Jul 30, 2022

From 'slapping therapy' to steep 'liberation' fees, ex-members speak out about life inside the Moonies 'cult'


Yoonji Han 

July 30, 2022

·         The Unification Church was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 1954.


·         Many outside the church have referred to its controversial practices as similar to those of a "cult."

·         Ex-members talked to Insider about their experiences growing up in — and leaving — the church.

This article is the second in a three-part series telling the stories of those who were born into the Unification Church, and their experiences trying to leave it. Read the first part here.

After Reverend Sun Myung Moon's death in 2012, the number of second-gens who left the Unification Church continued to grow. As of July 29, 2022, there were 960 members in Born Under the Moon, a private Facebook group for second-gens, the nickname given to children born into the controversial church. Many made the difficult decision to leave the communities they were born into after they became increasingly aware of the church's hypocrisies — and of how its values clashed with their own burgeoning senses of self.

"While growing up in a diverse community with spiritual values were benefits, the martyristic handling of money, sexuality, parenting and hierarchy have no doubt left their marks," the Facebook group's description reads. "This was our inheritance."

Yuri*, a second-gen who "came out" as Christian when he was 15 and as gay when he was 21, started questioning the church at a young age. He describes his younger self as a "very intense person" with a rebellious streak. He went as far as starting his own youth group in church because he "didn't like how they played games."

"If I'm going to believe something, I'm going to be very intense about it," Yuri told Insider.

As a Blessed Child of a Japanese mom and American dad, Yuri was especially aware of what he perceived to be the unequal ways the church treated its Japanese members — namely by squeezing them for money.

One such way is through costly ancestor liberation ceremonies. Under Rev. Moon's doctrine, followers must free their ancestors from hell to join the church's "spiritual world."

"If you go to the spiritual world without offering the ancestors' liberation ceremony, your ancestors will grab you by the neck and accuse you, saying, 'You idiot, why didn't you bring me into the Unification Church even when you knew and received help from the Rev. Moon?'" Moon told his followers at a speech in December 1990. 

These ceremonies came at a price, with members paying different fees depending on which country they came from. According to an e-calculator the church created, US members must pay $700 to liberate their first seven generations of ancestors. Japanese members must pay 700,000 yen, or just over $5,000 USD.

The racial hierarchy stemmed from the church's belief that Japan must atone for its sins committed against Korea. Moon was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1920, a period of harsh oppression that has bred resentment that still lingers among some members of older Korean generations. As a young adult, Moon joined the Korean independence movement and was arrested and beaten by the Japanese police, according to his autobiography, "As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen."

Since the church's inception, Japan has played a curious role in Unification Church theology. Moon designated Japan as the "Eve nation," which would be both partner and subjugant to Korea, the "Adam nation." Rather than shunning Japan, Rev. Moon attended college there so he could learn about the country with the ultimate goal of bringing it under his wing.

"Instead of refusing all contact, Korea needed to evangelize Japan so that it would be in the position to be the senior partner in the bilateral relationship," Moon wrote in his autobiography.

But many second-gens like Yuri saw the more pernicious implications of Moon's logic.

"They're preying on Asian guilt," Yuri told Insider.

Beating the 'evil' out

Yuri had just finished the seventh grade when he first visited Cheongpyeong, a grand palace that served as the Unification Church's holy center, about an hour east of Seoul. He was having trouble sleeping, and his church leader told his parents he needed to go to Cheongpyeong to have the evil spirits afflicting him driven out.

Cheongpyeong was also where followers went to have their ancestors liberated, and, according to rumors among church members, reportedly cost more than $1 billion to build — in part through members' liberation fees and donations.

There, Yuri met Hyo Nam Kim, who presided over the palace and who was said to host the spirit of Moon's mother-in-law. She was a tough-looking woman who always wore her hair pulled back, though she'd smile at church members she came across at the temple. She always wore a long-sleeved shirt and trousers in muted colors, no jewelry, no makeup.

Hyo Nam nim — followers always used the honorific — told Yuri he needed to beat the evil spirits out of his body. 

Three times a day, Yuri sat in a hall with rows of hundreds of other church members and performed "Ansu," a ritual to banish evil spirits. They beat their arms, legs, and backs to the beat of "Blessing of Glory," which a team of singers and drummers sang on stage in Korean. The Ansu leader yelled out different body parts, and others would walk through the crowd, sometimes urging people to hit themselves harder. Each session lasted over an hour. Sometimes, people drew blood.

Yuri did this at Cheongpyeong for 60 days, even missing the first weeks of eighth grade. He went back later that year, too, to "make sure" the evil spirits were truly banished.


