Bayou La Batre residents embrace church they once called a cult

Mobile Register/July 30, 2000
By Ben Raines, Staff Reporter

The Unificationists splashed into town in December of 1977, plunking down $2 million in the largest land purchase in the history of the small fishing village. They announced plans to build a shipbuilding and seafood processing empire on 722 acres of undeveloped waterfront property. They also bought two existing shipbuilding businesses and a seafood processing plant.

At the time, perhaps hoping to avoid controversy, Michael Runyon, the head of U.S. Marine, the church-owned company doing all the buying, dissembled mightily about where all the cash was coming from, laiming the company received only "spiritual support from Reverend Moon." The lie, described by Unificationists as a "heavenly deception," didn't work.

The town went nuts

The City Council rezoned the church property from industrial use to residential. Local businessmen passed the word to quit doing business with the newcomers. Town leaders formed two groups, the Concerned Citizens of the South Inc. and the Concerned Mothers of the South, to fight what they feared were baby-snatching, brainwashing zombies.

The citizen groups rented offices, mailed letters, circulated petitions, had meetings and held a monster rally attended by much of the town's population. It was at that rally where Glass called Moon the devil.

Moon's Beverly Hills lawyer made short work of the resistance, suing the entire town council, the police chief and the town's four leading businessmen for deprivation of property rights, deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights and conspiracy in restraint of fair trade.

"They sued us individually and pretty well shut us up," said Russell Steiner, one of the businessmen named in the church's federal court suit. "If we agreed never to say anything about them, they agreed to drop the suit ... imagine if you lived in this little-bitty Alabama town back then and the Moonies suddenly came to town and started buying up property. Then they sue and shut everybody up.

"People were scared. All we knew about the Moonies was what we heard in the media and what we heard back then was bad." The media back then, in the late'70s, appeared to be whooped up to a feverish Moon-hating roar. With church-affiliated organizations buying up fishing and seafood processing businesses in Norfolk, Va.; Kodiak, Alaska; Gloucester, Mass.; San Leandro, Calif.; and here in Alabama, folks all over the country were worried.

Not helping to smooth any feathers were press reports of young people, seduced by Moon's teachings, turning their backs on their families and church officials making stupendous pronouncements in interviews, people like Mike Runyon, who said: "This town is only a small piece in the jigsaw puzzle. We really want to control the whole world. I'd like to do it in less than 10 years."

So trepidation ruled in the Bayou when the first group of 40 bachelors turned a rundown motel into a commune and got down to the business of building ships and peeling shrimp. The locals feared they were going to lose their town, but the newcomers, defying all predictions but their own, slowly faded into the fabric of Bayou La Batre.

The Love Bomb

"Oh, you're gonna think I'm so science fiction," said Marlene Vining, once president of the Concerned Mothers group. She is one of the last people in the Bayou willing to speak ill of Moon and his followers, and even then it comes with caveats.

"I'll tell you what, they are the nicest people in the world. Every one of them, just as nice as they can be. And clean too. I'll bet everybody in town told you how clean they are. And nice. Didn't they? I know they did. Well, what I say is that sometimes, being clean and nice isn't enough."

Vining lives on the outskirts of town. Her health is failing but she still gets a fired-up gleam in her eyes when talk turns to the Unification Church. She says it's a cult, that members are genuinely nice people who have been duped and that being clean and nice is all part of Moon's master plan for taking over the country and the world.

"I'll tell you what they did," she said, sitting in her kitchen, sipping water from a glass decorated with golden angels. "They came in here and love-bombed us."

How the change came about

When the businesses first got going, some locals apparently were resistant to the love bombs.

Steve Wilson, manager of the church-owned shrimp peeling factory, International Oceanic Enterprises, joined the church in 1975 and arrived in the Bayou three years later with the first group of Unificationists, who were all bachelors. Wilson said times were hard back then. He claims liquored-up townspeople routinely stepped out of a nearby watering hole and shot at the shipyard.

"They weren't aiming at nothing but they were scaring us plenty," he said. Then, cutting loose with a cackling giggle, "One time, guy stuck a shotgun right up my nose. Said, 'Look son, I'm gonna let you live just to take the message back to the others. We've got no intention of letting y'all come in here and take over our fish business. We gon' band together and keep it from happening. Now go on. Git!'"

After Hurricane Frederic in 1979, the low-lying community was devastated. Mud boiled up out of the bayou, covering the town, and fallen trees knocked out power. Unificationists came to the rescue, thanks to a ready supply of ice from the ice factory attached to their shrimp processing plant. People still talk about the time "the Moonies brought ice to my momma."

Slowly, the townspeople began to view the Unificationists as neighbors instead of cult members. Around this time, the city of Prichard in the northern part of the county actually solicited the Unification Church, asking it to open a business there. The church declined.

