Couples from around the world participate in the mass wedding ceremony in South Korea on Wednesday.
Couples from around the world participate in the mass wedding ceremony in South Korea on Wednesday. Ahjn Young-joon/AP
The Rev. Sun Myung Moon carried out one of the signature events of his church on Wednesday: He blessed about 7,000 couples in Seoul, South Korea — most of whom never saw each other before they were matched.
Some members believe this might be one of the last mass weddings conducted by the nonagenarian founder of the controversial Unification Church, whose membership has dwindled in recent years. Now the church is focusing on keeping its young believers in the fold.
New Ways Of Matching
On a bitterly cold Friday night in January, more than 100 members of the Unification Church crowd into a classroom in the church seminary in upstate New York. The heat is turned on low, but the air is electric as the believers, ranging from late teens to early 20s, gather for the first of many workshops on Unification marriage.
Men are on one side of the room, women on the other. Matched or engaged couples sit at the back. They open with songs from the '60s — "Eight Days a Week" and "If I Had a Hammer" — anthems from their parents' generation. These are "blessed children" — according to church doctrine, they were born without original sin because their parents were married by Moon, whom they consider the Messiah.
One of those children is Roderick Miller, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who will attend Harvard Law School next year. He's not dating anyone — his church doesn't allow it — and he believes that is the key to a successful marriage.
"I'm not really interested in random flings with different girls," he says. "Ultimately, what I want is a happy and successful family, and a loving relationship with someone with whom I can share my life."
Moon matched Roderick's father, Wayne, in 1979 to a French graduate student in a mass ceremony. Wayne says he "won the lottery."
"We've had our arguments over the years, like all married couples," Wayne says. "But in some 30 years of engagement and married life, we've never argued about anything important."
Roderick will not be married by Moon. Recently, the church began allowing parents to match their children, and Roderick will have a strong influence in the person they select. But Roderick says the church's emphasis on commitment is the same.
"And I think that commitment to commitment — the idea of commitment in relationships and to creating really strong, ideal families — has certainly benefited me enormously, tremendously, beyond words," Roderick says.
He says having a marriage like his parents' is "the end game." And the church wants to help him get there.
The History Of The Movement
During the pre-marriage workshop in January, family department director Phillip Schanker laid out the road map to a happy Unification marriage: no sex (or dating) before marriage, selflessness, service and the strength to weather all relationship storms.
That road map was first drawn by Moon, who says that Jesus appeared to him when he was a poor teenager, and told him to finish Jesus' mission. According to Moon, Jesus said that his crucifixion and early death were not supposed to occur; rather, Jesus had been meant to marry and raise a family. Moon says he was charged with completing that mission by raising the perfect family as a model for the world.
Moon's message of family and world peace arrived on American shores in the 1960s. It inspired an army of young people to drop out of college, live in vans and raise funds for the church. In its heyday, the church drew national headlines for conducting mass weddings and dabbling in conservative politics.
The young believers at the marriage workshop wear this history as a badge of honor. Sure, they know some people view their church as a cult, and they bristle at the term "Moonie." They know their parents were ostracized — and some deprogrammed — for following their Korean Messiah. But 19-year-old Renee Martinez says they had to.
"When the movement was first starting, Rev. Moon was a revolutionary," she says. "It was so different in the hippie era. People were talking about free love, and our church comes around, and we're talking about abstinence. So, of course, our parents had to be radical."
Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
Although Josh Schanker, 20, and Marina Shimoyama, 19, were "matched" by their parents, they were allowed to help make the selection. They participated in the mass blessing ceremony in Korea on Wednesday.
Although Josh Schanker, 20, and Marina Shimoyama, 19, were "matched" by their parents, they were allowed to help make the selection. They participated in the mass blessing ceremony in Korea on Wednesday. Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
But the church has a different plan for the second generation, says Carrie Pimental, 18.
"Our parents built the foundation, and after that, we're, like, building the walls and finishing it up," she says. "So basically, our goal is to be successful, have families, and have an impact on the world by doing great things and being good people."
Today, the church wants college valedictorians, not dropouts, says Schanker's son Josh, who plans to be a consultant once he's graduated from Boston College. The church wants the second generation to fit into society — not fight it.
"I mean, I want to be very wealthy and very successful and have a good education," Josh says. He and his parents have similar dreams, he says: "To create a beautiful, beautiful family, and to raise children with good character and good relationships with their family."
Struggling With Membership
No one knows how many Unificationists there are worldwide. In the U.S., estimates range from 15,000 to 25,000. But the numbers have dropped since the 1970s, in part because many "blessed" children have left the fold. Jason Agress left when he was 14, after he began dating a girl over his parents' objections.
