When Tom Cruise's pro-Scientology video rant made blogosphere headlines two weeks ago, not everyone saw a strange and incomprehensible fanatic. Darren Shearer, executive director of the Church of Scientology's new Mission of Riverdale, saw a crusader, someone who has put his neck on the line, in his - and the church's - battle for human rights. "We have these rights," he says, "and they're violated all the time by the psychiatric industry. I'm thrilled that someone with a such a large voice has stepped up to the plate."
Sitting in the serene, book-lined front room of the Mission, opened last fall in East Chinatown on Broadview, a block south of Gerrard, Mr. Shearer actually bears some resemblance to Mr. Cruise: He's clean-cut, fit, slightly boyish and wild-eyed. And, like Mr. Cruise, he possesses the same self-satisfaction that Scientology instills in its followers, an unshakeable belief in the church's abilities to solve the world's problems.
Mr. Shearer's an unlikely pastor, however. The son of magazine magnate Jeffrey Shearer (current publisher of On the Bay magazine, he formerly ran Saturday Night and Applied Arts), he is better known for his day job, drummer in the progressive house group the New Deal.
Born and raised in Toronto, the affable 34-year-old formed his first band, Gypsy Soul, while still at Northern Secondary School. The New Deal was started in 1998, and the critically acclaimed three-piece went on to open for Herbie Hancock and collaborate with Feist. While the New Deal tours more sporadically now - at its height, the band was playing 100 shows a year - all the members maintain additional side projects.
In Mr. Shearer's case, of course, there's the church. He discovered Scientology about seven years ago, in his late 20s. An admittedly anxious kid, he sought solace in psychotropic drugs (Ritalin and Zoloft) and flirted briefly with Buddhism. But picking up a library copy of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics changed everything. "It totally made sense to me," he says of the book that begat the religion. "What I liked about it, too, is that I'm a pretty busy guy - I wanted something I could apply right away."
Mr. Shearer credits his subsequent success - in his musical career, in his relationships - specifically to Scientology, and it was out of a desire to spread the wealth, so to speak, that he opened the Mission (also known as the Life Achievement Centre). A few months of course work later, he received approval from the church's Yonge Street headquarters - only one other Mission exists in the city, on the Danforth - and financed the operation entirely himself.
"Helping people has always been my primary thing in life," he says, as if this were self-evident. "And I felt like I finally found that thing, that vehicle, that could really help someone in a surefire way."
After a citywide search, Mr. Shearer located a three-storey Victorian on Broadview flanked by a travel agency and a hair salon. That section of the street, from Dundas to Danforth, was already a kind of spirituality strip, dotted with an eclectic array of religious houses that included the Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church, St. John's Presbyterian Church (and the National Presbyterian Museum) and the Broadview Faith Temple, "a Christ-centred fellowship."
Along with some other Scientologists, Mr. Shearer gutted and customized the house (it now also serves as his primary residence). They installed a sauna for Purification Rundown, a detoxification ritual. On the second floor, a massage table is used for Assists, procedures designed to relieve pain or discomfort. In an adjoining room sits a fabled E-meter, a surprisingly low-tech gizmo (often described as a modified polygraph) used in the auditing process - Scientology's version of confession.
With its hardwood floors, soft lighting and cream-coloured walls, the Mission might be a day spa, were it not for the many framed photos of Mr. Hubbard and posters delineating various Scientology tenets.
As we tour the centre, Mr. Shearer patiently explains each of these jargon-laden principles. "Make sense?" he asks rhetorically.
Mr. Shearer opened his doors on Oct. 27, 2007, and, according to him, 250 people showed up for the grand opening. "Given the work I do," he says, "I could live in Chicago, I could live in New York. But I've decided to stay here because it's my place. And that's why I wanted to open this place too - I wanted to take care of my city."
It's no secret that Scientology has enjoyed a controversial history in Toronto, where, in the 1990s, the church was found guilty of criminal breaches of trust for espionage operations against the Ontario Provincial Police, RCMP and the Ontario Attorney-General and also lost a multimillion-dollar libel suit.
Asked about that, however, Mr. Shearer subtly changes the subject, returning to Mr. Cruise's bugaboo - "vested interests" in the psychiatric industry, the real enemy. Drugs are a constant theme in our conversation, and Mr. Shearer's first-hand experience (as well as what he has observed in what he calls the "debaucherous" music world) surely drives his beliefs.
"We live in a crazy world," he says, "where it's sometimes easier to get cocaine than milk." But as the New Deal song goes - and Scientology might affirm: "Don't blame yourself if you want it."