There must be some sort of delay. Already it’s 20 minutes past the time the Blessing was supposed to begin, yet still Peggy and Rob are waiting outside the arena. Peggy perspires from the early summer heat.
A double column of brides and grooms snakes down the circular corridor surrounding the main arena of Madison Square Garden. From where she is standing, Peggy can’t see the end of the line. She knows there is another double column of couples waiting to enter from the other direction. When the doors are finally opened, the two columns will merge into one for the wedding march.
The rumor being whispered up and down the lines is that the delay is because security guards with metal detectors are standing at every entrance to ensure that no one can enter the arena with a weapon to try to kill True Father, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
Peggy tugs at her veil and the white wedding gown she had made—a Simplicity pattern (with the neckline raised two inches) that all the brides had used. She knows without glancing at him that Rob is giving her that peculiar look that makes her so uncomfortable.
They had met 2 days before. At the Matching in the ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel (now called the World Mission Center) just two blocks away, True Father had paired her up with Rob. This was not the first time Peggy had seen the Messiah in person; but on every other occasion, she’d been seated on the floor of a large room listening while Father spoke at length. This time, however—for one brief moment—she’d stood right next to Father while he surveyed the room to find a suitable match for her. All the eligible brothers were seated cross-legged on the floor on the right side, while all the available sisters were assembled to the left. Father had pointed first at her. She stood up and approached him. Father then surveyed the brothers for a minute before stabbing his finger in the direction of Rob, a burly older American brother whom Peggy had never seen. She was still jet-lagged from a flight out of England that had brought her to New York the previous day. During the entire flight, she’d been excited but nervous about who would be chosen for her husband.
Remembering her first glimpse of Rob rising to meet her at the front of the Grand Ballroom, Peggy risks a glance at him now. He responds with a nervous smile, momentarily erasing the hungry, almost predatory look he usually gives her. He is a large man dressed in a navy blue, two-piece suit, with black shoes, white shirt, and white gloves, set off by a maroon necktie of the exact same shade that all the grooms are wearing. Rob pulls the tie out from his vest and twists it around so she can read the words embroidered on the cloth loop at the back. “World Peace Through Ideal Family,” it proclaims, with the first two words in script and the rest (on the line below) in block capitals: “JULY 1, 1982.”
“Very nice,” Peggy assures him, then turns away again to look straight ahead. There is still no movement in the long queues waiting outside the arena doors. Since Father is inspired by God, there must be some reason God wants her to marry this older man who makes her feel so uneasy. After they were matched, they had gone to a side balcony to discuss the match. Many other prospective couples were already there, but they’d found a small table where they could sit by themselves to talk. Peggy could have refused Rob, but she’d been instructed to trust Father’s decision, so she resolved to accept him. Yet, even at their first brief meeting, he’d surprised her by admitting he often hid from church leaders whenever he wanted to avoid church activities.
At last, the long line of couples begins moving forward. Well up the corridor, Peggy sees that the arena doors are finally open. The two double columns unite at the entrance, forming a single phalanx of eight couples arrayed in alternating colors—blue, white, blue, white—all moving together like a swelling river of humanity flowing into the arena. Now Peggy is at the entrance, and the vast space opens up before her, brightly lit, with the floor carpeted in dazzling white. Immediately after entering, the couples climb several steps to a dais carpeted in deep red. They cross the dais, marching in procession, and then descend to the arena floor. Father and Mother, wearing flowing white robes with gold brocade and white crowns tinged with gold, stand on raised platforms on each side, holding large white wands. Beside them are huge bowls filled with Holy Water. When they pass directly underneath True Father, Peggy feels the Holy Water splashing the side of her veil.
As they step down onto the arena floor, the phalanx divides again in two, with couples streaming to the left and right toward their assigned places. Peggy knows that she and Rob are expected to take their places in the bleachers at the back. The arena floor is already completely jammed with prospective brides and grooms. After they reach their spot, Peggy and Rob turn to face the dais where the True Parents are standing in front of two elegant chairs upholstered in red and gold. Father begins the ceremony with a prayer, which booms out over the entire arena in guttural, emphatic Korean.
Peggy takes a sidelong glance at Rob. The man she is to marry is a mechanic at the church warehouse in Queens. He fixes the Dodge and Ford vans for the mobile fundraising teams who fan out all over the country, selling flowers and candy to save America. Sometimes Rob works on the delivery trucks that bring Father’s News World newspaper to newsstands all over New York. This is important work, but Peggy worries about the way Rob talks about the brothers he works with. No matter whom he mentions, he always tries to show that he knows better. Even worse is the way he talks about the sisters. It’s as though he thinks sisters exist only to serve the brothers. When Peggy told him about her education, he’d dismissed it as merely “intellectual” and “not useful to Father.”
True Father’s voice breaks into Peggy’s reveries; he is asking the couples to assent to the four vows of the Unification Church Blessing. He will ask four questions, to which the brides and grooms must shout in unison their assent. He will ask the questions in Korean, but both Peggy and Rob have seen them written down in English.
“Do you pledge to keep the heavenly law as original men and women, and, should you fail, pledge to take responsibility for that?”
