Succession, division worry church members and beneficiaries

Zagery J. Oliver is the senior pastor of the Unification church in Adams Morgan.
Zagery J. Oliver is the senior pastor of the Unification church in Adams Morgan. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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By Ian Shapira and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 23, 2009

Inside the imposing Unification Church in Adams Morgan, past the lobby photograph of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon on a fishing yacht, soothing melodies beckoned worshipers Sunday morning. Churchgoers listened to a recorded sermon by Moon's daughter, In Jin Moon, about a Harvard study on happiness, then nodded along as Senior Pastor Zagery J. Oliver asserted that "true happiness" comes from "who we are."

But outside the church walls, the quest for inner contentment is overshadowed by a fractious Moon family dispute. This month's abrupt purging of top executives at the Washington Times, which Moon founded and subsidized, and downturns at some Moon-connected businesses in the Washington area have rattled some Unificationists already worried about what will happen to their movement after the passing of its 89-year-old founder.

"It's a shock, a surprise," said Andrew Sices, a Maryland sculptor and longtime church member who created the logo displayed in the New York Avenue NE building that houses the Times, which Moon has long trumpeted as an emblem of his political might. "I'd like to know what happened."

Outside experts on Moon's empire and church officials say it's unclear how Unificationism will fare when "True Father," as Moon is known inside the church, dies. Moon is the theological center of the movement he founded in 1954, as well as a global business magnate who for decades has sought to win recognition from political leaders, especially in Washington. Followers of the church believe that Moon is a messiah sent by God to complete Jesus's unfinished work of creating heaven on Earth.

The ranks of the church's U.S. followers have thinned since the movement's heyday in the 1970s, according to church officials. In an attempt to retain young members, the church recently liberalized its marriage policies so parents, not just clergy, can match men and women to take part in the movement's mass weddings. Worldwide, the church has about 110,000 "adherents," according to a report in the Times in October. Church officials, however, have cited membership figures in the millions in recent weeks.

Last month, the church announced that Moon was passing day-to-day control to his three U.S.-educated sons.

But an apparent feud broke out this month between two of them when Hyun Jin Moon, often known by his American name, Preston, and Hyung Jin Moon, known as Sean, issued dueling memos asserting competing claims of control over portions of their father's empire.

Unification clergy are trying to stay above the fray. Angelika Selle, pastor of New Hope Family Church in Prince George's County, said she avoids news about controversies within Unificationism. Her congregants are "surrounding the whole issue in prayer because it's not clear what's going on," she said.

"I don't think it's my responsibility to know," Selle said, adding that "things are normal" and that there is no need to "get into all that drama."

Joshua Cotter, the church's executive vice president, declined a request for a phone interview. In response to a list of Washington Post questions about the church and Moon-linked businesses, Cotter wrote: "Rev. Moon has inspired many activities and projects with the goal of promoting world peace. He and our Unification Church members in America and worldwide continue to pray for the success of these projects."

Businesses are struggling

In the Washington area, several organizations with ties to the church have suffered financially over the past year, including Moon's media holding company, News World Communications, which owns the Washington Times, the United Press International wire service and the Atlantic Video TV production facility.

As of August 2008, analysts estimated that Moon had subsidized the Times by at least $1 billion since it was launched in 1982; analysts have also estimated that the newspaper has lost close to $2 billion since it was founded.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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