A 'witch hunt'

Cheongpyeong was a "breaking point" for Yuri. He started secretly reading articles he found online of people who left the church, including a book written by the ex-wife of one of Moon's sons. In it, she recalls her husband guzzling alcohol and sleeping with prostitutes, and says the Moon family indulged in adultery, drugs, and physical violence.

"Hearing that from a person, I knew I couldn't be in the church in good conscience," Yuri said.

Yuri also began grappling with his own growing sense of mismatch within the church. He realized he was gay when he was around 13 years old. But the church staunchly opposed homosexuality, which went against its idea of a "perfect marriage." Moon compared gay people to "dirty dung-eating dogs," and said "gays will be eliminated" in a "purge on God's orders."

To help make sense of the questions swirling in his head, Yuri anonymously started a blog named "How Well Do You Know Your Moon?" on Tumblr later in 2009. When church members caught wind of the exposés he posted, they denounced the blog as evil, and began what Yuri described as a "witch hunt" for its creator.

Yuri was outed by a church member who posed as a student working on a paper about the church. After he was discovered, his dad, who worked for the church like most first-generation members, had his salary cut by more than half. 

"They explicitly told him it was because of me," Yuri said.

Yuri said his parents were upset, but more so because they didn't want their community thinking badly of them and their family. They understood, to an extent, his theological confusion and frustrations with church leadership, especially in light of scandals about the Reverend and his family that were coming to light.

A scandal rocks the church

Yuri's blog, which he continued to post on even after he was discovered, proved to be a powerful source of information for other second-gens who also began to question the church.

Sujin* was in Camp Sunrise, a church summer retreat, when Reverend Moon died on September 2, 2012. She was shaken. Father, their leader and messiah of the new world, was dead.

The waves of shock from Moon's death had hardly settled before another scandal ripped new fissures in the church community. In Jin "Tatiana" Moon, the True Parents' second daughter and sixth out of 16 children, had an affair with Ben Lorentzen, the lead singer of the church band. She'd been married to Jin Sung "James" Park, the son of Moon's right hand man, Bo Hi Pak. When the affair was exposed, Hak Ja Han, Moon's wife, told her daughter to relinquish her position and release a statement addressing her sins.

Sujin first found out about the scandal on Yuri's blog. "I felt personally betrayed, like I'd been slapped in the face," she said.

Every Sunday, Sujin and her family had driven to the church-owned Manhattan Center, a large building on 34th Street housing multiple event halls, to listen to In Jin nim's sermons.

With her slight British accent, In Jin nim made Sujin feel like she was really being spoken to. Moon had only spoken Korean, and she'd have to listen to the translation through earbuds. In Jin nim, with her meticulously plucked brows and coiffed hair, had preached about family, love and unity while her husband and five children sat on stage. After hearing about her affair, Sujin said she felt disgusted by the blatant lies and hypocrisy.

"How fucked up do you have to be to literally preach a lie to younger people?" Sujin said.

A lack of a sex education

Anger at the church's hypocrisies only compounded the doubts that many second-gens had started feeling as they became teenagers. Sujin struggled with a growing awareness of her sexuality, and, after the scandal with In Jin nim, she started to actively explore her sexuality. She lost her virginity in college, to a boy with acne scars on his chin.

Afterwards, Sujin blamed herself. It was her fault for leading him on, even though she remembered telling him that she didn't want to have sex — only kiss. Sujin says she only realized a few months later that "rape" was the word used for non-consensual sex, and believed this was what had happened to her.

The church didn't teach their young members sex education. Sex wasn't supposed to be a part of your life until after you were Blessed.

Awash with shame and guilt, Sujin confided in her mom about what happened. Her mom told her she couldn't let anybody in the church find out about this: Nobody would accept someone who had fallen. In the church, it was better to die — even kill yourself — than to be defiled in this way. Her mother instructed her to repent by spending 21 minutes for 40 days straight reading Rev. Moon's texts.

"My mom told me to pretend it never happened because God would forgive me if I repented. But how can I pretend it never happened if I'm having panic attacks and feeling guilty all the time?" Sujin said.

Fear of the outside world

Despite these doubts, actually leaving the church was a terrifying prospect for many second-gens. Fear of the outside world kept them tethered to the community they grew up in.

"When you're told all the time that the only people in this world that'll understand you are other church people — even when you don't believe in the church anymore — you're scared. You think these are the only people that'll get you," Yuri said.

*Names have been changed. Subjects spoke to Insider on the condition of confidentiality.



No comments: