On Memorial Day weekend, I returned for the first time in years to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Theological Seminary (UTS) in Barrytown, New York. I travelled there with my family to attend the 39th convocation ceremony, as well as an alumni conference which followed. Though I am no longer a member of Moon’s Unification Church, and have written two highly critical books about it, I was nevertheless permitted to attend all of the sessions, and was treated with kindness and respect.
I first wrote about UTS for First Things readers in March 2008, when Moon, though senescent, was still clinging to his dwindling authority over the movement he had founded. Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, he had unwisely divided his spiritual and financial empire among his various progeny, and these quickly began squabbling about how the movement’s considerable assets would be used. Following Moon’s death in 2012, the wrangling turned into actual schisms, with church members being called upon to choose loyalty either to Mrs. Moon (whom members call as “True Mother”), or to one or another of Moon’s sons. Meanwhile, one of the latter was wielding his fiscal authority to withdraw funding from programs he viewed as expendable, such as UTS.
In spite of all this, the UTS graduation ceremony, held in the chapel, included all the pomp and inflated rhetoric one might expect from such a celebration. Twenty-one graduates from four different degree programs walked in procession, followed by various faculty and administrators wearing flowing ceremonial robes. Fervent right-wing journalist Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon was awarded an honorary doctorate in theology, after which he delivered a speech discussing the threat of cyber-warfare. Other speeches were more conventional.
Yet, even as the honors were being awarded, everyone present knew that this was going to be the last such ceremony, at least for the undergraduate program. A flock of vultures swooped and wheeled high above the chapel throughout the entire ceremony. I could easily see them through the chapel’s clear windows, which had recently replaced the stained glass windows that had once graced the chapel. (Those windows were returned to the Christian Brothers, who had originally built the seminary in the 1930s, when it was called St. Joseph’s Normal School.)
The next day, at the Alumni Conference, the Seminary’s new President, Dr. Hugh Spurgin, explained to the assembled alumni that the undergraduate program, known as Barrytown College, had been shut down because of the withdrawal of federal funding due to managerial irregularities. The graduate programs would continue from UTS’s Manhattan location, though their continued survival depended on finding paying students. As for the venerable Barrytown buildings that the alumni remembered so fondly, the President vowed that they would never be sold, but he could not guarantee that they (or the lands surrounding them) would not be repurposed for a five-star resort. In any event, Dr. Spurgin explained, their alma mater must either become self-supporting, or it would soon disappear.
Dr. Spurgin warned that “We have to know which way the wind is blowing,” by which he meant that Moon’s widow is now consolidating her authority over Moon’s movement, pushing aside Moon’s contentious sons. He implied that those who maintained their loyalty to one or another of Moon’s sons, in defiance of Mrs. Moon, would soon find themselves on the outside.
The assembled alumni were mostly sincere, idealistic people who had originally been recruited into Moon’s movement in the 1970s or early 1980s, dreaming of a One World Family of peace and unity. They had been the backbone of the controversial movement during the time when it was characterized in the press as a cult filled with brainwashed followers. Now they watched anxiously as the group to which they had given their entire lives was being torn apart by in-fighting.
Needless to say, none of this was alluded to during the graduation ceremony. Yet, as the graduates came forward to accept their diplomas, my family and I, seated in the balcony, became preoccupied with rescuing a swallow that had found its way into the chapel through one of the open windows. We found a long net in the balcony and made several attempts to net the bird, but it kept flying to inaccessible perches. Even after the graduation ceremony was over, we kept up our efforts to rescue the little bird, without success.
The next day, during a break at the alumni conference, I went back to the empty chapel to look for the little trapped swallow, but I saw no signs of it. Presumably, it had found its way out one of the open windows, and (like the utopian dreams of UTS alumni), had vanished into the still, quiet air.
K. Gordon Neufeld is the author of Cult Fiction: One Writer's Creative Journey Through an Extreme Religion. His website is www.neufeldbooks.com.