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Hideo Higashibaba left the cult he was born into when he was 22 years old. The Unification Church, also known as the Moonies, was founded in Korea by a man named Sun Myung Moon who proclaimed he was the Second Coming of Christ. In Growing Up Moonie Hideo asks people he grew up with what their childhoods were like and shares his struggles to make sense of his weird sheltered youth and the person he grew up to be. Edited and co-produced by Quinn Myers. 

If you would like a transcript of any of these episodes please email Hideo at


Mar 4, 2019

In the early days of the Moonies, members all lived together in centers across the country and world. But when the second generation were born many families decided to move out and try something new: being totally separate from and yet a part of society. That’s what the second generation had to juggle, all the time and every day. Hideo and Teruko talk about the struggle to understand identity and belonging as the second generation.




News Announcer [00:00:01] A decade ago, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon was accused of controlling the minds of young people creating so-called Moonies.

News Announcer [00:00:08] So called Moonies, followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon head of the Unification Church who became well-known in the early 80s for his mass wedding ceremonies.

Interpreter [00:00:16] Do you pledge to establish an eternal family with which God can be happy.

Crowd [00:00:24] Yes!

Interpreter [00:00:25] We are talking about absolute fidelity here. If anybody deviates from this God-given principle they are bound to hell.

News Announcer [00:00:35] But the church has a different plan for the second generation.

2nd Gen [00:00:38] I felt like we weren't equipped for the world. You know we aren't just like this bubble.

2nd Gen [00:00:43] To me it sounds culty. I know it's what brought our parents to church but it's not what keeps me in the church.

2nd Gen [00:00:48] Even if I'm not doing everything that they want me to do, or I don't believe everything that they believe we still have this like line that connects us.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:01:10] My name is Hideo Higashibaba. For the first 22 years of my life I was a member of a cult called the Unification Church. You might know them as the Moonies. I was born into the Unification Church and so were thousands of other people all over the world. This is Growing Up Moonie, stories from people who grew up in the church like me. People who joined the church as adults are called first generation and people born into the cult like me are called second generation blessed children or BCs. When first generation joined most of them gave up their worldly possessions and moved into church centers all over the country. My family lived in one of those centers in Boston. Every day the adults would go out fundraising or evangelizing and left their kids with a couple of other missionaries in a makeshift nursery. When I was born I was too small to be in the nursery so I spent the first year of my life with my mom at her meetings or the lectures she did on the church's teachings. When I was 2, my family moved out of the center and joined the hundreds of other Moonie families trying something new; being totally separate from and yet a part of society. That's what the second generation had to juggle all the time and every day. The next person I spoke with for this project was Teruko who was friends with my older sister Yojin when we were kids.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:02:48] I'm really happy to connect with you I feel like we spent a lot of time to get always you in Yojin spent a lot of time ago those kids and I kind of idolized you. And then when you moved away it's sort of like I don't know and everything felt like it changed.

Teruko [00:03:01] Yeah I mean I am the center of a lot of people's lives.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:03:04] Pretty, pretty humble and modest I can see as well.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:03:11] Teruko's family lived in Gloucester near a lot of other Moonie families. She went to school with a lot of other BCs and saw them every week at church. I always felt like an outsider, even at church. But I remember Teruko was in the thick of things, playing with the other kids, tearing around morning garden with Yojin and getting into trouble for running off into the woods. When she was in middle school Teruko's family moved to Omaha. She says the church community out in Nebraska was a lot more spread out and isolating.

Teruko [00:03:45] There is actually a girl in middle school who told me that her grandma was a deprogrammer and I was really scared. I legitimately thought someone was going to come after me to take me away a or or whatever like all those horror stories you hear as a kid.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:04:00] All Moonie kids grew up with stories of people who were kidnapped and deprogrammed or forced to denounce the leader Sun Myung Moon and the church. One woman I knew would testify to her faith by telling the story of how she was kidnapped by her family and locked in a room for days.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:04:20] They told her she couldn't leave until she rejected the church and its teachings. Eventually, she got them to bring her something to drink. It was in a glass bottle so she broke it and cut herself with the glass. They took her to the hospital and she escaped back to the church. Because of stories like that, a lot of second gen me included, tried to keep our religion a secret for as long as we could. But with that girl threatening Teruko with her grandmother, Teruko didn't want to hide anymore.

