Entering the foothills of California’s rugged San Bernardino Mountains, the concrete jungle disappears in the rearview mirror as my car climbs up State Route 18. I pass by houses with big wooden porches and piles of firewood at the ends of their driveways, finally arriving at Mozumdar Drive. As I snake down the residential road above the pines, I can see the top of a golden rotunda reflecting the early afternoon sun. I park on the side of the road near an old sign on the ground that reads, “Welcome to Camp Mozumdar.” At the end of a makeshift pathway lined with wood chips sits Mozumdar Temple.
Surrounded by pine trees on both sides—some of them still charred from a 2003 fire that destroyed most of the other buildings on the property—the temple’s clean white exterior contrasts with the clear blue sky. It clearly resembles a smaller Taj Mahal. A wrap-around porch takes me from the front of the temple to the back, where I can see Lake Silverwood, the second highest lake in the California State Water Project. Even farther in the distance, I can see the city of Hesperia.
The air is crisp and quiet until a Toyota pickup truck slowly makes its way down the bumpy driveway. Ken Sawada, a soft-spoken 19-year-old from Los Angeles, rolls down the driver’s side window to greet me. Sitting next to Sawada is a Christian preacher from El Salvador, who has come to the temple to pray.
Sawada opens the temple’s copper front door, which has been painted gold. The inside of the temple is less remarkable than I had imagined, but it’s in surprisingly good condition thanks to years of volunteer work. I climb up the staircase to the second floor and creep through a small door to get onto the roof. I stand in awe, overlooking Silverwood Lake and the canyon below.
I wouldn’t be standing in this spot today if it wasn’t for Akhoy Kumar Mozumdar, an Indian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1903. Born a Hindu in 1863, Mozumdar always had a spiritual side—his name literally translates to “Son of God.” After moving to the U.S., Mozumdar converted to Christianity and began lecturing and teaching.
In the 1920s, Mozumdar purchased 10 acres of land in the San Bernardino Mountains and began splitting his time between this location and a plush home in the Hollywood Hills. Mozumdar was seen as a guru of sorts and eventually built up a large following among wealthy Hollywood elites. He purchased an additional 90 acres of land and built the Pillars of God amphitheater, a stunning outdoor theater surrounded by giant stone pillars and an enormous cross.
In the 1930s, San Diego architect William P. Lodge—who was a friend and devout follower of Mozumdar—started building the temple. Made completely out of poured concrete and stone, it was intended to be bomb proof. Mozumdar had envisioned a compound that would bring people together, but he died in 1953 before the temple was complete. The YMCA owned the property briefly before turning it over to the Unification Church in the mid-1970s.
The Unification Church was founded by Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954. Known for its mass weddings or “blessing” ceremonies, the controversial religious organization—whose followers are sometimes called “Moonies”—has been accused of being a cult. But for Sawada, the group changed his life. Two years ago, he found himself burdened by an unaffordable housing market and unemployment, and made the leap from Eastside Los Angeles to the San Bernardino Mountains. “I just felt like I belonged here and never left,” he says.
He was introduced to the Unification Church through his parents who joined the movement before he was born. Sawada currently works as a groundskeeper and lives in a cabin on the property together with 73-year-old Juan Morales, a man who is “like an uncle” to Sawada. Morales has been a member of the Unification Church for more than 40 years and is currently overseeing the restoration of Camp Mozumdar.
I jump in Sawada’s pickup truck and we make our way back up the uneven driveway toward the Pillar of Gods. We pass by his cabin as well as dozens of mostly abandoned cars, trucks, and RVs before arriving at the amphitheater. Like the temple, the amphitheater has seen better days, but it’s still a breathtaking sight.
There used to be metal placards surrounding the theater, plus a kitchen, benches, and lights on top of each of the the pillars, all of which have since been destroyed or stolen. “Some people don’t care,” Sawada says. “There’s a lot of crazy people out here, so you have to be careful.”
We continue driving to the nearby holy ground, another perch on the hillside that overlooks Silverwood Lake. Man-made stone benches are scattered around a small pond and it feels different than the rest of the property, which stretches over 130 acres. Part of what makes this area so unique is that it’s considered a “sky island,” an isolated mountain range surrounded by radically different landscapes, in this case mostly semi-arid land.
On the way back to the cabin, after crossing a rickety wooden bridge, we reach a grass covered, fenced-in, flat piece of land. There used to be a swimming pool here; today, all that’s left are the remnants of another small lodge and the only cabin that was spared during the fire—the one where Sawada and Morales live.
Morales greets me at his front door with a warm smile, a cup of hot Korean ginger tea with honey, and an assortment of chocolates. We sit across from one another and the smell of jasmine permeates the house. The walls of the rustic home are covered in portraits and other works of art.
Born outside of Acapulco, a major seaport in Mexico, Morales moved to the United States in the late 1960s and established himself as a poet in New York City. He hopped back and forth between the coasts for years before settling in Southern California, where he worked as a teacher. Morales has been following the teachings of Reverend Moon since the late 1970s. He says he was drawn to the church after a spiritual experience led him to the movement. “There’s the real world and then there’s the spiritual world,” he says. “Revered Moon came to me in a dream before I had even met him.”
Morales came to Camp Mozumdar long before most of it burned down. “It was so beautiful,” he says. “The road was perfectly paved, the amphitheater held services and seminars, there were multiple lodges, a pool, and Reverend Moon had a place to spread his gospel.”
Moon spoke to stadiums full of supporters across the world while also creating a vast business empire with diverse holdings. Some of Moon’s devotees allegedly took out loans that pushed them into bankruptcy to fund the church. Today the movement has an estimated 1 to 2 million members and a reported 3 billion dollars in worldwide assets, including the New Yorker Hotel and the Washington Times.
Morales believes Reverend Moon to be the most influential religious leader of all time. He argues that no one else was able to create such a large following while they were still alive. “Even Jesus had to die before people recognized him as a prophet,” he says.
After a brief break from the temple, Morales returned in 2008 because of another spiritual experience in which Moon guided him back to Mozumdar. Today he’s committed to revitalizing the property. Later this year, thanks to a Forest Management grant to clear the brush and improve the infrastructure, the plan is to fix the roads and reopen the property to the public. There are also plans to eventually rent out the temple and amphitheater for everything from weddings to concerts. Both the temple and theater have officially been designated as Historic Landmarks which gives the group access to federal grants.
Morales has heard about the controversies surrounding Reverend Moon and the Unification Movement, but says that new religions often start off being compared to cults. He speaks fondly of Moon, who died in 2012, and calls him a “beautiful and influential” man that helped a lot of people in the U.S., despite the fact that he never learned English.
“I wish he could control my mind, because then I would do no bad,” Morales jokes.