A lot of people around town said that once it became apparent the newcomers weren't out to steal babies, they quit worrying. In fact, as far as anyone can remember, only one child of the Bayou has joined the Unification Church. And her mother couldn't be happier.

"I love the Moonies. I ain't gonna say nothing bad about them," said Carrie Phalo, who frequently sits next to Brett Dungan, head of Master Marine, at City Council meetings. "They treat my daughter good and them Moonies are good to me. They treat me real good. Take care of me. They are better people than most of this here town."

Locals got jobs in the church-owned businesses. Eventually, some of the Unificationists got jobs in non-church businesses.

"They are pretty normal to work with, good workers. Excellent businessmen," said Steiner, one of the men sued 20 years ago and owner of one of the largest non-Unification shipyards in the Bayou. He has employed church members and counts several Unificationists as friends.

"Moonies are a little different, though," he said. "I never will forget, there was a Moonie boy working down at Standard Marine. One of them old boys, rough fella that worked there, put a Playboy magazine up in that Moonie's face. He was shrinking away from it, covering his eyes like that naked girl was fixing to kill him. Now, I don't know a man who won't at least take a little peek. That's strange. That and the way they married those girls..."

In July of 1982, the Bayou bachelors went to New York City for a weekend and came home married to women they had never met.

The ceremony was one of Moon's first mass weddings. It took place at Madison Square Garden and 2,075 couples were joined. Most of the unions were between people of different nationalities and often different races.

Skeptics in the Bayou said it was more evidence of mind control. But it was evidence of something else as well. The mass wedding was the first evidence of a gradual shift in Moon's church, a shift away from its radical early days toward the widespread acceptance and see-we're-just-like-everybody-else reputation the church now seeks.

"First Moon got everybody married," said Gene Davis, an ex-member who lives in Grand Bay. "Then the church business down here bought up a bunch of homes and rented them to members, but they were still living commune style in them, several to a house. Moon was smart enough to realize if they ever wanted to become a real church, the members had to become real people, with real families.

"The church has changed a lot in the last 12 years. Now, Reverend Moon lets his people have lives, and houses, so they don't seem so weird. But make no mistake, it was Moon's decision to have his followers buy houses." According to Mobile County tax records, the modest houses are owned by the families living in them, not the church.

The Rev. Philip Schanker is one of the top officials in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Unification Church. His voice mail message sports New Age Oriental-sounding music and a silky-voiced blessing for all who call. Schanker bragged that Unificationists are buying houses all over the country.

"The movement has changed a lot, organizationally. For example, we've moved from communal-based living to single-family living. The movement has grown up," Schanker said. "In the'70s, most who joined were young. They didn't have bank accounts or families ... Now, over 98 percent of our members live in their own houses and drive to church on Sunday. Just getting that info out would do a lot to dispel people's notions of our group."

Donna Gainey, assistant clerk at the Bayou La Batre City Hall, doesn't need any of Schanker's dispelling. She jeered the newcomers at the long ago rally, but says things are different today.

"They're just like you and me. They're nice people," Gainey said. "They're buying up every house in my neighborhood that comes up for sale, about five of them so far. I like them; they're clean and they're well-off. Nothing flashy, but they seem to have all the money they need."

Gainey's grandson even went to the summer Bible camp held at the local Unification church, which, like all the Moon-related houses of worship, now bills itself as the Family Church.

Gainey said it was just like the other Bible camps he's been to, except for the part about Jesus failing in his mission and Moon being the messiah.

The school and the future

The 7-acre spread where the corrugated metal church is situated is also home to a school, the Top Garden Academy, where 45 children attend kindergarten through seventh grade in a pair of modified trailers. In each classroom, there is a color photo of Moon and his wife, referred to by members as the "True Parents" of humanity.

Every morning the students get down on hands and knees and bow to True Father and True Mother.

Joshua Cotter, formerly pastor of Unification churches in Birmingham and Montgomery, serves as the school principal and church pastor. He said Moon came to the Bayou in 1988 and dedicated the school. Moon visited the Bayou every few years up until 1992. His wife and children have visited as recently as 1998.

Asked about the significance of the name, Cotter said, "Well, the movie 'Top Gun' had just come out and Reverend Moon, he really liked that movie." As for the word "garden," Moon employs it when naming various properties around the world, including East Garden, his main residence in Westchester County, N.Y., and South Garden, an expansive home the church owns just outside of Bayou La Batre.

There are three other Unification Church schools in America, located in Oakland, Calif., Bridgeport, Conn., and New York City. Tiny Bayou La Batre seems an odd choice for a school.

But, as it says in the Unification News, the Bayou La Batre settlement is supposed to be a "model community."

