Viewed from a few hundred miles up, Florida at night is illuminated by a sparkling necklace of cities along the state’s coastlines. Descending toward the central west coast, Tampa and St. Petersburg are ablaze with lights. Then there’s a third bright-and-getting-brighter jewel shining to the skies—the City of Clearwater.
No other city in the world can lay claim to what Clearwater has: the Scientology religion’s international spiritual headquarters, known as Flag. The Church arrived to Clearwater in 1975 and has been steadily growing and thriving ever since—indeed, booming and bustling for the last few years. The recent surge is rooted to one event: the November 2013 opening of the Flag Building, the religion’s global cathedral. That has energized Scientology, its campus in Clearwater—comprising 56 buildings as of 2016—and the entire city’s downtown area.
The Flag Building sent the Church’s worldwide expansion into high gear. And nowhere is that more evident than more and more Scientologists arriving daily from everywhere—from Kansas to Kazakhstan, from Bogotá to Brussels.
With an ever-growing staff, now 2,600 strong, required to service the burgeoning number of Scientologists at Flag, two additional office buildings opened in summer 2016: the 1927 historical West Coast Building, now faithfully restored, and the modern-era Flag Administration Building.
The Church has also inaugurated headquarters for its humanitarian organizations, and has been the catalyst for a coalition of scores of nonprofit groups throughout the Tampa Bay area.
CONFLUENCE OF HELP
It’s hard to itemize everything Scientology is doing in Clearwater—the list keeps ballooning. Religion, of course, tops the agenda. But the critical mass of Scientology work includes much more—human rights campaigns, fights against drugs and illiteracy, stamping out psychiatric abuses, providing assistance and support for victims of calamities. In these ways and more, the Church aids other religions and groups in advancing their work on behalf of mankind.
Almost every week—and often several times during many weeks—the Church’s landmark Fort Harrison religious retreat is host to meetings, conferences, gala dinners, plays, movie premieres and dozens of other activities. One evening in 2016 featured a tribute to soldiers and sailors who are Purple Heart recipients. Another fête was a fashion show whose proceeds support charities. Politicians, police officials and civic leaders speak at events. And elsewhere in Clearwater, the Church organizes and supports major events, from jazz festivals to Easter egg hunts and an annual Winter Wonderland that has brought tens of thousands of tourists to downtown.
Ground zero for Scientology humanitarian activities is the row of attractive buildings two blocks north of the Flag Building. They include a Scientology public information center and new headquarters—one each—for Church-supported humanitarian and social betterment campaigns: The Way to Happiness, Foundation for a Drug-Free World, United for Human Rights, Criminon, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and the Scientology Volunteer Ministers. Since the buildings opened in July 2015, more than 75,000 people have visited—to view a museum on psychiatric abuse, to learn about human rights, to fight drug abuse with prevention-oriented education and to find solutions to social ills such as homelessness, violence and prison recidivism.
Within minutes of Flag are new, larger facilities for the Applied Scholastics Clearwater Community Learning Center, opened in April 2016.
Also a several-minute drive from Flag is the new Narconon Suncoast, offering the evidence-based drug rehabilitation program based on the research and discoveries of L. Ron Hubbard, which has been full to capacity all year. Set on 7.5 wooded and landscaped acres, it’s a place and a program designed to empower people, help them end addiction and build productive drug-free lives—a cause Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger wholly believes in. “I have seen those who have gone through the Narconon program and have now turned their lives around and gained back their own selves,” Dillinger said in a speech dedicating the rehab center in November 2015. “We need facilities like this one.”
On the stretch of Fort Harrison Avenue where the humanitarian groups are headquartered, two years ago there were few pedestrians in the vicinity, and weeds and trash marred largely empty parking lots. Today, the operative word is “throngs.” Although a year ago, many people visited to see the area’s transformation, they now arrive to pitch in on the many projects engineered to uplift Clearwater and, truth be told, all of humanity.
The Church-sponsored humanitarian and social betterment organizations have also formed many partnerships in the time since their debut. Those partners include the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Police Athletic League, the Ocala Police Department, and numerous other law enforcement agencies across Florida, which adopted the Foundation for a Drug-Free World’s The Truth About Drugs educational materials; a Junior ROTC, which has invited United for Human Rights to train its students; and the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Task Force on Human Trafficking—more than 130 local organizations in all.
There’s another number of relevance: More than 27,000 people attended conventions, seminars, luncheons and banquets at Flag in the last year. Many are Scientologists, but many more attend because they are trying to build a good community and world.
In testament to the community partnership, the Church joined with the city and the Tampa Bay Veterans Alliance to construct a memorial for war veterans in one of Clearwater’s prominent parks, which was inaugurated in 2016.
Steve Besio, longtime Scientologist and Clearwater resident, had this assessment of Flag and its home, the city’s downtown: “All I see are smiling faces.” When asked why so many people are smiling, he chuckled: “There’s so much stuff happening at the Church. So much.”