Facing My Moonies Childhood in San Francisco
Episode 115 of the Muni Diaries Podcast
In the last few years, I’ve been in docuseries like A&E’s Cults and Extreme Belief, and Explained on Netflix, because I grew up in the Unification Church, otherwise known as the Moonies, led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon from Korea who claimed to be the messiah.
This was a primary example of a cult in the 70’s and 80’s. The reputation that Scientology has now? That was the Moonies back then. They are mostly known for having mass weddings in a stadium with arranged couples.
To give you an idea of their presence in pop culture, in 1977 SNL had a sketch with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray called Night of the Moonies. It played off Night of the Living Dead but church members were the zombies.
In 1981, there was a movie that took place in San Francisco called Ticket to Heaven, adapted from a book about the Moonies. It follows the indoctrination of someone who gets taken to the cult’s local center, through a friend who joined, and then to a countryside retreat center where the main character becomes entrenched in the cult. With the Unification Church, this retreat center was a place in Boonville.
As it turned out, I would also have the chance to initiate that process as a church member, fishing for fresh converts on the streets of San Francisco.
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My dad moved to San Francisco in the 60s. He’s an artist, and the city owned that decade as a gold mine for artists. He moved to a place called The Goodman Building, built in 1869 by a French architect and located behind Tommy’s Joynt on Geary Street, where it still stands. This place was like an artist’s commune where they would have all kinds of wild events, the street level had little galleries and art shops, and people like Janis Joplin actually lived there. Also Wes Wilson, who created his first psychedelic rock posters there.
My dad was winning the hippie game.
One day he was working at an art gallery and a Korean woman walked in. He told me that she was pretty attractive, so she had his attention right away. Basically, it didn't take long for her to turn him into a Moonie.
He moved into a church center on 8th Avenue, around the corner from Fulton near Golden Gate Park, and that's where he met my mom, who was stationed there by the church from Japan.
They would work at the church’s print shop called International Exchange Press on 425 Brannan, which is now an Infinite Body Works Gym. My parents were missionaries of the Unification Church. They left San Francisco and went around the world to different countries, doing service work and conducting theological workshops, with the church’s ultimate goal being to recruit.
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Our family moved wherever the church stationed my parents, from Washington DC, to New York, to Seattle, and upon graduating high school I followed my sister’s lead in doing the post-high school, year-long Unification Church program called Special Task Force, or STF.
The program sends born and raised Moonies to different major cities for a year, essentially as a missionary to indoctrinate locals and be labor trafficked. I was a good church boy as far as assuming I was headed for the arranged marriage, but before entering adulthood I wanted to see how much of a believer I really was, by experiencing the front line this way. The center I was assigned to was in San Francisco.
So that September of 1996, I packed a duffel bag, a journal, some mix tapes of indie rock and ska, and flew down to SFO from Seattle. One of the many international church members from the center picked me up and drove me there to 1153 Bush Street, a 3-story brick building that now serves as student housing for the Academy of Art.
I remember entering and walking up the creaking stairwell, noticing the Edwardian interiors and ornate wood designs, being one of many luxurious properties the church tended to buy up in major cities.
The camaraderie of doing STF and living with peers I knew from church summer camps, also fresh out of high school now away from our parents, really made for a draw to the program. We shared rooms and slept on bunk beds like dorms, boys and girls separate of course. And our conversations went from debating whether Friends or Seinfeld was the better show, to the people we encountered in our everyday church activities, as we gradually lost touch with society around us in the Moonie milieu.
This was in the mid 90s, when Union Square was pretty much a concrete pigeon toilet, and we would play pool at Hollywood Billiards, or just watch the street performers who could make a bucket sound like a drum set at Powell and Market. That's where we would trek from the center every day, clipboard in hand with questions about beliefs in God and the universe to ask random passersby, whetting their appetite for answers. This was the first step in having them follow the Trojan horse to eventually reveal Sun Myung Moon was the messiah.
In this touristy area with a lot of foot traffic, we tried to sense if someone felt open-minded or off the beaten path enough to approach, and “guide” them to a better life. This meant sometimes talking to people we didn’t realize were homeless at first, some off the grid by choice, or I remember a devout Christian skater dude, foreign exchange students, atypical vibes were usually a good connecting point. Sometimes the tables were turned, like one person asked me “Did God create man or man create God?” It obviously made a lasting impression.
There were usually only about one or two guests we brought to the center daily, where we proceeded to “love bomb” them, basically showering them with interest and attention to keep them on track for our purposes. I don’t think any of us teen STF participants felt strongly about recruiting, it was really just all we knew and were taught, like worker bees.
We would further try and win over guests with a performance. It was pretty much an open mic, where we members would sing songs to them or do funny skits and throw in some Unification Church teachings. This is where members’ creative side came out, like one had an act of being a hilariously bad magician, people would tell personal stories, or I’d do a cover of a Nirvana song on guitar. We had to keep it light and gain trust, so guests would further agree to go to our isolated indoctrination center in the woods north of Santa Rosa, called Maacama Hill. Of course, we didn't describe it as that so kept it vague and laid on the peer pressure to go.
