Growing up under the influence of one of the world's most infamous religious cults


Jack Stromberg

Senior Noah Smith holds up a photo of Sun Myung Moon, known by his followers as "True Father," and his wife

It’s no understatement to say that our school is the textbook definition of a “melting pot;” it’s home to nearly 2,000 students, all with unique ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds. However, there is a rather unique upbringing shared by just two students (whose names have been changed as they wish to remain anonymous); growing up in the Unification Church, also sometimes referred to as “The Moon Cult.”

“The sermons are just like any other church’s sermons,” senior Noah Smith said. “It’s literally the same thing, except they have this underlying goal of taking over the world, you know? But besides that, it’s pretty normal.”

Smith says the religion is run very similarly to other denominations.

“Basically, the way it works is there’s the upper echelon, and there are normal congregation members,” Smith said. “And the normal members listen to whatever the upper echelon says.”

Smith said his parents took him to church since infancy and that he spent a lot of time there as a child.

“My earliest memory is looking under the rocks on the front sidewalk, trying to get worms and stuff,” Smith said. “We would always go out to the front and look under these bricks, and just grab whatever bugs we could find, and put them in cups, and just keep them.”

Smith’s church is located in Warren, and he says he has many fond memories of shenanigans he and his friends would engage in while there.

“My church is on a big plot of land and there’s a giant backyard,” Smith said. “There’s a metal scrapyard on the other side of the fence. We’d go over there illegally and steal [stuff] that we thought was cool, and then build forts out of it. Then we would create two opposing forts and get really cool sticks and pretend to fight with them.”

While they liked to make trouble, Smith said it would get out of hand at times.

“We’d always light fires, like behind bushes at the park,” Smith said. “Sometimes, they’d get way too smokey, and then random people from around the neighborhood would show up, and we’d have to run out of there as fast as we could.”

However, Smith is not the only student to have spent time at the church as a kid. Senior George Brown grew up with the church as well and is a close childhood friend of Smith’s.

“I hated going to church,” Brown said. “The Sunday school we had was awful. I didn’t learn anything. I honestly didn’t pick up anything in the whole 10 years I went there.”

Brown said that while he didn’t enjoy the church itself, he’s thankful for the group of friends he made through it.

“I never really knew what was going on in the church,” Brown said. “I just went there for my group of friends. I’m still really close with them now. I couldn’t care less what happened with the actual church.”

While as kids, Smith and Brown thought their religion was just like any other Christian-based church, it wasn’t exactly so; their religion had been founded by, and was largely centered around, a man by the name of Sun Myung Moon, hence the nickname “Moon Cult.”

“He went through some really messed up stuff growing up,” Smith said. “He was sent to prison. I think it might’ve been because he was preaching in Korea at the time. While he was in prison, he wrote this book called ‘The Divine Principle,’ and that became the foundation for the religion. So he just kind of kept gaining a following, and as that happened, it just kept growing and growing. It began to spread to other countries.”

Not only did Moon create the Unification Church, but he made himself the key component of it.

“Basically, Sun Myung Moon is considered True Father,” Smith said. “He is supposed to be the next Messiah.”

Aside from everyday church activities and events, Smith and Brown attended annual summer camps sanctioned by the church out of state.

“Just like the sermons, they were pretty much the same as any other church’s summer camps,” Smith said. “We went to this property owned by one of the church’s members, that I actually know pretty well. You do some fun activities, you go to like a lecture hall for a sermon… It’s the same stuff.”

Brown said the name of the camp was rather extravagant.

“The camp was called Camp KOHOE,” Brown said. “That stands for ‘Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.’”

Smith said that his friend group’s reputation for mischief at their local church followed them to the summer camps as well.

“The kids from Michigan were always outcast from the other states’ churches,” Smith said. “Whenever something bad happened, it would be blamed on us. It was probably us, but still.”

Brown said that it seemed as though they were always using Moon as an example of how they should behave.

“There were these really low-quality toilets, and if you used too much toilet paper they would clog,” Brown said. “So to get us to use less, they would tell us about how when True Father was in prison, he would only use one sheet of toilet paper, and just fold it like a million times.”

In addition, Brown says the children were told stories of how benevolent and heroic Moon was.

“They’d also tell us about how when True Father was in prison, he would give out half his share of food to all the other prisoners,” Brown said. “They try to make it sound like he’s some heavenly being or something.”

Brown recalls one activity during the camps that stands out to him today as being very out of the ordinary, but at the time seemed very run-of-the-mill.

“We would do this thing where we woke up at like, 6 a.m., every day, and we would read lines from the Divine Principle,” Brown said. “And while we read, we would bow to a portrait of [Moon] for like 30 minutes.”

This was all years ago; back when Moon was still alive. Moon passed away in  September 2012.

“That caused a huge uproar,” Smith said. “Everybody was like, ‘This man is gonna be the next oldest man alive, he’s never gonna die.’ He ended up dying of a lung problem. The doctors think it was because he got coal in his lungs while he was in prison.”

Moon’s death not only shocked his disciples, but created turmoil within the higher ranks of the church.

“There’s recently been a split between the church,” Smith said. “There’s the Unification Church, and the new one, the Sanctuary Church.”

Smith said that the newly-founded Sanctuary Church has a very militant and aggressive attitude toward the dispute.

“The Sanctuary Church, because it broke off from the actual church, wants to take over,” Smith said. “They’re super pro-gun. They’ve threatened to kill True Mother (Moon’s now widowed wife), who took over after he died. In fact, that’s why the church split.”

Smith believes Moon’s desire to continue his legacy is largely to blame for the conflict.

