The Moonies, A View from the Inside
By Kevin Convery
They were not an uncommon sight back in the seventies and early eighties; peddling carnations, candy or trinkets for donations in airports, bars and mall parking lots in all seasons, those notoriously clear eyed devotees of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, known affectionately, often derisively as “moonies.”
They also appeared from time to time in a decidedly sinister light on such documentary news programs as “Sixty Minutes.” Were they con-men or just the misguided, youthful converts of another far eastern religious leader, perhaps the late twentieth century version of millennialists like the Mormons?
A question that didn’t get asked however, one for example, that took Europeans an incredibly long time to ask Native Americans was, “Who or what were they to themselves?” “What did the experience look like from the inside?” “Was there passion, poetry and sustaining inspiration that addressed the larger issues of the time?” Theirs is a story seldom heard in the voices of the Unificationists themselves.
I have some detailed thoughts on this subject myself because once upon a time I was one of those bright eyed flower peddlers. Travelling in Dodge vans all over the Midwest and far Northwest I spent three years with the MFT (Mobile Fundraising Teams) of the American Unification Movement. It is a long time past now, part of a bygone era when ‘counter cultures’ flashed across the radar of public media everywhere; but those youthful days I spent with the MFT were by far some of the richest, most challenging and illuminating, if often dangerous, of my life, a story largely still untold by those who were actually living it.
The following is an excerpt from my 2011 memoir, Travels on the Night Sea, part of which looks from “the other side of the flower bucket” at those unrepeatable years.
Physically, and in other ways, our life was hard. We rose at six and were in the van an hour or so later. We would spend most of the day going from shop to shop, peddling or asking donations. In the evening we went to houses and apartment complexes, and then usually worked late into the night 'blitzing' bars, restaurants and truck stops. No place was off limits to us as far as we were concerned. Our undiscriminating enthusiasm drew a range of responses from amusement to hostility or landed us at the town police station before the day was through.
In the process however, we got to see every nook and cranny of society, as few people ever do. It was, by far, one of the most educational and adventurous periods of my life. One day ranged easily from the gutter to the penthouse.
I had very little fear then, though I was often in situations that would be considered dangerous. I found myself in motorcycle bars at two in the morning, visited Indian reservations and ghettos in the inner city where white people were rarely seen. I was threatened often, beaten a few times and thrown in jail twice.
In many ways we felt we were following up on what the social movements of the sixties and seventies had tried to accomplish in a different way. We saw ourselves, a bit romantically, as spiritual revolutionaries, mystic outlaws of the highways.
The stories are many. I could fill a book with them alone. Physically, sometimes emotionally too, it was the hardest three years I've ever experienced. I made a good bit of money and spent hardly a dollar of it myself, but no amount of money could begin to pay for the education I got in the human condition. And no tuition could have paid for, could have arranged, the rich passages I stumbled into in places of astonishing beauty and astonishing wretchedness. In these far flung travels we would meet the best and the worst of humanity, the noble and the pathetic. Our daily encounters ranged from the near catatonic alcoholics of the ‘Burnside Blitz’ in the seediest district of Portland, Oregon, to Malaysian crews below the decks of ships in port at Seattle, to grease covered machinists in cavernous steel factories straining to hear our pitch above the grinding, screeching industrial cacophony.
With a short leap of memory I can hurdle over thirty years into what seems already a long gone era. I can move again through the panorama of eventful wanderings: the simple little prairie towns we passed through on our constant travels, the harsh, lonely sound of freight cars rattling through the night, past silos and water towers rising starkly over fields of corn stubble, the sleepy settlements plopped down on the plains of Iowa like squares in a vast quilt, the quiet, weathered old women in their equally weathered clapboard houses, the town squares, and the stoic stone churches that had been the spiritual anchors of that austere land.
I will always recall, with deep fondness, the warm camaraderie of those long drives, the midnight hours of rocking sleepily in the van amid a tangle of flower buckets, chocolate turtle boxes and damp overcoats, the animated conversations, laughing together on some empty, snowy Minnesota street at two in the morning, or bedding down in the piney embrace of a forest outside of town after a day of hard fundraising—being generally full of irrepressible hope in an era when real hope was a diminishing commodity.
To the world we often looked like beggars and less, but never have I known such moments of illuminated happiness. The spiritual world seemed remarkably close to us in those days. We were, as never before, God’s own sons and daughters, taking our bread and education straight from His unseen hand, ”encircling all the earth,” as a song had put it. Uncanny things would happen all the time. People would drive up to a Quick-stop at the very end of the day and give the exact amount needed to fulfill a goal specified in a morning prayer. Members would meet strangers whom they had seen the night before in a dream. It is difficult to imagine the lines along which our daily lives took shape. To be sure, we must have appeared strange enough to the surrounding culture immersed in a far more ‘reasonable’ mindset.
As I have said, there is much to tell about that three-year period. It is, in fact, difficult to put it into a perspective neatly comprehensible to a more pragmatic mindset; But, limited as we were by the passionate literalness, sometimes the tunnel vision of youthful idealism, we nevertheless felt ourselves to be making a meaningful investment against the balance of a civilization that seemed madly squandering its hard won blessings in blind hedonism.
