The Rev. Moon has opened an unexpected front in his struggle to win a broader audience for his messianic pretensions: African-American churches and their preachers
By Ron Russell
Although largely ignored by the news media, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s visit to San Francisco last September to speak to 2,000 enraptured followers gathered in a Hilton hotel ballroom near Union Square was of no little consequence to the self-proclaimed Messiah and founder of the Unification Church.
In town to promote his audacious goal to build a $200 billion Peace King Tunnel across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia (the Peace King being Moon), the 86-year-old spiritual patriarch spoke for nearly 45 minutes in what his followers portrayed as a rip-roaring success. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house.
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Prominently occupying one of those seats was none other than former San Francisco Supervisor Amos Brown, pastor of the landmark Third Baptist Church in the Western Addition and a member of the city’s Housing Authority Commission. Brown was among the featured speakers, along with former Republican Congressman Matt Salmon, the current head of the Arizona GOP.
Brown, the outspoken Baptist minister and political gadfly, was even chosen by the event’s Unification Church organizers to present the charismatic Moon (referred to by his followers as “True Father”) and his wife (referred to as “True Mother”) with a trophy commemorating the couple’s worldwide speaking tour.
At first glance, the high-profile African-American preacher (who is president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP) and the Korean-born founder of a religious movement often derided as a cult would appear to have little in common. Moon, who claims to have met Jesus on a mountain in Korea in 1935, has openly proclaimed himself the Messiah commissioned to complete Jesus’ mission to restore humankind. He professes to have spoken in the spirit world with all deceased U.S. presidents, as well as other past world leaders, including Hitler and Stalin, who he says have come to accept his Messianic mission.
And yet Brown is at the forefront of a little-known U.S. campaign by Moon, the megawealthy and ultraconservative benefactor of Republican candidates and causes, to make inroads among black American church leaders. Through the American Clergy Leadership Conference, an entity formed five years ago, Moon has opened an unexpected front in his decades-old struggle to win a broader audience for his professed Messiahship and a religion that blends elements of Christianity with mysticism.
Most notably, as a way to encourage involvement in the ACLC, Moon has lavished preachers and their wives with all-expenses-paid trips to such places as Israel, South Korea, and Hawaii, even paying for shopping.
More influential ministers, including Brown — who is the ACLC’s co-chairman for Northern California — and the Rev. Walter R. Johnson, a prominent black Methodist clergyman in suburban Los Angeles, have not only traveled on Moon junkets abroad but have also turned up at banquets and other events in Moon’s honor in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Last year, Brown gave a videotaped interview in praise of Moon that the Unification Church uses to promote Moon’s credibility in the African-American religious community. He also helped arrange a private meeting between top Unification Church officials and former President Bill Clinton, with whom he has long had close ties.
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Brown insists his involvement with Moon stems from a common interest in promoting world peace and assisting the poor and says it does not signal agreement with Moon’s theology. “I see no reason to put Rev. Moon’s teachings under a microscope … I don’t want to get into a skunk fight over what he believes. My interest is in world peace and helping others, and if you look around he’s one of the few people out there who is actually doing something about those things.”
But for all its pretensions as an interdenominational association to foster peace and harmony, the ACLC also has exhibited a distinctly Moon-ish theological agenda. According to a prominent Unification Church official, dozens of ministers across the country associated with the group have heeded Moon’s call to take down the cross from their churches and replace it with the crown, the symbol adopted by Moon as the self-professed Peace King.
Some of those ministers, although apparently none in the Bay Area, have begun to teach Moon’s sacred writings, known as the Divine Principle, from the pulpit. But the Rev. Levy Daugherty, a vice president of the Unification Church, disputes accusations by Moon’s critics that the wealthy spiritual leader has given away gold watches and other gifts to ministers in return for their jettisoning the cross. “Those who appreciate Rev. Moon have acted on their own accord. They aren’t being bought with jewelry or travel or anything else.”
Regardless, the ACLC’s efforts to exert influence in the clergy community are relentless.
“I’m constantly getting invitations to attend their events and go on their trips,” says the Rev. Cordell Hawkins, an assistant pastor at Double Rock Baptist Church in the Bayview whose day job is as director of special programs for San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris. “They don’t easily take no for an answer.”
