Inside the Twin Cities’ dwindling Scientology movement

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Colin Michael Simmons

On the corner of Wabasha and 10th streets, a large ‘S’ accompanied by two sideways triangles leers at the downtown traffic. Underneath, bold letters spell out “Church of Scientology” on one of the prime locations in St. Paul.

When it housed the Science Museum of Minnesota, this 82,000-square-foot building served a public purpose. Today, as the biggest Scientology building in the Midwest, it’s largely empty.

On a Sunday morning, I count four people inside, apart from two friends with whom I’ve come for a tour. The unfilled rooms are notable, considering Scientology holds Sunday services.

In the early 1990s, I attended kindergarten in this building while my elementary school was being constructed. Today, the building has the ambiance of an upscale mall. Classrooms where kids once learned natural science have been replaced with training rooms where committed Scientologists learn to administer the religion’s brand of psychotherapy known as auditing.

The lobby outside the old Omnitheater is stale brown, a stark contrast to the purple and pink hues that greeted me as an eager child. At age 5, entering this theater was like entering the Colosseum. Today, it’s still giant, though a flat, rectangular IMAX screen looks like it’s been hastily placed in front of the old domed one. Below, a podium with an eight-pointed Scientology cross sits next to a bronze bust of L. Ron Hubbard, the 20th-century pulp sci-fi writer who founded the religion.

The room is dark and empty.

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Colin Michael Simmons

A promotional video describes this building, known in church parlance as an “ideal organization,” as “nothing short of grand,” a “landmark all unto itself.” The best word I can summon is “hollow.” This point isn’t lost on Eric Rapp, the broker who sold the building to Scientology in the mid-2000s.

“I go by there all the time and I rarely see anything going on,” he says. “I dunno.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2011, four years after they purchased the building for $3.5 million and committed another $2.5 million to renovations, Scientologists held a grand opening. They closed off the intersection and got David Miscavige, the enigmatic “ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion,” to preside over the event.

Former St. Paul Councilman Dave Thune bragged about reading his “dog-eared” copy of Hubbard’s “The Way to Happiness” pamphlet. State Rep. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) told a cheering crowd that she planned to use church materials on human rights in her classroom at Metro State University, where she’s an adjunct instructor.

But in the seven and a half years since, Scientology’s public image is more toxic than ever. A renaissance of critical media has surfaced through countless tell-all memoirs, the acclaimed book and HBO documentary Going Clear, and the popular A&E series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.

Though Scientology is often ridiculed for its seemingly out-there beliefs—most notably in tracing the origin of human suffering to the tale of an evil alien overlord named Xenu who wrought galactic genocide 75 million years ago—the church’s true horror stories revolve around accusations of siphoning money from followers through endless course fees and donations, as well as “disconnecting” them from contact with family and friends deemed problematic to the church.

Today, anyone can read tales of tragedy from ex-members on the internet. The pure volume has some predicting doom for the church.

“It’s already dead,” says Chris Shelton, an ex-Scientologist who spent 27 years in the church and helped with the building’s grand opening that day. “They just don’t know it.”

“Money-making scam.” These words, Shelton contends, are the key to understanding why Scientology bought a large property in downtown St. Paul that’s never fully used.

“If you think about Scientology in any other terms, you’re going to be very confused, because the things that they do don’t make any damn sense,” Shelton says.

The St. Paul building is one of nearly 60 “ideal orgs” around the globe. All share similar rates of vacancy, according to news outlets like BuzzFeed and the Village Voice. Mike Rinder, who once served as head of the church’s legal and public relations arm, has called Scientology’s ideal org campaign a real estate scam.

Before the local Scientology branch bought the St. Paul building, it worked out of a storefront on Nicollet Mall that ex-members describe as decrepit, with ripped carpet and a bad heating system.

“It was run-down. It needed so much work,” says Suzanne W., a former Scientologist who was active in the 2000s. (She doesn’t want her last name used, fearing retaliation from the church). “They really struggled just paying utilities on that building.”

Under these circumstances, buying a larger, more expensive building didn’t make sense. But starting in 2003, Miscavige launched a campaign to encourage branches across the globe to buy historic buildings and convert them into megachurches. Growing interest in the religion demanded it, the church claimed.

But ex-Scientologists say it was the other way around. The grand structures were supposed to replenish flagging membership. “The philosophy is if you build it, they will come,” Shelton says. Shelby LaFreniere, who grew up in Excelsior and spent her youth in Scientology before ultimately leaving at age 19, says members were made to believe that the St. Paul building would reverse the church’s fortunes.

