Monday, October 22, 2012


Life Without Reverend Moon

Thirty-thousand feet seems like a good altitude at which to question one's life. “I am already in motion,” I tell myself. It's a kind of progress. Shortly after my twentieth birthday I was in progress, between JFK and Heathrow, en route to Oslo.

After takeoff the girl sitting next to me smiled kindly, asking where I was headed. I told her:

“To Norway. To visit my husband.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a stack of glossy women's magazines, offering me several. They promised hot sex tips, orgasm-inducing positions, and advice on how to find a man to orgasm with. She pointed to a few with a wink. “Maybe you can find something nice in there for your husband.”

Today, almost a decade later, to use the word husband feels wrong; I avoid it. But at the time it was what he said I should call him. “I am your husband!” he would say. The word sounded foreign in my ears; "husband" was supposed to be a word attached to “honoring” and “cherishing,” and whatever else heartfelt marriage vows should entail. But I had not been given the choice to say those vows.

My parents were married, along with two thousand other couples, in Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1982. I was the first of five children, and we were all raised as members of the Unification Church's Second Generation, who were thought to be born sinless and of God's Lineage, through the Blessing marriage ceremony officiated by Rev. Moon. Theologically this meant that Rev. Moon, as the purported Messiah, had created a heavenly lineage through his personal perfection, relationship with God, and marriage with (the much-younger) Hak Ja Han, in 1960.

Growing up, I always had the expectation that Rev. Moon would choose my spouse. In the Unification Church, one didn't date. Flirtatious interactions with the opposite sex were severely frowned upon, all activities were separated by gender, and we referred to one another as brother and sister in order to emphasize platonic relations. Sex before marriage was absolutely out of the question. The Church had a word for that: falling. To fall was the greatest sin that could be committed, and it could not be undone. To fall was to enter the realm of Satan, to be cut off from God and to wound His already-suffering heart. 

Perhaps childhood's greatest tragedy is what we learn to normalize. In my upbringing, to question what we were taught was to invite Satan and the evil Spirit World into your mind; to fend off evil, one must quiet the questions and dive further into the readings and teachings of Rev. Moon. Some of the most effective brainwashing was what we had been taught to perpetuate upon ourselves.

At 19 I found myself on a terrifying personal precipice. I was seriously considering leaving the Unification Church, but with no means of supporting myself and no safety net outside of the insular church community, the notion was enough to bring me to panicked tears. Yet I didn't know if I believed Rev. Moon, his world, or his supposed messianic mission. As a reflex, I was ashamed and hated myself for feeling that way.

When word of an administrative opening in the US Second Generation Department reached my family, I was intrigued. What better way was there to understand what this movement was all about than by working for one of the central organizations? So, before making a decision to abandon the culture of my childhood, I climbed into the belly of the beast looking for truth. That’s where I lost my way.

When the Christmas holidays rolled around, I took my miniscule stipend and boarded an Amtrak train home to ponder the nothingness I had found but had not yet accepted. When I arrived home, there was news: after five years of having parents match their children, Rev. Moon was stepping up again, and was going to conduct a matching ceremony for the Second Generation.

My parents sat me down in the bedroom, listing all of the reasons why I should go. Though it was left unspoken, we all knew that at almost 20 years old, my eligibility expiration date was staring me hard in the face. My mother finished with, “If Jesus came to you and said that he had found your perfect spouse, what would you say to him?” She paused for effect. “Now, how much more is Father?

How could I say no? To refuse was to deny the remotest possibility that this man might be who he said that he was. I simply had not gotten there in my journey. Besides, I told myself, it was just a matching. My match and I would have time to get to know each other before deciding to get married.

My biggest mistake was to assume that I would be allowed to exercise free will.

My mother dropped me off at East Garden, one of the Moon family's mansion-compounds in Tarrytown, NY, and I entered into the ballroom of the estate with approximately 10 other nervous young people. For the next several hours, one of the Korean leaders proceeded to lecture us on our unworthiness. That’s when I found out that by the time we left, we were all going to be Blessed to someone.

The panic blossomed. I had to leave and began approaching anyone, even strangers, to ask to borrow their cellphones. Repeated calls home, begging my parents to come pick me up, were answered in the negative.

By the end of the day, the ballroom was packed to capacity. Young people from all over the United States, Asia, and Europe had answered Rev. Moon's call. Late in the evening, Rev. Moon came out to address us through his interpreter. Though I had never heard them from his mouth before, I desperately wanted to hear words of wisdom — or something that rang true — from the man who held my future in his hands.

One phrase stuck out to me in the monotony: “Do you want me to match you tonight?” A thunderous “Yes” answered Rev. Moon's question, and we were lined up into rows, divided down the middle, and categorized.

I should have left, I tell myself. I should have simply snuck out of the sweltering ballroom, slipped out of the mansion, and found my way through security to get outside of the compound. Even if I had had to follow the train tracks from Tarrytown back home, I should have left. But with no money, no means of communication, and no idea if I would have a home to go back to if I left, I was frozen in place. Besides, I had been trained to obey.

Suddenly Rev. Moon began pointing. A girl, then a boy would stand up, acknowledge each other, bow to Rev. Moon, and then be ushered out to be “processed” by administrators. My breathing was shallow; I tried to quiet my mind and draw upon the things I had been taught.

Absolute faith. Absolute Love. Absolute Obedience.

When Rev. Moon's finger pointed to me, time stopped. I looked deep into the eyes of the man who had bidden me to rise with his gesture and saw nothing. I was gazing into the eyes of the man who was determining my future, and I had expected to see some sort of timelessness, or to feel as though his eyes were digging into my soul. But he was looking through me, as though his finger had arbitrarily found its way to me in a game of love roulette. I felt suspended over an infinite emptiness.

