Religion Goes Retail

Source: Tampa Tribune
Date: October 11, 2005

A free stress test at a local mall kiosk is an introduction to Scientology and 'Dianetics' books.

by Michael Sasso

"Would you like a free stress test?" a man in pressed white shirt and checkered gold tie calls out from a kiosk in University Mall.

Most mall shoppers walk past the man, Gary Relkin. But over the course of an hour Friday morning, three people stop by his kiosk and grasp the handles of a stress-monitoring device called an electropsychometer, or E-meter.

Once the stress test is over, Relkin also introduces them to "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," written by the late Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Since June, the Church of Scientology of Tampa has been leasing a kiosk in University Mall's JCPenney wing to sell copies of the book.

In the Tampa Bay area and nationwide, the church has long rented booths at flea markets, home shows and festivals, as well as approached people on the street, to introduce Dianetics to the masses. However, the church appears to be going a step further by renting a mall space.

Although religion at the mall is not a widespread phenomenon, at least a few other religious groups across the country have also set up shop in U.S. shopping malls.

Yamila Sene, deputy director of special affairs for the Scientologists' Tampa office, said "Dianetics" is widely available in bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, but the church wanted a way to reach shoppers directly. So, it began leasing the kiosk this past summer at a rate of $1,600 a month and selling paperback copies of "Dianetics" for $8 apiece. It also sells "Dianetics" DVDs and book-CD-DVD packages, she said.

The book reveals what author Hubbard calls the "reactive mind." This reactive mind is a hidden part of the mind that stores painful experiences and uses them against people. The book helps counter the reactive mind, according to Scientology's Web site, at www.scientology.org.

Sene said the kiosk is a vehicle for retail, as opposed to a forum for proselytizing. Church staff members and volunteers staff the kiosk in shifts and sell about 150 copies of the book a week. The kiosk essentially pays for itself through book sales, she said. University Mall is a good location for the kiosk because it is centrally located in Tampa and has many young adult customers, Sene said.

How The E-Meter Works

The E-meter is a way to introduce people to the book. The device vaguely resembles a lie-detector machine, with a needle that swings far to the right when someone thinks of an angry boss or worrisome health problems. According to Scientology's Web site, the E-meter shoots a tiny electrical current through a person's body. Scientologists believe that when the person imagines some distressing situation, the change in the person's mind affects the flow of electricity, which can be read by the E-meter, the Web site says.

Who at work makes you stressed? Relkin, the kiosk worker, will ask customers during a test. Do you have a wife or a girlfriend? How is your relationship?

Some customers appear willing to share remarkably personal details of their lives. The E-meter's needle showed that Collin Parks, a 34-year-old Tampa man, was anxious when speaking about his girlfriend and the problems the couple have in their relationship.

"There's no trust," he explains later during an interview with a reporter.

At least some shoppers don't realize the connection with Scientology. Muriel Bryant, an Orlando resident who visited University Mall on Friday, said a kiosk worker never mentioned the church during a 10-minute discussion about Dianetics and stress. Had she known Scientology was involved, Bryant probably wouldn't have stopped at the kiosk, said Bryant, who described herself as a nondenominational Christian.

Nonetheless, she bought two copies of "Dianetics" because of her recent problems with stress. "I have no interest in Scientology, but I will still read the book," Bryant said.

Sene, the Scientology official, said that when a customer leaves the kiosk he or she is given an invitation to attend a Dianetics film or workshop. These invitations clearly say the Church of Scientology, she said. The church offers follow-up courses on life-improvement and spirituality that start at $75 but can cost as much as a college education depending on level of study, Sene said.

From University Mall's perspective, the church is involved in a viable business of selling Dianetics, said Brooke Smith, a marketing director for University Mall.

Other Denominations Try Retail Religion

Across the country, there are at least a few other cases of churches leasing retail space at malls. In recent years, members of the Christian Science faith operated a kiosk in a mall in Norfolk, Va., where they sold copies of a book written by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Meanwhile, the Franciscan order of Roman Catholic priests operates a chapel inside a suburban Albany, N.Y., shopping mall.

Wendy Young, an adjunct professor in the University of Florida's religion department, has studied Scientology and other types of what are labeled alternative religions. She said many religions today are mixing commercialism with spirituality in an attempt to recruit new members. Like the Scientologists, a new breed of mega-church within Christianity also is using sophisticated market research to find out how to lure new parishioners, she said.

"They [the Church of Scientology] are doing their market research, and successful churches need to do that these days," Young said.

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