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.
"The Moons have a lot of businesses that don't make money, and they are having to shutter the losing businesses," said Richard Miniter, 42, the recently departed Times editorial page editor and vice president.
Atlantic Video, which provides production services for two ESPN shows, laid off more than half of its 63 employees in March and increased its use of freelancers. In an interview, company President Ed Milligan blamed the struggles on some media outlets doing more work in-house. UPI executives did not return calls, but Miniter described the wire service as "hollowed out."
Some of Moon Inc.'s New York-based operations remain profitable, according to a church media relations consultant who said he was not authorized to speak publicly. The seafood company True World Foods and Washington Times Aviation do well, according to a former executive at a major Moon enterprise who declined to be named, citing confidentiality agreements in his contract. (Spokesmen for the companies did not return calls.)
At the nonprofit Kirov Academy of Ballet in Northeast, a church-backed school that sends some graduates to top ballet companies, Executive Director Michael Beard said the church's annual subsidy has dropped by about half, to $1 million, this year. The Christian Bernard jewelry chain, which other news outlets and private investigators have linked to Moon, went bankrupt shortly after Christmas, according to multiple news accounts.Fighting to stay afloat
At New Hope Academy, a private school in Prince George's founded by Unificationist parents in 1990 with a donation from Moon of more than $150,000, enrollment has dropped from 285 to 210 in about the past five years, said Principal Joy Morrow. The percentage of Unificationist families at New Hope has plummeted from 100 percent to about 7 percent since its inception, she said.
New Hope, like many private schools in the region, is struggling to survive in a weak economy. The school no longer relies on the church for major funding, although it rents its auditorium on Sundays to Unificationist congregants. "We can't handle being any smaller than we are," said Morrow, who joined the church in the early 1970s. "We're fighting like crazy to keep our school afloat."
She said she is pained by the internecine battles within the church. "I don't think this is what Reverend Moon wanted," she said. "I am just praying that people treat each other well."
Three top Times executives were ousted two weeks ago: president and publisher Thomas McDevitt, finance chief Keith Cooperrider and chairman Dong Moon Joo, who all declined to comment. The executive editor, John Solomon, a former Post reporter, resigned; he did not return phone calls for comment. The shakeup has left many in the newsroom worrying whether the paper will still be rolling off the presses by year's end.