Then time sped up, his finger jabbed in another direction, then another and another. Three other people stood up, and I had no idea which of the other two men I had been assigned to. One I had met at a summer camp several years ago, but he was looking at someone else. The other man gestured to me and I found myself eye-level with a shrunken and pilled sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Norway.”

In an instant, I was no longer suspended. A kind of darkness engulfed my mind, the words “game over” ringing in my ears. Afterward, everyone was abuzz with excitement; I desperately looked around to try and find someone whose face mirrored the same panic I was trying to fight. A gesture from above caught my attention. “Norway” was trying to introduce himself to me.

Finally I looked up at the man that Rev. Moon had chosen for me. "Tall" was the only word that came to mind. Over the noise, he tried asking me questions; what they were and how I answered, I forget. Those next hours were a strange blur — alternating between sadness and terror. At one point I borrowed someone's cellphone and called home. It was 2 a.m. and my mother's sleepy voice answered. “I'm matched,” I said without emotion. “To a Norwegian. His name is Chris.” Then I hung up.

We were woken up the next morning at 5 a.m. for morning service. I had lain awake all night, clutching my stomach, trying to keep nausea at bay. Chris found me and approached me with a bagel — the first meal I remember receiving in 24 hours. The smell of food made me ill and I politely refused. Despite his best efforts to chat with me and have the “getting to know you” small-talk, I could barely muster words.

Every so often I would sneak away to borrow another cellphone, calling home in tears. But if my parents had refused to budge before, they certainly weren't going to now that they had a son-in-law waiting in the wings.

The day after Christmas, at the back of that crowded ballroom, I was wearing a wedding dress that didn't fit, standing next to a tall stranger, and repeating vows in a language I didn't understand. After the Blessing ceremony, we had official photos taken. As the photographer told us to say “cheese,” I realized that I couldn't remember how to smile.

I still have that photo. I look like a confused child playing a bizarre game of dress-up; I'm gazing into the camera with a lost expression. Chris is looking away, dressed in an equally ill-fitting tuxedo. The picture would have been funny if it weren't so sad.

That was how I found myself several months later at 30,000 feet, bound for Norway. To fight the mounting dread of the impending arrival, I immersed myself in the magazines that my neighbor had kindly lent me. It was the first time I had ever picked up any material that encouraged an expression of sexuality, and I felt a delicious bit of rebellion wash over me.

As I pored over the pages, I could feel certain gears shifting as pieces of me unlocked and unwound inside. The women in these pages catapulted me into an exhilarating daydream in which my choices were my own. That daydream left an intense hunger within me.

As a 20-year-old virgin, I wanted to know what it would be like to sleep with a man because you wanted to, or because you loved him, not because you were pressured by your parents and his parents to “start family life.” The idea of sex with Chris made my skin crawl, and I had no idea if I would face pressure from him or his parents when my plane touched down.

Rev. Moon died on September 3, 2012, at the age of 92. His daughter, In Jin Moon, stepped down from her role as leader of the American church a few days later, after having given birth to a child from a three-year affair with a married man. While the church has not been a part of my life for many years now, I've watched these recent events and their fallout with interest.

At first, this news of Rev. Moon's daughter didn't bother me. Then the leadership began trying to explain away her actions and affair, saying that she "chose love when she had a chance.” How many of us were given the allowance to "choose love when we had the chance"? That was something we were explicitly denied; instead were taught to feel ashamed for our feelings unless they were chosen for us, and then sanctioned by someone with power over us.

Sometimes I wonder where my life would be if I had sat next to someone else on the plane, who offered to let me borrow a copy of The Economist instead. The girl next to me on the plane offered a small form of salvation; in a kind gesture she offered me a glimpse into a world that I had had no idea existed. It was a world in which I did not need to be ashamed of my body and my sexuality. My desires for love were not evil. It was a world that encouraged me to discover who I was, not a world in which I had to break my inner-self down to fit a preconceived notion of goodness and of womanhood. Most important, it was a world that let me take ownership of my future, my free will, my reproduction, and my heart. It was a world that I finally knew I needed to escape to.

And I did. It didn't happen overnight. It didn't happen while I was in Norway. It took me almost two years of fighting with Chris, fighting with his parents and my own, before a church divorce was granted. The decision to "break the Blessing" was an agonizing one that took me turning myself inside-out, trying to reform into the kind of person who could love and accept Chris. But finally, I walked away — free but with a proverbial Scarlet "A" branded into my chest, as far as other church members were concerned. Today I am proud of it. It is my battle scar from a fight I am proud to have survived, because I fought my way into this new world.

Jen Kiaba is a photographer living in New York's Hudson Valley. Her work explores dreams, memory, fantasy, and the realms where all three blend. This is her first personal essay. She and her sister also have a blog about their experiences within the Unification Church.

211 Comments / Post A Comment


Wow. I can't even imagine having the strength to go through this, but I hope I would. Thanks for sharing!


Brilliance that @j


This piece is incredible. Thank you for sharing your story!

sudden but inevitable betrayal

Ahhhh I cannot even fathom - but I'm so glad you were eventually able to figure out what YOU wanted and fight for it and get it. Thank you for sharing this!


Holy shit, this is amazing.


Wow, I had never even heard of the Unification Church until now. I'm so glad you were brave enough to leave. That must have taken so much courage.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jen.


Your first personal essay?! WUT. I was riveted, I tell you! RIVETED.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@JessicaLovejoy Thank you!


