The recent death of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon — the 92-year-old leader of the Unification Church who claimed to be Jesus Incarnate and whose followers were once known as “Moonies” — returned me to a time when, armed with a writer’s curiosity and ample chutzpah, I enrolled in one of his weekend retreats to see if objective, analytical, rough-around-the-edges ol’ me could indeed be brainwashed into becoming a cooing cultist.
My association with the Moonies happened by chance, as do many of life’s conundrums. The doorman at a building in midtown Manhattan invited me to a church meeting when I stopped to ask him directions to Herald Square one fall day. I showed up at the appointed hour, and sang and danced with the happy hordes who invited me to a weekend retreat. I accepted with a whoop of delight.
Going undercover was a blast, though not for the faint of heart. We studied Unification dogma to make us perfected human beings, we ate kimchi, we sang “Kumbaya My Lord” by a campfire, and we constantly grinned at one another, smug in the knowledge that we were the ones who were “the Ones.”
The group was a friendly bunch, and by Sunday night I was a jubilant camper. I even felt the spark of a religious experience. Was the Rev. Moon imbuing me with his spirit? Was I off my rocker? Had my kimchi been spiked? My rampant emotions were interrupted by the whining snarl of a fellow visitor, who protested that he didn’t feel anything and demanded a refund.
The icing on the cake was when the doorman showed up and announced that he was my spiritual father.
I decided to investigate this secret society further, and agreed to go on the week-long retreat, where the mirth and merriment of the previous weekend was replaced by the relentless onslaught of an indoctrination whose purpose was to drum into me that the Rev. Moon was the second Messiah.
I had my difficulties with that one. My skepticism grew when I quizzed the “Moonie-mentor” about the Rev. Moon’s divine revelation. She explained that during the war between North and South Korea, the reverend was a civilian, fleeing the tumult and transporting a broken-legged pal on his back to safety when he came upon a weeping young boy who had been forgotten by his family in the mayhem. Voila, the vision, she added.
I wanted to know what happened to the little boy. Did the Rev. Moon take him with them, or leave him behind? The mentor seemed annoyed that I would be asking such a trivial question, and informed me acidly that she hadn’t the foggiest what happened to the terrified tyke.
The next day, the mentor led us to a cabin to watch the movie “Field of Dreams.” She opened the door and abruptly shut it again — but not before I spied a couple of “perfected” Moonies chilling with their feet up, watching TV, and knocking back beers. By the time we strode into the cabin, the couch potatoes had disposed of their contraband and resumed their benign faces.
I was relieved when the week ended, not least because my religious burp had dwindled into full-blown indigestion. A few weeks later, the doorman showed up on my doorstep with a colleague in tow, beseeching me to sign my life away to his church.
I can still hear myself saying, “No thanks,” as I showed them the door.
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