Church's marriage matchmaking service a big draw, says pastor Gene Davis calls himself "Fat Boy" and plays golf balls emblazoned with messages such as "The way to God is the cross."
Teeing up at Bay Oaks Golf Club near Bayou La Batre and setting his ball so his club will smack the spot where it reads "Jesus is Lord," Davis asked: "You want the truth about the Unification Church?" He wound up and sent the holy sphere down the fairway.
"These people are educated. They're not ding-a-lings. The spiel they put on you is good. Somebody who's disappointed in the way the world is going, he's going to fall for it very easily," Davis said. "I know, son. I did." He was a Unificationist for 10 years. He left the fold two years ago because, he said, Moon's megalomania became overwhelming. He said he thinks Moon is a charlatan who wants to rule the world.
"Met him several times, and I was well taken with that little guy, well taken. He's a very charismatic fellow," Davis said. "I think once he was following God, a long time ago, but he's been consumed by pride. Satan's got hold of Rev. Moon."
Unlike most Unificationists, who sign on with spiritual leader Sun Myung Moon around age 20, Davis joined in his 40s. He said he was looking for the same answers other members seek.
Before he became a member, Davis, a fiberglass expert, was hired by a Unification shipyard in Moss Point, Miss. That operation has since folded into Master Marine, the Bayou La Batre shipyard, just like Davis himself, then a lapsed Christian, eventually folded into the church.
"I was a professional, and I made a substantial salary," Davis said. "I came to the church through the business, and let me tell you, there was no brainwashing or none of that."
Instead, Davis said, there were a lot of really nice people. And when he expressed some interest in their faith, these people started giving him books and videos and telling him about Moon and the Divine Principle, the church's main text.
There was one thing that really tugged him into the church. "Reverend Moon preaches that you can help people in the spiritual world, after they die," Davis said. "In Christianity, that's a no-no, messing with the afterlife, but in Unification doctrine, you can help elevate a person's position in the spirit world. This really got me, because I wanted to help my father. He was a racist, and his soul wasn't saved before he died."
The Washington Post reported that ex-members in Japan have sued the church and affiliated companies based on claims they were pressured to make donations and buy high-priced vases and religious trinkets to help dead relatives who were suffering in the afterlife. The Post reported that lawyers in Japan claim the church has shelled out $150 million to settle the suits.
Reed Darsey has heard all the negative stuff before. He is a member of the church and works at Master Marine in the Bayou. On two separate occasions, Darsey's parents paid deprogrammers to kidnap him in an attempt to break his allegiance to the church. It didn't work.
"I got whisked away. It's one of those things - a couple of guys stuff you in a car and take you away," he said.
The first time, in 1979, they took him to Arizona and locked him up at a house in the desert.
"They lock you in a room with a couple of guys and a large amount of material they think will make you lose your faith," Darsey said. "They said there were javelinas (wild pigs) outside. You couldn't really escape."
After a few weeks of intense browbeating, Darsey pretended he had turned his back on the church. When his captors took him into town in preparation for returning him to his parents, Darsey escaped and beelined back to the Bayou. A year later, a different group of deprogrammers bundled him off to California. He said that after a few weeks, they dropped him off at his parents' house, explaining that he was "undeprogrammable."
Darsey said there was a lot of deprogramming going on in the'70s and'80s. Members discussed strategies for outsmarting the deprogrammers. Victims talked about going to court to have the practice stopped.
"We talked about suing, but, you know, it's your parents," Darsey said. "I can understand why they did it, the climate at the time and their fears. I'm one of the classic cases. I went to UCLA after high school, and in my first week I dropped out to join this group."
He said five students from his high school joined the church at that time. "I went to a weekend workshop, and they gave me some books by Reverend Moon," he remembered. "Everything hit me all at once that this was it. This was the truth I had been looking for."
Darsey doesn't deny the negative stories about the church. Instead, he said he believes they are the result of "the typical faults in any group setting with a chain of command."
In 1982, Darsey, like most of the Unificationists living in the Bayou at the time, went to a mass wedding in New York and married a woman he had never met. They still are married today.
"I love my wife more and more every day. For me, it was one of those love-at-first-sight situations," he said.
"Our True Love matching service, where people are matched and married to people they've never met, that's a big draw for new members," said Joshua Cotter, the local Unification pastor. "People wonder how we can do it, but we look at it as an honor. You know, we're matched by God. And our marriages are more of a sure thing because the people are committed to God, not just each other."