Seriously one of the most fascinating pieces that has appeared here recently. The whole ending with the daughter and the affair ... I wonder how many other people felt disillusioned after that.


This was bananas. Thank you.


My wife, C., grew up near the Unification Church temple in D.C. Walking home from junior high, she would routinely run into Korean missionaries with a knowledge of English apparently limited to, "Do you want to get married?"

"WHAT? NO!" 14-year-old C. would say.

Later, when we both lived in that neighborhood, the temple would hold sidewalk sales of used clothing, but there weren't any more requests about getting married as far as I saw.


@Rock and Roll Ken Doll The one in Adams Morgan? I live like 2 minutes from there.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll that's totally crazy but, sadly, a big "witnessing" (marketing)technique. My mom used it as well, trying to get people in Arizona to answer ads and come down to the Phoenix "center" to get lectured to.


this was really, really, great.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

Hello everyone. Thanks so much for the wonderful supportive comments. And much <3s to Edith and Jane for agreeing to publish my piece.

@redheaded&crazie this is a really interesting time for people like me who have long left the church, but are still watching what's going on. Many people are disillusioned and even more are questioning; however there are people who are hunkering down even more into a sort of right-wing fundamentalist view on their faith. Sadly my mom is in the latter camp.

Frankly it's a weird time for those of us who left too - it's dredging up a lot of gunk we had long buried. BUT on a positive side, I think that the conversations that are happening around the issues are waking people up and giving them incentive to take personal responsbility for their own lives and spirituality.


@Jen Kiaba@facebook

Oh my god. Oh my god oh my god oh my god I am so so sorry that this church existed, that you were forced into it, that you did not get to experience your tumultuous teenage years without feeling this totally unnecessary guilt. I am so sorry. And you are amazing for having left on your own terms.


@Jen Kiaba@facebook Your story has me in tears. I have a daughter who has just turned 22, and is overwhelmed with an abundance of choices. I am heartbroken at the thought of you at the same age, unhappily married and crushed under a desperate LACK of choices. I am so happy for the you that emerged from that time, to find your own voice!!!

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@'riella and @MoonBat thank you both. That guilt is definitely something big to emerge out from under, for anyone who is raised in a similar culture. I'm still working on that and the emotional emergence. Posting this has been a really big step for me in that process I think.


@Jen Kiaba@facebook Thanks for answering my question! I can only imagine how hard it is to process that kind of behaviour from religious leaders, whether you're already disillusioned or still a believer.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@redheaded&crazie I sometimes read transcripts of speeches, and there is a memory of the "other mind" that is so used to being dictated to and being spoon-fed your political and religious beliefs. But luckily my logical mind is in control and is able to almost "converse" with the other mind and school it.
Honestly I can't even imagine how others are dealing; but from my experience there is probably a lot of shame and fear in being disillusioned. Losing my virginity (outside of the church!!) was a big point of breaking away for me, and for about a month afterwards I was waiting to be struck by lightening or something. We were taught that if you left the church you were open to attack by Satan and were told stories of ex-members dying in tragic accidents shortly after having left.
So I would imagine there is a lot of that bullshit (excuse my French) weighing down on those who are struggling with their belief system right now.


Growing up I had a friend who was part of the Unification Church, she never talked about it much so it was very interesting to see this perspective. Her parents were very concerned about her and her sisters being corrupted, to the point that the youngest was denied entry into public schools after public schools were blamed for the oldest leaving the church.

She seems to be quietly distancing herself without being disowned, but I never realized until reading this what few options you really have as a dependant to get away from the church you were brought up in. How terrifying to feel like you are facing a forced marriage/sex or being alone with no financial support.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

Frankly - I didn't talk much about being part of the Unification Church until many years after I left. Also I'm really glad that your friend's sister is giving herself the distance to choose for herself.

There are people that I know who have had much healthier experiences leaving the church, as well as others who are still stuck in it (and in political marriages with children!!!).

The funny thing is that most of us weren't able to articulate that it was "forced" in anyway. It was just the norm - even if it was painful. We learned that if we weren't happy with it, it was our fault. It's a long process to learn otherwise and I' so so so so SO happy that other young people are moving in that direction.


I read this with a sort of shocked look on my face. The whole piece is incredible.


I literally keep getting waves of goosebumps. The fight towards self actualization is the most important fight. wow.

Roberta Wilkinson

One of my first high school boyfriends was a member of the Unification Church whose parents had been matched by Reverend Moon. It was a pretty big scandal for his family. He was encouraged to consider me as a sister until we could get married. We held hands in front of his mom - rebellion!

Thank you for sharing your story.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@Roberta Wilkinson Whoa!! How did that all end up?

Roberta Wilkinson

@Jen Kiaba@facebook You know, it's really not a very good story. We held hands and made out a little. Stayed up late at night talking online, including earnest conversations with some of his church friends about our relationship and whether we would get married. I told him I loved him and briefly thought that maybe we would. Then I got bored and dumped him. It was high school.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@Roberta Wilkinson Poor thing! I remember my first high school boyfriend - I seriously thought I was this horrible person for kissing him very dispassionately and thought "ok, I guess I'm going to have to marry this person." Seriously a warped perspective for a 14 year old; but it's still an idea I'm trying to rid myself of!
I hope that you were an eye opening experience for him ;-)


Wow. This was beautiful, riveting, fascinating. Just everything that makes the hairpin great. Thanks for sharing your story Jen. Also, I loved the part about the women's magazines. Makes me proud to work at one, for once.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@Ameelz123 That makes me very happy to hear!


