Mike Breen was a 30-year-old church magazine editor in London in the summer of 1981 when he and hundreds of others were called by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon to an all-night matching ceremony in Germany. Terrified that he’d be married for eternity to “a beast,” Breen says, he took an agonizing walk alone and questioned whether his faith was deep enough to accept whomever Moon picked.
He decided it was. “And in the end, I got the most beautiful woman in the room” — a ballet teacher who was a fellow Brit. The next year, they were among thousands of couples united by Moon at a mass wedding — or “blessing,” according to Moon’s Unification Church — at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
But the marriage soured, and 17 years later, the couple divorced, which Breen blames in part on their devotion to the Unification Church.
Married on the same day were Frances Biddle Drayton, a Philadelphia debutante and model, and Yoshi Ichijo, the son of a Japanese farmer. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, the Ichijos just celebrated their 30th anniversary, their faith in Moon’s spiritual vision unshaken.
“When I think back on it, we couldn’t have been more different. I like ballet; he likes football. I like the window up; he likes it down. But we really worked at our marriage, and there is an abiding love. We are so happy, I can honestly say it,” said Fran, who owns a dance school and lives with Yoshi, a chauffeur, in Gaithersburg.
Moon’s death Sept. 2 and funeral Saturday signaled the end of the random pairings that helped make Moon’s Unification Church famous — and infamous — a generation ago. To many, the marriages were a bizarre spectacle of social engineering and cult religion.
But for the roughly 50,000 couples matched by Moon beginning in the 1960s, the unions were the start of family life, albeit a life infused with a strange alchemy of the mundane and the peculiar. Sometimes there were silver anniversaries and grandchildren. Sometimes the marriages ended in estrangement and divorce.
Some successfully married couples swear by old-fashioned patience and secular self-help books as much as their faith in Moon, who was an international businessman as well as a spiritual leader. But it was common to avoid broaching marital problems, even to a spouse, because doubt in the match meant doubt in Moon and in God. After Moon, in 2001, decreed that they could, many couples expressed their devotion by matching their children, even children with serious developmental disabilities, so their offspring wouldn’t be alone in the spirit world.
But devotion to the church alone did not make or break the marriages, according to the Ichijos, Breen and others matched by Moon. Although the unions began in a crowd, they endured or failed largely on their own.
“The support and the pressures of the community kind of fades away when you’re in the trenches, when you’re in the kitchen duking it out. We fight just like atheists,” said Larry Moffitt, a Bowie executive with the church-owned Washington Times Foundation who just celebrated 30 years with his Moon-picked wife.
The Ichijos’ family photo albums are filled with the usual sort of snapshots. There’s the 1978 photo showing the pair after they’d met in Seoul: Fran, a pretty brunette in a red suit, beams as she leans into a slightly stiff-looking Yoshi in a white jacket with wide lapels. There’s a photo of the couple and their three young children in the mid-’90s, sitting on the fence of the horse farm where they lived at the time, and another of a brown-haired, smiling granddaughter. Then there’s the picture of the happy couple on their 30th anniversary trip to the Baltic Sea, squeezing in close to each other on a bridge in Stockholm.
But the Ichijos’ fading wedding photo is far from the norm. The couple is surrounded by a sea of thousands, all wearing identical wedding garb: women in white, lace-sleeved satin dresses; men in black suits with red ties. Everyone is bowing before their matchmaker and messiah, Moon.
Marriage is at the core of Unification theology, which teaches that God sent Moon to finish Jesus’s work, to heal the world through arranged, often intercultural, marriages. Unificationists believe the unions can cleanse the sin and self-interest of past and future generations.
Church theology has shifted over the decades, but at the time the Ichijos were married, many Unificationists were told to spend 40 months before their blessing being chaste — no kissing or touching — to show commitment to the church and an ability to overcome temptation. (According to the numerology practiced by the church, four represents separation from Satan.)
Those three years were electric for Fran and Yoshi, who felt a powerful physical attraction to each other. Living and working in church jobs in separate cities — she in Korea, he in Japan — they got to know each other through long letters and week-long visits with separate bedrooms. The church did not offer premarital counseling at the time; ironically, it was the counseling her mother requested they undertake at an Episcopal Church that boosted their confidence.