Teruko [00:04:52] Yeah that was kind of a turning point I think for me too. I don't know, I felt like I was kind of hiding everything for a long time and then she, when she told me that she said it kind of like, 'oh found out your secret.' And I was like 'oh crap.' And then I was like 'You know I shouldn't hide anything anymore because that's how bad things happen to people.' So, I actually was pretty outspoken, which is sort of an opposite reaction to most people.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:05:20] Being separate and disliked by the general public was like a badge of honor. The leader Moon said we should be proud of our persecution. It made us worthy of our blessings. But for kids trying to go to school with other well-liked and normal children, that's a hard sell. I felt so guilty for hiding my faith. I desperately wanted to feel included and normal but that's hard to do would you also believe that you don't have Original Sin. Before that girl threatened to out her, Teruko did her best to hide her religion from other people.

Teruko [00:05:58] I think it did make me feel kind of bad, like you're lying most of the time but you're not sure who you're lying to and I always felt weird about two parts of my life crossing over.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:06:11] Why was it so anxiety inducing do you think?

Teruko [00:06:17] Probably because, I would say one strong thing that I remember from Sunday school or camp or workshops or whatever, it was learning that second gen really special and were born without any Original Sin and all that stuff that we learned. And so other kids are not at the same level so you're different than them and I don't know, I guess I felt kind of like I had to be two people, like I had to be someone who was quote unquote "normal" or not the church around my school friends because they wouldn't understand because they weren't the same as me and then at church I couldn't be that person that I was at school because I had to create that separate personality.

Teruko [00:07:11] One really scary thing, I think maybe one thing that helped me smash those two lives together was I took psychology in high school and we did a whole section on cults and I chose the church as my final project.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:07:28] Wow. Dang. Dang girl, that is bold. That is very bold.

Teruko [00:07:32] I was like, you know I'm terrified but I'm going to take it head on because otherwise I'll just be scared forever. Yeah, so I started my presentation off like very by the book and and then my big reveal was like five minutes before the end of my 30 minute presentation. I was like, Oh by the way I'm in this church. And people physically backed their desks up. And I got an A plus because I think my teacher was afraid to fail me. It was a good presentation, I like I wrote a good paper. But yeah, people looked at me differently after that, but all in all I don't think anything changed. And that's when I realized that it really wasn't that big a deal.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:08:11] After high school Teruko got matched to a guy from England through picture matching where two families send pictures of their kids back and forth to potentially marry them off. They were blessed in Korea but Teruko ended up breaking it off. Soon after, Teruko decided to do this church program called STF, which a lot of second gen did after high school...other than get married. STF stands for Special Task Force. It's a program for college age blessed children that mimics what a lot of first gen did when they were full time missionaries. On STF, they do a lot of what's called witnessing, recruiting people to workshops or lectures on the church's teachings. They also do volunteer projects and give talks in schools about the importance of abstinence. All this was supported through fundraising which they did by traveling around in vans selling trinkets or candy on the street.

Teruko [00:09:12] It was kind of like a Jesus Camp situation where I started questioning whether another really wanted to be in the church and then I thought, you know what, I should just dive in head first because that's the right thing to do and I will join STF and I will do pitch picture matching and that will fix me. It did not work like that. That's not how things actually work, I found out. But it was a really good experience, I got to travel Europe for six months. I met a lot of cool people and I think it came out better.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:09:46] I mean it sounds a little bit traumatic.

Teruko [00:09:49] That was very traumatic. But I have to do everything really extreme, I can't do anything the safe way. Not that I am a risk taker I'm just not strategic.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:10:05] What was what was what was traumatic about it.

Teruko [00:10:08] Well I was shunned for a good portion by everyone from, all the brothers, all the guys from England because I broke the...well I was actually blessed which in the church is getting married but it's not legal you start to go get like the paper signed. So I actually got Blessed somebody from England. And it didn't work out for just a couple of reasons. I was not ready and that was not fair to the other family because I thought I could go and get blessed and that kind of fix me, stop me from questioning, kind of center me or whatever have you. Because I feel like that's kind of what you grow up believing is that you just work really hard so you can be a perfect person so that you can get married and then have a family and you know white picket fence, yada yada yada. And I just kind of thought my life not going that direction so I thought I'd force it to which is like trying to put a circle block into a square hole.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:11:12] That feeling of trying to put a circle block into a square hole is how I felt my whole life. What I was told to believe never really added up to what I actually experienced. I think that's the only way a cult can function; to get people to ignore their own experiences. If there was doubt it was a sign of a lack of faith. The solution was to pray about it until you understood.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:11:47] One of my favorite songs used to be Bye and Bye. It's a Christian hymn. It goes, "We'll tell the story how we overcome and we'll understand it better bye and bye.".