The ACLC’s main man in San Francisco is no stranger to controversy. In 1984, the outspoken Brown — whose church, founded in 1852, claims to be the oldest black Baptist church in the west — was kicked out of a statewide group of Baptist ministers after he ordained a woman as an associate pastor. And both before and after his often bombastic four-year stint as a supervisor, he has been a political lightning rod, whether defending his former patron, ex-Mayor Willie Brown (no relation); railing against the Iraq War; or more recently tearing into critics of outgoing San Francisco school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
In 2001, Brown suggested to mourners assembled at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that the U.S. government was partly to blame for the attacks due to its failure to pursue peace in the Middle East. The remarks, delivered at a memorial service for 9/11 victims, prompted both U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and then-Gov. Gray Davis, who were sharing the stage with Brown, to get up and leave.
But the speech was significant for another reason. As Brown acknowledges, his “call to peace” that day drew the attention of Moon’s followers. Moon’s organization presented him with an Ambassador for Peace Award and invited him to speak at its gatherings in the Bay Area. (The Unification Church’s formal name, since the mid-1990s, is the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.)
When Brown assumed the ACLC co-chairmanship, along with a member of the Unification Church, it provided the group with a marquee name that resonated among black ministers. He sits on the ACLC’s executive committee for the Bay Area and is a fixture at its frequent “faith breakfasts” and other receptions at which traditional clergy, many of them African-American, are routinely among the invited guests. “Dr. Brown is doing exceptional work [with the ACLC], and I’m pleased to be part of it,” says the Rev. Victor Madearis, senior pastor of Double Rock Baptist Church.
Since assuming the role, Brown, who says he isn’t paid for his ACLC-related work, has attended Moon-sponsored events throughout the country, including a controversial 2004 ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., at which Moon was crowned as the world’s Peace King. Brown says he has met with Moon “two or three times” and has gone on Moon-sponsored pilgrimages to South Korea, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
The former supervisor, appointed by then-Mayor Willie Brown in 1996 and defeated in the 2000 election by Gerardo Sandoval, says Moon’s “message of peace and his helping the poor” meshes well with Third Baptist’s own charitable endeavors. The church has for years helped resettle immigrants from war-torn Sudan and has helped bring dozens of African children with special medical needs to the United States for treatment. However, Brown says, Third Baptist receives no financial assistance from Moon. “He [Moon] is doing a lot of things to help poor people around the world, and I’ve made it clear [to Moon’s representatives] that I would like to see them extend their interest to Africa or they probably wouldn’t see a lot of me,” Brown says.
Although preferring not to discuss Moon’s theology, Brown is quick to disavow what he calls Moon’s “homophobic” statements toward gays and lesbians, whom Moon once castigated in a 1997 speech as “dung-eating dogs.” And despite his prominent place within the Moon clergy outreach group, he insists that “there’s no effort on my part to make converts for Rev. Moon.”
Yet, at other times, Brown has sounded a different tone.
In the videotaped interview produced by the Unification Church, Brown can be heard expressing his commitment to “Father Moon’s mission” and comparing Moon to Jesus and the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We must think for ourselves and get to know Father Moon and not view him as that ‘cult leader,'” Brown says. In the interview, conducted in August of last year at the Unification Church’s offices in Washington, D.C., Brown calls Moon “a balanced leader” and “a prophet who speaks truth to power on the issue of world peace. … We must see this good thing that he represents. The only way you can see that good thing is to take the time to get to know the person and really study the movement.”
Reporting on an ACLC event in San Leandro last year, a Unification Church newsletter quoted Brown as saying, “I have no problem with Rev. Moon being the messiah. He’s living it! We’re all supposed to be messiahs.” (Brown tells SF Weekly that his remarks weren’t meant to infer that he regards Moon on an equal basis with “Jesus as the Messiah,” even if some of Moon’s followers may not have appreciated the distinction.)
Meanwhile, the Moon camp clearly considers Brown’s involvement a coup. In a report about an ACLC-sponsored event attended by Brown after he joined the group, the Rev. Kevin Thompson of the Bay Area Family Church, Moon’s worship center in the East Bay, compared Brown’s coming aboard, metaphorically, to the group’s having landed a large sea bass. Wrote Thompson, “Everyone felt that we caught a big fish so we could catch a ‘big fish,’ Rev. Amos Brown.”
