Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Guns and religion mix as Pa. church blesses couples toting AR-15s

Attendees could bring their firearms into church, but they could not be loaded and had to be inspected beforehand.

A couple who didn’t want to give their names cheers at the end of a marriage blessing ceremony while holding a rifle at Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, Pa., on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.
A couple who didn’t want to give their names cheers at the end of a marriage blessing ceremony while holding a rifle at Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, Pa., on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

NEWFOUNDLAND, Pa. — Guns and religion are bone-deep in America, and no one seems to have figured that out better than the Moon brothers.

Hyung Jin "Sean" Moon is pastor of the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in this small town in rural Wayne County, 120 miles north of Philadelphia. His brother, Moon Kook-jin, also known as Justin Moon, owns Kahr Arms, a firearms manufacturing company 30 minutes away in Pike County.

Both are sons of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah who founded the controversial Unification Church, often described as a cult by its detractors. But the father, who died in 2012, never called on his followers to arm themselves with semi-automatic rifles.

On Wednesday morning, Sean Moon's Sanctuary held a marriage blessing that brought in hundreds of followers, from as far away as Japan, South Korea, and Europe. All were asked to bring their "rods of iron," a Bible reference from the fiery Book of Revelation that he has interpreted to mean firearms — specifically the AR-15.

Anyone without an AR-15 could buy one at Kahr Arms.

"I actually purchased my weapon there yesterday because, although I have several rifles, I didn't have an AR-15," said David Konn, a follower who had driven from Florida earlier in the week. "I think it retails for $689."

The ceremony's official name was the Cosmic True Parents of Heaven, Earth and Humanity Cheon Il Guk Book of Life Registration Blessing. It was part of the church's weeklong "Festival of Grace," which included a "President Trump Thank You Dinner" on Saturday. Wednesday's church ceremony garnered international attention because of the call for couples to bring AR-15s, a popular semi-automatic rifle that has been used in many of the nation's worst mass shootings, including the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

"The country is nervous," said church follower Carolyn Burkholder, 70.

Burkholder was adjusting a trigger lock on her AR-15 in the trunk of her car, near a child's car seat. She wore a crown.

"Some people see this gun, and they get scared," she said. "I used to be scared a little."

Indeed, the Wallenpaupack Area School District relocated students from a nearby elementary school to other locations for the day.

Inside the church, nearly everyone wore a crown. One was made of bullets. Several dozen people carried AR-15s, with their magazines and ammunition removed; others held small pistols. One man, who declined to give his name, placed a carnation in his rifle's muzzle.

Tim Elder, a church official, emphasized that the morning's event was a marriage blessing and not a "a blessing of inanimate firearms." He also instructed armed attendees to point their muzzles down when Moon and his wife, Yeon-Ah Lee, came in with the "royal procession."

"No, wait. I mean muzzles up," Elder said.

A large part of the service was in Korean, though everyone stood for the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Moon, who grew up in Tarrytown, N.Y., and attended Harvard University,  spoke in English about the "last days" and combating the evils of socialism and communism. His wife held an AR-15.

"We are so grateful that we are receiving these accouterments of royalty, of kings and queens, of sovereignty, of kingdom, of protection and self-defense," Moon said of the guns.

On Monday, Justin Moon told the Inquirer and Daily News that his firearms company, which has sold weapons to police departments across the country, was merely a sponsor of the Festival of Grace. He attends the church.

"We sell a few guns," he said. "That's no secret. That's my profession. I'm a gun manufacturer, so I support the Second and First Amendment."

Outside, along Main Street, a small group of protesters gathered, jawing with followers who held a large banner with Trump's face emblazoned on it. One woman from Scranton carried a sign calling the followers "Stunads"— mentally confused. Another said Moon's Bible interpretation made as much sense as, say, "Rod of Pickles." So some carried signs with pickles on them.

One protester, Teddy Hose, said he grew up with Sean Moon and the Unification Church in Tarrytown but left the church with his entire family.

"Sean was a bully," Hose, 39, said.

Hose said the inclusion of semi-automatic weapons "makes it seem even more like bull—."

The original Unification Church considers Sean Moon's church a "breakaway" group, and issued a news release saying guns play no part in its services or doctrine. The son, the Unification Church says, rebelled against his mother to found the Sanctuary.

A strange mashing-together of cultures Wednesday meant some men wore tuxedos, while others simply drove in from Northeast Pennsylvania in jeans and NRA hats — men who use their weapons mostly to hunt whitetail deer in the fall and winter.

"I came in support of the Second Amendment," said Bob Bauer, 80, of nearby Greentown. "What's happened in this country recently is an affirmation. People need to be able to take care of themselves."

Bauer held a .38-caliber pistol in his hand during the ceremony.

No matter how much anyone tried to explain it all, Carol Ward, 59, sat on the front porch of her old farmhouse across from the Sanctuary both baffled and annoyed. She'd never seen so many people in Newfoundland before, and in all her years there, she never knew hunters to carry an AR-15 come opening day.

"This whole thing, all this, is ridiculous," she said, smoking a small cigar. "They're very dedicated to what they believe in, I guess, whatever the hell that is."