September 20, 2001, The New York Times
Religious Leader Takes His Calling to Ground Zero
AMID faces gray with grief and grime, theirs are fresh, even smiling. Among blackened uniforms and sooty equipment, their yellow T-shirts are bright buoys. They are clean.
At any time, well over 100 volunteer ministers from the Church of Scientology mill around the remains of the World Trade Center. On the day of the attack, they took in food to workers. Since then, they have taken the mind-altering techniques developed by the church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
When rescue workers stagger from the wreckage, the ministers, identified by their T-shirts, try to focus the workers' minds and revive their bodies. In "locationals," workers are told to look at the sky, or at water bottles on a table -- anything to ground them in the present, the outside world, rather than the horror within the rubble.
"They bring people back, so to speak, so they are in control of their mind and environment," said the Rev. John Carmichael, the president of the Church of Scientology of New York. "You want to help get rid of the fatigue and the fuzziness."
At 54, Mr. Carmichael has the blond hair and blue eyes of a surfer, and the craggy face of a Mick Jagger or a Willem Dafoe. The result is an uncanny resemblance to "that congressman from California," Gary A. Condit, as one woman who saw him in a coffee shop yesterday put it.
He grew up in Illinois and Florida, a Presbyterian by birth who had ''gone atheist.'' He discovered "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," Mr. Hubbard's best-selling book, at a roadside stand while a college student at Cornell University, and never looked back. He became an ordained minister in 1973.
He has given half his life to the religion, he said, because "it works," and because it is not based on the promise of salvation, but on the premise that there are practical ways to improve lives. His work for the church has taken him to San Francisco, Paris and Munich, among other places. He has been president of the New York church for 13 years.
The volunteer corps of ministers has been active in disasters, from earthquakes in Los Angeles to the bombings in Oklahoma City and Atlanta, since 1988. But the disaster this time far surpasses those in scale, and it is in Mr. Carmichael's front yard.
At least 800 ministers have cycled through the scene, many coming from Quebec, Florida or California, he said.
Yesterday, Mr. Carmichael's 19-year-old son manned the busy front desk at the church's building on 46th Street. Signs out front proclaimed it a "Disaster Relief Headquarters" and encouraged volunteers to ask how they could help.
Though many religious organizations are supplying assistance for the disaster, few are as well-organized as the Scientologists, or as evident at the scene. When many volunteers were asked to clear out over the weekend, the Scientologists were allowed to stay, working alongside groups like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
When he drove down to the site on Tuesday, Mr. Carmichael said, a police officer waved him through. "You're a Scientologist," he recalled the officer saying. "You're good."
Scientology is growing rapidly, Mr. Carmichael said, and "growth bespeaks popularity." Others worry that disaster assistance could mask proselytizing. Dissidents have accused Scientology of having cultlike overtones, and of preying on members financially.
One woman who on Saturday received a "nerve assist," in which fingers are run over the body in a way that Scientologists believe unblocks nerve channels and restores energy flow, said she was asked whether she would like a "little Dianetics session." Mr. Carmichael said that when people ask, "What was that?" after the assists, they are told it is Scientology, and given a "little piece of something" to answer questions.
"It's not proselytizing," Mr. Carmichael said. "It's us trying to help."
Photo: THE REV. JOHN CARMICHAEL (Ruby Washington/The New York Times)