Hideo Higashibaba [00:12:05] "The story how we overcome," like how we overcame our sins and struggles. And will understand all our struggles, bye and bye. Like, eventually. For most of my life I thought that bye and bye could be in 10 years. But it also could be in 50 or maybe not even until I was dead and in the spirit world. My job was to wait and pray and believe, not ask questions. And that wasn't weird to me at least not until four years ago. That's the only way a cult can work; disconnecting people from how they feel and telling them to feel something else has to be normal. But talking with Teruko, it doesn't seem that dramatic. Juggling her life in and outside the church seems to have come pretty naturally. Once she decided to be open about her faith, it seemed like things got easier for her. She had a strong sense of self and she could build relationships and create a life on her own. Something I've been curious about while working on this project is how people growing up in the church experienced and developed their ideas of romantic love which Moonies seem to be really suspicious and scared of yet obsessed with at the same time.

Teruko [00:13:25] My parents never really were affectionate and not because they were...I remember them fighting a lot of kids but I just remember never being afraid of that like I was just normal to me. My mom said like, my dad would just get mad, like, they'd arguing about something really stupid. About like, who was going to mow the lawn, you know, something pretty normal. My dad would just be like, "ugh" and go for a three hour drive just around and then he'd come back. So I remember never being afraid like, they're not going to get a divorce, that's not allowed in the church. So it just seemed super normal to me that they'd always fight. And it wasn't until I was an adult that I was like, oh normal people don't do that.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:14:18] Teruko went through the blessing process even though she wasn't sure she was ready. None of us expected to feel totally ready any anyway. We were told that being attracted to your spouse when you first met was silly and superficial.

Teruko [00:14:33] They're like you you won't be 100 percent ready. You might not even love this person for like seven years.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:14:38] Or ten or a hundred.

Teruko [00:14:40] Yeah and now hearing that I'm like, that's crazy. I mean I understand that you shouldn't marry someone because like your band is the favorite band with the other person. That stuff changes. That would be stupid to base your relationship off of but at the same time should not be marrying someone who is so different. Even if you think it's all these stupid little things, like, you'll never enjoy things together and you will wear and tear on you.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:15:11] It's just like not a fun time. I think there's like this emphasis on the more cross-cultural the arranged marriage is and the more different and the more disparate than like the better. And it just doesn't seem like you're setting people up for success in a marriage.

Teruko [00:15:27] Well. So I mentioned before that I actually went to a blessing. Got the dress the whole nine yards, right. And when we got there, I was just like, oh my gosh. I don't want to do this. But it was kind of that like, everyone's watching, you need to make this work. It's going to be difficult. And you just kind of accept that which is weird.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:15:53] Teruko is married now but not to a church member. She met her now husband Johnny in college after STF when she was still living at home. She did not tell her parents she was seeing someone but her mom figured it out.

Teruko [00:16:08] It started off the first encounter of Johnny and my mom. She was looking at my cell phone bill and she was like you're texting the phone number a lot. Who is this. And she called him, like she got his number from the cell phone bill and called him. Oh yeah yeah. Are you like cringing right now?

Hideo Higashibaba [00:16:27] Yes my hand is fully on my face. Just full palm.

Teruko [00:16:32] Called him and then met him at a coffee shop and she was basically like, I know you think that you're going to be in this relationship with Teruko and you might think you really love her but in our religion you're Satan and you're going to pull her away and...

Hideo Higashibaba [00:16:51] Oh my God!

Teruko [00:16:51] And later he was like, your mom called me Satan. I just want you to know that. Uhh.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:17:04] Oh no!

Teruko [00:17:04] Oh yeah. She was like, you're in the position of the archangel and Adam and Eve and blah blah blah and this whole biblical thing and went into a whole thing. I don't even know how long they were there, because I didn't know she was meeting him.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:17:19] Oh my god, I'm crying!

Teruko [00:17:19] And he stuck around!

Hideo Higashibaba [00:17:19] He loves you so much Teruko. Either that or you're like amazing in bed. Either way I mean, that's amazing.

Teruko [00:17:27] I am just a great person in general.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:17:30] I mean I'm totally totally willing to believe that. That is bananas, what you just described.

Teruko [00:17:37] Yeah. But he was very serious. I mean, when I first met him I was kind of like you know doing my own thing I think I was like 22 maybe. And so like I can drink now. My parents aren't in charge of me but I still live at home so I have to sneak in at night. It's really weird and yeah I don't know, I think he was like hey...I don't even remember how he asked me if I wanted to like, 'go steady' but like he asked me out and I was just like, well I'm not going to just date someone. Either we get married or nothing.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:18:17] Wow. Did you say that to him?

Teruko [00:18:19] Oh yeah. He was like, Oh OK. Sure.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:18:27] And it was just like that, just like that simple and easy?

Teruko [00:18:30] I mean then we dated for a year and got engaged and got married. Well, got Blessed and then married. Yeah, but now my mom's like, totally changed her tune. "We love Johnny so much!"  

Hideo Higashibaba [00:18:38] No longer Satan.