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Scientology is “already dead,” says former member Chris Shelton. “They just don’t know it.”

“If you had this new building, it would naturally bring in people,” she says. “People would see it and they would be curious about what this wonderful thing is, and they’d just be drawn to Scientology.”

To buy it, leaders focused downward on the pockets of members. As a fundraising staffer, LaFreniere says superiors trained her to ask for donations from members by encouraging them to open new credit cards.

“I was told there’s always money,” she says.

Sources of it included her grandparents, who remortgaged their house. They also included her mother, Natalie Webster, who donated roughly $100,000 over the years with her ex-husband.

Webster recalls being at a fundraiser hosted at the Minneapolis Convention Center, where staffers literally blocked the doors with tables so members couldn’t leave without donating.

“Parishioners were giving up their IRAs, their kids’ college funds, maxing out their credit cards—it didn’t matter,” Webster says.

Suzanne W. and her husband spent tens of thousands of dollars on coursework and donations. When she was short of money, church staffers gave her a list of credit card companies with whom she could open new accounts. “They would sit on the phone with you and try to get your credit card limit raised,” Suzanne says. “Or they would watch you on the phone applying for new credit cards so you could get new money to pay for the stuff.”

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Natalie Webster says staff members would lock the doors to keep people from leaving before they donated.

Penny Rose Mixhau says her now-deceased husband once gave $17,000. “I was at fundraising events,” Mixhau says. “I saw people pledge $1 million or half a million.”

(After repeated interview requests, Twin Cities Scientology replied, “We do not debate our religion with anti-Scientologists such as those you are using in your article and thus will not be participating in your story.”)

Title documents list the Minnesota Church of Scientology as owner of the St. Paul building. But former members contend the international church, headquartered in Los Angeles, calls the shots for how money is raised and spent.

“We never saw any invoices, never any accounting, never any breakdown of what all the money was going for,” Shelton says. “You had no accountability, no transparency. So you have a potential there for a great advantage being taken of all these local churches by international.”

The church pays no property taxes on the St. Paul building. As a religion, Scientology has been tax-exempt since 1993.

On a tour, my group is taken into a public film room by polite staffers and shown introductory videos outlining some basic concepts of Scientology.

We learn how the human mind has two sides—one analytical and one reactive. Eliminating your reactive mind gets you to the “clear” level, a major state in Scientology’s “Bridge to Total Freedom” pathway to enlightenment.

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Shelby LaFreniere says the church has but a few dozen members in the five-state region.

This idea is one of many outlined in Dianetics, Hubbard’s famous self-help tome that served as his foray into creating Scientology. Glossy copies of the book are perched on shelves all over the building, selling for $25.

Another video focuses on the plight of the modern worker. We watch as a hardworking man burns the midnight oil at the office to advance his career, only to see his efforts go unrewarded. Instead, the boss’s lazy son and the man who knows how to play office politics get promotions.

This vicious cycle of instability in work life disables us, the narrator explains. We can overcome this ordered chaos only by learning the tools of Scientology, which means the knowledge of life.

Basic concepts like these, while exuding an unmistakably dark undertone, can be easy to relate to.

Suzanne’s conversion in 2000 began with her enrollment in “very simple, very basic low-cost courses” that taught “pretty common-sense” principles.

“That’s kind of how they pull you in, and you become friends with these people and you think you’re part of this group,” she says.

LaFreniere recalls a communication course at age 7. She and an adult would sit in chairs facing each other. The first exercise consisted of learning how to sit comfortably in front of someone with her eyes closed. The next exercise taught the same thing with her eyes open.

The process progressed to learning how to get your words across to the other person effectively, then learning to acknowledge the other person’s communication back to you.

LaFreniere acknowledges that some of these lessons are useful. “But somebody, anybody, could have told you those skills,” she says.

The deeper a Scientologist studies, the more rigid the rules become. As members progress in their auditing, they’re asked questions in one-on-one therapy-like sessions to locate the roots of their “spiritual distress.” They’re encouraged to report problematic behavior by other members, such as looking up information about Scientology from outside sources.

Webster compares the indoctrination to boiling a frog slowly so it doesn’t recognize the danger until it’s too late.

“Nobody gets into an abusive relationship and has the shit beat out of them on the first night,” she says. “It’s at first words, then it’s a push and a shove.”

