An Asian lady recently approached Ikeen Adolphus on the streets of New York City. "She looked like she needed help, and she was flashing a book. She asked me, 'Are you single?' and 'Would you like to be married?' "
Mr. Adolphus, a Bronx native who worked as a courier in Manhattan, followed the recruiter for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification movement. And this past weekend, he joined thousands of others in Seoul's Olympic stadium to marry strangers.
His new wife, Saraswati, couldn't come from Nepal for the ceremony, but Adolphus clings to a framed picture of her. They've e-mailed each other for one week. "She's in college. She's very spiritual," he says.
The mass ceremony on Sunday united 10,000 new couples, and another 20,000 couples reaffirmed their vows. "No more divorce, family abuse, sex before marriage ... but a commitment that lasts forever," says Dan Stein, an American explaining the movement's goals.
The ceremony is not a legal wedding, and couples must get marriage licenses later. But it is a key part of Mr. Moon's cosmology. Moon teaches that the marriage blessing absolves people of original sin and sets the foundation for a kingdom of heaven on earth. Followers call Mr. and Mrs. Moon their "true parents."
Detractors and ex-members have long said Moon is not what he claims to be. But today's fervently festive occasion overshadows the criticism.
A gaggle of Belarussian brides pose for the camera, saying they will learn Korean. Their husbands, from Seoul, vow to study Russian. For now, it's just smiles and a little broken English. Nearby, William Hedlund of California stands guardedly by his young Japanese bride. Marrying Shio Fujiwara, who can't speak English, took "a leap of faith. [But] I believe in this movement, and I believe in my wife," he says.
In white and gold robes and bedecked with crowns, Moon and his wife appear atop a massive stage. Majestic music echoes through the stadium as helpers sprinkle couples with holy water. Spiritual representatives of Jews, the Nation of Islam, native Americans, the Vatican, Jains, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and others bless the gathering. Then the Moons deliver their blessing.
The crowd shouts "Hallelujah!" as fireworks and balloons launch into the sky. People wave with both hands as the Moons ascend a long red-carpeted staircase.
Moon built his first church in 1954 out of scrap boxes. In the 1960s he began building a business empire that grew to hundreds of companies, including The Washington Times newspaper. Today, the movement counts 4.4 million members, but outside sources say its core is actually around 100,000.
The mass weddings were originally held every seven years, but in the '90s became more frequent. This year Unificationists claim to have blessed 400 million couples worldwide.
While Moon teaches how to have an ideal family, his own has come under scrutiny. A recent book by a daughter-in-law accused his son of adultery, physical and mental abuse, and pornographic and drug addictions. Another son committed suicide in November 1999. Moon himself was jailed for a year in America for reporting false taxes in the 1980s.
At the first wedding in 1960, Moon married his second and current wife, who was 16. His followers are undeterred, and say that great leaders who shook up established powers always faced opposition.
A key belief of Moon's followers is that Koreans are the chosen people, and the world should learn Korean and emulate Korean families.
A lapsed member who requested anonymity says he feels sorry for the new couples. "I think it offers a false promise. Matching gives you the sense that you've made it," and removes personal responsibility, he says. The movement says the divorce rate is 5 percent, but ex-members put it as high as 75 percent.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society