In 1995, Moon held an international matching ceremony. Three Bayou La Batre couples were joined at the time, standing in front of a big-screen TV hooked up by satellite to Moon, who was in Korea.
Davis and his wife, to whom he was married before he joined the church, had their union officially blessed and recognized by Moon via the satellite broadcast.
Moon and his wife, wearing white robes and elaborate crowns that looked like they were made of paper, came down a long red carpet and stood under a little tent. Tens of thousands of couples, the men in suits and the women in wedding gowns, filled the stadium. Then the self-proclaimed messiah and Lord of the Second Advent said a long prayer in Korean, and then, in a somber voice, added "Amen. Amen. Amen."
"That ceremony was very powerful. It was wonderful," Davis said. "See, these people are wonderful. They really believe they are doing God's will. But I read my Bible, and they're going to follow Reverend Moon straight to the fires of Hell."
Then Davis began to cry.
Bishop Allen of Mobile's Word of God Church said the Unificationists know the Bible better than most Christians.
"We believe in Jesus and that he is the savior. They believe a little further," said Bishop Allen, whose church held a joint worship service with Bayou La Batre's Unificationists. "They work hard. They're kind. They're moral-minded. They have integrity. You can't find anything bad to say about them, but they have that one belief that degrades them: Reverend Moon being the Messiah. Forget it. No way. People won't even deal with that."
Allen said members of his congregation have referred him back to the Bible, the part about false messiahs, but his ties to the Unification Church go back to 1987, the first time he accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to Korea to attend one of Moon's international theological conferences.
Davis said these conferences are a big deal to Moon and are presented to members as evidence of Moon's influence among religious leaders, the same way images of Moon with ex-presidents and senators are used to prove to the faithful that Moon is a mover and shaker in the international halls of power.
"Why do you think they're buying up all these newspapers around the world?" Davis asked. "They've got so much bad press, they can make their own good press now. See, if Moon wants people to keep believing him, he's got to give them something good to read. That's why he's always cozying up to George Bush and Gorbachev in all those pictures."
The Rev. Philip Schanker, head of the Unification Church's Family Federation for World Peace, which has paid George Bush to speak at one of its conferences, said the church has been attracting big-name supporters because its family programs are worthy, though he admitted that in the past they attracted celebrities with money.
"We've sometimes spent too much time trying to buy respect instead of promoting the good works we do. We try to buy Whitney Houston or something like that. We don't need to do that anymore."
Schanker also suggested that Moon might not be the messiah. He said Moon has to bring about the Garden of Eden on Earth to earn permanent bragging rights to the messiah crown.
Unificationists have started work on just such a paradise. A church Web site brags that the group purchased 40,000 hectares in a remote jungle region of Brazil where they will build "a model of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth." Moon's Brazilian newspaper, Tiempos Del Mundo, lends positive press to the project, which has met with resistance from the country's Catholic churches. A new Unification-sponsored soccer team has won some points with Brazilian locals, as have gifts of ambulances that come with a Unification symbol painted on the side.
"Father may give an order for members to immigrate to Brazil," reads the church's "Report on Jardim Project."
Plans call for 20,000 members to move into the 33 cities that surround the area. The members would build hotels, restaurants, an ostrich farm, fish farms, mango and kiwi orchards, a snail farm and then "give each of the 33 cities a specific job. For instance, six cities would be zoned for the industrial park. The inhabitants of those cities would help in building the factories and also work in them when they are completed."
Schanker said Moon is not out to rule the world, just to have one nation where the church makes a difference. "We have plans there for an international village, to really develop the area," Schanker said. "We're not trying to build our own country. There's never going to be a flaming end or mass suicide."
Davis said the church's members would drop everything at a moment's notice and move anywhere Moon sent them, even the Brazilian jungle.
"These people give him anything he asks, never mind the hardship it puts on their families. They're living at poverty level, and they would die for Reverend Moon, every one of them. That scares me. And they are becoming more and more powerful," Davis said. "If you don't think they're powerful, you're stupid. I'm not slandering anybody, but they might sue me. They've got lawyers in the membership. That's how they keep ex-members quiet. They've been fighting cult awareness groups for years. They beat the federal government. What's one little old fat man in Alabama?"
Despite the sour taste left after 10 years of worshipping Moon as the Messiah, Davis said he
feels a hole that the church used to fill. "Yeah, I miss it. I'd be less than honest if I
didn't say I miss it tremendously. And I'm sorry it wasn't what it was supposed to be, because it
would have been wonderful if it had been what God wanted."