“We talked about expectations, who would take out the garbage, make dinner. I realized: ‘Oh, this is something you can actually work at,’ ” Fran remembers thinking.
Playing with each other’s fingers at their Gaithersburg kitchen table recently, the couple giggled about how they had learned over the years to deal with disagreements and make up (in the thick of an argument, both say, “It’s my fault.”). But their early marriage was marked by cultural challenges.
Raised Shinto and Buddhist on a rice farm in the mountains, Yoshi, now 62, had what he calls “typical” Japanese attributes when he met Fran. He hesitated to hug or show emotion. “He couldn’t say, ‘I love you!’ ” said the bubbly Fran, who is 58.
Fran was independent and bucked the traditional female role. Instead of cleaning up after her new husband, she delineated his-and-her areas of the house.
Their families harbored strong prejudices. When Fran told her mother that she was engaged to a man from Japan, “she said, ‘They’re the enemy,’ ” Fran remembered. Yoshi’s father had trained as a kamikaze pilot.
But like most successfully married couples, they found ways to navigate their differences. They read self-help classics like “Five Love Languages” and “Fascinating Womanhood,” a popular 60s-era Christian relationship guide that urged women to focus on pleasing men.
Yoshi worked to become more communicative, and Fran worked on details like greeting him at the door at the end of the day.
And they had something powerful in common: Moon. They both believed that he could discern their natures and needs in their faces and that he could look into their past lives and their ancestors’ conflicts. They believed then — and believe now — that Moon’s matches are about more than the couples in them and are a way of returning to the Garden of Eden, replacing Adam and Eve’s self-centered relationship with a wholesome one and slowly erasing original sin.
Church teaching on marriage had a huge effect on how they raised their children, now 23, 27 and 29, all matched and married. There was no premarital dating for the kids, and no nasty fighting for the parents.
“We felt the best gift we could give them were two parents who love each other. We really wanted to give that to them,” Fran said, in part so the children would be motivated to have their marriages arranged by their parents.
The Ichijos believed that Moon had given them his gift of matching, but they were sure to query their children about their preferences and priorities — part Moon, part Match.com.
Moon, from the spirit world, will have a hand, no doubt, in their future, they say.
“His wife is still on Earth, so maybe we can bring more world peace and unity” with one here and one in “the spirit world,” Fran said.
Although faith in Moon and his teachings helped sustain the Ichijos and some other long-married couples, some of those who divorced blamed the church, in part, for their marital failures.
Breen said Unification culture fueled the couple’s inability to talk through their problems. Instead, they plunged into their church-assigned work and drifted.
“In Unification marriages, it’s like a nun and a monk getting married,” Breen said. “You’re supposed to be dedicated to the mission, and it allows you an escape route,” he said. “You just focus on work and think you’re being religious that way, but you don’t realize you have a bad marriage.”
Breen said the relationship was challenged more by things secular than spiritual: trouble getting pregnant (although they ended up having three children), disagreement about where to live and a period when he struggled to find work.
Eventually, the couple’s belief in Moon faltered.
Scandals involving Moon’s children — who in church theology are spiritual royalty — cut away at the idea of the church as a blessed, sinless family. Moon’s decision in the 1990s to extend blessings temporarily to people outside the church in big, interfaith ceremonies further cheapened the matches for Breen.
“This thing we had to dedicate our lives to earn was now given freely. We started joking about it as a ‘McBlessing,’ ” he said.
Breen’s ex-wife, who didn’t want to be named or speak in detail, said she generally agreed with Breen’s characterization of their marriage. Even though it failed, she said their children “have come to appreciate the incredibly high ideals and personal sacrifices that formed the foundation of our marriage” and led to them having children.
Breen, who is now a business consultant in Seoul, said his desire to believe in “destined” matches led him into a second, flawed marriage, this time outside the church. The mix was clearly wrong, but he couldn’t accept that he had the right to leave, a remnant of Moon theology, he believes. He recently married a third time, and he said only now does he feels that the choice of a partner is up to him.
“Matching is just how you meet,” he said. “For some people, it’s: ‘How did you meet your husband?’ ‘Oh, I met him in a bar. We were drunk.’ But thereafter, you have the same situation [as Unificationists]. You have to develop the relationship.”