Rob joins in the general shout of “Yes!” to Father’s question. Peggy, however, only sighs out the word, half-heartedly, though Rob is too caught up to notice.
The Blessing had always seemed like it would be the answer to all her troubles. Over and over, Peggy had been told that once she received the Holy Wine at the ceremony following the Matching, she would be spiritually changed. The Holy Wine Ceremony had removed her Original Sin. But Peggy hadn’t noticed any change since she took the Holy Wine. She remained as she’d always been: often discouraged and prone to depression.
When she first joined the Unification Church, the Blessing—which she’d learned about only after she’d been a member for a couple of months—seemed like the perfect answer to the troubles that had dogged her all her life. She had never known how to be comfortable around men and had never been in a long-term relationship with anyone. She was taught that Father would find just the right brother to be her soul mate. With his perfect insight into the spirit world, he would find someone with just the right ancestors to match with hers, and together their blood lineages would be removed from the dominion of Satan. So why did she feel so miserable?
Father’s voice breaks into her thoughts and Peggy turns her attention to the front of the arena. He is intoning the second vow. Peggy recalls the English translation: “Do you pledge as ideal husbands and wives to establish eternal families, with which God can be happy?”
“Yes!” everyone shouts out in unison, louder than before—except Peggy, who can manage only a half-hearted mumble.
Rob thrusts out his right arm and clenches his hand into a fist, pumping it for emphasis as he yells out his “Yes!” The brothers and sisters unite in their desire to please Father by pouring every effort into the shouting of their vows.
But hadn’t there been one boy, once, back in college? She’d met him in her third year of reading English at University of Leicester. She’d been the quiet one who always sat at the back of the lecture hall. This young man had been in her Restoration Drama course. And now here he was again, seated nearby while her professor talked about Wordsworth.
His name was Malcolm. He looked at her many times without saying anything, but one day he approached her after class. It was clear he was just as shy as Peggy. They went out a few times (the first time they just went to Wimpy’s for hamburgers), but Malcolm had never known how to put aside his own awkwardness around her. Eventually he stopped trying. Peggy went back to believing that she was too plain and ordinary for any man to want her.
Then she’d met the Unification Church, just a few months before graduating from Leicester. She’d been on the way to the chemist’s shop for some soap and other things, when she chanced across a young German man and a young Japanese woman standing on the street corner. They were selling a small newspaper called the New Hope News for 10 pence; and since they were so friendly (though the woman spoke hardly any English), Peggy bought one of their papers. Manfred told her about a meeting of young people at a nearby house, and invited her. He was so impressed with her university education and so flattering that she almost laughed. But she told him she would come, and then she almost hadn’t, thinking she would be out of place. At the meeting she’d met a few English men and women, as well as a French man, an Italian, three Germans, and a Canadian. All of them had welcomed her and exclaimed about how smart she was to have progressed so far in her studies. There was one other guest, a young woman who worked as an au pair, who’d met the New Hope News sellers while pushing her young charges in a pram. But the au pair woman never returned.
Peggy came back several times. The church members gave curious lectures about God and Jesus that made her think. But it was really their friendliness that won her over. She wasn’t sure whether she believed their ideas or not. After several visits they told her that there was an important week-long lecture series she must attend at Cleeve House in Wiltshire. It was some distance away, and when she argued that she couldn’t go until she was done with her studies, they insisted, saying it was the most important thing she could be doing. Finally she relented, and went away for a week. At that impressive house, she’d been so overwhelmed by the intensity of the sense of mission of all the brothers and sisters that she’d nearly agreed to quit her studies. Fortunately, she hadn’t done that. Yet right after graduating, she’d begun living with the Family members, much to the anger and confusion of her parents. Did all this happen only 4 years ago? It seemed so much longer.
Father’s voice pushes aside Peggy’s memories as he proclaims the third vow: “Do you pledge to inherit heavenly tradition, and, as external persons of goodness, raise up your children as examples of this standard before your family and the universe?”
Again Rob pumps his right hand, formed into a determined fist, emphatically as he joins with the others in shouting “Yes!” to Father’s question. Peggy echoes them faintly.
At the Holy Wine Ceremony, an elderly Korean man had passed them a tray containing small glasses of Holy Wine. She’d bowed to him in the Oriental manner, and then taken one of the small glasses, from which she drank half of the wine before passing the remainder to Rob, who’d bowed to her and then finished it. He then gave the glass back to her, and she’d bowed before giving the cup back to the Korean elder. In that moment, her Original Sin had been conditionally removed (provided she remained loyal to Father throughout her life), and any children born of their marriage would be sinless. But as they left the ballroom afterward, Rob had whispered something surprising and unsettling to her.
“I think there was perfume in the Holy Wine. Anyway, I’d rather drink beer.” And he’d chuckled.
Peggy had never touched a drop of alcohol since joining the church, believing it was forbidden, so she was confused by his remark and asked him to explain, but he shrugged it off. Later, when they went by subway to Queens to see the place where he worked, she noticed he’d hidden a case of beer in the closet where he kept his overalls and work clothes. When she asked him about it, he abruptly closed the closet door and told her that sometimes his coworkers made him nervous so he needed beer to relax. Do you do this often?, she’d wondered. He’d admitted that he did it nearly every day. “There’s this hallway upstairs in the back where nobody ever goes. I go up there and set up six of them in a row, then just toss them down, all at once. That’s how you get the best hit.”
