It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. A sea of white. Layer upon layer of fussy veils and pretty lace. An elderly woman smiled as a friend helped fixed her hair. Both looked resplendent in what appeared to be simplified versions of wedding gowns. Their male counterparts wore sharp suits. They made small talk, laughed, posed for multiple photos.
And everywhere, across the massive space, the scene repeated itself.
More than a thousand couples would say their wedding vows today. Tens of thousands more were renewing their commitment to their partners. Members of the Unification Church, they had gathered in Cheongpyeong, a small resort town near Seoul, for what believers call the “Blessing Ceremony”.
Prior to the shoot, we’d read up on the practice, seen pictures of these so-called “mass weddings”. They were fascinating. It seemed almost inconceivable how much believers trusted their religion’s founder, Reverend Moon Sun-myung. In the past, he personally matched all the couples taking part in the ceremony. Some people only met their future husbands or wives on the day of the wedding. Blind faith. It was mindboggling.
In Cheongpyeong, we learnt that things had changed somewhat in recent years. The young couples we interviewed told us their parents matched them, not Moon. They had spoken to their future partners on the phone, emailed and Skyped in the months preceding the big day. Some couples even met several times before the wedding.
Prior to the trip, we had half-expected to meet brainwashed fanatics. The Unification Church is after all, no stranger to bad press. It’s been called a cult, a scary new religion. Moon is often described as sinister and manipulative, his followers misguided and deluded. But at the wedding, we met what appeared to be young, intelligent, reasonable people (we were free to interview whoever we chose). They were college-educated, had friends outside the faith, knew they were taking an unusual step. Above all, they looked happy.
Faith is a mysterious thing. What might be strange, even bizarre to some of us, is an act as natural as eating and breathing to those who believe. The Unificationists we met spoke with great conviction. Many had travelled long distances to be in South Korea. They came from New Zealand, the United States, Australia, Japan, the Ivory Coast. Marriage, they said, was central to their beliefs. And even though most barely knew the person with whom they would be spending the rest of their lives, they were convinced their God would teach them to love.
Believers call Moon, the King of Peace. Messiah. The True Father. They said he was put on earth to complete the work that Jesus failed to finish: start a family and restore world peace.
To non-adherents, it might sound a little OTT, maybe even slightly nonsensical. But it’s hard to dismiss Unificationism as just another cult. It has incredible wealth and its founder appears to have this ability to make friends with some pretty influential people.
An exhibition on the history of the church shows the Reverend with Nixon and Reagan, Eisenhower and Kim Il Sung. He founded the conservative Washington Times and bought what was once a major news agency, United Press International. The church’s Tongil Foundation has assets estimated at around US$2 billion. And that’s not counting property like the massive stadium in which the Blessing Ceremony was held.
What does the King of Peace do with wealth like this? In South Korea, we learnt he uses it to, well, encourage peace. Or at least his version of it. Reverend Moon’s latest teachings are built around what he calls a “strong Korea”.
At Sunday service recently, Hyung-jin, his youngest son, delivered a message about the importance of self-defense. Peace, apparently, is not achievable if the peaceful cannot protect themselves against would-be aggressors. And so, the Tongil Foundation owns, among other things, a company that produces military gear, publishes papers that support Moon’s position, and produces TV programmes reinforcing his stand. The church even goes out of its way to engage world leaders. It supported Reagan and donated to George Bush Sr. It has forged a good relationship with the Korean military. Reverend Moon is unabashed about his ambitions to influence the United Nations.
If this sounds wildly ambitious, it is. Is the Church over-reaching a little? Maybe? Should it be ignored? Perhaps not.
What happens to a religion after its founder dies? Moon might be Messiah to some, but he is also 92. He will not live forever.
In Seoul, we saw a church in transition. Change is never easy. But when a religion and a vast business empire are at stake, it can be downright traumatic.
Moon has named his successors. His fourth son Kook-jin is now running Tongil Foundation, Youngest son, Hyung-jin, heads the church. The arrangements have enraged the Reverend’s oldest living son Hyun-jin, long regarded as the person most likely to step into his father’s shoes.
Even the True Family is not immune to sibling rivalry. The fallout has been pretty ugly. There are allegations and accusations, lawsuits and a deep rift that’s polarised the flock.
“Now we know, the Moons are just like normal people,” one observer told us. “Fighting like normal people.”
In an interview, Kook-jin spoke candidly about his brother’s “disobedience”. But no other believer we met – either privately or officially – seemed to want to address this issue. They chose instead to talk about love and peace and the transforming power of Unificationism; they trust Reverend Moon to do what’s right and accept that some things are not theirs to comprehend.
Faith. It’s a mystery. And a powerful thing.
Our documentary, “In The Kingdom Of Reverend Moon” is scheduled for air on the 21st of June on Al Jazeera English’s 101 East.
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