Some church members living at the center were also college students, so we sometimes had a table set up at Malcolm X Plaza in San Francisco State. Again, we kept our brand of religion vague with a sign that said something about spiritual healing. I had no luck there, feeling like an impostor at a school like I did growing up, except literally this time. Church member students did better, with any friends they made there being simultaneously potential Moonie recruits. Again, these were usually atypical types. Another friend who grew up in the Moonies once described the church as a collection of everyone who was a dork in school.
Wherever we were stationed, our goal was to get people in a van, literally, to drive them up to Maacama Hill and reprogram who they were. I cannot even find the place on a map anymore, but it was somewhere along Maacama Creek. Overall, I never brought anyone myself since again, I wasn't sure how much of a believer I was enough to convince others. I’d still tag along to help with other people’s guests though.
So at Maacama Hill, we’d give guests lectures on the Divine Principle—the Bible of the Unification Church—in a cabin there. We would feed them, let them talk about themselves, sing songs around a campfire, generally creating a “Welcome to my tribe” atmosphere while perpetually checking in on them. In the 70s, the guests were never left alone, sleep deprived, did high energy group exercises, and were rushed between lectures so they had no time to decide how they felt. Later, I learned Sun Myung Moon took these tactics directly from a North Korean prison camp. But I think the bad press Moonies gained from that time forced them to be a little more hands-off. Either way, we were still locked in on the same end result.
The labor trafficking came in the form of traveling around the state and country in a van, being dropped off on random streets to sell wind chimes held on a shower curtain ring, door to door. They called this Mobile Fundraising Teams or MFT. The money all went upstream besides paying for our everyday cheap food and gas. This is how Unification Church entities like The Washington Times are funded, and was what the majority of STF was about, but that could be its own episode/lawsuit.
So this was my life for about a year, now arriving at some sense of altruistic completion in my assessment of the church. By the time I returned home though, my parents were already on their way out of the church, as they quietly had been for years. When they joined in the 60s, it felt more grassroots, but has since snowballed into a mafia-like empire of corruption and power. I followed suit by the time I was 20 for this and my own reasons.
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When you're born into a cult, you don't just leave and become normal. Your normal is the cult, your support system is the cult, your primary identity is the cult. That said, the second-most thing I considered myself to be was an artist, like my dad. So I entered adulthood in the real world via art school in New York, though held onto moving back to the West Coast since my family lives in Seattle. San Francisco had better weather, had more going on than Seattle, and gave me a sense of ownership being the first city I lived in away from my parents. I decided to come back here on my own terms a few years after graduating art school.
Getting to know some local artists at the late APE Con in 2008, or Alternative Press Expo, was a good start. From there, I would participate in local events like Lit Crawl where I’d do live readings of my webcomic Oscillating Profundities at Mission Comics, and I also started a Meetup group called San Francisco Lowbrow Art that went for three years. We mostly went to cool galleries like 111 Minna, which I recently learned was founded in the mid 90s by Nicole Daedone, who then started the group OneTaste. If you’re not familiar, they practice something called orgasmic meditation but have made headlines for being an alleged cult, even being investigated by the FBI.
I was around a lot of cult history here in San Francisco, which I didn’t think much of being focused on building my identity as an artist, over the hole where my Moonie self was. So I couldn’t not move to the artist neighborhood of the Mission, finding a rent-controlled studio apartment in a century-old building. I’d started to do some stand-up comedy at open mics in New York, so I got back into that here at places like Amnesia and Pirate Cat Radio. While working freelance animation jobs from home, I also listened to a comedy station on iTunes streaming stand-up bits.
I caught one comic talking about how his father died in a car accident, but he actually managed to make it funny. Time stopped. That tapped into something with me. “If he could bring up something that vulnerable and make it funny, then what’s my deepest, darkest secret?”
“Oh right, my entire childhood!”
I found my next muse as an artist. "Write what you know" as they say.
As a child, the church’s nice properties and community events I grew up with all made for a utopian sense of comfort. I wanted to tell people that it didn’t feel like a “destructive cult” in such a one-dimensional sense.
But after doing a few weeks of research, reading about how truly sociopathic people’s money and lives were handled, and how much I dismissed this to preserve the brand I relied on for survival and identity, I went from former Moonie to being a voice against cults. The utopia I grew up in was the result of exploited money, just like I was labor trafficked for on STF, but I didn’t care to connect the dots until then.
At first, I thought to make a long-term project like a memoir graphic novel. But when I saw that Trump was running for president in 2016, I was like "I need to put this out there now!" especially with Moon’s ties to the Republican party. If you’ve ever been under the authority of a narcissist, you can’t help but become hypervigilant if the threat of it happening again presents itself. Two years later, I was talking about it on TV.
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Looking back at my first time in San Francisco as a teen, I was a completely different person but both then and now, came with a sense of adventure. This city, where my father joined the Moonies, both had me experience the cult at its most extreme and make the decision to speak out against its injustices.
My now ex-cult therapist noted how whether you’re in a cult or not, you’re always yourself and do what you can with the options you have in your situation. So I have a voice now where I didn’t know I had one before. And not to negate the trauma and difficulties that surface after entering the real world, but as my fellow born and raised Moonies and I often say, a cult childhood makes an interesting adult.