This evening's black-tie celebration of Black History month at the Fort Harrison Hotel is a clear signal Scientologists are forging fruitful relationships with persuasive voices in some of the nation's black communities.
Among the four black clergy to be honored at Scientology's annual Ebony Awakening awards ceremony is Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.
Farrakhan is convalescing after extensive touring for last October's Millions More Movement march, but Western Regional Minister Tony Muhammad will accept on his behalf.
The evening's keynote speaker will be Baptist pastor Alfreddie Johnson, newly elected City Council member in Lynwood, Calif., and executive director of the World Literacy Crusade, a tutoring program that uses the "study technology" of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
In interviews this week, Muhammad and Johnson said they are comfortable partnering with Scientology. They both disclosed a plan to train members of the Nation of Islam to administer Hubbard's "study tech" and drug treatment methods. The programs will be offered at mosques in the Los Angeles area to start. A similar collaboration is playing out in East Tampa at the Glorious Church of God in Christ. Rev. Charles L. Kennedy has arranged for his congregants to be trained by Scientologists to teach Hubbard's scholastic and drug treatment techniques to residents in the predominantly black neighborhood.
Kennedy also will be honored at the Fort Harrison tonight with a "Friends of Mankind" award.
Other honorees are Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, leader of the 10,000-member St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and Houston-based Rev. James McLaughlin, senior pastor of the Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal church, and his wife Cleo Johnson-McLaughlin.
The McLaughlins founded the Gift of Life Drug Free program in Houston. It is a Narconon facility, meaning it utilizes Hubbard's controversial detoxification program which purports to remove harmful toxins through vigorous exercise followed by several hours in a sauna, then a regimen of vitamins, minerals and oils.
Johnson, 43, who has promoted Scientology's literacy efforts for 14 years and was honored by Ebony Awakening in 2003, said he recently started a Narconon program as part of his California ministry, based at the True Faith Christian Center in Compton. Like Hubbard education programs, he found it to be "extremely effective."
The traction Scientology appears to be gaining in black communities is a reflection of the willingness of black clergy to listen to nonmainstream messages, Johnson believes.
"In my opinion, most white churches are run by conservatives who have not been locked out of society," said Johnson. "When you go in and try to share new ideas with people who are conservative in their thinking, they are not as open as African-Americans, who historically have been locked out of the mainstream of society."
Johnson sees no conflict being a Baptist minister and a proponent of Hubbard's programs. In directing the World Literacy Crusade, he does not proselytize, he said, or try to convert participants to Scientology. In exposing tens of thousands to Hubbard-based study programs around the world, "none of them have run off to be Scientologists," he said.
Johnson said he met with Farrakhan to explain Hubbard's ideas on the barriers to learning, and his philosophies on drug treatment.
"Who am I to bring this white man (Hubbard) to the Nation of Islam?" Johnson said. "But Minister Farrakhan is not a racist or hater like he's been characterized."
Tony Muhammad, who was called in recently to help quell California's prison riots, said Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are open to any ideas or programs that will help African-Americans.
"I found some validity in some of the L. Ron Hubbard work," Muhammad said. "They have one of the best drug rehabilitation programs in the country."
It's not necessary that the Nation of Islam and Scientology agree on methodology or ideology, he said.
"We like the drug treatment program and we at least want to collaborate on that," Muhammad said.
Johnson described the rollout of programs to mosques in Los Angeles as a pilot, but "hopefully it will eventually spread," he said.
Partnering with the Nation of Islam will open doors in the black community, Johnson said.
"The Nation of Islam has credibility in the inner-cities of the United States," Johnson said. "People trust them. They believe in what they have to offer."
That Scientologists have connected with black religious leaders is significant given the scarcity of black Scientologists in the United States.
Scientology has not taken a count of its black members, said Clearwater-based spokesperson Pat Harney, but she acknowledged the numbers are low.
In recent years, the church has attempted to make inroads, opening churches in predominantly black areas of Harlem and Engelwood, Calif.
Recruiting new members is not the aim of Ebony Awakening, said Stephanie Hamilton, who co-founded the organization with her mother, jazz singer Amanda Ambrose. The group, headquartered in Clearwater, is dedicated to spreading Hubbard's social programs into black communities.
"We must do something about the needs in the black community, and it has nothing to do with what religion we are," said Hamilton, who moved to Clearwater from L.A. six years ago.
Hamilton said curiosity about Hubbard's social programs among black clergy prompted Ebony Awakening to hold a leadership conference in the days preceding tonight's awards banquet. Black clergy were introduced to Hubbard's programs and given a tour of Rev. Kennedy's community center in Tampa.
Their question, inevitably: "If we use these programs, can we still be Christians, Muslims or Bahia or whatever they are?" Hamilton said.
"Of course," she said, "there is no effect."