On a Sunday morning, Lovin’ Life Ministries of Philadelphia on 41st and Sansom streets is alive with congregation members. Some of them shuffle around tables holding coffee and pastries near the front door of the house, which is painted white with accents of electric blue.
At quarter of 10 a.m., Leighton DeGoede, co-pastor with his wife Crescentia, leads the congregation through worship songs. There are nearly 40 people — young children, teenagers, older adults — seated in the small chapel room.
At 10 a.m., a sermon is broadcasted from the church’s national headquarters in New York on a large projector screen at the front of the room.
A history of controversy
Lovin’ Life was founded nationally in 2009 as a contemporary ministry of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more widely known as the Unification Church. Founded in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon in 1954, the Unification Church spread to the United States in the 1970s. Moon’s daughter, In Jin Moon, is the current president of the Unification Church of the United States. The branch on 41st Street has been affiliated with the Church for decades, often called affectionately the “Family Church” by members living in the area.
The atmosphere for growing up and living as a Unificationist has changed dramatically since the 1970s, when the “first generation” joined the movement.
The Church met with controversial criticism in its early years in the U.S. Anti-cult associations, like the American Family Foundation, were formed to counter what they believed to be religious cults that were characterized by zealotry, authoritarianism and deception.
Penn religious studies professor Stephen Dunning studied religious movements like the Unification Church in the 1970s and 1980s and taught a course called “Understanding the Cult Controversy” until the early 2000s.
Dunning believes the real controversy surrounding movements labeled as cults occur when “families feel they were being robbed of their children and their children believed their families were being irrational and not letting them choose their religion the way they want to.”
Young people who would spend long spans of time in isolation from their homes, schools or places of work may be worrisome to their families, he added. Their families may tell them to seek counseling as a last resort.
While those kinds of desperate measures have effectively disappeared in the United States, they’re still in use in other parts of the world.
Pastor Iwasaki Shota, supervisor of Lovin’ Life Ministries in Delaware and Pennsylvania, said more than 4,000 members of the Unification Church have been abducted in Japan and have undergone “deprogramming” — tactics like humiliation, starvation and sexual harassment used to force them into giving up their faith.
He added that there has been a “whole operation of media, government and police working on the side of the deprogrammers” against not only the church’s first generation in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, but also the current generation in Japan.
Shota said he and other activists are appealing to students and get them to work with Congress and ministers in the U.S. to help the situation in Japan.
The first generation
For members of the first generation in the United States, however, joining the church entailed a brand new way of looking at the world.
Kevin Convery, a local artist known at Lovin’ Life as “Uncle Kevin,” joined the church in 1978 when he had just graduated from art school and was “wandering on my quest for the spiritual holy grail out west.”
During this time, Convery met a group of people he seemed to get along and share the same beliefs with. One of them invited him to visit the Unification Church.
“At the time, I was very critical of religious movements,” he said. “I challenged the person who invited me, but she told me to hang around with them and get an objective look.”
Convery explained that they would often buttonhole potential new recruits in restaurants and drive-in movie theaters, distributing information about the church and raising money.
Their assertiveness and counter-culture energy came as a product of the fact that early Unificationists “often had more enthusiasm than sense,” he said.
However, it also contributed to their negative portrayal in the media at that time.
“The people we approached or came across in the community, they all believed what they heard [in the media],” said Chris Bush, another member of the Church. “And they treated us accordingly with what they heard.”
Convery said people would put their children behind their backs when he and other Unificationists went door-to-door fundraising.
“I was very conscious of the way I was perceived, but I thought I was doing something restorative for American culture,” Convery added. “It was worth looking like a weirdo, of going against the norm.”
Some of these original stereotypes and criticisms still exist today and pose significant challenges to members of the Church and the DeGoedes’ ministry.
Cresentia encourages those interested in the Church to meet its members in person, attend its services, then make judgments for themselves. “As a second-generation member, I just describe my life to them, and when I do, it sounds very different from what they might have thought,” she said.
The second generation
In the late 1980s and 1990s, as the church continued to grow, first-generation members married, had children and settled into family life and their careers.
Their children — the second generation or the “peace generation” — show more variable levels of commitment to the church than their parents.
Groups such as the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles, or CARP, were established to support the Unification movement on college campuses.
CARP had a presence at Penn but disbanded when the group’s leader graduated, Crescentia said.
Like their parents, the second generation has faced, and continues to face, challenges of its own.
Insook Spacek, a second-generation member like her husband Shinho, recalled her childhood in a family “very normal in our thoughts, in what we did, and at the same time we were the odd-balls.”
She added that while growing up there had always been a conflict of “what we were taught against what the world thought was okay.” Both she and her husband remain active members of the Church.
College sophomore Aelita Parker said while she finds that some of the second generation do not hold their faith as strongly as their parents, others are stronger for having been brought up in the Church.
What can be said for both generations is that there is “a degree of compassion and selflessness that becomes much more sparse in the population once you exit religious communities,” she wrote in an email.
After the Sunday morning service, members of the first, second and third generations commingled in the pews. They proceeded to the basement and enjoyed a potluck lunch of deviled eggs, plates of fruit, Crock-Pots of rice and Korean meat and vegetable dishes.
The lunch line moved slowly: Whoever was in front would often serve himself as well as the person behind him.
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