Scientology’s ‘volunteer ministers’ at work in Japan

I got a press release today from the Church of Scientology, promoting the work of Scientology’s “volunteer ministers” in Japan since the disaster.

The release includes this: “Since the disaster struck, the Scientology Volunteer Ministers Japan Disaster Response Team has helped more than 48,000 displaced persons in dozens of shelters distributing food, water and supplies and providing Scientology assists. Assists, often described as “spiritual first aid,” help the individual overcome the effects of loss, shock and trauma and speed recovery by addressing the spiritual and emotional factors in illness and injury.”

The work of Scientology’s “volunteer ministers” at disaster sites has long been controversial. Back in early ’02, I wrote about their work at Ground Zero.

At the time, the chief of the National Mental Health Association told me: “”What Scientology is doing can be very dangerous if people think they are going to see legitimate mental health counselors. Their volunteer ministers are not trained in mental health services and actually reject science. We really believe that harm can be done here.”

No one questions (I think) the general support offered by Scientology volunteers: passing out food; helping people find shelter; listening to people in crisis; etc.

The issue is the “spiritual first aid” provide by their “ministers,” who only read some Scientology materials and take an exam.

This is what I wrote in ’02:

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Scientology uses technical terms to describe counseling techniques that, on the face of it, sound impossibly simple. At Ground Zero, for instance, volunteer ministers often offered “touch assists,” which involve touching injured body parts as a way to open communication between the brain and the injured area.

For someone still focused on Sept. 11, volunteer ministers may perform a “locational.” This involves having someone focus on something in the present.”

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A volunteer told me at the time: “If someone keeps seeing the image of the World Trade Center falling again and again, you ask the person to look into the environment – at a clock or whatever. Instead of looking into the past, they look into the now. That’s not to say they won’t think about the past again, but they’re not as stuck on it.”

The press release about Japan includes this: “A man whose business was swept away in the tsunami began his assist in sorrow and walked away humming, telling the Volunteer Minister he plans to rebuild his inn as soon as he can.”

Scientology, by the way, is opposed to the practice of psychiatry and psychology.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.