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Scientology’s global disaster squad

Inside the religion’s unorthodox healing missions.

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Scientologists Dave McGregor (second from the left) and Ricardo Garcia (left) teach a relative of a patient their touch healing treatment method at a hospital in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26, 2010. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — After Cyclone Nargis left a trail of corpses along Burma’s coast in May 2008, foreign aid workers clamored to enter the military-controlled backwater.

Despite the world’s pleading, Burma’s paranoid generals forbade most foreign relief workers from entering the disaster zone. A frustrated U.K. threatened unauthorized air drops. The U.S. Navy was forced to float vessels loaded with life-saving supplies offshore.

But among the few who managed to access Burma’s worst-hit areas included adherents of the California-based Church of Scientology.

According to the church, miracles ensued after Scientologists touched down. Their team sought out traumatized Burmese for Scientology’s touch-healing techniques, professed to revive the spirit.

The infirm recouped strength, they said, and Burmese kids who’d lost their families regained their smiles. As the church tells it, even the surgeon of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s revered pro-democracy icon, wanted his personal relief troupe to adopt Scientology techniques.

“He goes, ‘This is amazing! I’m a doctor and I can’t even do this!’” said Andy Ponnaz, 57, a Bangkok-born Scientologist of mixed Thai-Swiss blood.

“I said, ‘Sir, I can teach all of your crew tomorrow. How many? 40? OK!’”

The far reach of Scientology

Those who know of Scientology through media exposes, or South Park’s stinging cartoon parody, may wonder what interests Scientology could possibly have in one of Asia’s most remote jungles.

The Western media has largely focused on Scientology’s celebrity followers, its secret scriptures and its costly hierarchy of enlightenment. Defectors’ tell-alls have shaken the religion’s public image. An internet campaign known as “Anonymous” vows to do much worse: destroy the church entirely.

But while Scientology endures scrutiny in America, the faith’s influence is quietly expanding in countries that lie beyond the Western media’s glare. In Burma, there is no South Park. Nor does the din of criticism reach non-English speakers in Indonesian cities ruined by earthquakes. Or poor hamlets in Ghana. Or crumbling city blocks in Chile.

Scientologists reach all these places and more. The faith has dispatched its yellow-clad “Volunteer Ministers” to almost every major global disaster in the last decade: from the 2001 World Trade Center attacks to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to Japan’s earthquake-ravaged coast.

Ten years ago, this relief brigade was estimated at 6,000 people. Now, according to church stats, it’s up to 350,000 and growing. Within the past 12 months, the church’s volunteer ministers claim to have treated 3.1 million people in 185 nations and territories.

Scientologists call their volunteer ministers “the largest independent relief force on earth,” an assertion that rivals the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies claim of 97 million volunteers. But this is hardly the two groups’ only point of distinction.

What is an "assist"?

Scientology relief work is largely focused on delivering “assists,” a menu of touch-healing techniques said to reconnect ailing bodies with immortal spirits.

The healing promised by assists is radical: limbs purged of aches in minutes and minds freed from trauma on the spot. Using only their hands, and instructions from the Scientology Handbook, ministers swear they can even render a drunk man sober in minutes.


Is this tent revival-style faith healing? According to Scientologists, no. It’s described as a spiritual science, developed by their founder, the sci-fi novelist-turned-religious leader L. Ron Hubbard.

Mainstream psychiatry is uneasy with Scientologists’ forays into trauma relief. But in the church’s eyes, they are often the only force with the spiritual expertise disaster relief requires.

“When people are walking around like zombies, we can cut through that and say, 'You, come here. Just lie down,'” said Ponnaz, the organization executive secretary of the church’s Bangkok foundation.

“They get results. Then the tables turn and they go, ‘Give me more!’”

Everyday believers

To an Asian villager in a disaster zone, a Scientologist is not Tom Cruise or John Travolta, the faith’s best-known believers. It’s a guy like Gary Bromwell, a tanned and silver-haired Australian from Perth.

Bromwell, one of the church’s most-traveled volunteer ministers, has missed few of Asia’s recent calamities. He recalls Indonesian troops weeping when afternoon rains stirred tsunami flashbacks. He’s encountered a boy whose face was dragged against the ground by waves until teeth showed through his cheek.

“Have you ever seen someone in shock? Their eyes are sort of vacant like no one’s home,” said Bromwell via phone from New Zealand, where he led a Scientology team in Christchurch. The city was rocked by a 6.3-magnitude quake in February.

“Their lights are out,” he said. “That’s because the majority of their attention is stuck back in time, on wax, at the point of trauma.”

Bromwell’s objective is to bring survivors back to “present time,” he explained. In Scientology lingo, the person’s “thetan,” or immortal spirit, is hung up on the traumatic event, leaving the body unable to properly heal.

If spotted by a Scientologist, a dazed disaster survivor is asked to lie down on a padded folding table beneath a tent. The person’s trauma-stricken spirit is then reconnected to the body, so say the Scientologists, with a combination of verbal instructions and touch techniques.

Physical injury is often handled with a “nerve assist.” The injured person lies belly-down, then supine, while a Scientologist traces fingers along their spine and strokes their limbs. The motion, according to the Scientology Handbook, unclogs blocked energy “improving communication with the body and bringing the being relief.”

Mentally trauma is treated with a “contact assist,” in which a survivor is asked to re-enact a troubling event at the location where it occurred.

A tsunami survivor, for example, may be asked to revisit the sea, coming closer and closer to the water until they can bear to dip their toes in the surf. (But Scientologists must “never forcibly drag the person up to the spot with the injury or accident occurred,” according to the handbook.)