Editor's Note: The Moonies with their flowers and pamphlets, the Hare Krishna devotees chanting on street corners, the Children of God and their free love version of the Bible. They are members of religious commune groups which demand total devotion and sometimes bank books from their flocks. Part one of a series of three articles examines these groups and why their leaders, "The New Messiahs," have attracted so many youthful converts.
BY VICTORIA GRAHAM
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK (API - New messiahs are arising across America, idolized by young converts who seek the truth and reviled by parents who accuse them of brainwashing.
Teachers or preachers, they offer the truth, the way, the light. Holy men or hucksters, they hold out a promise of knowledge, happiness and the path to God.
They offer love and warmth and community, in return, some demand not only souls, but also total devotion and savings accounts. Some call them withdrawal groups.
So tight is the grip on many young recruits that critics accuse them of mind control. Distraught parents have kidnaped their zealous children from groups and "deprogrammed" them.
There are hundreds of groups, but the best known are the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Children of God sect, the Divine Light Mission of 17-yearold Guru Maharaj Ji and the Hare Krishna movement.
"It's a unified family or brothers and sisters," says Ron Johnson, a 19-year-old Moonie from Austin, Tex, "We'll go around and meet people and try to help them out. The whole purpose is to train people to be missionaries."
"I've never before felt God's presence, so strongly," says Diane Hunt, 26, a former clerk who found Moonism. "I felt it was either go or stay. I felt it was God's will."
Some, like the Unification Church and Hare Krishna movement, are big business, and young idealistic converts relinquish their possessions to hawk flowers, candles and candy to finance their way to God.
They reflect a growing impulse to establish an alternative religious lifestyle that not only provides doctrine but also demands total commitment in every waking moment.
They employ a multimedia approach to piety that includes teaching, praying, meditating, chanting, exercising, burning incense, raising money for the cause and finding other recruits.
"Extreme groups demand total commitment and some provide a total life, completely set off from the mainstream of society," says Robert Ellwood, professor of religious sociology at the University of Southern California.
He calls them "withdrawal groups" and cites the Unification Church, the Children of God and Hare Krishna.
Many recruits In the new cult scene stepped out of the counterculture of the 1960s and the psychedelic experience. Here is a rundown of the major groups.
UNIFICATION CHURCH: Its leader is the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a 54-year-old Korean evangelist who claims a world wide church and an American following of 30,000, including a core of 7,000. He teaches that Christ will come again, take a bride and father a blessed human race. He is strongly anti-Communist.
"Rev. Moon comes as a spiritual father," says Neil A. Salonen, U.S. president of the group. "He is the individual through whom God speaks" - once at Madison Square Garden.
Moon himself is a millionaire with extensive Korean holdings that include gun and tea manufacturing. The church has $10 million in property in two New York estates.
He demands total devotion from his clean cut disciples, known as "Moonies" who regard him as a father. The most devoted live in communes, relinquish their savings and personal property to the church and even permit Moon to select their marriage partners. They proseletyse on street-corners and sell flowers and candles to raise money.
The group is strongly opposed to free love, alcohol and drugs.
The Unification Church has been vigorously criticized by parents who claim their children have been brainwashed and programmed.
"I'm ecstatic, I'm going to be a pioneer," says Debbie Dobson, a 20-year-old Moonie from Massachusetts.
CHILDREN OF GOD: The Children of God is a secretive Christian sect with an estimated 160 communes in North America and Europe. It is a fundamentalist group that sprang from the hippie and Jesus movements and applies a sexual interpretation to the Bible.
Like the Unification Church, it requires total devotion from its members who regard themselves as the enlightened "children of God." Many members have renounced their families and material possessions and many parents hook accused the group of imprisoning and brainwashing their children.
They take Biblical names and follow strict schedules, study the Bible and learn a trade.
The sect was founded in 1968 by David Moses Berg, now in Europe. Berg wrote a series of letters giving his views on everything from international politics In sexual mores and techniques.
DIVINE LIGHT MISSION: The Divine Light Mission is an Indian sect led by Guru Maharaj Ji, a plump, high-living 17year-old compared by his followers with Jesus, Buddha and Krishna. He is called the Perfect Master of the mission founded by his father in India.
The mission claims 500,000 American followers and eight million in India. It keeps track of its disciples with a computer, employs a public relations staff and has wide business interests including a janitorial service.
About 9,000 followers are actively involved and about 1,000 live in ashrams - communes for celibate living and meditation.
Maharaj Ji lives with his wife and child in a Malibu, Calif, mansion and has two airplanes, a Rolls Royce and three Mercedes Benz autos.
His mother has denounced him as a "playboy" who leads a "despicable, nonspiritual way of life" while espousing an ascetic, vegetarian lifestyle.
He has promised to reveal God and establish world peace. Disciples must meditate in order to receive knowledge and practice tongue contortion and eyeball pressure to taste "divine nectar" and see "divine light."
HARE KRISHNA: The Hare Krishna movement is part of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and claims thousands of saffron robed followers in temples across the U.S.
"Krishna" means Supreme Being in Sanskrit, and followers believe they can achieve ecstasy by leading an ascetic life, swaying and chanting "Hare Krishna."
The followers with shaven heads and pigtails are a familiar sight on many street-corners, in airports and subways where they sell candy and flowers and seek donations for good works.
To lead the righteous life, devotees are required to give up alcohol, drugs, coffee, tea, meat, fish and eggs. Gambling and illicit sex are prohibited.
Many have given up their possessions to serve the movement which has spread to communes in most major American cities and maintains some farms.
Concern over youthful converts is widespread, especially for the Moonies, Children of God and Hare Krishna devotees.
The Citizens Engaged in Reuniting Families is a nationwide anti-Moon organization which advises parents:
- Do answer all communications from your child in sincere, firm but unrecriminating language - Do not send money to your child or to the group: without economic support the group cannot survive. - Do not give up.
Deprogramming is gaining momentum.
The process may involve kidnaping the convert and requires hours or days of argument and reason to wear down the new religious beliefs. Deprogrammers call on family and friends. They hammer away, laughing, scoffing, listening, always reassuring the young person of their love.
Lee Roth, 26, of Freeport. N.Y., was taken away and deprogrammed last summer after four years in the Hare Krishna movement.
"I hated the deprogramming at the time, and I hated my parents for it." Roth says.
"I realize now I was brain-washed and I intend to discourage any young people from getting involved in any cults."
Next: One man's experience inside the Moon cult