I still think of those ‘brothers and sisters’ who served in this unpopular and little understood cause with the greatest affection and honor. Some were badly hurt. Some even died. All faced danger and mockery. They did not understand all there was to understand, but they practiced a kind of love that went far beyond the ethos of practical self-fulfillment, so popular at the time.
After serving two years in the Midwest, I was sent to the ‘Northwest Region,’ which included Oregon, Washington and the mountain states immediately to the east, as well as Alaska. Travelling in vans across that huge territory, we were sometimes dropped off for days at a time to range across the country with the help of our thumbs. I became quite familiar with the northern Rockies and the rain forests of the Northwest coast. We would ride for long hours along twisting mountain roads, and over the high plains, sometimes visiting the reservations of the Blackfeet, Lakota and Cheyenne. I felt graced by the quiet, dignified Indian mother who sat me down in her government house and bought cloisonné belt buckles for each of her children. Thousands upon thousands of encounters, never to be repeated, finding the divine spark in the faces of earth’s varied children.
We visited cowboy towns and resorts, trailer parks and mountain bars with sawdust floors. We even flew to Eskimo settlements out in the Bering Sea by bush plane. With a tempered blend of faith and self-reliance we met thousands of people whose paths we might otherwise never have crossed, and developed a comprehensible view of our land that would have been inconceivable to any of us just a few years before. So we tried, in our way, to comprehend a vast and varied land, trying to feel as if its inhabitants were our relatives. And we took part of our own developing visions from it. As Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ muses, “I am a part of all that I have met...”’
All that long wandering had the distinctive flavor of a renewed innocence, a kind of spiritual childhood in which windows to another world seemed thrown open again. Perhaps no image embodies so well the tone of that time as a dream I had one night after a particularly difficult day in my first year in Iowa.
In it, I was standing on a street, in the rain, with a bucket of carnations, something I had often done in waking life. People passing by would laugh and make insulting remarks. No one seemed to want to buy any flowers, and I felt like a complete outcast. After some time the street was empty, and silent except for the pattering raindrops. Suddenly the drops began to turn into falling carnations, which landed with a muffled smack, carpeting the asphalt around me. Some unseen presence in the atmosphere seemed to whisper a blessing, softer than a breath.
Dr. Mose Durst, the first Unification lecturer I had encountered in California, said something in his first talk that I thought of often in those days. He remarked that true love was ‘velvet and steel.’ So our lives seemed to be on those Mobile Fundraising Teams. With closed eyes I can still picture life in one of those rolling ‘homes away from home,’ the MFT van: Surrounded by sloshing flower buckets, newspapers and cellophane, some try to get a nap on a bed of shifting cardboard boxes. We look and feel somewhat like soldiers, young men and women in coffee and yogurt stained coats of beige or slate blue. There are a variety of smells. Excursions might last a week or two. Chances are our last ‘shower’ was taken in a truck stop sink!
The fundraisers tell stories of their various ‘runs,’ house to house, shop to shop or strips of outlets and factories. There is a kind of grim humor, which eases the rough edges of this kind of demanding work. We laugh about some of the incredible characters we manage to bump into in the course of a day on the streets: “A straggly haired woman went looking for me with a shotgun as I ran behind the houses!” or “A man who spoke through a hole in his throat with a little microphone called me a Moonie scumbag.” The stories are endless.
Alternately scoffed at, treated with acute suspicion, and celebrated; our days could often be a psychological roller coaster. We were, in many ways, far tougher inside than people suspected. But there was something else too, unsuspected… moments of transcendent clarity and bliss, the opening of some inner window to the Otherworld. These were not mad hallucinogenic transports. They often came couched in very externally simple experiences. I remember, for example, late one winter afternoon passing, shop to shop, along the snowy streets of Kalispell, Montana. The last blaze of day’s end was streaming, in a coral tinted shower, across store fronts, tire churned tracks and passing faces. Nothing unusual was really happening, but I felt an inexplicable rush of joy and wonder at the sheer beauty of just being there. It was as if this ordinary street had shifted into something almost dream-like before my eyes. I am reminded of a statement by C.S. Lewis to the effect that, “If one attains heaven. All of it will prove to have been a part of heaven…”
There are rapturous moments, flying across the empty spaces between towns and cities. The lyrics of a Korean folk song, ‘San-a-He,’ fill the van, echoing our own odyssey across America’s hinterland. “We move on day and night like floating water grass. Since we left our native land, so many years have passed. Sun goes down. We move on. Run and run, real man…”
Like floating water grass we skimmed over the face of a quickly changing nation, and with the credibility of youth we believed that the visions of a more humane, illuminated world we carried within were worth all the trouble and risk, that we could help to alter destiny. In many ways the world has, since then, grown more weary and contentious—for the aging veterans of the MFT as for everyone.
But we gave, at least, with an open hand, what we had to give to the times as we understood them. Who is to say, in the longer view of history, what the gift was finally worth?
*A Note About the Author: Follow Kevin Convery at www.mythicgold.com. His book is Travels on the Night Sea – An Inner Journey Through a Changeful Era.