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25 years later, fear and loathing give way to acceptance

When the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church followers arrived in Gloucester more than 25 years ago and started purchasing real estate, some city officials and residents thought that the city was going to be taken over by the church. The mayor appeared on ''60 Minutes" and told Moon that he wasn't welcome in the city; the City Council enacted, and then quickly retracted a resolution banning anyone in the city from doing business with the church; mothers formed an organization to counteract church missionaries.

Today, few people talk about the church, or its members, or the businesses owned by its members. ''The fear of recruitment of our kids never materialized, and members of the church seem to have assimilated well within the community," said Mayor John Bell.

''People don't even talk about them," said Councilor at Large Abdullah Khambaty, who called the members hard-working residents of the community. Khambaty voted against the original resolution that asked residents not to do business with the church in 1980, and looks back on that time as a difficult period in the city. ''They're paying good money to be here," he said, noting that the businesses pay taxes, and contribute to the city's economy.

Moon, the 84-year-old Korean billionaire who founded the church and has proclaimed himself as the Messiah, once envisioned building a marine institute in the city. But his ocean-centered theology that compared the sea to a cathedral never caught on with Gloucester's mainstream. Gone are the $100,000 tuna fishing tournaments Moon sponsored in the 1980s, along with the 80 boats he bought for his followers who used to spend 40 days every summer tuna fishing. Also missing is Moon, who visited the city frequently but has not been in Gloucester since 1993.

Now, 11 families form the core of the church in Gloucester. Half of the adult church members work for True World Foods, a company run by church members, which owns 17 parcels of property in the city -- including two marinas, and one of the largest lobster wholesaler plants, International Lobster. The 17 properties were assessed this year by the city at $2.7 million. The one property registered in the church's name is the former Cardinal Cushing villa, a 20-room mansion purchased in 1980 that sits on 12 acres of rolling green and woods, and is valued by the city at $4.8 million.

''We are very much pro family, and that's our goal -- family," said Manuel Quesada, a church member who has managed church property, and worked for church-affiliated businesses in Gloucester since 1980. The Madrid native was drawn to Moon's message 28 years ago, and later married his Austrian born wife in 1980 in a Madison Square Garden ceremony Moon performed for 2,076 couples. These days the 49-year-old former fisherman talks more about his own American dream than Moon's theology. He's eager to tell a visitor about his son, who attends St. John's Preparatory School in Danvers on scholarship, and his role as an assistant Boy Scout master.

While members interviewed for this article professed a true love for Moon, and believe he is the Messiah, Moon is not without critics. In the 1980s, he was convicted of income tax evasion and served 13 months in jail. In March, before some members of Congress, he declared himself as the Messiah, and announced he had absolved Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin of their sins. Steven Hassan of Somerville, a former Unification Church member who has written extensively on Moon, said Moon practices mind control through hypnosis. He believes Moon decided to curtail his activities in Gloucester because of the publicity generated after the properties were purchased. ''I think they bought it because they wanted to use it for recruiting, and because of the hassles that were happening," they stopped, he said. Quesada said the rocky relations between the church and the city persuaded Moon to drop his plans.

Quesada, who drives around the city in a pickup truck, and says he's always eager to assist a neighbor, does not proselytize. ''I really have very good friends here who are not church members. My children have friends; my wife has friends. I am accepted very much for who I am. My biggest problem is to remember everybody's name," he said.

While some families socialize during the week, members come together for prayer services on Sundays at Morning Garden, the villa once owned by the Archdiocese of Boston. The 50 Gloucester residents pray in an ornate wooden chapel that once was used by retired Catholic priests. Just one couple lives in the house, and save for a groundskeeper, there are no visitors during the week.

''We're not as close-knit as we should be," said Joseph Kelley, who grew up in Quincy, and joined the church in 1982. Kelley, who is 47, says the group dynamic has changed since most of the members have gotten married. ''It's not as tight as when everyone was single. Everybody's working; we've got families; we're doing different things."

His wife, Christa, still tries to read or listen to one of Moon's sermons each day, and has hung pictures of Moon around her house. While she is still drawn to Moon's positions on God, and the purpose of life, she finds it hard to live up to the ideals of his teachings. ''We strive for a higher ideal," she said, explaining that ''just like any soccer mom," she spends much of her time contemplating the logistics of arranging her daily schedule around her three children.

People in town know Ray O'Neill's beliefs, and they also know about his love of teaching soccer. O'Neill helps manage the church members' marina -- rented by 60 fishermen and boat owners. O'Neill became a member of the church in 1976 while working construction in his hometown of Manchester, England. ''When I met the Unification Church it was the first time that I ever felt that God was ever asking me to do something," said O'Neill.

Quesada hopes that the church's 30 children stay in Gloucester and help build a community.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bell said one way of avoiding any future conflicts with the church is for the community to have a better understanding of their plans before they purchase any additional real estate. ''Most businesses have been good in sharing their vision for Gloucester and the community," he said. ''But there has not always been a great deal of information shared by the church to the community."

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com.

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