“Don’t your central figures know?”
“They don’t hang around here much. I never do it if they’re around.”
Did God choose her to be Rob’s wife so she could save him from his drinking? Father had said that Blessed spouses were supposed to be Messiahs to each other, but Peggy doubted she was up to this task.
Peggy hears Father proclaiming the fourth and final vow now, his voice booming out over the arena. “Do you pledge to be centers of love before your societies, nations, the world, and the universe, based upon the ideal family?”
“Yes!” all 2,075 couples roar, as one. Again Rob punches the air with his right fist as he roars his assent, and again Peggy joins in, though she feels her throat constricting, as though it wanted to cut off the word.
All the couples turn to face each other for the exchange of rings. Rob reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out two gold bands, each embossed with a symbol representing the Twelve Gates of Heaven. Peggy extends her right hand to Rob and he slides one of the gold bands over her middle finger. Rob then hands Peggy the other ring, and she grasps his right hand in her left and slides the gold band onto his middle finger. The ceremony is almost complete.
Father closes the ceremony the way most church events end: with three cheers of “Mansei!” (meaning “Victory for Ten Thousand Years!”) Looking elated, the rotund, white-robed Messiah crouches slightly and places his hands just above his knees, like a football coach about to lead his team in a cheer. All the brides and grooms follow his example. And then his voice booms out, “Aboji!” (meaning “Father!”). The next instant all the newlyweds rise to their full height and fling their hands above their heads, shouting, “Mansei!”
Again Father squats while all the brides and grooms do likewise. Again he gives the signal, “Aboji!”, and again the arena is filled with arms flinging heavenward as their response rings through the rafters: “Mansei!” And then a third time—first the crouch, then the signal, “Aboji!”, followed by the uproarious cry, “Mansei!”
The True Parents are standing together now at the front of the dais in their robes of white and gold, being presented with elaborate floral bouquets as a symbol of thanks. They are the only hope to save mankind. Their marriage in 1960 was the fulfillment of the prophecy in Revelation about the Marriage of the Lamb. On that holy occasion, Father surpassed the accomplishments of Jesus Christ, who had been killed before he was able to marry. The crucifixion of Jesus had foiled God’s plans and postponed the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth for 2,000 years. Now, Father would complete his work.
But these thoughts were no comfort to Peggy. For a moment, she had an impulse to push all the other couples aside and run out of the arena, away from Rob. But she knew this was a temptation from an evil spirit trying to stop her from receiving God’s ultimate Blessing. In any case, there would be a wait of at least three years before she had to start her family with Rob. During those three years, they must live apart—Rob in America and Peggy in England—and they must each recruit three new members into the Unification Church. Would Rob change during those three years, as a result of the Holy Wine Ceremony? Would he become the kind of man that Peggy would want to marry? Peggy realizes that in any case she has no choice: Father has chosen Rob for her and expects her to live up to her vows. Perhaps God wanted her to endure this difficult marriage so she could pay indemnity for the sins of all mankind.
Just then the band strikes up the wedding march and the couples begin filing out of the arena, two by two, with each bride slipping her hand into the crook of each groom’s arm. The band switches to a church hymn, “The Song of the Banquet,” which was written specifically about the Blessing ceremony. When it is their turn to leave, Peggy and Rob move to the exit. An older couple, who had been Blessed in an earlier ceremony, stand near the exit, loudly sighing in appreciation, as though admiring the exquisiteness of Father’s matchmaking abilities. They gasp with pleasure when Peggy and Rob pass by.
Suddenly they exit onto Eighth Avenue, where they are bathed in the glare of the midday sun and blasted by hot July air. Startled pedestrians stop to watch the surreal spectacle of hundreds of brides and grooms strolling toward the corner of 33rd Street. A few bystanders ask to see the Blessing ring, and Rob and Peggy hold out their hands for them to see.
“Very nice!” they tell her.
“Whew, I’m glad that’s over with,” Rob says over his shoulder to her when they reach the next corner. “Let’s get something to eat.”
He jerks his head in the direction of the McDonald’s restaurant across the street from the World Mission Center. Peggy follows him through the door. Normally she never ate at fast food places. But wasn’t this, after all, the way things would have to be from now on?
K. Gordon Neufeld, MFA, is the author of Heartbreak and Rage: Ten Years Under Sun Myung Moon, A Cult Survivor’s Memoir. He was a member of the Unification Church from 1976 to 1986. Following his departure from the group, he graduated from the University of British Columbia Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. His opinion piece about the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s mass marriages appeared in First Things magazine in January 2003. He has read from his work at ICSA conference Phoenix Project exhibits. “Living Water” (a story read at ICSA’s 2010 annual conference) was published in The Windsor Review in the Spring 2011 issue. He is working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Mr. Neufeld lives with his wife and stepdaughter near Schenectady, New York.