If Moon’s American Clergy Leadership Conference sounds phonetically similar to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — the iconic civil rights group organized by Martin Luther King Jr. — it’s no coincidence. Neither is it unusual that Moon should try to make inroads among African-American clergy. In the early ’80s, when Moon was convicted and jailed for income tax fraud, black ministers and civil rights leaders associated with the SCLC, including the Rev. Walter Fauntroy and the late Dr. Ralph Abernathy, were among the first to decry the charges against him as being racially motivated.
As a result, there has long been an affinity between Moon and the black civil rights establishment, stretching back to the days when the so-called Moonies were mostly flower-selling young seekers fleeing the conformity of middle-class life. (Fauntroy, who formerly served as the District of Columbia’s representative to Congress, is active in the ACLC on the East Coast.)
Even as his Messianic message failed to gain traction in mainstream society, Moon never dropped his efforts to woo African-Americans, whose struggle for acceptance he equates with his own, says David Bromley, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of Moonies in America. “He has very patiently reached out to African-Americans through the religious community, and if some [ministers] respond to his Messianic message, I’m sure that’s all to the better,” Bromley says.
But evidence suggests the effort has been slow.
Although the ACLC claims 20,000 members nationwide, that figure includes anyone who has ever attended one of the group’s events, acknowledges Levy Daugherty, the only top-level African-American in the Unification Church. The ACLC’s dues-paying membership is closer to 2,000, says Daugherty, a one-time Pentecostal preacher who also holds title as the ACLC’s general secretary.
In the Bay Area, where hundreds of people are said to have attended the group’s events, only a handful of African-American clergy are actively involved, despite the efforts of Brown to drum up enthusiasm. “A lot of them [fellow ministers] don’t want to have anything to do with it,” Brown acknowledges. “People tend to be afraid of what they don’t know.”
Yet here, as elsewhere, the ACLC’s failure to flourish isn’t for lack of Moon’s exceptional generosity, or, as some might suggest, largess.
Ministers who’ve become involved with the ACLC, including those who express only casual interest, have routinely been invited to travel on all-expenses-paid “peace pilgrimages” — courtesy of True Father — to Moon’s native Korea, Europe, Israel, and the South Pacific. “There’s nothing about these trips that isn’t first class,” says Bishop Lamar Gibson, 70, a retired pastor of the Church of the Living God in Oakland. Gibson has been on Moon-sponsored junkets to New York, Washington, D.C., South Korea, England, and the Middle East. On a trip to Israel, which he fondly refers to as his “vacation of a lifetime,” he and the other ministers traveled on a deluxe tour bus to such biblical sites as the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the Old City of Jerusalem, all on Moon’s tab.
“They don’t expect anything from you except maybe to attend a session where they explain what Rev. Moon stands for,” he says, adding, “but I’ve never met [another minister] who became convinced that Moon was the Messiah because of it.”
So why go on the pilgrimages?
“Well, if someone is offering you a trip like that, it’s hard to turn it down.”
Daugherty, the Unification Church official, says that the trips are an integral part of Moon’s outreach to ministers of other religions, and that while “a certain amount of freeloading takes place,” Moon has a long perspective. “You know the outstanding thing about the Rev. Moon? He isn’t upset about [the freeloading]. His view is that it’s not for him to judge. What’s important is that these ministers allow themselves to be exposed to what he is teaching. He realizes that not everyone will accept it immediately.”
Something similar might be said of the ACLC’s perhaps most controversial theological initiative: its attempt to persuade ministers to remove the cross from their churches and replace it with the crown. Despite the cross’ symbolic importance for many Christians, who consider it to be the instrument upon which Jesus was crucified, Moon teaches that it is illogical to venerate a murder weapon. Some clergy, such as Dr. Bennet Hayes, the pastor of a large church in Houston that is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention — and who teaches Moon’s Divine Principle from his pulpit — have no problem with the edict. “Not only do I no longer have a cross in the sanctuary, I’ve told my parishioners who wear crosses to turn them in to me,” he says. “I’ve got a whole drawer full of them.”
As part of a “Tear Down the Cross” campaign, dozens of ACLC ministers answered Moon’s call to get rid of the cross during Easter 2003, Daugherty says. Since then, he confides, the effort “hasn’t gone over as well,” with some preachers who removed crosses later bowing to pressure to put them back up. “It’s not easy. A lot of these ministers have come into religion under the dogma of the cross. Removing one is almost like blasphemy. The ministers themselves are pretty hip to it, but their congregations aren’t, and they’re the ones who pay the bills.”
The issue is one Amos Brown hasn’t faced.
