HARLEM — Verlene Cheeseboro is a defender of her faith.
As the pastor of Harlem’s Church of Scientology, she doesn’t like hearing "lies and misinformation" about her religion. From waves of negative national press about the beliefs of its celebrity followers to scathing memoirs written by former members about the abuse they said they received from the church, Scientology has come under fire across the globe.
But Cheeseboro doesn't buy it.
“Like any other religion we believe there is a God. We believe in the same God that everyone else believes in,” said the 69-year-old pastor, who has been preaching Scientology in Harlem for the past decade. "You can’t say ‘[Scientologists] are a cult but my religion is OK.’”
She said the church has done a lot of good for her and the people of Harlem. They've grown from a group of 25 volunteers to a community of several hundred members, she said. The church has helped its members improve their personal and spiritual lives, she added.
And it's poised to do far more next year, when its multimillion-dollar church and community center, currently under construction, opens on East 125th Street, she said.
Among the programs scheduled for the new location are free services for seniors and youths. The community center will offer free tutoring lessons for children and hold events like bingo nights for senior citizens. The church also plans to train seniors so that they can help tutor the children, Cheeseboro said.
Cheeseboro said her church — which has spent the last decade in rented space, and is currently located next to the National Black Theater — offers spiritual counseling to help its members become smarter and better-functioning individuals.
Cheeseboro, who was born and raised in Harlem, was baptized and married as a Baptist. She turned to Scientology in the early 2000s.
She first heard of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who went on to start the Church of Scientology, when she was tutoring her children and other kids throughout Harlem. A colleague at the state’s Department of Corrections suggested she use a program developed by Hubbard.
She tried it and was pleasantly surprised by how successful it was. She asked about the man who came up with the technique and started attending Scientology services Downtown.
“It was so successful that I wanted to find out more,” Cheeseboro said of how she first got involved in Scientology. “I wanted to know about the man who came up with this.”
When the Church of Scientology started funding a mission to Harlem in 2003, Cheeseboro did all she could to help. She would hand out fliers on street corners and told her friends about the new religion.
“I love the ministry of Scientology,” she said. “The church has tools to help people help themselves. I like that idea of people finding out for themselves.”
Part of the reason Scientology has grown in Harlem is because it is such a spiritual place, Cheeseboro said, adding that the Church of Scientology will add to that culture.
The Rev. Bobbie McDaniels of the Metropolitan Baptist Church said it makes sense that different churches spring up in the neighborhood. As long as the churches are bringing people closer to God, they are good for Harlem, McDaniels said.
“Denominations and names of churches are like hospitals. Many hospitals have different names but they all heal the body. Churches heal the soul,” McDaniels said.
Cheeseboro said she looks forward to helping even more people after the expansion next year.
“We are going to have all the tools to help the people of Harlem,” she said.