As a feminist who has come to have a kneejerk reaction to those lady mags and their endless man-pleasing, commercialized messages as nothing but bad, I was thrown off by how they served a very positive, pivotal role in your story, Jen. Cosmo saves the day! Thanks for reminding me that very little in this world is black and white.


@SuperGogo I loved that part of it too!

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@SuperGogo Lol! It totally was Cosmo too. I can't stand the magazine these days, but it was definitely an eye-opening read.

Regina Phalange

@SuperGogo @Jen Kiaba Jen! This essay is lovely, thank you so much for sharing.

And just my two cents on the ladymags - I get why they're problematic, but they played a really similar role in my own life - that idea's been kicking around in my head for a while, but your essay really put it so beautifully. (I will admit, though, I still feel too unsexy to buy them in airports. I also feel too dumb to buy The Economist, so, there you are.)

Jen Kiaba

@Regina Phalange Lol! I had a subscription to The Economist for a few years, and often felt dumb trying to read the articles. After a while the stack of unread magazines just felt like a different kind of judgement.
Not all ladymags are All Bad, but they all tend to market to our insecurities and fears. This I ususally end up feeling like an unloveable hippo by the time I am done reading a copy.


Aaaand I am off to read your whole blog now. Amazing piece.


Thanks for sharing your story! I'm also a second gen who left, though I got out well before any serious talk of matching. I was never close to other people in the church, so I only get to hear these stories by randomly stumbling upon them. Luckily, my mom wanted me to go to college before getting married, so that bought me enough time to be in a position where I had other resources to turn to if my parents disowned me (which they almost did!)

It’s funny that you say your life could have been different if you had been handed the Economist. It was actually my lefty politics that began to seriously push me away from the church when I was in my early teens. I think my first biggest argument with my parents over the church was over Moon’s declaration that George W. Bush was God’s chosen leader for the U.S.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@tegrr I'm so glad that your mother gave you that room to grow and develop as a person! My parents tried to make sure that I was matched before I left for my first year of school and it did not end well.
The culture I was raised with (and I'm sure that this varied from family to family) was always to base political opinion on Rev. Moon's teachings. So my parents voted for G.W. Bush because "Father said to." They also chose to suspend all thought after 9/11 until Rev. Moon spoke.
Developing my own sense of politics only happened as I began to explore deeper relationships with people on the cusp of leaving the church. My photography mentor and I used to get together for coffee, and it was in conversation with him that I surprised myself by saying "I have no problem with gay marriage," despite the fact that Rev. Moon's stance is very homophobic.

So that being said, PROPS to you for choosing your own path and developing your own mind!


@Jen Kiaba@facebook Thanks!And props to you for being able to open up about all of this. Openness continues to be the hardest part for me. I nearly had a panic attack when I saw the article in the NY Times about Rev. Moon's death. I had this irrational fear that everyone I'd ever met would read it and somehow connect it to me.


@Jen Kiaba@facebook
I just now read this (because I was on vacation last week in a town neighboring Tarrytown, oddly) and wow. What a piece.

As far as the political stuff, I didn't realize the church was so explicit in its political speech. And I'm amazed at people suspending thought after 9/11 -- especially people living right up the river from NYC. But then again, I suppose when you're conditioned to submit to the church, and when a shocking event shakes your foundation, it's a normal reaction.

In any case, thank you for sharing your story. Very well-written, too.

Jen Kiaba

@tegrr omg really? Weirdly I felt nothing at all when I found out. But yes...openness hurts sometimes. I wrote about that the other day, and how it sometimes feels like trying to unlearn shame while standing naked in a room full of strangers. We hid so much of ourselves for so long that it's often my kneejerk reaction to want to whitewash my past. But (!!) reading the reactions here on the Hairpin hopefully have helped us both see that there are lovely supportive people out there who respect that we may have been born into a shitty culture but we are not responsible for that - and that we made a choice to move on with our lives!

@whateverlolawants I can't really speak for other people and their experiences with 9/11 and other major political events. My perception though is that very few people have a political opinion that does not line up with Rev. Moon's rheotic.
I was 16 when 9/11 happened and we happened to be homeless and living in a shitty hotel when the whole thing happened. In a sense I can understand my mom's need for someone else to think for her about that kind of traumatic political event; but that doesn't mean I excuse it or the timeline of needs/choices that brought her to that point of waiting for someone else to tell her what to think. Sadly, for anyone who lives in an environment where their thinking is so conditioned it's probably second nature. Blergh!

Deanna Destroi

When I was a baby, my parents took my sister and me and fled a communist country in order to give us more opportunities and choices in life. I've always been awed at the strength that took. But to leave an oppressive regime by yourself, with everyone around you opposing you? That is nothing short of amazing. Thank you so much for sharing; you deserve all kinds of respect (and from a self-centered standpoint, I'm having a terrible Monday, and this just put all my piddly problems right into perspective, so thanks for that too).

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@Deanna Destroi I'm sorry that you're having a bad Monday! Hope that it gets better. Bravo to your parents for their courage.


Great, great story.


I just finished reading allllll of your blog posts and I am so glad you are out of that situation! While my childhood/adolscent years may not have been as hard as yours, I still related in a major way. I grew up Pentecostal, in a very hard-line conservative version of the church that formed around the same time as the Unification church, and there are many similarities in the attitudes of the church I grew up in & the one you did. I also struggled with moving away from the church & dealing with my mom's non-logic and guilt-tripping as well as MANY, MANY other things you talked about in your blog. I thought I had a fairly normal upbringing but now that I'm older, looking back on it, I realize how disturbed and warped the whole thing was. ugh.