Webster joined the church at the age of 5 after her mother married a Scientologist. By her teen years, she was convinced the religion was the best way to save mankind. She left high school to join the Sea Organization, a paramilitary group of sorts that Hubbard called the “aristocracy of Scientology.” Sea Org members sign a one-billion-year contract, wear military-style uniforms, and are granted room and board in exchange for highly disciplined work.

Workdays typically last from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, and include three daily roll calls where Sea Org members must line up on command. Their tasks can be anything from working a dining hall to making international financial decisions.

In her early 20s, Webster was raped by a non-Scientologist. Sea Org officials instructed her not to go to the police, she says, since it would bring bad PR. A common refrain from ex-Scientologists is that the church taught them to blame themselves when problems occurred because they weren’t applying the teachings correctly.

“They told me, at the end of the day, I must have done something to make it happen,” Webster says. “They never wanted the authorities on the premises, and never wanted a Scientologist, let alone a Sea Org member, involved with the authorities.”

But the traumatic incident would turn into an opportunity. After seven years in Sea Org, she’d become worn down by the lifestyle. The church agreed to release her in exchange for her silence about the rape, she says. But Webster would have to say she was leaving because she cheated on her then-husband.

“I was so broken by then that I agreed to anything,” she says. “It was easier to me to have people think I was a slut than have them know I was assaulted.”

The Twin Cities church has cited its regional membership at 10,000. Former members say that’s an amalgamation of everyone who’s ever bought a Scientology book, took a personality test, or stopped by the church out of curiosity and wrote their name down on a visitors list.

After the church bought the St. Paul building in 2007, Shelton was sent from California to shore up local membership.

He was a ranking member of the Sea Org, where he’d spent 17 years. The church gave him a list of “950 people who were supposedly Scientologists” in a five-state region that included the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. His task was to make sure they were still involved. If they weren’t, he would work to regain them.

Shelton soon found that most had barely any connection at all. One, who was listed as a trained auditor, had merely bought a copy of Dianetics at a flea market once.

“That’s how goofy the church’s records are,” Shelton says.

In the end, he could find only 100-150 legitimate members in the entire five-state area.

Suzanne recalls only seeing about 20 people consistently taking classes during her 10 years with the church. “But they kept telling us there were thousands.”

LaFreniere says that outside of big events, only 25-30 people showed up regularly, and most of them were on staff.

Shelton’s parents were Scientologists, though he didn’t join till age 15 when—as an awkward, nerdy teenager—an attractive recruiter promised that he could improve his communication skills.

“It wasn’t for years that I realized what she was telling me she could have told any high schooler,” Shelton says. “‘Oh, you have a hard time talking to girls. Oh, you have a hard time getting dates.’ I fell perfectly for that, because they said, ‘We have a class that will handle that for you.’’”

Taking the courses didn’t necessarily get him more dates, but they did make him feel better about himself. Soon, he too felt the church was the best cure for worldly ills. It promised emancipation from all troubles, a goal that Shelton chased until the very end.

After one achieves the “clear” level on the Bridge to Total Freedom, they can begin what are called the “Operating Thetan” or OT levels. There are eight of them, promising Scientologists full awareness and eventual freedom from their physical bodies. This can include superpowers like telekinesis and freedom from physical ailments. “Thetan” was Hubbard’s word for spiritual body or soul.

Only the most committed reach these heights, which cost tens of thousands of dollars to obtain. They include paying for individual courses as well as countless auditing sessions at $800 an hour.

In the early 2000s, Webster rose to the third level, where she was introduced to Xenu.

The Xenu story, made infamous by a 2005 episode of South Park, revolves around the alien overlord’s attempt to resolve an overpopulation problem in the 76-planet confederacy that he ruled over. Xenu plotted genocide, rounding up billions of his own people into giant spaceships.

He launched them off to Earth, depositing them into volcanoes near Hawaii and Las Palmas. Xenu’s minions then dropped hydrogen bombs on the volcanoes to ensure their deaths.

The thetans of these beings ascended from their dead bodies, but an atmospheric forcefield rerouted them to large cinemas for rounds of forced indoctrination, à la A Clockwork Orange. There, the thetans were implanted with the false ideas that make up other religions, such as the desire for a good career, a family, and a house with a white-picket fence.

These brainwashed souls wandered Earth for millions of years. Soon, clusters of them inhabited human bodies. They’re the real cause of human suffering, Scientologists are told, and must be exorcised through OT training.

Webster read the Xenu story from copies in Hubbard’s handwriting. The material is so confidential that it came in a binder that she had to plug into a security system.

“We were told over and over again that if you’re exposed to this material before you’re ready for it, you can get pneumonia and die,” she says.