Although there is a large crucifix atop the stand-alone bell tower of his beloved Third Baptist Church, Brown ordered the cross that once adorned the church sanctuary to be taken down years ago after objecting to the white Jesus affixed to it. “That,” he says, “was long before I ever had anything to do with Rev. Moon.”
Moon’s determined, if less than triumphant, effort to penetrate the black religious community here should come as no surprise, considering that San Francisco has long held a special place in the Korean-born religious leader’s dogma. It was in San Francisco, on his inaugural trip to the United States in 1965, that Moon first established “holy ground,” a small plot of rocky soil atop Twin Peaks. He even designated new names for his followers to use in referring to the landmark mountain: “Mother’s Peak” and “Father’s Peak,” the latter — the taller one — being a short hike from a popular scenic overlook that offers expansive views of the city and bay.
“It is Heavenly Father’s own sanctified spot, a place where you can come to pray and not be bothered by Satan, a place that is restored,” a Unification Church account of the solemn event quotes Moon as declaring. According to the account, Moon took several followers to Twin Peaks on a cold February morning, his second day in the United States.
Four of them were instructed to form a square 10 feet by 10 feet, and Moon “walked slowly and prayerfully” around the area three times, scattering “holy salt” brought with him from Korea.
It was the first of 62 “holy ground” sites Moon consecrated during a whirlwind cross-country car trip that lasted 40 days. He designated one such site in each of the 48 mainland states. California got four, including one halfway up Mount Whitney (the state’s tallest peak); in Death Valley (its lowest elevation); and in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, overlooking Hollywood.
But Twin Peaks was, and remains, special. For years, Moon’s followers have traveled there to pray, meditate, and have their pictures taken. Moon took time out from his 1993 U.S. speaking tour to return to the mountain. The Rev. Michael Jenkins, the Unification Church president, who did not respond to an interview request for this article, wrote last year that Moon views Twin Peaks as “the breasts of a mother” and the bay as representing “the mother’s womb,” from which the charismatic Moon expects a “new birth of believers” to emerge. Jenkins referred to San Francisco as “a place that gave birth to our movement.”
“I can remember us piling into a van and getting up to Twin Peaks at 4 in the morning to pray and greet the sun,” recalls Patt Monderer, who spent four years as a self-described Moonie fresh out of college, including a stint at a Moon commune in Boonville, before leaving the group in 1976. At the time, Moon enjoyed success enlisting young people, some of whose frantic relatives, along with other critics of the movement, insisted they were the victims of mind control. The Bay Area was a locus of the movement. Moon maintained communal houses in the Haight (his followers even operated a gas station off Market Street) and in Berkeley, next to the UC campus.
Moon founded the Unification Church in 1954 (its original name was Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity). His movement was largely unknown in the United States until the 1970s, when he declared that God had instructed him to turn his attention to America. He made headlines by presiding over mass weddings of his followers in the ’70s and ’80s, and on the political side by urging Americans to forgive President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. He later ascribed his IRS troubles, which landed him an 18-month sentence in a federal penitentiary for evading more than $160,000 in taxes, to political payback for befriending Nixon.
In 1982, the same year he got out of jail, Moon founded the Washington Times newspaper, which, along with Fox News and radio talk shows, has become a potent force among conservative media in the nation’s capital. In 2001, through New World Communications, the same entity that controls the Washington Times, Moon also acquired United Press International. Another Moon entity, Professors World Peace Academy, controls the private University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. As Moon’s support for the conservative political agenda has grown, and his movement has gained more mainstream acceptance, white evangelicals, who were once among his fiercest detractors, have become more tolerant toward the movement. Moon has even donated $3.5 million to the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
The Unification Church’s Daugherty says that Moon’s idea for a 52-mile-long tunnel and bridge across the Bering Strait would need to be a joint effort among the United States, Russia, and private donors, including perhaps “oil companies,” if the tunnel could also be used to move petroleum products between the two nations. The idea behind the project is to open a passage between North America and Asia, both literally and figuratively, and in the process provide a monumental legacy befitting a man who sees himself as a modern-day Christ. Daugherty says that a “working group” of Moon supporters is examining how to advance the project and that a “group of millionaires” among Moon’s followers has pledged money to the effort. Thus far, there’s no discernible governmental interest in the idea. “He [Moon] has said he plans to live to be 100, and he intends to see the Peace King Tunnel built in his lifetime,” Daugherty says. “He’s serious about it.”