"Everything was a system of control," he says. "That's what it seemed to me like. They were kind of breeding us to be a certain way. And if you weren't that way, there was something wrong with you."
D.F. Spratt agrees. She asked that her full name not be used because she worries the stigma of being once associated with the church could hurt her career. Spratt says she used to have nightmares about being married in a mass blessing to someone she didn't know. The pressure of being blessed, and so different from her peers, drove her away — though with some trepidation.
"Back then, if you left the church, you fell off the face of the earth," she says. "It's the worst thing you could do. One person told us at Sunday school once that blessed children who fall out of the church go to a box underneath of hell."
Winning Members Back
Now the church wants to win these people back, since it is easier to reignite the faith of people familiar with the unusual doctrine than to win converts outside of the faith. James Beverley, a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Canada and associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, says converting non-Unificationists is a "hard sell."
"When you tell the average Christian in North America that Rev. Moon is the fulfillment of the second coming, and that Jesus failed [in his mission to have a family and bring world peace]," Beverley says, "that message doesn't help you go very far."
So, how does the church go about wooing back those who have wandered from the faith? Phillip Schanker says the first step is acknowledging the excesses of the past.
"Although we talk universal love and the value of the family, we sacrificed our families to the extreme," he says. "And that was Rev. Moon's emphasis. He saw himself as a person who would sacrifice to create a family and gather followers, and then he asked them to sacrifice. He put his kids through hell — like Gandhi. Gandhi did the same thing in order to move India. Rev. Moon is trying to move the world."
Schanker and his generation felt an "apocalyptic" urgency to heed Moon's call, by going on missions for years at a time, fundraising for the church, and forgoing their education. But the church has turned 180 degrees, he says.
"My oldest son is in Harvard Medical School. He was valedictorian at Boston University," Schanker says. "My daughters are doing great things. I've got two other sons on full scholarships. That's definitely what we've encouraged them to do, and we hope they can not only make Unificationism great, but contribute to the world."
In this, the church is taking a page from another new religious movement: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, who are growing by leaps and bounds in part because of their economic success. As to style of worship, the Unification Church is looking to yet another model: the evangelical megachurch.
On a recent Sunday morning, 1,200 Unificationists fill the cavernous ballroom at the Manhattan Center in New York City. They leap to their feet and wave their arms as a rock band plays a mix of Fleetwood Mac and worship music with a thumping beat. They fall silent as the lights dim, and burst into applause when, theatrically, a single light comes up to reveal a woman behind a podium.
"How are you this morning?" asks In Jin Moon. "I bring you greetings from True Parents," she says, referring to Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han.
She speaks without notes for 40 minutes, weaving personal anecdotes with references to the Bible, Aristotle and Christian leaders. She is the 44-year-old daughter of Sun Myung Moon, and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. When her father appointed her to head the U.S. church 18 months ago, she focused on one simple goal: to win back young people.
"Well," she says laughing, "it's been quite challenging."
In her first interview with a reporter since taking over the church, she tells NPR that a major challenge came from the Asian church elders, who were upset that a woman was selected to run the American church. Then, they balked at her vision: a national church, which she calls Lovin' Life Ministries, based in New York City, with smaller satellite churches.
In Jin Moon replaced the old holy songs with rock 'n' roll, and fluorescent lighting with concert lighting and a giant video screen.
"I think a lot of the leaders wanted to put an end to Lovin' Life after the first couple of weeks, but we just kept at it," she says.
She did so because she faced a problem that plagues even established churches: How do you transmit the passion of a convert to a child who merely inherits the faith?
"The first generation made a conscious decision to join, in that they had a conversion experience," she says. "They had some kind of spiritual experience that made them feel, 'This is what I want to do, this is where I want to be.' Whereas for those of us — myself included — who were born into this movement or born into this family, we had no choice in the matter."
Strategies To Bring People Back
So In Jin Moon did what the evangelicals do: She used music and technology to spark spiritual experiences. She says it is working.
"Some have called it 'electricity running through my body, feeling of warmth — just feeling as if they're engulfed in love,'" she says. "For those kids who come and have that conversion experience, then their belief system becomes theirs."
Since In Jin took over, weekly attendance has nearly doubled. The question is: Can these bells and whistles woo back former members? For her part, D.F. Spratt, who is happily married to a non-Unification member, sees no reason to return.
"I don't believe in the theology," she says. "And I don't think there's necessarily anything missing or wrong in my present life. So if I felt there was a void and I needed to fill it, maybe that would help. But I don't."
But the church hopes that as it adopts an American style — in finding one's mate and worshipping in church — the second generation will carry the Unification Church into the mainstream.