Christian Science Reading Room
7853 Girard Ave., La Jolla
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays and holidays
Notable Christian Scientists
Val Kilmer (“Top Gun,” “Tombstone”)
Alan Young (Wilbur Post from TV’s “Mr. Ed”)
Robert Duvall (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather”)
Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker from TV’s “All in the Family”)
By Pat Sherman
For more than four decades, people walking past the Christian Science Reading Room on Girard Avenue have peered inside quizzically, wondering what Christian Science is, and what takes place within its ubiquitous storefronts — of which their appears to be one on nearly every “Main Street” in America.
“They all want to know if we know Tom Cruise,” joked La Jolla resident and Christian Scientist Virginia DeGeneres, referring to Scientology’s celebrity defender-in-chief.
Like Scientology, the equally enigmatic Christian Science religion has its own high profile advocate in actor Val Kilmer (who, coincidentally, was Cruise’s on- and off-screen rival when they starred together in the film, “Top Gun.”)
Kilmer is currently producing a movie about Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and author Mark Twain, who was one of the church’s most staunch critics.
“Twain wrote an (essay) called ‘Christian Science’ and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read, though most people don’t like it because he’s criticizing Ms. Eddy,” said Pacific Beach resident and longtime Christian Scientist, Sheila Kelly.
Getting right with God
Founded by Eddy in the late 1800s, Christian Science has been the target of much criticism — and misunderstanding, adherents say — largely due to the fact that Christian Scientists don’t, as a rule, visit a doctor when they’re sick (or, for that matter, believe that illness is anything more than an illusion that can be cured through prayer and a closer kinship with God). Christian Scientists believe the type of healing practiced by Jesus is possible today through prayer and communion with God.
Baker was said to have founded Christian Science after being miraculously healed through prayer after a debilitating fall on the ice.
“She spent the next three years alone, just studying the Bible and praying — and she discovered the secret of how Jesus heals,” Kelly said. “It’s a science that she discovered. It was always going on, except you had to be spiritually minded to discern it.”
The Christian Science emblem features a crown and cross and the words, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (from Matthew chapter 10, verse 8 of the Bible).
“We come to learn in Christian Science that it’s God’s will for us to be well,” said reading room librarian Christina Welton. “That He sent his Son for three years, healing every kind of discord or disease that would confront Him, is to me very clear evidence that it is God’s will for us to be well, happy, provided for and content.”
Adherents say the “science” behind Christian Science isn’t as fanciful as some make it out to be. They cite studies that affirm the power of positive thinking, or of people who have been healed when a placebo is administered in lieu of an actual pharmaceutical drug.
“There are loads of studies these days (showing) how thinking affects our body, how hatred isn’t good,” Kelly said.
Welton added, “It’s basic metaphysics. What you choose to hold onto in your thinking and in your heart — the old grudges and the old resentments — does have a way of almost magnetizing more (negativity). Christian Science is very big on cleansing ourselves from holding onto erroneous, negative thoughts about ourselves and about others.”
A quiet space for reflection
For spiritual guidance, practitioners rely on the teachings of the Bible and Ms. Eddy’s companion text, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” Together, Christian Scientists refer to the texts as their “pastor.”
These texts and many other resources are available at Christian Science reading rooms across the country, including the one at 7853 Girard Ave. Reading rooms provide a comfy space where people can pray or relax on couches and read from numerous volumes containing accounts of what adherents claim to be modern-day faith healings. The group also sells a number of Christian Science literature for adults and children, as well as DVDs on Christian Science, including some narrated by Kilmer.
Also available is the Christian Science Monitor, an award-winning, weekly piece of journalism that is largely secular, except for one religious article per issue.
Reading rooms are an adjunct to Christian Science churches, including the La Jolla-based Fourth Church of Christ Scientist, San Diego at 1270 Silverado St. (designed by famed architect William Templeton Johnson, whose Spanish Revival-style structures include the original Natural History Museum in Balboa Park and the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla).
“It’s one of our two most important forms of outreach to the community, providing this quiet environment that is conducive to healing and de-stressing,” Welton said of the reading rooms. “One of our visitors works at one of the stores nearby and comes in on her break once in a while … to get de-stressed.
“It’s a place where all the concerns and distractions at home — like the drooping plants or the telephone ringing — all of that is eliminated. It’s a place where you can just get close to God and listen for his guidance, his directives in your life.”
Sheila Kelly was raised in the Christian Science faith. Her husband, Guy, whom she met when they worked together at General Atomics, is also a believer.
“My mother found Christian Science in 1943 in a beauty shop,” Sheila Kelly said. “She reached down to the bottom of the (magazine) rack and there was a Christian Science Sentinel. … She just came home a completely different person. She went to both the medicine cabinets and threw out all the medicine and two huge doctor books. She just knew she had found the truth.”
DeGeneres discovered Christian Science texts while on the mend at a neighbor’s house after a pot of boiling caramel exploded in her face. Years later, she remembered Christian Science while attending a church service in a then segregated Slidell, Louisiana.
“This man in the church grabbed his daughters out of Sunday school and said, ‘My kids are not going to go to church with black kids,’ because they were (combining) the black and the white church for their Christmas program. I just couldn’t believe a Christian would do that.”
Thumbing through the phone book, DeGeneres found a small Christian Science group in the area.
“I never felt so much love as I did when I walked in there,” said DeGeneres, who credits Christian Science with curing her “debilitating” hay fever. “From then on, that was it. I just knew there was nothing else.”
According to Carol Olten, a historian with the La Jolla Historical Society, Christian Science took root in La Jolla in 1903, when a couple women began meeting for Sunday service at the Cave Street home of Jane Easton. The group later moved the service to Easton’s home at 1415 Torrey Pines Road.
Thumbing through the society’s old phone books, Olten said Christian Science appears to have been a “very big deal” in the early 20th century, with many people listed in the book as official “Christian Science practitioners,” or those who provide spiritual treatment through prayer.
The church has grown and relocated several times since then, with its reading room perched above La Jolla Cove at 1021 Prospect Street for three decades.
The reading room was relocated to its present location on Girard Avenue in 1965, and was renovated in the mid-1980s by local architect James Alcorn, including the addition of a rotunda near its entry door.