It's cold in Buffalo, and signs of the housing recovery are hard to see. Take the long walk down Main Street and you'll pass foreclosed homes, a shuttered hospice, and more than a few yellowing FOR SALE signs.
But make it downtown, and you'll see something different: a pristine, ornate cathedral, glowing against the parking lot grey. As of this June, central Buffalo has been crowned by a newly opened Church of Scientology: a gleaming, 41,000-square-foot temple, rising from the ruins with "glazed white terra cotta," "limestone trim," and "elaborately sculpted crown moldings," as one lyric church press release described the newly-erected "Ideal Organization."
The Ideal Orgs certainly look great, make headlines, and serve as flashy totems of Scientology's (literally) unspeakable wealth. The Church of Scientology International (CSI) headquarters in Los Angeles says that it has built 34 of these cathedrals worldwide since 2003, with 60 more underway. Almost all were paid for by local parishioners, who had been lobbied by roving teams of fundraisers.
But inside the church, the Ideal Orgs are sparking insurrection. Across the country, donors and high-ranking executives say that the aggressive fundraising and construction scheme is used to enrich the central church at the expense of the rank-and- file, helping to grow the Scientology war chest to over a billion dollars. Two former members, Mike Rinder and Mark Elliott, went so far as to call the project a "real-estate scam." To some of these defectors, the structures are metaphors for the religion itself: garish on the outside, empty on the inside. The irony is that the very expansion that Scientology lauds as its renaissance is actually a symbol of internal dissent and decline.
According to ex-executives, the Ideal Org money play is simple: Find beautiful buildings; get local parishioners to foot the bill; keep them closed; keep fundraising; open them; and finally, have the parishioners pay for renovations, buy supplies, and send money to the central church for the right to practice there.
When Bert Schippers forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars to help build an Ideal Org in downtown Seattle, he thought he was helping save the world. "I thought I was in the best religion on the planet," he says. But as he gave more and more from 2001 to 2008, the new cathedral's doors remained locked shut: to people, but not to money. Schippers, who had joined the church in 1986 and spent more than a million dollars on donations and courses, started asking questions about what, exactly, he was paying for; church leaders barred him, his wife, and his friends from setting foot inside.