- The Unification Church was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 1954.
- One of the church’s most famous rituals are its mass weddings.
- Ex-members talked to Insider about their experiences growing up in — and leaving — the controversial church.
This article is the third 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 and the second part here.
On August 8, 2005, Hana* stood in a large stadium in Seoul with nearly 500,000 other people, ready for her wedding day. The 19-year-old wore a standard-issue wedding dress and veil that were identical to those of the thousands of brides around her. Men wore simple black suits.
Everyone looked virtually the same, thousands of bride-and-groom copies in black and white. They were to be Blessed by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, married in a mass wedding to usher in a new era of peace and unity.
Mass weddings, or “Blessings,” are a hallmark of the Unification Church, a religious movement started by Rev. Moon. Through it, members of the controversial church believe the couple is freed from a lineage of sinful humanity that began with the fall of Adam and Eve. The children from these marriages would be born pure and sinless.
“The Blessing is the beginning of a new world,” Moon wrote in his book, “Blessing and Ideal Family.” “Unification Church’s mass wedding is not just solving one individual’s marriage problem but all the marriage difficulties from the beginning of history to now.”
At her Blessing in Seoul, Hana stood near the front of the stadium with her soon-to-be husband, Ethan*, holding hands. Rev. Moon was dressed in silken robes, and spoke Korean in a booming voice as his followers listened, eager, to the English translation through earphones.
The thousands of couples recited the Family Pledge, eight statements that all began with, “As the owner of Cheon Il Guk,” which Moon defined as the “Kingdom of God on Earth.”
“As the Owner of Cheon Il Guk,” Hana recited, “our family pledges to build the universal family encompassing Heaven and Earth, which is God’s ideal of creation, and perfect the world of freedom, unity, and happiness, by centering on true love.”
The brides and grooms exchanged Blessing rings, gold with the church symbol engraved onto them. Hana slid the ring onto Ethan’s finger, on the right hand — not the left as “outsiders” traditionally did, since the right side was the side of God.
As Father — as followers often referred to Rev. Moon — sprinkled Holy Water over the crowd of newlyweds, Hana felt a momentary sense of relief. She was Blessed now. She’d redeemed herself, and could live a new life, free of sin. As a child born into the church, Hana was told she must live a life of purity. But a year earlier, she had broken that promise.
Living a double life
Hana was in her freshman year of college in 2004 when her mom discovered she’d lost her virginity. She had accidentally left her instant messages open on her family computer, which her mom found and read.
Even before then, Hana had started to question the church that she was born into.
“It was in high school that I really started to be like, ‘Something is weird about this. I don’t want to be a part of this, or I guess I’m ashamed of it,'” Hana told Insider.
Some of her friends at the all-girls’ Catholic high school she attended were lesbians. Hana had spent her entire life listening to Moon and the church preach that gay people were evil. Meeting this new group of girls was a turning point for her. She started sneaking out and partying with friends, drinking until late at night.
“I saw how different their lives were, how freer it was,” Hana said. “I started thinking, maybe my life can be like this, too.”
She also started kissing boys, and eventually had sex with her college boyfriend, who was not a church member. In the church, sex before marriage was considered a sin. At the same time, Hana threw herself into church activities and served as the youth pastor in her community.
“I was living a double life,” she said.
Compartmentalizing is common among people who are leaving a cult, explained Chris Carlson, a former Unification Church member who is now a counselor at the International Cultic Studies Association.
“When you’re living in a group that has that much power over defining who people are in a group and how they live, you take on an identity that isn’t necessarily the core of who you are,” Carlson said. Separating their “cult identity” and their “core essence” is one way many ex-members said they coped with being a part of the church while questioning their own beliefs.
Hana’s own double life came crashing down when her mom found out about her daughter’s transgression. She took away Hana’s cell phone and made her attend a workshop for the “fallen” — second-gens who’d violated their purity by having sex. By breaking their abstinence, they had defied the mission that Rev. Moon was given by God: To have sinless humans marry and propagate a lineage of similarly sinless children.
The workshop, tucked away at a church retreat center in New Jersey, consisted of lectures, counseling, singing, and praying over four days in the summer. Though, on the surface, it was a “healing workshop” that encouraged the fallen to repent for their sins, Hana had a suspicion that the workshop was really a guise for fallen second-gen to meet and marry another.
“A sinless Blessed Child and a fallen one could not be Matched. And we’d violated the cardinal sin,” Hana said.
With that thought in the back of her mind, Hana met Ethan. He was half-Japanese and half-American, just like her, and was cute and funny. Hana felt she found a way to escape from the shame her mom and other church members tried to place on her.
“I was attracted to him at the time, but it was more the getting away from my parents that drew me to the situation,” Hana said. “I also felt like he was the only person that would marry me.”
One year later, in that stadium, along with half a million people, she was Blessed to Ethan.
An emphasis on sex rituals
Despite the enormous emphasis it places on sexual purity, a central part of the Unification Church are its sex rituals, which every Blessed couple participates in. In his book “Blessing and Ideal Family,” Rev. Moon tells his followers that in order to join his sin-free lineage, they need to marry someone of his choosing and engage in a series of rituals. These ceremonies, called pikareum, or “change of blood lineage,” were derived from Korean shamanistic rites in the early 20th century, and are meant to purify the body and spirit.
