St. Petersburg Times: Scientologists Establish Missions in their Back Yard

Source: St. Petersburg Times
Date: March 1, 2003

A Belleair storefront opened more than a year ago to spread "hope for man." Four more sites are planned in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

by Robert Farley

Sandwiched between a nail salon and a hairdressing and body wax boutique, one of the newest tenants in the smart-looking Belleair Bazaar strip center sports a simple red awning.

"Church of Scientology Mission of Belleair," it reads.

Opened quietly more than a year ago, it is the first of five missions Scientologists intend to establish in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties within the year.

Geared toward introducing newcomers to Scientology, the missions mark the first time in the church's 27 years in Clearwater that Scientology overtly will try to recruit Tampa Bay area residents.

"We definitely want to reach out into the Tampa Bay area more, and let them know there is a hope for man," said Kathy Feshbach, who operates the Belleair mission.

Scientology's commanding presence in downtown Clearwater -- a collection of hotel rooms and space for church services -- mainly serves Scientologists visiting from out of state or foreign countries. More than 12,000 journey each year to the church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater to receive some of the highest levels of Scientology training.

Missions, on the other hand, offer a starting point.

Financed and staffed by private Scientologists rather than church officials, missions offer introductory Scientology courses and services. Scientologists have opened more than 400 missions worldwide, from Wichita, Kan. -- actor Kirstie Alley fronted that one -- to Italy and Russia, where 25 and 16, respectively, opened last year alone.

But until Feshbach opened hers in Belleair, the only local mission was on Belcher Road near the church's stronghold in downtown Clearwater. A small building marked only by a one-word sign saying "Dianetics," it has led a mostly quiet existence. Twice in the last month, though, the Clearwater mission paid for a four-page insert in the Suncoast News, promoting a Scientology treatment and book to a North Pinellas audience.

Missions will start popping up throughout the bay area, says church spokesman Ben Shaw, because the church has forged a "more stable" relationship with the community.

Also, Shaw said, 12,000 private Scientologists now live in the bay area, and opening missions is regarded as a core contribution for Scientologists. It's a "natural occurrence," Shaw said.

Specific locations have not been selected, but missions are planned in St. Petersburg, Largo, Hyde Park and West Tampa. The Scientologists who will finance and operate those missions are in training.

A 25-year Scientologist, Feshbach moved with her family from California to Belleair four years ago to be closer to the church's spiritual center.

Feshbach's husband, Matthew, is one of three brothers who made millions in the 1980s short selling stocks. Short sellers speculate stock prices will fall. They sell shares before prices decline, then buy back the shares at lower prices, profiting on the difference. The Feshbach family, working out of Palo Alto, Calif., emerged as industry leaders.

Two years ago, Feshbach tried to open a mission in an 86-year-old church in downtown Largo. Several city commissioners objected, pointing to the history of strained relations between the church and the Clearwater community. She dropped her bid to buy the church; a few months later, she found the vacant quarters in the Belleair Bazaar center, on West Bay Drive near Indian Rocks Road.

So far, 300 to 400 have visited the mission, Feshbach said. Word of the mission is spread by local Scientologists who urge the curious to take a look. Others responded to Feshbach's advertisements.

She recently paid for an insert in the Pinellas edition of the Tampa Tribune, touting a Scientology treatment called the purification rundown. It purports to remove harmful toxins from the body through a program of vigorous exercise followed by several hours in a sauna, in conjunction with a regimen of vitamins, minerals and oils.

She also has advertised in weekly shoppers, but said she plans no direct mail, radio or TV advertising.

Feshbach, 53, bubbles with enthusiasm and energy. As executive director of the mission, she said she draws no salary. "I want to help people like I have been helped every single day (through Scientology).

"Our purpose is to introduce new people to what Scientology can do for them," she said.

The four other planned missions would vastly expand the church's reach in the bay area. The church already has a bloc of staffers based in Tampa and last month announced plans to move from its Henderson Boulevard location to a former cigar factory in West Tampa. The church's Tampa branch says it has 5,000 members. But Tampa does not have a mission dedicated to introducing newcomers to Scientology.

"It's exciting," said Feshbach. "We do have the tools that can help man. It is important we get out there and reach people."

The Belleair mission is at the top of a single flight of stairs. Visitors are greeted by racks of books written by Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard and pictures of him on the walls.

Behind a glass door are long tables at which students study largely self-directed introductory Scientology courses. A supervisor wanders the room, offering occasional assistance to students.

Most newcomers begin with a course called "Personal Efficiency." The cost: $35. Those who like what they see usually follow with a series of life improvement courses such as "Overcoming Ups and Downs in Life," "How to Improve Relationships with Others" and "How to be a Successful Parent." Each runs $82.50.

Revenues from the mission's courses and religious services offset operating costs, which include paying the 16 staffers. Scientology missions also tithe 10 percent of their profits to the church, said church spokeswoman Pat Harney.

Scientology's core practice of auditing is done at the mission. Special auditing rooms are equipped with Scientology's signature device, the e-meter.

The facilities for the purification rundowns are at the opposite end of the strip center, in an even more nondescript space behind an awning that says "Bookstore." Inside are a sauna, treadmill, stationary bike and men's and women's locker rooms. The cost of a purification rundown: $1,500. The mission has administered 55 rundowns, Feshbach said.

Scientologist Martin Borup, 25, who is training to become a pilot, said he experienced five days of hangover-like symptoms during his rundown, which Feshbach attributed to the alcohol being flushed from his body.

Borup likened the benefits of his 17-day rundown to someone turning a knob on a television and the picture suddenly is clearer. Borup said his IQ improved 6 to 10 points.

Louise Cournoyers, 46, a longtime Scientologist in Clearwater, decided to take her second purification rundown in the fall after the fumes from helping to paint her daughters' houses as well as a hair dyeing left her feeling run down, cranky and "foggy in the head."

Finished with her rundown, she said she felt clearer and more energetic.

Many in the scientific community challenge the purification program's success at removing harmful toxins. "There is no data that that kind of experience reduces the level of toxins," said Dr. Raymond Harbison, a professor in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida.

Harbison, a toxicologist and pharmacologist, said he's not sure why Borup may have felt symptoms similar to a hangover during his purification rundown, but "whatever feelings he had had nothing to do with the elimination of alcohol from his body."

Still, he said, the purification rundown may have made Cournoyer and Borup feel better. Just telling someone about the expectations for results of a program can influence its success.

"There is always a placebo effect," Harbison said.

Still, he said, he doesn't see any negative health consequences to a healthy person going through a rundown.

Feshbach said those who take the purification program at the Belleair mission do it to help them get more out of auditing. "We're doing it for spiritual enhancement."