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Children of Moon church's mass-wedding age face a crossroads

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010; C01

In a matter of seconds 27 years ago in a crowded New York City hotel ballroom, David Moffitt's parents went from total strangers to an engaged couple after being divinely matched by Unification Church founder the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. It was the 1980s, when thousands of young people like them ditched their educations, careers and families to live out of vans, sell flowers at airports and follow a Korean who calls himself a messiah.

Flash-forward to a Bowie living room on a recent weeknight, when Moffitt and a few dozen other "blessed children" of Moon-arranged mass weddings were discussing something perhaps as revolutionary: going mainstream.

"Our parents' generation were much more all-out. . . . You could say they were fighting a war," said Moffitt, a 24-year-old University of Maryland junior who works part time as a personal trainer. "Our generation is more focused on happiness and prosperity, going to college, getting jobs. It's important to be part of the culture. If you're above the culture, you can't change the world."

Their quest for a less-radical version of their faith comes during great uncertainty and change within the Unification Church. With Moon turning 90 in February, how the movement will survive beyond him is unclear. Moon's children are at odds over how to run the church's business empire, including the money-losing Washington Times, which laid off 40 percent of its staff this past week.

For church members, figuring out how to stabilize the movement has a feeling of urgency, particularly for Moffitt and others his age. Church officials estimate there are 21,000 active Unificationists in this country, including 7,500 blessed children, who members believe were born free of original sin and have a special spiritual status. A significant number of blessed children live in the Washington area, long a hub for Moon businesses and church lobbyists.

The church's future lies with this second generation, who were born into a religion some view as a bizarre cult. Their own beliefs run the gamut from those eager to follow in their parents' footsteps to those who haven't attended a Unification worship service for years.

Miilhan Stephens, a 22-year-old studying food science at the University of Maryland, beamed as he talked about Moon pairing him by photograph with a young woman from Japan. Photos from the matching ceremony show him holding the hand of his fiancee, who's wearing a white dress and veil, in a Manhattan concert hall filled with couples.

By contrast, Marisa Rand, a 21-year-old art student whose Moon-matched parents divorced long ago, said the circumstance of their marriage was such a sensitive subject that it was barely mentioned when she was growing up in Cheverly. Her family no longer practices Unificationism, and she can't imagine marrying the way her parents did.

Then there's Moffitt, who represents the new, somewhat more moderate face of Unificationism. He didn't marry a stranger -- he and his wife, Kaeleigh, have known each other since they were children -- and their marriage wasn't arranged by Moon.

The two sat together in the Bowie living room with other blessed children for their weekly youth group. They discussed a book by Hyung-Jin Moon -- the Moon son leading the religious part of the movement --performed skits, ate potato chips and admired one another's clothes. Except for their biracial faces -- evidence of a theology that sees intermarriage as a cosmic way to end conflict -- and the photo of Rev. Moon on the wall, their lives are a world away from their parents'.

A new way to find their spouses

Where their parents were matched by Moon's divine inspiration, many blessed children are getting hitched using Web sites inspired by eHarmony that rate how much they like certain hobbies, such as cooking. And where their parents were spiritual seekers, rebels inspired to join a movement on society's fringe, blessed children were simply raised within a faith they have to find their own reasons to follow.

The images of the Unificationist Church that stick for the typical American are those from decades past, thousands of strangers in wedding garb at Madison Square Garden or RFK Stadium. Among them were Larry and Taeko Moffitt, who were working for the church in 1979 when Moon pointed to them during a matching ceremony.

In a memoir, Larry, now 60, wrote of being terrified of this "cute as a button" Japanese woman with broken English but of wanting that day to marry Taeko "to my bottommost corpuscle."

They believed in Moon's divinity, in his ability to judge people's nature and in his devotion to the institution of marriage. If they could commit to it, they were certain they could build love and passion. Thirty years and five children later, the Bowie couple say they succeeded, calling one another pet names and playfully teasing.

David's marriage last year to Kaeleigh, who heads the church's high school ministry program in Maryland, came about much differently. They asked their parents, separately, to match them but never discussed it with each other for fear of interfering with the process.

This somewhat more conventional approach to finding a spouse became possible in 2001 when Moon made the dramatic announcement that parents could match their own children. This was driven both by Moon's age and what church officials say was a natural evolution of Unificationist theology, one that sees Moon as a parent (he is called "True Father" by members) who established the rules and lineage and now is passing the parental responsibility of matchmaking to individual mothers and fathers.

Parents can now use Web sites with photos and biographical information to search for a suitable spouse or attend "matching convocations," during which they walk around with buttons showing the age and sex of their child (blue buttons for people with sons, pink for those with daughters).

Amanda van Eck, a sociologist who studies the second generation of new religious movements, said the changes the church is making will help Unificationism survive.

"It's more feasible to be a long-lasting movement if you adapt," she said. Many of the church's oldest blessed children -- those born in the early 1970s -- fell away, she said, because the movement was too isolated and had no activities or groups for the young.

Even so, not all young Unificationists support the less-rigid approach to marriage. They debate on private Web sites (including one called "Something in the Unification Church Needs to Change") whether it's theologically acceptable for an outsider or newcomer to marry a blessed child and what that means for the pure lineage Moon had preached early on was mandatory for erasing sin.

Michele Burton, a 23-year-old D.C. public school teacher who grew up in the church but no longer considers herself a member, said the movement's drive toward the mainstream can only go so far.

"All that period of living in a van, having people yell at you, being poor -- they want that period to be over," she said. "There is a gravitational pull toward appearing normal. But you can't be normal in this movement. You're going to be different."

Giving in to pull of tradition

David Moffitt went to Unificationist schools and said he doesn't have many close relationships with people outside the church. Asked if he would have considered marrying someone outside the church, Moffitt's animated tone became serious.

"That's, like, not cool," he said.

But Moffitt's older sister, Kathy Mehlman, did marry outside the church two years ago -- a choice that initially troubled her family, she said. They've since accepted her decision, and she still attends special events at the church.

Nevertheless, Mehlman, 25, said she is looking into getting her marriage blessed by Moon. "I always felt I was a disappointment to my family because I chose this way, so I want to do it for my Mom," she said.

Her brother characterized their parents as pioneers, people who made "sacrifices" necessary to establish the movement. Moffitt sees their marriage -- one built first on commitment, then love -- as an ideal.

"What I really wanted was a relationship like my parents had," he said. "If my marriage is half of theirs, I'd be happy."

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