The most controversy surrounding Moon involves his teachings, especially his claim to be the Messiah. The Moon theology doesn’t deny Jesus’ role in Christian belief as the Messiah, or savior, sent to Earth to redeem mankind from sin. But, according to Moon, that mission could have only been successful had Jesus married and begot children through whom the human race could have been lifted up. He reserves that role for himself, thus the title of True Father and, for Mrs. Moon, True Mother.
Moon formally proclaimed himself the Messiah in 1992. At that time, he declared himself and his second wife, Hak Ja Han (whom he married when she was 17 and who bore him 14 children), to be “the Messiah and True Parents of all humanity.” He has never retreated from the claim, making his proselytizing aimed at religiously orthodox — not to mention traditionally liberal and Democratic — black ministers seem all the more incongruous.
However, David Bromley, the sociologist, isn’t fazed.
“Moon is a classic charismatic figure who sincerely believes in his Messianic mission,” he says. “As such, he’s shown an interest in reaching out to any group that will listen. Whether or not they accept him, in his mind he’s fulfilled his obligation.”
Integral to Moon’s outreach is something called the Ambassador for Peace Award, which Moon’s followers bestow generously as a way of inducing ministers, politicians, and other high-profile individuals who might not otherwise link themselves with Moon to attend his functions. “When someone says they want to recognize the good work you’ve done in the community, you don’t usually ask questions about their motives,” says Matt Jimenez, a longtime Hayward city councilman who was among the Ambassadors for Peace honored at the big San Francisco gala last September.
In a glowing communique’ filled with praise for True Father and touting the event as an “overwhelming success,” Michael Jenkins, the Unification Church president, referred to Jimenez and about a dozen other award recipients as “receiving appointments” as Ambassadors for Peace. “An appointment? I don’t know what they mean by that,” says Jimenez, adding that before attending the Hilton event he had no idea that the Unification Church was even connected with it.
Jenkins’ recap of the event, posted on the church’s Web site, asserted that “a special presentation was made to Dr. Charles Townes,” the renowned UC Berkeley physicist and Nobel laureate famous for his work in helping develop the laser. “For health reasons he couldn’t attend that evening but was grateful to receive his appointment.” However, when contacted by SF Weekly, Townes chuckled when asked about the “appointment,” saying that he neither knew about nor was interested in Moon’s organization and only “vaguely” recalled “being sent something in the mail about some kind of peace award.”
As with the ACLC’s pitch to ministers, Moon-sponsored events seem to follow a familiar pattern — with at least some invited guests not realizing until after they arrive that they’re attending an event primarily meant for True Father’s adoration.
Perhaps the most notable such occasion was the Capitol Hill gathering in 2004, at which at least two U.S. senators and a half-dozen members of Congress later complained of being blindsided. After showing up for an Ambassadors for Peace event at which some of their constituents were to be honored, the elected officials were treated to a coronation ceremony for Moon and his wife, complete with long robes, jeweled crowns, and the triumphant blowing of a ram’s horn to announce Moon’s entry. (The event went unreported in mainstream media for several weeks until San Francisco freelance journalist John Gorenfeld, who has written frequently about Moon, broke the story.)
After seeing what was happening, elected officials and congressional staffers alike began heading for the exits. Those unable to get out in time heard Moon proclaim himself to be “God’s ambassador” sent “to accomplish His command to save the world’s six billion people.” He then told of having spoken with many of the world’s now-dead rulers in the spirit realm and disclosed that Hitler and Stalin, among others, had come around to his thinking.
“Would I like to take that one back? Oh, yes,” says Congressman Danny Davis (D-Chicago), who came in for ridicule for holding Moon’s crown that day. Davis, a deacon in his Chicago-area Methodist church, says he became involved with Moon through clergy friends in the ACLC. “In my mind, I saw the ceremony as merely a sign of respect, and no more significant than if I were asked to crown a homecoming queen,” the congressman says. He has broken ties with the ACLC and all other Moon groups. “I wish them well, but quite frankly, I don’t have time for the [political] headache it’s caused me,” he says.
Amos Brown, who also attended the “coronation” that day, isn’t wavering.
“Rev. Moon is the victim of a double standard,” he says. “Some folks deify the pope and others deify Billy Graham. But you don’t see a lot of people shaking their heads over that.”
Originally published by SF Weekly 2006-02-22.
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