Rev. Sun Myung Moon
Unification Church leader


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    At RFK, Moon Presides Over Mass Wedding

By Caryle Murphy and Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page B01

earing crowns and identical gold-trimmed white robes, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his wife, better known to their followers as the "True Parents" of the world, presided yesterday over a mass wedding and marriage rededication ceremony at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium that drew about 40,000 people, including 2,500 Unification Church couples who consented to arranged marriages.

The Rev. Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han Moon, showing a flair reminiscent of old Broadway musicals, held hands and descended a red-carpeted staircase flanked by white-robed attendants. After a symbolic sprinkling of water, they led couples in saying, "I do" to four pledges recited during the noontime "Blessings '97" ceremony, among them a promise to "inherit the tradition of the Unification Church and pass its proud tradition down to future generations of Unification families and to all mankind."

The specific nature of the pledges, and the large number of church couples marrying, made Moon's controversial church the focal point of what had been aggressively promoted as an interfaith marriage rededication gathering to encourage God-centered families.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan joined the Moons and representatives of several other religious faiths in offering blessings to all the couples in the stadium, which for yesterday's ceremony had a seating capacity of 52,000 and appeared to be about three-fourths filled. Pop star Whitney Houston, who was supposed to sing at the event, backed out at the last minute, saying she was ill.

Church and stadium officials estimated that more than 40,000 people, mostly couples, attended the event, including the Moon-matched couples who took their marriage vows on the football field and exchanged gold rings displaying the church symbol. Those couples, however, must still fulfill whatever requirements exist where they live to be considered legally married.

Yesterday's pledges, with their specific references to the Unification Church, differed from the pledges printed in glossy brochures promoting the ceremony. Those vows called on couples to "rededicate our marriage to God," love each other truly, never divorce and teach children sexual purity before marriage.

Church officials said they were happy with the turnout, particularly considering yesterday's cold, cloudy weather. They claimed 3.6 million couples participated in the ceremony via a worldwide satellite hookup but conceded they could not verify that number.

Most of those at RFK yesterday seemed to be Moon supporters, including many who came from overseas, some at church expense. Many others, however, said they had come to the event not knowing -- or not caring -- that it was organized by Moon and his church.

Houston, who was supposed to collect about $1 million for a 45-minute concert, sent word two hours before her scheduled appearance that she was ill, according to festival organizers.

"Her band is here; her publicist is here," said an exasperated Lavonia Perryman, a publicist for the event.

Organizers waited until after the fireworks show that concluded the program to tell the crowd that Houston wasn't coming. Cornelia Budd, 33, of Silver Spring, said the promised concert was the reason she attended the event but that she enjoyed the day nonetheless.

"I've never seen anything like this," exclaimed Budd, who said church members came to her house last week and gave her the $40-a-couple tickets when she said she couldn't afford them.

"Blessing '97" was the main event in the week-long, Moon-sponsored World Culture and Sports Festival III, intended to raise the profile of his Unification Church, which some have called a cult, by drawing on a "family values" theme popular among many Americans.

Large groups of Japanese and Korean church members, most of whom arrived by chartered buses and spoke little English, said they had come to the United States just for the RFK event.

In the lines of people passing through the turnstiles were hundreds of female church members decked out in lacy bridal gowns, veils and white gloves and carrying fresh flowers.

There were, as expected, some last-minute butterflies, since most couples met for the first time only a few weeks ago. An Asian couple were seen talking earnestly, the woman apparently having last-minute qualms. They were guided into a tent after asking for counseling, a church member said.

For others, it was a wedding with no spouse since their intendeds were far away. Framed pictures of their betrothed had to suffice.

Michelle Myers, 23, was matched by church officials two weeks ago to a church member in Moscow. He could not get a visa in time for the ceremony, but she was there just the same in her white gown.

"I brought my cell phone. I'm going to call him as soon as it's over," she said.

Although the Moons have no legal powers to marry couples, most church members said they considered the ceremony their "spiritual wedding." Some couples showed strong emotions during the ceremony, crying at times.