Anyway you write really well & I enjoyed reading your blog posts. Thanks for making my Monday more interesting!

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@rimy Thanks so much for reading and sharing! A friend of mine went through a similar upbringing with a mother who was a born-again Christian, and those kinds of stories make me realize that there are a lot of broadly used tactics that keep people bound in an ideology.
It's very interesting and wonderfully helpful to see the similarities between all of our life experiences. It means that we don't have to feel isolated in our growth!


@Jen Kiaba@facebook It is really good to share those experiences. I am still sorting through what experiences I had were valid and which were invalid, if that makes sense. Sorting out who I am from who I was pressured to be. I don't really know anyone personally who's been through the same/similar thing, so it has been hard and I have made missteps in the past few years but I am making progress! I think! I do wish I could talk to someone about it all but don't really know where to begin. My sisters are sifting through it all, too, and it's all kind of a mess. I should take your example and write it out, maybe...

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@rimy I do suggest writing about it, but to be 100% honest with you I'm also in therapy. My background finds its way into many aspects of my life, including romantic relationships. Now that I finally have a "big girl job" with insurance etc, I've sought out counseling to kind of weed through those good and bad experiences and put them into perspective.

Writing about everything was a pre-emptive step for me to seek therapy. The blog I share with my sister was private until recently, so it was a safe place for us to write and talk about our writing. We decided to open it up to the public once this essay was published because we felt like it was the right thing to do.

So if you think it will help you, I 100% recommend it!


@rimy my sister and I were part of a Pentecostal church for about a year when we were 12/13, after our mom left and our dad got religion of the woman-hating kind. (Sorry if that offends anyone but it's true). Even that comparatively short time in the church messed with my head *hard* and I'm pretty sure it fucked my sister up, too.

All the stuff about obedience and proper womanhood puts you in a weird headspace in relationships. It's like you are dating and you either get to submit to what you've been taught is your proper role as a woman and be secondary to your man, or you rebel against that but then you (I) feel like the worst girlfriend/woman in the world and completely unsuitable as relationship material and..... Well it looks like I know what I'll be chatting about with my therapist next week because I seem to have some FEELINGS about this.

Jen Kiaba

@Maladydee Oh man...this sounds like SO much of what my therapist and I talk about. She's trying to get me to Reeeeally understand that my brain is working in the exact way that you're talking about here. It's actually really heart wrenching because I have been dating a Really Good Man, but I did that submission bullshit for a really long time and now I am seeing it and rebelling and feeling like an awful person. But it created such a bad dynamic in the relationship and so...yes, I feel exactly where you're coming from and want to give you a hugely empathetic hug!


Jen, thanks for writing this and allowing the Hairpin to publish it. I really admire your strength and will.

Judith Slutler

Amazing. OMG. I can't imagine how panic-inducing that "wedding" must have been. I'm so glad you found your way out.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@Emmanuelle Cunt yeah. Not a good day!

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

Duuuuuude what? That was a great, great read. Also, it's nice to see another view of ladymags on here (I typically can't stand them, but if they gave you a foundation to question, wooo!)

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose ladymags, in general, make me want to run from the room with my arms flailing. But as you said, it was a foundation and I needed it at the time.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@Jen Kiaba@facebook You know, I bet some ladymags would think that is a viable exercise and will make you thinner, and would thus approve.

Jen Kiaba

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose ah yes but can I please my man with it???

Briony Fields

This piece made me cry. What a horrifying experience for you.
It's incredible the things we learn to 'normalize' as kids. I'm so sorry you had to be married to someone you didn't know while begging to be taken home. That breaks my heart.

Jen Kiaba

@Briony Fields thank you for your compassion!


This was really amazing. One question I had is whether the wedding ceremony you describe was actually legal under New York law, i.e., did you actually fill out any paperwork with Westerchester County or whatever? Usually there's at least a 24-hour waiting period between getting the license and solemnizing the marriage, plus at least one half of the couple has to go down to City Hall or its equivalent to get the license, and it sounded like you didn't have any of that. If it wasn't, why did you chose to go through the hoops of getting a church divorce?

I had a friend in college who was a second generation and who was also an uberhipster (I knew him because he worked with me on the school paper's arts supplement). When pressed he would say that he didn't believe in the church's theology but that "in 500 years it won't seen weirder than any other religion." He would joke about it in passing (at one point when we were trying to come up with revenue streams for the always-strapped newspaper, he joking suggested selling flowers at the airport, then said "But we've been muscled out of that turf by other cults now") but would get kind of protective of his family and community when other people questioned it.

He was married in a mass ceremony in Korea between his sophmore and junior year of college, and it didn't go well, at least at first. Last I saw him before I left, he had told his wife he wanted a divorce, but I found out a few years later that they were still together.

Jen Kiaba

@jfruh this was not a legal ceremony. However, in terms of how I grew up, I looked at it as being more binding than a legal marriage would have been. I think on some level, getting that piece of paper for a "divorce" was important to me because otherwise my family and Chris' family would have looked at us as still being together. I need a firm break, for myself just as much as for them.
In church ideology, their blessing ceremony transcends death. So everyone in my life at the time looked at this as a FOREVER thing and I wanted ink to pen that I was out out out.

Your friend's line of "in 500 years" was used a lot by our parents to help us trying to normalize our bizarre traditions and rituals. It sounds like he was struggling with the same double life that a lot of us ended up living. Even in the church we would joke about our culture being a "cult" and we tried reclaiming the term "Moonie." I'm sure he felt personally attacked on some level when people questioned the religion. Even after leaving I felt very attacked and shamed in certain instances when people questioned my background. Many people look at our upbringing as a personal choice as opposed to a culture we were reared in. I had been asked several times why I "joined the Unification Church." But for those of us born into it, there was no point at which we were asked to join the religion or be confirmed into it - it was simply an assumed.

