Children of a Lesser God

The Moonies: Looking to its youth for survival

San Francisco Chronicle/February 11, 2001
By Don Lattin

Mose Durst sat in the living room of a spectacular church-owned home in one of Berkeley's swankiest neighborhoods, just below the Claremont Hotel. It has an Asian flair, panoramic views of San Francisco Bay and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon looking down from a picture above the hearth.

Since the 1970s, Durst has been at the right hand of Moon, the Korean-born evangelist, conservative political activist and self-proclaimed messiah. Durst has served as the Northern California leader, and the national president, of the Unification Church. Now he's back in the Bay Area, thinking about his legacy, and the future of his church. On this afternoon, Durst is feeling contrite. He admits that the Moonies made mistakes in the 1970s, when they sent out an overzealous army of tireless recruiters. But it's time, he says, to give his church another chance. "People perceive us as a bad religious movement, and they isolate us more," he said. "If you think we're evil, let's sit down and talk. Let's find common ground. Otherwise, you force us into a cul-de-sac, like at Jonestown or Waco."

For years, the Moonies have struggled to make the leap from "cult" to "religion," to win credibility among political and religious leaders in the United States and around the world. Through such publications as the Washington Times, a church-affiliated, conservative daily newspaper in the nation's capital, and through alliances with priests and pastors across the theological spectrum, Moon and company have spent a fortune courting the opinion-makers of church and state. Now the church is looking closer to home, at the next generation of Western converts.

Durst confesses that, in the early years of Moon's American mission, church leaders erred in assuming God would provide for the children of devotees. The first kids born into the movement, he concedes, did not always get the parental attention they deserved. "We were trying to build the church up locally - we were hot to build the kingdom," he said. "There were times in the early years when the hardest thing was building a church, while being responsible for your family. You wanted to be part of a spiritual community. People would put their kids in a nursery. When it was not done well, there were all kinds of shortcomings. "We made mistakes," he said. "We did dumb things."

Durst says there are about 10,000 members of the Unification Church in the United States. He concedes that the number is much lower than figures the church reported in earlier years. "That's right," he said with a smile. "I no longer lie." Worldwide, the Moonies claim 3 million members, with most of them living in Korea and Japan. Some scholars, however, say the actual number of committed adherents may be closer to 250,000. Nevertheless, Moon has built one of the wealthiest religious movements in the world, with extensive business interests and land holdings in Asia, South America and the United States.

Today, the movement has reorganized into more familiar religious congregations. It has embraced the nuclear family and refocused its efforts on passing its teachings onto the next generation. The new focus can be seen at the largest Unification Church congregation in Northern California, the Bay Area Family Church, housed in a nondescript building in San Leandro. At a recent Sunday service, a band with guitar and drums played upbeat music while about 150 worshipers, a mix of Asians and Caucasians, found seats on rows of red padded pews. There were a lot of children running around the complex, which contains a K- 8 school, the Principled Academy, for 125 children. The communal days are over. Most Moonies live in their own homes, with their own children, and work outside jobs. "We still proselytize," said the Rev. Bento Leal, associate minister at the San Leandro church, "but it's different when you have a house full of kids and a full-time job."

Many of the families in this congregation were brought together in a mass marriage ceremony in New York's Madison Square Garden in 1982, when Moon presided over the weddings of 2,075 couples. Not only does Moon preside over these ceremonies, he picks the spouses for his devotees and advises them as to what sexual positions to assume when they consummate their marriages. Although these prescribed marriage rites sound strange to the uninitiated, they are a key part of Unification Church theology. Moon teaches that he and his wife are the "True Parents" of a new spiritual lineage born without original sin. This spiritual status is purportedly passed on to "blessed children" born from Moonie marriages.

According to a church survey released last year, 82 percent of the couples brought together in Madison Square Garden are still married, and still consider themselves members of the Unification Church. They have had an average of 2.5 children per couple. Because the oldest kids born from that highly publicized union are still teenagers, the church cannot yet say how many will keep the Moonie faith. "The real test comes when they are in college and out on their own," Leal said.

Among the tested will be Christopher Barker, born in Manhattan to Moonie parents in 1983. During the 1970s, his father, Garry, who had grown up in the Catholic Church and attended parochial school, joined the Moonies and started a coffeehouse, Aladdin's, on College Avenue in Oakland. They had great New York cheesecake and served it up with a dose of Unification Church theology. Barker and Durst were part of "the Oakland family," which produced some of Moon's most zealous proselytizers and fund-raisers. Recruits harvested from the streets of San Francisco or the University of California at Berkeley campus were whisked up to an isolated church compound in Mendocino County for days of "love-bombing" and alleged "brainwashing."

It was the height of the cult wars of the 1970s, a battle over religious liberty and personal freedom that would see its horrific crescendo in the South American jungle with the murder-suicide in 1978 of 914 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones. Christopher Barker's mother, Renate, was approached by Moonie missionaries on the street in Munich in 1971, when she was 20 years old. Three days later, Renate joined the Unification Church. "My mother was very upset," Renate recalled. "She thought I'd been drugged or something. My parents tried to kidnap me, but I was very dedicated." What attracted her to Moon? "I was always very religious," she said. "I'd studied the Bible and Oriental philosophy, but I looked at people who went to church, and their lives didn't change. It didn't have an impact on their lives."

Renate came to the United States in 1973 with 70 other European missionaries. Their mission was simple - to save the world. "Rev. Moon felt America was so important to the whole world, we thought that if we saved America, we would save the world." Moon matched Renate and Barker in 1979, but they communicated only through letters for the next three years. They were married in Moon's mass marriage ceremony of 1982. Today, they live in Hayward with their three children, Christopher, 17; Amalia, 15; and John, 11.

During a recent Sunday service, the family stood outside the Moonie church in San Leandro. Christopher was asked what it was like to be a "blessed child." "My understanding is we were born without original sin, since they were matched by the True Father," he replied. "We are the culmination of all that work, and it's up to us to carry on what they want us to do." Part of that legacy is no sex before marriage and agreeing to a union arranged by the Rev. Moon. His sister is saving herself for that day. "You are waiting for that one person, and not wasting your love on other people," Amalia said. "We believe in total fidelity in your marriage, so you're not comparing them with other boyfriends you've had before." Her older brother also has vowed to stay chaste until he marries.

"Dating is kind of like practicing for divorce," he said. "When you're done with that person, and when problems come up, you dump them and go on to someone else." Both teenagers attended the Unification Church's Principled Academy through the eighth grade, and are students at Bishop O'Dowd, a Catholic high school in Oakland. "I haven't told anyone there that I'm a Unificationist, or a Moonie," Christopher said. "My friends can see I'm not a normal teenager who has girlfriends and everything." Renate Barker said she and her husband have learned lessons from the child- rearing mistakes of early Moonie parents.

"In those days, the thought was that the children would just automatically turn out good, just by God talking to them or something. We thought we didn't really have to take care of them. It was naive." Garry says only time will tell if the Unification Church is a forgotten cult, or a "religious movement with legs." "All religions start out like this," he said. "The proof is going to be three, four, or five generations from now. When Rev. Moon dies, nobody knows what will happen. That will be the big test."

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