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Waning of the 'Moonies'

With founder Reverend Moon's death, Unification Church believers and disaffiliates debate its future.

Ariel Fournier 24 Sep

Ariel Fournier is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

There are two major occasions for a member of the Unification Church: a wedding called the "Holy Blessing," and a funeral called the "Ascension." This summer marked a landmark moment for the church, whose members are popularly known as the "Moonies" -- a term the church does not condone.

For one, the church celebrated the 30th anniversary of its most notorious mass wedding, the largest ever in North America. On July 1, 1982 more than 2,000 couples of followers were married at Madison Square Gardens in New York.

Thousands again gathered on Sept. 15 at the Cheongshim Peace World Center in South Korea to attend the funeral of the church's leader and founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

The Unification Church invited members from around the world to pay their respects, but an even greater number of ex-Moonies stayed home, conspicuously not commemorating the occasion. What was once a growing new religious movement is ever-shrinking -- around 100 followers remain in Vancouver. And with the death of founder Reverend Moon, the fate of the church now rests in the hands of an uncertain lineage given to internal family conflict.

At one point in his life, K. Gordon Neufeld would have been among those mourning the reverend's passing, but now he describes a mixture of resentment towards the church and relief that their leader can no longer exercise control.

"I once told someone I would break open a bottle of champagne when he died, but I didn't do that," said Neufeld. "I did feel a certain elation in a way, because he was a terrible influence. He was a fraud and his legacy is false."

Others, like Heather Thalheimer, a minister in the church, say the day marked a sad, but ultimately significant occasion.

"We believe strongly in the eternal world and so don't feel a huge separation," said Thalheimer, "It's a day of joy as we celebrate this incredible life and everything that this man did for humanity."

Moon rising

Born in a small town in what is now North Korea, Moon established a religion founded on Christian values in 1954. Moon had two central tenants in his faith: to eradicate communism and to promote chaste Christian marriages. He and his wife, Hak Ja Han, are considered the "True Parents" of humanity in the Unification Church, and Moon is the messiah.

The religion spread through South Korea and Japan, and in 1972 Moon established his headquarters in New York City where he began recruiting members throughout the U.S. The religion gained recognition in the country by way of missionary work in California, New York and Washington D.C. Sociologists have remarked on the particular success of its missionaries in the San Francisco Bay area, linking it to a lingering hippie culture.

Researcher Eileen Barker noted in her book The Making of a Moonie that many converts were people raised in strict religious homes, who were drawn to New Age philosophies but scandalized by the seemingly loose morals of those around them. The Unification Church offered both an alternative lifestyle and a strict moral code.

Moonies made news in the 1970s and '80s for sweeping conversions, group weddings, and alleged "brainwashing" practices, but the scandals eventually faded from the headlines. In 2004, Moon crowned himself "the King of Peace" in front of 12 congressmen at the U.S. Senate building. Though he has many monikers, including the self-dubbed "King of the Ocean," his followers will mostly remember him as their messiah and "True Father."

Moon leaves behind the conservative newspaper he founded, The Washington Times, a business empire, and a religious legacy that with his death appears more tenuous than ever.

Heartbreak and rage

In 1976, Neufeld had just graduated from the University of British Columbia and moved back home to Calgary. In his post-collegiate aimlessness, he bought a ticket to San Francisco and joined this new religion that was sweeping the West Coast. Ten years later, Neufeld left the Unification Church. He tells that story in his autobiography, Heartbreak and Rage, and as the title suggests, his account of the church is scathing.

Neufeld first joined the Moonies not even knowing they were part of the church. Members he met in San Francisco called themselves "The Creative Community Project," and he followed recruits to a camp in Northern California. Neufeld remembers initially planning to stay for a few days, but after convincing him to stay for nearly a month they eventually revealed the Reverend Moon's doctrine. Neufeld argued with other members about religion, but persuaded by their idealism, the religious aspects slowly grew on him.

"They pitched it like a scientific experiment where I could try out the doctrine and see if it worked, and if I didn't agree then I'd leave," recalls Neufeld. "But the more you get hooked in, the more you go along with it even though you have doubts. And the more you get to that point in your life where you decide to put your doubts aside, the more you go on as if you do believe. You're dealing with a cognitive dissonance and then at some point you just say 'OK, I do believe!'"

At the time, the church expected constant work towards the cause from followers. Neufeld eventually began selling flowers and trinkets in the streets, handing the money over to the church. This was a common initiation practice, with followers working in groups called "mobile fundraising teams" to raise money.

Initially at the camp, the church restricted his access to outside people and rarely left him alone. Daily activities were constant. As life in the church continued, things became less frenetic, but still arduous. He joined a seminary in New York where work expectations were less demanding, but continued to devote all his hours to church life.

As the new religion took hold in North America, accusations of brainwashing plagued the church. In some cases followers were kidnapped and "deprogrammed" by concerned families -- a form of counter-conversion in which followers were restrained and coerced into accepting that the church was evil.

Sociologist Eileen Barker rejects the theory of brainwashing in her book The Making of a Moonie after spending nearly seven years with the group. She writes that the theory, as put forth by psychologists like researcher Margaret Singer, fails to explain the high defection rates in the church and why so many people who initially attended recruitment dinners or camps never returned. Ninety per cent of people who attended "residential weekends" never joined up with the Moonies, and Barker found those that did stay on could only be manipulated for a certain amount of time. Those that stayed with the faith likely remained out of their own sense of religious freedom.

Heather Thalheimer, the head of the church's ministry development department in the U.S., has been with the church for 35 years. She said she was kidnapped and deprogrammed and described the experience as much more scarring than anything she experienced as part of the faith.

"I was scared for my life," said Thalheimer. "Traumatic is an understatement."