I'm sorry to hear your friend is still in, what sounds like, a very unhappy union. I hope that with everything going on he is able to find his truth and act on it.


This was just amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this really, really personal ordeal with us. I am really looking forward to reading your blog, and I hope you contribute more to The Hairpin!

Jen Kiaba

@whimseywisp Thank you!!

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Agreed. What a great read. Thanks so much, Jen!

like a rabid squirrel

A very touching and enlightening piece. I went to college down the road from the Unification Theological Seminary, yet all I ever heard were a few pejorative comments about "Moonies," without any sense of what the Unification Church was actually all about.

Jen Kiaba

@like a rabid squirrel Did you go to Bard? Tis my alma mater!

like a rabid squirrel

@Jen Kiaba I did indeed! One of my very favorite places.

Jen Kiaba

@like a rabid squirrel well hello fellow Bardian! *waves*


As a 2nd Gen in a happy Blessing, I'm sorry for what happened but I just wanted to say that there are many happy stories out there too. The Blessing is a wonderful thing- for intercultural relations and peace, promotion of marriage in today's society. Sorry things didn't work out, perhaps parental pressure was the main issue, and the fact you didn't realise you were to be blessed- that is a bit silly as to commit to the blessing should not be a small thing.

Jen Kiaba

@Tommy I'm glad that you're one of the luckier ones to be in a happy marriage. Most of your rhetoric about the Blessing, however, sounds just like the jargon we were taught growing up.


@Jen Kiaba Jargon yes, but don't you think it's true? When someone marries someone from another culture it helps to break down the barriers? Perhaps it would have to be more widespread to be seen at a major international level but I know of stories of familys coming to accept and understand people of other nationalities of whom they may have had some prejudice for previously.

Jen Kiaba

@Tommy in concept the idea is great, especially when built on a pre-existing love and desire to explore those areas. But unfortunately the church promotes the idea of marrying a stranger. There is nothing in that that I can see as being healthy, because it posits some extremely difficult barriers to love at the onset.
Example, if a Jewish/Muslim couple choose to get married out of love and respect for each other then their union will be one where those ideas purported by the blessing are already instilled. However when the choice and love does not originate in them and is dictated by someone else, then I think that the level of love achieved (if it is ever achieved) is not of the same quality.

Now if we're going to talk specifically about an experience of a Second Generation then I would like to call your attention to the race relations and xenophobia promoted within the church. How is it that the ideals of the blessing that you discussed can be promoted along side the idea of Koreans being the superior race, Japanese being nearly enslaved with Kodan (ancestral reparation) practices, and American women treated like they are the most repugnant race of potential wife available? These things are so deeply instilled in the culture of the church, and yet you seem so starry eyed about the "ideals of the blessing" it truly breaks my heart. So many people have suffered a much more difficult course than I did, going through incredible emotional and mental abuse in trying to make a marriage work with an incompatible partner. We can't gloss over or white wash those experiences out of existence.

My personal experience with the church leadership in dealing with my blessing, while not discussed in this article for brevity's sake, was fraught with abuse and shame. My parents, though they are still married, exist in an extremely abusive relationship in which there has been no help or support from the church community. When my mother struggled with her matching and was sick with Lyme disease, she was not treated for a medical condition - instead she was told that her physical suffering was evil spirit world invading her because she was struggling.

In no way did those interactions seek to bring about greater understanding or "intercultural relations, peace" or attaining a higher ideal of marriage. I'm sorry if I sound vehement, but the truth of the blessing is not so simple as the jargon leads one to believe.


@Jen Kiaba Let's just hope that the flaws in the movement can be ironed out in this time of transition. There are issues to be resolved, yet I believe we have the best foundation in our core teachings. Theres definitely some good stuff there!
I would however disagree with the "level of love" not being of the same quality. I think the potential at the very least is the same. I just have to look at my own relationship to see that (although admittedly I have little to compare it to, I doubt anything could be much better than this).
Anyway, I agree with others that your writing style is admirable and I think you have a rather bright future in writing in store.

Jen Kiaba

@Tommy I think we could debate many things and end up agreeing to disagree. I'm thrilled that you are happy in your marriage; I could wish for nothing more. I went into my experience damaged and without much preparation or choice offered. As Chris discusses way down there in the thread, even at that 2004 event there are people who are on the opposite end of the spectrum and are thrilled in their marriages. At 15 or 16 that's all I would have wanted out of my life as well; but by the time of this blessing I had enough issue with the flaws in the movement and how they directly affected me and my family that I couldn't be content.
Really and truly though I wish you and your wife the best; my intent in this article was not to defame all arranged marriage - but this is the truth of my experience and it was valid and formative in my life.

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Christopher D Osborn@twitter

Wow, there is so much to say. I happen to know Chris personally as I was at the same Blessing and there were a lot of people from Scandinavia and I got hitched to one of them, also a Norwegian. We're still together and happy, with one 2 year old and another one to be born any minute (literally, today is the due date.). I'll write a much more extensive commentary when I get the chance, but for now I hope that people realize that this is one person's very sad, terrible experience, but it is not what the Unifiction Church is all about. I'll try to finish it soon, but with work and school and a 2nd son coming right around the corner, it might take a couple days. I pray nobody else has to ever go through an experience like you did ever again. Until then, congratulations on a very well written article Jen. If the photography market ever get's tough, I'm sure you could make it as a writer too.