Top Garden is like most church-affiliated schools, in that after the morning bowing ceremony, students have a religious training period, usually studying the Divine Principle, the church's main text. The book is a mishmash of Christianity and Eastern religions that Moon said came to him in a revelation. The rest of the day is devoted to standard subjects. The kids also study Korean. (Moon reportedly preaches that his native tongue is the official language of heaven.)

A few kids have graduated and moved on to local public high schools where Cotter said they have a tough time.

"They suffer, being raised in more religious homes and then going into the public schools," he said. "Our theology emphasizes purity; no dating, no kissing, none of that. So there is a lot of peer pressure."

The school play this year was "The Making of America, From the Boston Tea Party to the Constitutional Convention." It was like any other elementary school play, with camera-toting parents and cute kids in costumes singing, acting and sometimes being fed lines from offstage.

All in all, the church, the school and the thriving businesses make for a wholesome apple pie kind of picture, complete with smiling parents in minivans and compact cars picking up the kids after school and heading off to soccer practice.

Schanker said this new image of the church is just what leaders hope to project all over the country.

The church is so comfortable in the Bayou that Cotter freely admits Unificationists are actively recruiting new members at local colleges. A January posting on the Unification Web site brags of a house the church rented in Mobile to use for recruiting new members, calling it "a (church) center between two college campuses."

"Most nights," the Web site says, "we have between one and five guests, and so far we've been fortunate not to have a guestless night."

They have even started an outreach program to people of other faiths. Local churches have started holding prayer breakfasts and joint worship services with the bayou's Unification flock. Bishop Allen of Mobile's Word of God church said he and 14 area ministers accepted all-expense-paid trips to Korea last February to participate in a religious conference organized and funded by Moon and his church. He said they flew first class.

At a recent joint service, Unificationists filled the back rows of Allen's small church. They looked a little out of place, clapping in time to a pounding organ- and drum-fueled gospel tune that had the Word of God congregation swaying and singing. The service appeared to be a hit, but Allen declined to be photographed standing next to Cotter.

Perhaps that's because, despite popularity gains made by the Unificationists, they've got a lot of bad publicity to overcome. Much has been written about the group since they first came to prominence in the'70s, and most of it was critical.

Moon-bashing abounds

If you were to read Moon-related press clippings from the last 25 years, you might come away with the impression that he was a Mafia kingpin rather than a world famous holy man.

Moon spent a year in a U.S. federal prison for tax evasion. His organization was investigated by Congress, caught trying to illegally buy a controlling interest in a major Washington, D.C., bank and accused of trying to manipulate the American government on behalf of South Korea. It also owns several gun-making companies in the United States and Korea.

The ex-wife of his eldest son, a lifelong Unificationist who said she was hand-picked by Moon and forced to marry the would-be Messiah's son when she was 15, has written a tell-all book about the Moon family. She calls the church a cult and accuses Rev. Moon of adultery, domestic violence, child abuse, gambling and being a flat-out mean person. The book also states that the elder Moon held an elaborate ceremony during which he declared himself "Emperor of the Universe."

The eldest son, Hyo Jin, has been arrested for drunken driving and entered several rehab programs for cocaine addiction. Moon's youngest son died after falling 17 stories from the balcony of a Las Vegas hotel. Newspaper accounts called it a suicide.

A slew of other tell-all books written by ex-members accuse the group of brainwashing and controlling members by governing where they work, whom they marry and how much contact they have with family members.

Defending the Reverend

"You know what they say about the preachers' kids," said Steve Wilson, the shrimp plant manager, explaining away the rumors. "Well, imagine if your dad was the messiah. They have a hard life. And that other boy, he didn't kill himself. It was an accident. He had been exercising and he just fell over the balcony. You know, he was tired...

"People are always knocking the Reverend Moon, but that man is so full of love, despite everything that's been done to him. And nobody has been through worse crap than Reverend Moon, except God himself."

Sociologists who study the church say there are probably fewer than 3,000 hard-core members like Wilson left in America. Church officials say there are more, but their visibility is down because the church is making so much money these days that the infamous roadside flower peddling of the'70s is pretty much over.

Wilson, like many of the older members, joined the church when he was in college. His story mirrors that of many of the Unificationists interviewed for this story in two ways: He said he joined the church when he was young because he had questions and Moon's teachings provided answers; and he said that when deprogrammers contacted his parents to rescue him from the church, his parents said, "Why would I want to rescue him? He's a better person since he joined."

The Unification Church is not guilty of brainwashing, according to David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I don't approve of the Moonies, but I don't think they are harmful," he said. "I mean, this isn't like they are Aum Shinriyko making sarin gas down in the Bayou. Moon preaches love."

