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Scientology missions spring up in hurricane-damaged areas
by Kathy Hanrahan (AP, May 14, 2006)

Jackson, USA - Tom Cruise's religion of choice — the Church of Scientology — has opened its first mission on the Mississippi Gulf Coast amid the ruins of Hurricane Katrina.

Denise Quint of Ocean Springs, who manages a Scientology mission in downtown Biloxi, said the church is trying to help people whose lives were disrupted by the storm.

"I think that they are looking forward to having some help," Quint said.

The Church of Scientology was created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. In his 1950 book "Dianetics," Hubbard said the mind has a subconscious level that exerts a "hidden influence" to make a person behave a certain way. The book also says the soul suffers from negative "engrams" implanted in this life and previous lives.

The religion has been under increasing scrutiny, especially since Cruise ranted against psychiatry on NBC's "Today" show and criticized Brooke Shields' use of antidepressants for postpartum depression. Other celebrity Scientologists include John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.

Quint, 47, said she and her husband, Mike, 50, have been Scientologists for 16 years. The couple, whose Ocean Springs home was flooded but not destroyed by Katrina, helped establish the Biloxi mission after working as volunteer ministers in the area last year.

The church sent 800 volunteer ministers to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans area to counsel hurricane victims, said Tom Paquette, a media relations representative with the Church of Scientology International.

The Scientology-trained ministers provided auditing — the core religious practice of Scientology — free of charge, Paquette said. Auditing is a form of spiritual counseling in which an auditor listens to a subject without offering solutions, advice or evaluation. Paquette said the person is allowed to find answers to life's problems on his own.

Scientology missions, also located in New Orleans, Lake Charles, Lafayette and Baton Rouge, La., offer introductory services, including auditor training.

Student-to-student auditing sessions are free, as is an introductory auditing session for anyone interested in the religion. But "donations" or "suggested amounts" of payment ranging from $100 to $200 are standard with introductory auditing sessions at missions for non-students, Paquette said. A 25-hour professional auditing session at a mission or church would garner a suggested donation of about $2,000, he said.

With residents along the Gulf Coast busy rebuilding their homes and businesses, some say the donations may be a little steep.

Biloxi resident Joyce Kaufman, 60, said she is a Christian and is reluctant to delve into a new religion, such as Scientology, when she has so many other concerns. Kaufman's rented house was destroyed by Katrina. She recently found an apartment.

"I couldn't see paying out money to learn about a new religion when I have so many other problems," she said. "I am worried about how I am going to pay the rent the next year or so."

Quint said she doesn't believe the cost of the religion will dissuade people from becoming involved. She said she and her husband, an optometrist, were Catholics when they became involved with Scientology. She said her husband learned about the religion from a colleague. They enrolled in courses at the Church of Scientology to learn how to increase their business technology.

"We realized that there was more to it than the business aspect," she said.