One groom fainted but declined D.C. paramedics' offer to take him to a hospital, saying he did not want to miss the ceremony.

D.C. police said there were only two incidents at the stadium, one arrest for simple assault and a reported theft from a tour bus.

Mike Ashtari, of Falls Church, who runs Mike's Cafe, brought his wife, Mitra, their two children and his wife's mother, paying $70 for five tickets. The Ashtaris, who are Muslims and originally from Iran, said their marriage had been "blessed" by the Unification Church six months ago.

"It's a great idea: Save the family," Mitra Ashtari said.

Then there were Yolanta and Endret Bortner. She is Polish; he is French. They live in Monaco, are Roman Catholic and have been married, he said, "exactly 10 years."

The couple, she beaming in a long white gown, veil and fur shawl, he dressed in a morning suit, were flown to Washington, all expenses paid, by the church, because, Bortner said, "they find that we are a very, very fine couple."

With festival organizers aiming to fill the stadium, the price of "Blessing '97" tickets dropped gradually from an initial $35 each to the point in recent days where church members were distributing them free.

But David Anderson, 62, of Northeast Washington, who showed up at RFK at 9:30 a.m. yesterday and tried to get a refund on two tickets he bought at a senior citizen center for $20 each, had no luck. Instead, he was given two white tote bags and box lunches.

"Can't win 'em all," said Anderson, who has been married since 1969.

When the wedding and blessing portion of the program ended, Sun Myung Moon and Hak Ja Han Moon sat regally on two thrones and were given two large bouquets and a trophy. Neil Salonen, a church official who served as master of ceremonies, asked those assembled to thank the Moons, as is the Asian custom, by bowing to the couple, and most stadium attendees tilted at the waist.

Joyous brides and smiling grooms then acted like young newly marrieds anywhere, posing endlessly for photographs with new spouses and friends. Later, during three hours of entertainment, the couples jumped to their feet to dance and clap to the music.

After the official marriage blessing, couples settled onto the grass to eat gourmet box lunches, 40,000 of which had been ordered from Windows Catering of Alexandria. Each box had breast of capon, rice and red beans, carrot and apple salad and a piece of cake. Windows' owner, Henry Dinardo, also served a sit-down lunch for VIPS who sat on a six-tiered stage built for the event.

Festival officials, in announcing that Houston would not be performing, said they wished her good health. Singer Dionne Warwick, Houston's aunt, introduced other acts, including singer Jon Secada, the Korean rock group Cho Yong-Pil and the District's Eastern Senior High School marching band.

Yesterday's event also drew seven anti-Moon protesters who arrived early and stationed themselves outside the stadium. Led by former Unification Church member Steve Hassan, of Boston, the group chanted and waved posters reading, "Moon Esta Loco" and "The Wedding Is a Sham."

The Rev. Phillip D. Shanker, a senior Unification Church official in Washington, walked over to the group and held out his hand.

"You're Steve Hassan? I've always wanted to meet you!" said Shanker, as he and Hassan shook hands. Shanker said he objected to protesters calling the church "a brainwashed community," adding that this description did not fit his 25-year experience with the organization.

One protester shoved an anti-Moon leaflet into Shanker's hands, and others began shouting, drowning out his voice.

"One at a time," Hassan yelled. He then proposed a public debate between himself and Shanker, who took Hassan's card and promised to call.

"He won't call. They never do," Hassan said.

Marching around outside the stadium by herself, Margaret Cantrell, 34, of Washington, said she was protesting the church's "homophobia." The teacher held up a cardboard sign that said, "Gays, lesbians, bis, love our family too. Reject Unification Church homophobia."

The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, a former D.C. delegate to Congress who had earlier said he would attend "Blessing '97" and was listed several days ago as one of the participating clergy members, did not attend yesterday. Neither did Mayor Marion Barry (D), who had earlier been one of the announced attendees.

Raymone Bain, a Barry spokeswoman, said the mayor had turned down the offer to appear at the church event "some time ago. I never saw it on his schedule. I would have known if he had ever intended to be there."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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