“[Moon] has 16 kids,” Smith said. “The reason he had so many children is because he wanted to spread his seed.”

The conflict first arose when Moon died. There quickly arose a disagreement over who would be his successor.

“A few of the sons that were thought to potentially be the next heir are fighting over who gets it,” Smith said. “That’s why they split off.”

Smith said he believes the conflict is slowing down but is not yet over.

“True Mother has pretty much made a decision on who she wants to succeed her, but the Sanctuary Church is still there,” Smith said.

Smith says that while many believe the Sanctuary Church is bluffing if violence were to arise, they would be a force to be reckoned with.

“A lot of people actually moved over to the Sanctuary Church, so it’s a pretty even match,” Smith said.

Nonetheless, Smith is not very concerned about either of the churches’ safety.

“I doubt there’s actually gonna be violence that springs from it,” Smith said. “It’s just stupid. It’s all going to be over once someone is chosen. Once someone is chosen, everyone’s gonna be like, ‘let’s follow him now.’”

The story of Smith’s involvement in the Unification Church starts decades ago, before his birth; back when his parents joined the church as young adults, living on opposite ends of the world.

“My mom was living a super ordinary life in Japan, and my dad was starting to live a super ordinary life in America,” Smith said. “They both just found the church and were strangely enticed by it. They both decided to join, and they both had their own experiences.”

Smith said his father became very involved in the religion and made a life-changing decision.

“My dad moved to Korea and lived there for like six years,” Smith said. “While there, he went to this thing where people get blessed and matched to random people.”

While the Unification Church has recently become infamous for its “mass wedding” ceremonies, where thousands of couples are wed simultaneously, Smith said the process his parents went through was not the same as this one.

“It’s kind of like that, but you don’t pick and marry at the exact same time,” Smith said.

Smith believes both his parents took a big leap of faith by participating in this marriage process.

“They had never met before,” Smith said. “And prior to being wed, all they did was send pictures to each other. They had never spoken before or anything. Not that they could, because they didn’t speak the same language.”

A few years after being matched by the Unification Church, Smith’s mother moved to America to marry his father.

“First they had my brother, and then three years later they had me,” Smith said. “Basically, I’m like a product of the religion, you could say.”

Brown said he was aware of this process while growing up within the church, but didn’t really understand the finer details of it.

“I thought it was kinda normal, you know?” Brown said. “When they talked about the arranged marriage stuff… I was dumb, dude. I thought that marriage process was normal.”

While Brown said his parents underwent a similar process to Smith’s, he is unsure what the exact circumstances were.

“I never bothered to ask,” Brown said. “I didn’t realize this stuff was messed up until  maybe four years ago, so I’ve never gone out of my way to ask about that.”

While going to church was a significant part of Smith and Brown’s childhood, as they’ve gotten older they’ve attended less and less frequently. Now, it’s been a long time since they attended any church function.

“Over time, everybody just started leaving the church,” Brown said.” Everyone just stopped showing up, and I was like, ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’”

Brown said he consulted with some of his friends from the church, many of whom were older.

“I talked to the people I was close with after they stopped going, and they were like, ‘Dude, it’s just a money-hungry cult,’” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds about right.’”

Money-hungry is a term that is frequently used when describing the Unification Church. Smith does not deny these claims and said he believes one of the church’s most prominent underlying goals is profit.

“I would say that [Moon] was, before anything else, a businessman,” Smith said. “He owned so many businesses and food chains in Korea, it’s crazy. I’m not sure if he was a billionaire, but he was definitely a hundred-millionaire. It’s pretty crazy. You can find products here that are made by [his companies].”

However, Smith isn’t sure if he condemns the church for these intentions.

“I wouldn’t even call that corruption, really,” Smith said. “It’s just making some money, you know what I’m saying? That’s fine and all.”

On the other hand, Smith does understand why it could be seen as immoral.

“I think it is pretty corrupt to have a following of people who think you’re the next Messiah and believe in you religiously, but then be like, ‘Hey, go buy this soda I just came out with,’” Smith said.

While Smith believes Moon sought profits in creating his religion, he does not believe he was solely a con-artist; he thinks Moon really did think he was the living embodiment of God.

“I think he had to have,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s something you can fake for that long.”

Whether Moon was the second coming of Christ or not, Smith said there were definitely strange things going on in his head.

“He really had voices in his head,” Smith said. “I don’t know what that was, but he definitely had some voices in his head telling him some stuff.”

Smith, Brown and many of their peers having grown up in the religion, have come to realize its faults and illegitimacies. Regardless, the church still perseveres to this day, maintaining and even expanding its number of followers through recruitment programs.

“They have this thing called Generation Peace Academy,” Brown said. “My older brother is doing it right now. You essentially pay the church money so you can fundraise for them. My brother is trying to get me into it. I think that’s their main way of recruiting. Trying to get young people into that garbage.”

While Smith has never truly had faith in the Unification Church, he does not condemn the concept of faith itself; in fact, he encourages it.

“I’m not religious,” Smith said. “But I don’t think religion is [bad]. It helps whoever it helps. If someone can gain from being religious, then they should be religious, and that’s great for them.”

Despite Smith’s optimism regarding the potential benefits of spirituality, he himself does not identify with the Unification Church, nor any other denomination.

“I don’t buy into it any more than I buy into any other religion,” Smith said. “I’m not gonna be religious just because my parents are religious.”

Regardless of the role religion has played in his life, Smith does not feel inclined to return the favor and dedicate himself to the church.

“I exist because my parents were matched randomly by the church,” Smith said. “That’s just weird to think about. You could say I owe the church my life, but I don’t care for it at all. It’s literally not a part of my life. I feel no attachment to it.”