Members say Moon and the church have been misunderstood for years. "Give me two years of telling people who we really are, instead of the isolation we've always practiced, and I'll change that impression," said Schanker, who has a graduate degree in sociology from Columbia University. "For a long time, I don't think we had given anything to Americans other than how to join the Unification Church and be full-time missionaries." Schanker thought of leaving the church for a time but said recent changes renewed his faith.

"There's a major transition that's taking place," he said. "It will finish when Reverend Moon passes into the spiritual realm. We are just now transitioning from living in a spiritual wilderness. We have been a movement led by a prophetic leader."

Asked if the Unification Church was a cult, Schanker said, "The test of our organization is how it handles Moon's death. If it's just a cult, it will end when he does. But I don't think that will happen."

As for what will happen, Schanker said Moon's Harvard-educated third-born son, Hyun Jin, is next in line to head the church.

Another Moon child, Kook Jin, also a Harvard graduate, has been cutting his management teeth as president of Kahr Arms, a handgun manufacturing company in Massachusetts that produces about 8,000 guns a year. It recently took over the company that makes Thompson submachine guns.

Schanker said the plan for the future calls for increasing church membership and getting more members into political office.

At least three Unificationists have been elected to state legislatures in New Mexico and New Hampshire, including the brother of figure skater Brian Boitano. Schanker hinted that there might be more in other states and promised that many more Unificationists will be running for office in coming elections.

The head of Master Marine in the Bayou, Brett Dungan, who refused to be interviewed for this story, is running for City Council in this year's municipal elections. Many say he will win.

Poised for the big time

Unificationists say their movement nears the end of a long, hard scramble for recognition and respect. That scramble was complicated, they say, by the tools the church had to use to stay alive.

"People had this idea that Reverend Moon was sitting by a pool in Westchester while we slaved away for him," Schanker said. "The reality is that we didn't have businesses or a congregation to offer donations and support the church. We didn't have any funding. We were seeking donations because it was all we could do."

That has changed. The church businesses, even after taking a major financial hit during the Asian market crisis, are loaded. They proved that recently with the multi-million-dollar purchase of United Press International, adding it to a stable of 20 newspapers and radio and TV stations around the world. Ginseng-Up, a popular soda, and various other ginseng products produced by church-owned Il-Hwa Enterprises are for sale in most American cities. And cult-awareness groups say church holding companies control the Christian Bernard jewelry store chain, car dealerships, the Nostalgia Network cable TV channel, car manufacturers, computer shops, import/export companies, hotels, marinas and hundreds of other businesses.

The church is particularly big in the seafood industry

"We've got a network from catching the fish to processing to retailing and then restaurants. We have many, many Japanese restaurants all over the country. In every mid-sized town, I would say we probably have one," Schanker said.

Several Web sites post lists of businesses affiliated with the Unification Church. Sure enough, they document sushi restaurants owned by church holding companies in almost every state, including one in Montgomery. "There's lots of little ventures around. In every town you'll find that Unificationists have gone into business in little ventures," Schanker said. In Brazil, the church is building "a model of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth." They claim the development, featuring hotels, fishing, farms and factories, will attract 100,000 tourists a year.

Schanker likens all the church business interests to the Marriott hotel chain

"Back in the'70s, Reverend Moon encouraged us to begin building businesses, to support the church," Schanker said. "To me, it's just like J.W. Marriott going out as a good Mormon and building an empire. He gives tons of money to the church, but nobody would call Marriott a Mormon hotel."

Bromley, the professor, said the parallel to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an apt one.

Both groups were founded by prophetic leaders. Both groups had radical and troubled pasts and both eventually sought mainstream acceptance.

Today, the Mormon Church is one of the world's largest religions, sending missionaries all over the world.

"A century ago, the Mormons were still radical," Bromley said. "Then they settled down and began to grow. Isn't it interesting to wonder where the Unification Church might be in a century? Could they have settled down? Could they be a major religion?"

Pastor Cotter says yes, and the nearly 200 ministers and politicians gathered Friday night at a Mobile hotel seemed to agree.

The American Leadership Conference in Mobile was sponsored by the Washington Times Foundation and the American Constitution Committee, both associated with the Unification Church. The Mobile event is one of 40 national multi-faith conferences staged by Moon's organization this month.

It costs $35 a head, but that includes lodging for the weekend, two banquets, all other meals. If you're from out of town, they throw in a plane ticket. The Unification Church picks up the tab and the visitors to the Beltline Ramada couldn't be happier.

"I think they are a major and growing force," said Imam Kamal H. Saleem , of the Mobile Masjid, a local mosque. "The effort they are making to bring all these different faiths together, that's fantastic. And nobody else in America is doing it."

Standing at a podium in front of an assemblage of Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Jews and Muslims, the Rev. Cotter, Moon's man in the Bayou, yelled, "Freedom! Faith! Family! That's what it's all about."

His cobbled-together congregation shouted back: "Amen! Amen! Amen!"

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.