After leaving the church, Neufeld returned to UBC in the fall of 1990 and entered the creative writing program. He set out to write a book about a church member that is "deprogrammed," but once he began researching mind control he recognized tactics that were used on him; the church forced him to work grueling work hours, rarely left members alone and regularly deprived of Neufeld and his colleagues of sleep, even encouraging members to jostle one another awake during especially long sermons.

Neufeld was also scandalized by the perceived hypocrisy within the Moon family. Nansook Hong, the ex-wife of one of Moon's sons wrote the expose In the Shadow of the Moons, detailing her life in the Moon family home. The book revealed stories of illicit drug use, abuse and adultery and many other activities that were explicitly forbidden by the church. Disillusioned, Neufeld then turned away from the teachings of the church years after he had formally left the institution.

"He claimed to be the Messiah and I really staked my life on that."

After the ascension

There is some division among sociologists over whether or not more followers have defected since Sun Myung Moon's passing. Susan Palmer, the author of Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers, believes members have left the church since Moon's death. Sociologist Massimo Introvigne from CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions) maintains defections have been low.

The number of followers is difficult to measure. The Unification Church has claimed at various times to have between three and seven million members in 200 countries around the world, but according to Introvigne, it likely has closer to around 100,000 followers.

The church measures their membership differently than outside observers, Introvigne says.

"The UC [Unification Church] claims millions of members, six millions or occasionally more," he wrote in an email. "I would emphasize that from the point of view of their theology this is by no means a fraud. You can, paradoxically, become a 'member' of the UC without knowing it, for example, by signing a document in the street believing you are simply supporting certain family values. God knows that in this way your marriage has been 'blessed' even without your full awareness of it, and this is what really counts. But of course sociologists do not count 'members' in this way."

About 100 followers live in Vancouver, according to the church's pastor in an interview with the Vancouver Sun. Al Wilding acknowledges that scandal has made recruitment difficult over the years.

Both Introvigne and Palmer hesitated to say where the religion was headed at this point. Palmer expects the faith to continue due to its high level of organization and relatively stable size, but said she has been burned before by the volatility of such groups.

"I actually published a paper saying the Rajneesh in Oregon were doing all the right things, and right before it got published they collapsed," said Palmer. "New religions are unpredictable. There are a lot of secret forces at work that you don't find out about until later."

The Unification Church loosened their strict guidelines over the years, and practices have become less prescriptive. Today marriages are no longer set up by the Reverend, but instead matched by a committee or parents based on compatibility, and couples already married can become blessed in the church. The "residential weekends" used to aggressively convert new members and "mobile fundraising teams" are a thing of the past. It is a more open, but maybe less persuasive church.

The family conflict is likely to escalate now that the Reverend Moon is dead, according to Neufeld. Moon's wife Hak Ja Han continues to be the symbolic head of the church in the wake of her husband's departure, and Moon's youngest son is set to take leadership over religious affairs.

Moon had once pronounced his third son Hyun Jin the "fourth Adam" and it was long assumed that he would be the next leader of the church, but Hyun Jin Moon has started a dissenting group along with the Reverend Moon's former assistant, Reverend Kwak. Now because of complicated legal matters, Hyun Jin still owns the trademark for the "Unification Church International" and Moon's sushi restaurant supplier business. To further complicate matters, another son heads the business part of Moon's dealings.

Though Thalheimer maintained that she is not concerned about the rift in the family, the church may split into factions under the strain of divided leadership and legal battles according to Palmer. But Reverend Moon himself was not concerned about his own legacy after his death having once claimed: "I will continue to lead the Church from the spirit world."

The holy blessing

On July 1, 1982, Neufeld and his new bride were among the 2,075 couples married in Madison Square Gardens. Marriage is fundamental to the Unification Church; the religion's central text the Divine Principle teaches that the fall of man was due to Adam and Eve's "premature conjugal relationship." According to Moon, the restoration of man can only be achieved through marriage as blessed by a central, sinless messiah. Couples selected by the church become part of his lineage through ritual wedding ceremonies called "The Holy Blessing."

It is standard for newly-blessed couples to go through a 40-day separation period, but in the past some couples waited much longer while they complete devotional missions for the church. Neufeld's then-wife left the church after nearly three years of forced separation.

"We were each supposed to recruit three new members," said Neufeld. "[My wife] decided she couldn't stand the long wait and so she quit the Unification Church, which meant our marriage was effectively nullified."

A newly-single Neufeld stayed with the church for some time but two years later, exhausted from his duties with the ministry, he too left.

After he published Heartbreak and Rage, Mary Jo Downey, another former Moonie, read the book and contacted Neufeld. She too had become disillusioned after an abusive marriage matched through the church. Though Downey and Neufeld were both scarred by their church-organized marriages, they eventually re-married one another. Neufeld admits that this was one positive side effect of his time with the Moonies.

Thalheimer is still with the faith 35 years after joining. She was also married in Madison Square Gardens in 1982, but has a much fonder recollection of that summer day.

"You have this connection with the other people that you are blessed with that is so intimate," said Thalheimer. "It's the opposite of loneliness. It's this beautiful feeling of love and togetherness."

This summer, Thalheimer and her husband celebrated their anniversary at the Manhattan building with other blessed couples. They have three children that were raised in the fold. One of her daughters is no longer a member, though Thalheimer says her daughter is "proud of her heritage."

Neufeld and his current wife now live in upstate New York, a short drive from the seminary where Neufeld once lived and from where Thalheimer now works. Divine Principle teaches that only married couples go to heaven. Despite rejecting the church, Neufeld and his wife are still likely considered members. In spite of their best efforts, the pair are halfway to salvation -- the Moonies work in mysterious ways.  [Tyee]

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