WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - When a group of clergy members held a news conference this week to defend the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial founder of the Unification Church, some of the most supportive words came from an unlikely source: black preachers.
The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, who served for two decades as District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, praised Moon as a spiritual fellow-traveler for his efforts to strengthen families and work for peace around the globe.
"That's my man!" said Fauntroy, a civil rights activist and pastor of Washington's New Bethel Baptist Church who first met Moon in 1971.
Fauntroy's words underscored the improbable relationship the Korean evangelist has forged with African-American preachers over the past three decades. As a part of his drive for world unity, the wealthy businessman has developed ties with at least hundreds of black clergy members through the sponsorship of trips, seminars and workshops on issues of common interest, including sexual abstinence, social justice and world peace.
Despite their political differences - a Moon organization owns the conservative Washington Times, and most black preachers are liberal Democrats - African-American clergy have proven to be among his most faithful allies, according to David G. Bromley, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of a 1979 book, Moonies in America.
"He's targeted virtually every group," said Bromley, referring to Moon's overtures to other influential sectors of society, including scientists, academics and journalists. But "he's resonated more with certain elements of the African-American religious community and nurtured those ties."
On Wednesday, an interfaith group turned out to support Moon as he weathered a new controversy. In March, a Moon organization called the Interreligious and International Federation For World Peace held a ceremony in a federal building on Capitol Hill to recognize citizens who had worked for peace. Of the 90 people honored, half were African-American, including 15 clergy members.
During the event, attended by numerous members of Congress, Moon proclaimed himself the Messiah. According to reports, he said that the ghosts of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler "have found strength in my teachings, mended their ways and been reborn as new persons." Moon also donned a robe and was crowned as the "King of Peace."
When news of the ceremony finally surfaced last week, some lawmakers claimed that they had been duped into attending.
Moon's supporters insisted that no one had been misled and that - although the event involved a theology professor in white gloves placing a crown on Moon's head - it was not a coronation. Instead, they said, Moon was being recognized for his lifetime achievements promoting peace and reconciliation.
An independent church
Moon, 84, established the Unification Church in 1954 in South Korea. Members of the self-described independent Christian church believe he was anointed by Jesus to restore the human family to God's grace after the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Critics, however, have accused Moon's church of operating as a cult and recruiting members through mind control techniques. In 1984, Moon was convicted of federal tax fraud for failing to report more than $160,000 in income and served a 13-month sentence.
Moon, a Korean citizen, lives in Westchester County, N.Y., and has connections to enormous wealth. Some years ago, he said he had spent $1 billion subsidizing the Washington Times. Officials say his church and the Federation for World Peace U.S.A. is funded by contributions from U.S. members, private businesses and the organizations' business holdings.
In the mid-1990s, Moon changed the name of his church to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Officials say the reason was to dissolve the walls among Christian denominations and open the doors to Muslims and Jews. The organization claims about 1 million members in the United States and 7 million world-wide.
Moon has longstanding ties to black clergy. After he was jailed for tax evasion, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference backed Moon, suggesting that he was a victim of racial persecution because he's Asian.
Today, Moon attracts black clergy mostly from independent churches, rather than big denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Black clergy members who came out to support Moon this week said they were drawn to him because of shared values.
Tessie D. Willis, co-pastor of the Lighthouse Faith Family Church, frequently preaches on abstinence in her Dallas neighborhood where teen pregnancy is common. She said she admires Moon because he has been ahead of many black preachers on the issue.
"What makes it so unique is he's so bold with it," said Willis, who had her first child at 14.
Moon's Federation for World Peace has solidified relations with various clergy groups, including blacks, through international conferences and foreign trips. In recent years, the organization has mounted continuous peace initiatives to the Middle East, which it offers at a heavy discount. Four thousand people have participated, officials say.
Some black preachers, though, accuse Moon of using his largess to win over pastors and bolster his legitimacy.
Critics point to a Moon-sponsored trip in which 60 clergy members, most of them black, flew to South Korea to pray for peace along the Demilitarized Zone. Participants went on to form Moon's American Clergy Leadership Conference, a predominantly African-American group that was among the sponsors of the March event on Capitol Hill.
Critics also cite events in which Moon has distributed gold watches to clergy members.
"He's a very rich man," said the Rev. Gregory Perkins, former head of Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, who calls Moon's Messiah claim heresy.
"The overwhelming majority of us consider him anathema," Perkins added. "Anybody who is foolish enough to declare themselves the Messiah is either misinformed, demonic or mentally challenged."
Fauntroy dismissed criticism of Moon's messianic claims. "You don't judge people on the basis of what they say they believe, but on the basis of what they do," he said.
Not the money
Other black clergy members said Moon's appeal has nothing to do with money.
"Let me set the record straight: Black pastors cannot be bought," said Archbishop George Augustus Stallings Jr., national co-convener of the American Clergy Leadership Conference. "Black pastors are not cheap," he continued, displaying one of Moon's gifts on his wrist. "You cannot buy us with a gold watch."
Instead, Stallings said, black preachers relate to Moon because they share a history of racial persecution. Stallings, pastor of Imani Temple, an independent African-American Catholic church in Washington, likened Moon to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
"Now we want to declare them saints," he said. "But we know the same things that are happening to Reverend Moon happened to them."