Jen Kiaba

@Christopher D Osborn@twitter congratulations to you and your family.

I think that my writing very clearly indicates that this was my own experience and struggle with the church and does not seek to implicate the religion, however much I personally disagree with many of its teachings and much of the inherent culture. Nor does my article in anyway blame Chris for an unhappy union - I stress at the beginning that my belief in the institution was weak yet there was systemic pressure to attend this blessing event.

Also it would be the height of hubris for me to say that my experience is "what the Unification Church is all about." My article does not aim to do that. However my experience is in no way unique to either the First or Second Generation. As I explain in comments earlier in the thread, my mothers matching and blessing experience was eerily similar.

There are many happy couples in the Unification Church; there are also those that are suffocating in their relationships and families and there is no system within the religion (or at least there was not when I needed it) to assist them with their struggles without condemning them. That is the driving force of my writing here, and the main reason why I chose to leave.


This was absolutely fascinating and very sad. All I really knew about the Unification Church was that we once stayed in the holiday home of a couple whose daughter had run off to join the "Moonies", as they were known then, and my parents were incredibly sad for their family because she would never come back, and I remember thinking at the time (as a very naive 12-yr old), of course she'll comes back, because no-one would disappear like that and never contact their family again, because that's not what churches are about. But that's being 12 for you. Anyhoodle, this was very interesting and presumably very hard to write (although hopefully a little cathartic), so thank you. N.b. I said this on the thread about Santera/Maria Bustillos' grandmother, and I'll say it again; pieces on people's personal perspectives on religion are fascinating (and also pleasingly alliterative) - can we please have more?

Laurel Nakai@facebook

Jen, I just wrote a really long response and my computer crashed and erased it all :( so I'll just say that this was a heartbreakingly beautiful piece and thank you for your courage in sharing it. This makes me think about my own children, and how I never want them to feel pressure or shame, how I want to encourage questioning and searching. Though I consider myself a member, and I had a very different experience than you, I think it's good for EVERYONE to share their story. I always felt like a "rebel" member because my family didn't care about going to all of the big events, I never went to NEA or STF. At the time I felt a lot of judgement about that, but now I'm sos so glad! There is a weird phobia in the church that the "negative" stories should be kept quiet, but we can't hide from it. All of it is us, the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. If your faith cannot withstand it all then it's not real. Anyway, you've got my gears turning, maybe I'll write something on my own blog soon. Thanks again for sharing, and glad that you are breathing easier these days. Do you know my sister? she's also living in NYC and also left a couple of years ago.

Jen Kiaba

@Laurel Nakai@facebook thank you so much for your kindness. It does make me happy to know that there are people who have had an overwhelmingly different experience in the church - it was a varied culture to be certain. I was encouraged (pushed may be too strong of a word) to STF, I did NEA...I really tried to follow the Course that Hyun Jin was pushing when he was the head of the church. A lot of us really got burned, because we didn't fit the strict mold. I'm sure you dealt with your own version of that feeling, having not been involved in certain core church activities. In many senses I envy you that. Also, I met Abby years ago but we don't know each other well.
I follow your blog and look forward to seeing your musings.

Laurel Nakai@facebook

Yeah, I never did resonate with Hyun Jin and his whole vision...except for maybe the service aspect. Actually I give a lot of credit to my parents. My mom was the one who absolutely did NOT want me to do STF. The pressure I got was from other people and of course my own feeling of wanting to "follow the course" as you say. I feel like my parents gave me a foundation based on a personal relationship with God, and that all the other stuff was just secondary. At a time when I struggled and thought about leaving myself, I never doubted that they would still support me. I am really sorry that this was not the case for you. But I like to think that everything works out in the end. You are a great writer and your experience will be a voice for those who have experienced similar things, and a word of warning to others. I've been exploring emotional healing lately, specifically the Native American tradition of talking and healing circles, and its clear to me that the only way to heal is to first open up those wounds and reveal it. Painful, but worh it. Blessings to you on your journey!


Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. I applaud your courage. You are a talented writer and a captivating story teller.
During the years from around 1960 to the present, hundreds of thousands of people, to some degree, had been influenced by the Moonie phenomenon. Most have been silent about it. It is a welcome moment for me to find your blog. Most people tend to bury their Moonie connection very deeply like it was some horrible mistake they wish to erase from their life experience. Certainly, the far majority of those people with a Moonie experience in common made a conscious choice to become involved in the movement. I am sure that their silence has to a lot to do with the fact that most of the world is still unsure and uncomfortable with the man-king-messiah-mogul and his worldwide controversial religious-business empire.
Most of those hundreds of thousands have moved on with their lives and beliefs. More are moving on after Reverend Moon’s death and the instability of the organization. Even families with many years of life on the inside of the movement are reevaluating their connection to it. Moving on, is without any doubt, extremely difficult considering the marriage-blessing-sinless-children-faith-interweave that is unique to the movement.
You on the other hand, had no choice in the matter. Your perspective is significant and incredibly valid.
I want to respond to your blog because I am one of those people with a Moonie experience in common. Although it has been decades since I had any real connection with the movement, I was a seeker in my early twenties. I was drawn into the movement in the late 70's. Back then, we gathered often for meetings, celebrations, blessings and campaigns so, chances are, I assembled in the same places and for the same reasons that your parents did. Maybe we even knew each other. I did meet many incredible people during my Moonie experience. To be honest, I also met many seriously troubled people.
I always wondered why it seemed to me that the best and brightest came and went so quickly. It was a difficult and demanding life. It must even more so now.
Your family experience shows us that not everyone who accepted the blessing challenge survived it. Family trouble is universal but a public splintering inside of what is supposed to be a perfect world had to have been incredibly painful. It had to have been very difficult for you and your family. Seeking help outside the movement would have been considered shameful and far beneath the dignity of a blessed family. Seeking help inside would most likely have resulted in even more painful ostracism.
Part of the reason that I chose not to attend the matching and blessing sessions was that I knew even back then that the movement was unprepared to help with the challenges individuals, parents and children would face while creating the Moon version of ideal marriage. Even then, I could see that people in leadership positions were untrained. There was no effective counseling. Most issues were dealt with prayer conditions, fasting and the constant reading of Moon’s speeches. We believed that we had the highest inside connection to insight and wisdom. Any other belief system, faith or practice was far beneath ours. The Divine Principle had been delivered to us chosen few. We sincerely believed that we were the living representatives of lineages that were selected and prepared to become living examples of the highest order of humanity. Seeking help for a personal issue proved to everyone around you that you were not living for the sake of others and selfishly focused on yourself. It seemed to me that we hop-skipped over personal development in order to prove to the world that we were living for the sake of others. We jumped over the concentric circles that were outlined in Moon’s teachings. Moon taught to race to the outermost circle. Live for the world. No one really knew what that meant so the target was always changing. There was always another campaign, providence, another move. The instability of it was unsettling. All the talk of building foundations seemed invalid to me. We pulled up roots and left town often. We were not meant to understand the mind of the messiah. We were incapable of it.
I feel you from here, sister. I hope these epic words you share become the ammunition that will destroy trouble in your life. But not before you discover the true power of your writing. That is a gift that I am glad you found.
You will see these memories from a distance, at some point in the future and they will no longer have a negative influence over you. Your words will also help others create opportunity in their lives to find for the first time in their lives, a personal perspective on their common Moonie experience.
I was deeply involved in the movement for over a decade. While I do not count every experience during that time as negative, I am beyond grateful for having made the conscious decision to separate from the movement. Over the years, my thoughts have circled back to my experience. I truly believe that the Lord led me throughout that time and brought me to the state of awareness in which I was finally capable of seeking fulfillment beyond the certain definitions of belief and lifestyle maintained within the Unification Movement.
Your blog makes me remember way back when we young Moonies prepared for marriage. It took years of dedication and hard work to even get to the point of being considered for it. We all knew then that it was our responsibility to look toward the unique future that we faced and to personally decide whether or not we were up to the challenge of it. We discussed it. We prepared for it. I will say that the closer one came to the matching time the more one’s life rushed towards it. It was like we were spinning faster and faster towards the center of a whirlpool. The closer we were to the event, the harder it was to stop and think. You must have felt like you were swimming against a strong cosmic, cultural current with no land in sight. It is no fault of yours for having gone with the flow. I don’t expect many to admit it but I suspect that quite a few married Moonies felt that same current and just swam with it. It is, after all, a first step in many steps towards their ideal of perfection. I did experience a lot of personal, internal struggle when I made the decision not to step into the matching ceremonies when the opportunity was presented to me. However, given the overwhelmingly odd circumstances, chaos and uncertainty of the movement and the people involved in it, I believed it was the wisest path for me. Everything that I knew about God led me to believe that He would accept my decision even if the community did not.
I did always wonder about the personal futures of the many young people I knew who appeared to swim that current toward arranged marriage. I believed that many did so because it was an expectation put upon them. It was believed to be the ultimate test of becoming a fully mature member. Marriage Blessing created a personal connection to the Moon family. Although I will admit that there was a curious deep, inner appeal to the idea of accepting an unknown marriage partner, I had to conclude that I did not trust myself to be a universal public and holy example of unconditional perfect love. Don’t get me wrong. I am not making fun of the matter at all. The people in the community took it very seriously. I just recognized that I was not willing to put my future or another person’s love life at risk. I had already learned that staying in love with someone you actually chose for yourself was difficult enough. Risking a future with an unknown person in an unstable community was a gamble that I could not believe had much chance of success. I remember being reminded by an elder of one of Moon’s speeches. It that speech, Moon made reference to him being like a galloping stallion. We could just grab a few of the hairs of his tail and get across the finish line with him. All we had to do was hold on.
So, your parents grabbed that tail or followed that powerful current into the center of the whirlpool. You have to give them some credit for accepting the challenge. It is enormous. They were instructed to believe that their entire family lineages had lived and died for that very day. I’ll say again that I eventually felt no shame in making my decision. The shame was on the reactions of the other members of the community. To many of them, any another person’s decision not to participate was considered a betrayal of everything they believed in. I understand your reaction to the rejection you must have felt and the shock of your family and community.
Every rushing current leads to deep waters. In deep waters, a person has to move forward on their own power or sink and drown.
I remember many dedicated and determined people who faced and accepted the prospect of arranged Moonie marriage. Given the difficulties and challenges both within the movement and external to it, it is remarkable that these uniquely challenging partnerships survive.
I am so sorry that your parents failed to keep their marriage intact and even more so that the Moonie community victimized you and your sister for their failure. I hope that you find peace and fulfillment and love. You deserve it.


Thank you So Much for that Jen! I am a 37 year member and you are such a Good writer!

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Thank you Jen for sharing your experience in a way that was honest and beautifully articulated. That day at East Garden was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I can completely relate with your experience of breaking the blessing. It turned my world on its head, and I had to completely reconstruct my life. It took me a while to get out of the victim mentality, but the moment I did, I found great power and freedom be who I always wanted to be. You seem to be moving forward and have found some peace since then. Are you still in the area?


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