Until then, her training had focused on exposing her past trauma. “Now you’re sitting here and you’re telling me that I have the souls of people from another planet physically attached to me?” she says. “And they’re the ones that have the negative thoughts and whatnot that I experience?”

On one hand, she reasoned that the Xenu story was no more fantastical than the story of Christ, who was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. Besides, the training made her feel good about herself.

It required her to go to California and get plenty of rest, away from the daily stresses of home life and raising three kids.

“I’m working on myself, I’m talking about issues that plagued me, how do I not feel better?” she says. “Had I gone to a spa or a one-month vacation, I may have gotten the same results.”

She also began to increasingly notice Scientology’s focus on money.

“The demands for money and the expectation as a parishioner that you were going to give everything you have, that wasn’t enough,” she says. “They actually physically wanted you there, making calls, getting people to the fundraisers. To this day, even fundraising for my kids’ schools turns me off.”

When the I-35W bridge collapsed, Webster volunteered for the Red Cross. In 2008, she competed in the Mrs. Minnesota pageant. She also started writing a column for a community newspaper that took her beyond her comfort zone.

“More and more, I started to see the world around me was not what I was led to believe since my childhood,” she says.

Her growing sense of unease was compounded by her daughter LaFreniere’s disastrous two weeks in the Sea Org a few years before. The teen called one night overwhelmed, crying, and wanting to come home. Church officials argued that she couldn’t leave, since she’d just signed a billion-year contract of service.

The man in charge of new recruits told Webster that “this has nothing to do with you. This is between Shelby and the Sea Org.”

“And I said, ‘Shelby is 14 years old, this has everything to do with me. I am her mother. She cannot legally be there without me saying she can,’” Webster says. The Sea Org eventually relented.

Webster started secretly reading internet message boards populated by ex-Scientologists.

“I learned to clear my browser,” she says. “I made sure no one was home. I mean, you’d think I was looking at porn or something.”

Scientology calls media material critical of the church “black PR.” Getting caught reading it can put members’ abilities to obtain the OT levels in jeopardy, forcing them to retrain in courses and that could cost them tens of thousands of dollars more.

Webster’s secret internet surfing ran for nearly two years before she revealed her doubts to her then-husband. Both were ready to leave the church.

LaFreniere was devastated. A staff member offered her a place to stay after her parents’ defection. She declined. But with her parents no longer subsidizing her Scientology training, she was forced to find work, and began to realize that non-members could live happy lives.

“I was really confused when people would say, ‘Good morning’ every day,” she says. “You didn’t greet people (in Scientology) unless they were your senior.”

Shelton’s exit began with leaving the Sea Org in order to do the OT levels. The church became enraged when he moved back to Minnesota to be near a Scientologist with whom he had begun a relationship. He too began surfing the internet, reading of staff beatings and leaked materials.

He was fascinated. And devastated.

“I had realized it was all a scam, that I had been taken advantage of for 27 years of my life, that it was a total fucking waste,” he says. “I haven’t really found a word in a thesaurus to describe what that feels like. I just don’t have it.”

Today, Shelton lives in Denver, delivering weekly YouTube videos that deconstruct Scientology and other cult-like thinking. He also authored Scientology: A to Xenu, a critical primer explaining how the church operates.

Both Shelton and Webster say Scientology has declared them “suppressive persons,” or enemies of the church.

Suzanne left after the church gave her an ultimatum: Stop being friends with Webster or leave.

“I’m like, ‘You’re making this real easy,’” she says. “‘I guess I’m done.’”

LaFreniere discovered she too had been labeled suppressive after leaving the church. She visited the St. Paul building and was barred from a tour.

Outside, LaFreniere caught up with an old friend selling church books. As they talked, Karen, the woman who once offered LaFreniere a place to stay when her family defected, yelled at them from across the street.

“She said, ‘You need to back away!’” LaFreniere says.

Like anyone who has walked or driven past the building, LaFreniere also noticed the absence of people inside.

“I cannot imagine, if I had finished training and came back all excited to disseminate Scientology to the world, and then nobody comes in,” she says. “I would feel personally responsible, honestly.”

Ex-members emphasize that Scientologists are in it because they’re trying to do good for others. Anyone, they argue, can unwittingly fall into similar life traps. Sometimes it’s drugs and alcohol. Sometimes it’s abusive relationships. Sometimes it’s blind allegiance to partisan politics. And sometimes it’s Scientology.

Says Webster: “Everybody has their cult.”


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