There’s a billboard in Los Angeles dotted with dozens of faces representing Scientologists who have separated from their families. It reads: “To my loved one in Scientology … call me.”
The massive message was placed in Echo Park this month by Phil and Willie Jones, former Scientologists who say they have lost their two adult children, Michael and Emily Jones, to a practice known as “disconnection,” which believers describe as a last resort — ending communication with people who are “antagonistic to Scientology” to protect themselves from being torn from the religion.
The church “poisoned their minds against us,” Phil Jones told The Washington Post. “They think we’re out to destroy the world.”
The Joneses, from Las Vegas, were in the church for more than 40 years and have now begun a campaign called Stop Scientology Disconnection to raise awareness about the religious practice that they say separated them from their children. They want to “make people more aware of Scientology Disconnection, as well as hopefully entice those in Scientology to take that step of calling their loved ones, family, friends, or whoever they have disconnected from due to pressure from the Church of Scientology,” according to their website.
The pair launched a GoFundMe page to help raise the more than $8,000 needed to pay for printing and installation costs. By Monday afternoon, they had raised about $16,500 and secured the billboard for a second month.
They hope to have it up through August.
The Church of Scientology was founded by former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1952, and the religion has become popular in recent years, in part because of celebrity members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
But the church has generated considerable controversy.
Since the 1970s, Scientology has taken heat from academics, journalists and former members who have described near-slavery conditions that they say they lived through.
Scientology slipped back into the spotlight after more recent allegations of physical abuse by some top ex-officials. The church denies many of the claims and says the former members are liars.
Lawrence Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” and an HBO documentary, “Going Clear,” shed light on such alleged abuses.
The Joneses said they began to have questions about the religion several years ago and that Phil Jones’s sister, who is also a Scientologist, went to church leaders to tell them that her brother and sister-in-law were having doubts.
The couple said they were excommunicated and have not heard from their children the past few years.
Phil Jones said he and his wife have tried to contact their children, even posting missing-person fliers.
Finally, he said, the couple received letters — first from their daughter and then from their son — telling their parents to leave them alone.
“If they’re told to disconnect, they have to or they lose everything that’s important to them,” Phil Jones said.
Phil Jones said he got involved in the church when he was a teenager.
“Once you’re in it, there is a process that has a creep factor, there’s a degree of hypnotism, of mental conditioning,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “Once you get in too deep, it’s tough to break out. My wife and I met in Scientology when she was 17 and I was 18. We’ve been together ever since.
“We raised our children in it.”
The problem, Jones told the Hollywood Reporter, is trying to get someone out of the church.
“Every single person will say, ‘No, I want to be here. I’m here of my own choice.’ Because there is a brainwashing to it, a hypnosis,” he said. “If I’d try to take my kids out, they will not want to go.”
Jones said their children joined the Church of Scientology’s Sea Organization, which is described as “a religious order for the Scientology religion and is composed of the singularly most dedicated Scientologists.”
“That’s where you sign a billion-year contract,” Jones told the Hollywood Reporter. “You work there, eat the food there, you work 100 hours a week for 10 cents an hour. It’s just brutal.”
“In 20 years, our kids were never allowed to leave for Christmas or visit us,” he added. “We could visit them and maybe get an hour with them. What usually happens is, something triggers them to want to leave. Sometimes something changes in their life, or they get beat up badly. The other thing is, the majority who get out say, ‘I read something on the Internet’ or ‘I saw something on the news.’
“That’s why we’re doing the billboard.”
Jones told The Post that after he and his wife started raising funds for their roadside message, others began reaching out to them about loved ones they had lost to the church.
“So we made the billboard more general and it became a campaign to end Scientology disconnection,” he said, adding: “We’re trying to see if we can do something to help these families reconnect somehow.”
The Church of Scientology dismissed the billboard in a statement to The Post.
“The billboard in Echo Park is simply the latest in a series of publicity stunts by Phil and Willie Jones to stalk and harass their adult offspring, Mike and Emily Jones, who are in their 30s and 40s,” the statement said. “For the past several weeks Phil and Willie Jones have been working with a reality TV producer staging stunts intended to harass their adult children, despite their children telling them directly to back off and stop.
“Clearly, there is no fact checking with billboards. It is shameful that two people desperate for publicity would hook up with a reality TV producer to shamelessly exploit and harass their two adult children for money. It is equally despicable that these individuals would use a private family matter to promote anti-religious hate and bigotry and harm their kids.”
Jones confirmed to The Post that they are documenting their experience but did not go into detail.
Willie Jones told NBC’s “Today” that the church has torn their family apart.
“Scientology is not allowing me to be a mom,” she said. “They’re not allowing Phil to be a dad.”
Then, she addressed her children.
“We love you guys so much and miss you so much,” Willie Jones said.
“And we won’t stop fighting for you — ever,” Phil Jones said. “Ever.”
This story has been updated.