally, founder of Scientology. Fin.

The next video begins. Young, attractive people tell you why they are Scientologists (“I love helping people!” is a common theme) and soon the greeter returns to ask you what you think so far. He asks if you know that matters of the spirit can be scientifically measured (you didn’t) and tells you that they can (though you don’t believe it) if you use the right equipment, like the Scientologists’ patented E-meter.

More videos play, working an angle opposite the one most religions use: moral imperative. Scientology focuses instead on the idea that the preservation of one’s self – survival – is the ultimate goal in life and that Scientology has got the strategy for survival down to, well, a science. Your greeter may ask if you’ve ever felt exhausted after work, if you’ve ever finished reading a page of a book and forgotten everything you just read, if you ever felt like you just didn’t understand something. There are strategies to get around this, he says – strategies that Scientologist technology can fix. The selling point propping up the philosophy is the insinuation that the end result of Scientology’s improvement of your life is the accumulation of wealth.

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