First is the Indemnity Stick ceremony. The day before their Blessing Ceremony, Hana and Ethan appeared before a Korean church leader at Cheongpyeong, the Unification Church’s main holy site. Hana wore a white dress, the color of purity, and had fasted for seven days to “cleanse” her body and mind.
The church leader handed the couple a wooden stick about the size of a baseball bat and instructed them to hit each other on the bottom, hard, three times. This act, they were told, would purify them of their previous acts of sin.
“I didn’t hit him very hard, but when it came to me, I ended up being hit three times with the help of this leader,” Hana said.
At her wedding the next day, Hana had bruises on her back, legs and bottom.
After the Blessing came the Three-Day Ceremony, which involved kneeling before an altar to apologize to Father for the sins they’d committed, as well as a set of precise instructions dictating how the ‘sex ceremony’ would be performed, with prescribed positions.
Hana and Ethan emerged from the ceremony as a sin-free, “eternal ideal couple,” redeemed in the eyes of the church. Seven years later, in 2012, they were divorced.
Making an escape
The troubles began when Hana moved in with Ethan, who lived with his mom and his brother. When Hana became pregnant with her son in 2007, she said Ethan and her mother-in-law, whom Hana described as a “hardcore Moonie,” forced her to go to Cheongpyeong for a pregnancy workshop like most church members do, despite her protests.
As a part of the workshop, Hana spent 120 days at the temple, waking up at 5 a.m. every morning to pray. After breakfast, she would then hike a few miles up a mountain to once more pray at the site of three holy trees.
Back at home, her routine felt just as restrictive. Hana said Ethan didn’t want her hanging out with her friends from work. He had an addictive personality, and spent hours playing video games, drinking, or smoking, according to Hana. She started questioning her marriage.
“I started to feel like I didn’t want to be with him, or to have another child with him,” Hana said.
In 2010, Hana welcomed a second child with Ethan, becoming more certain she wanted to leave her husband. Ethan and her mother-in-law often told Hana that she was “full of evil spirits” and needed to go to Cheongpyeong to cleanse herself.
When she became pregnant with her second child in 2010, Hana became more and more convinced she wanted out.
“It was confusing, because you grow up this way and you’re taught all of this, but a part of you is fighting it,” Hana said. “I questioned myself a lot. I was like, ‘Am I really evil? Am I a bad person for wanting to leave him?'”
For Hana, the final straw was when her mother-in-law insisted they move to Korea to be closer to Cheongpyeong. Two days before their flight to Korea, Hana got into a physical fight with her mother-in-law after she continued to voice her resistance to the move. Hana recalled there was hair pulling and punching. Eventually, her husband’s family took away her cell phone, laptop, and credit card, and locked her in the bedroom.
“I was imprisoned,” Hana said.
Hana’s sister, whom she’d texted constantly throughout the years, noticed something was amiss when she stopped hearing from her. The day after the fight, Hana’s sister barged in, took Hana and her daughter and told her they were leaving. They flew to New York the next day. But Hana’s son, who was still with his dad at the time of the escape, ended up on the plane to Korea.
Breaking the Blessing
After a year of legal battles, Hana divorced her husband, “breaking” their Blessing, and won custody of her son.
“It was a year of struggles and depression. I was just trying to pick myself back up,” Hana said.
Church members had stopped talking to her after the divorce and exit from the community. But Hana said her parents, who are still involved in the church, had wanted her to leave Ethan for a long time after they saw how “emotionally abusive” he was. She has since remarried someone outside the church, though Ethan continues to visit his children.
“He tells them that one day they’ll get matched, Blessed, that they’re third-generation and are very important,” Hana said. “But I remind them that I grew up in the church, but I chose not to be a part of it.”
‘It’s hard to love and hate something so much’
Other second-gens who left the Unification Church also spent their post-church years navigating the “outside” world they’d been taught to fear, while grappling with depression, shame, and other mental health issues.
“There’s so much weird shit you just have to accept, and then you get out of it, and there’s five years of learning how to be a real person and realizing that all this stuff is real fucking weird,” Yuri*, a second-gen who kept a blog about the church’s missteps, told Insider.
Yuri said his parents are still part of the church, but can’t afford to be active members because the steep required donations, including “ancestor liberation” fees and other church services, have become even more expensive. While he doesn’t condone violence, Yuri said many second-gens he has spoken to said part of them felt some empathy toward the suspect in Shinzo Abe’s assassination. The accused attacker, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he was motivated by anger toward the Unification Church, which he claimed had driven his mother to debt.
“There’s a very strong sentiment of, ‘That could’ve been me,'” Yuri said. “There’s some sympathy and understanding that the amount of suffering the church creates could lead someone to take that action.”
Many Blessed Children, who had been told what to do and what to be their entire lives — special, perfect — have since started second lives, forging new identities for themselves. But these, they all said, will always be inextricably tied to their church upbringing.
“I had a narrative for how I grew up until I was 21, and then everything changed,” ex-member Sujin*, who’s now training to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner, told Insider. “I realized the church was a cult, and I had to go back and still appreciate things. It’s my life, and I’m still so grateful for it. But it’s hard to reconcile the good and the lies sometimes… It’s hard to love and hate something so much.”
The Unification Church did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
*Names have been changed. Subjects spoke to Insider on the condition of confidentiality.
Unification Church: From mass weddings to sex rituals – Insider