Teruko [00:18:38] He's amazing, so great. And I'm like, you guys didn't like him at the beginning, she's like, I don't remember that.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:18:48] Oh really. You don't remember calling your future son-in-law Satan.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:18:54] Teruko and Johnny were blessed in a mass wedding like good second gen are. They did the special pre-blessing workbooks and workshops you're supposed to do before the blessing. Johnny even did a year-long study of the church's teachings with Teruko's mom which must have been really intense.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:19:14] But all that is totally different from what we were told was OK when we were kids. Second gen were prepped to marry someone in the church our whole lives. It was kind of the whole point for people without Original Sin to marry other people without Original Sin. And when you marry someone outside the church you kind of ruin that. When my sister Anshin started dating a non-Moonie I felt like my family was getting ripped apart. Anshin was constantly fighting with my parents. Her boyfriend would goad me into fights with him. It felt like there was an intruder in our house. It got better once they got married and all was forgiven by the time they had their first child, at least for my mom. I don't think my dad has ever totally forgiven Anshin but eventually my parents adjusted to this new reality like Teruko's parents.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:20:12] I also want to point out that Teruko and Johnny, and my sister and her husband, are cisgender straight people. They dated for a year and got married. Teruko didn't even date other people before. All that probably made it a lot easier for her parents to accept Johnny and for Teruko to keep the friends and community she has in the church.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:20:35] The inside world of the church and the outside secular world blended more and more as second gen got older. Some even stopped believing what the church taught. But for most second gen, their friends were in the church and it was a huge part of their identity. That community was the extension of their family. It's not something you can just walk away from.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:20:59] You said that when you met Johnny you were still living at home, but you were pretty disillusioned with the church and kind of stepping away from it and then...

Teruko [00:21:12] Yeah, I still went on Sunday so my parents wouldn't... It was easier for me to spend an hour at church than to get scolded for several days. So I was that thing where you show up and then leave. Eat and then leave. But yeah, I think I was pretty done at that point with everything, but I mean like I said before the community is my favorite part and there are some great people who are you know just the nicest people you ever meet. If I don't want to lose that and I kind of felt like if I left the church I would lose that. And that kind of kept me around.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:21:52] Teruko married someone outside the church and doesn't believe what her parents believe, but she still gets to have a relationship with them. And for me it's hard to hear that Teruko gets to be herself and keep her family because the closer I get to being myself, embracing and loving my queerness and being transgender and living my own life, the further away my family feels from me. The less I feel like we will ever reconcile. Teruko broke all the church's rules. But two cisgender straight people getting married is not that weird to the rest of the world. And I think it made it easier for her family to accept her. Second gen don't remember a time before the church, before we believed all the things we were taught to believe, before Moon was the messiah. Even as Teruko and other second gen grew up and learned new things or developed their own opinions the church's teachings ran deep.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:22:56] So you said that you were pretty disillusioned you were pretty done but then when Johnny was like, Hey do you want to go out with me you were like, well if you want to go out with me you also have to marry me, which is seems to me like a pretty...

Teruko [00:23:07] It's a pretty church thing to say like, no dating. I think it's just like, I definitely held a lot of a lot of the beliefs, I still hold them. There are good things. I think that it's that organized religion portion that bothers me like seeing my parents donate hundreds and hundreds of dollars that they didn't have to build some kind of crazy building in the homeland in Korea which like, Cheon Pyung which is, I don't know if it's like town, I'm not sure, it's a lot of land in the mountain where like headquarters is. It's beautiful there. It's amazing. I'm sure if you live there. But I mean and then that's all built on donations would have kind of like a forced donation it wasn't really like the normal 10 percent or whatever. Several hundred dollars that you would donate at a time. I just remember being like, No thanks. I don't think if you really believe in a God who is not a physical I don't know, like king sitting on a throne, does he care if your church has a huge million dollar stained glass window in it? I also think that other religions having their brick and mortar buildings be so elaborate is ridiculous. But that's just me.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:24:31] Well it just feels personal with this one. Do you remember that campaign they did where it was like liberating your ancestors. And if you could give like a lower amount than it would be fewer ancestors but if you did a higher amount it would be more ancestors liberated and since like...

Teruko [00:24:46] Someone from Omaha liberated like thirty generations on both side or whatever like whatever that amount is. I have no idea.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:24:56] Like the highest one was like 500. But then you had to pay like a thousand dollars. And it felt weird to me at a time but I was a kid and I was actually like very strictly taught to not question any adult let alone my parents. But looking back now, I get like, physically angry because like that was the same year my mom couldn't afford to buy me shoes for like school and my aunt had to step in.

Teruko [00:25:22] It was, you know, I think though that like people in any religion or for any cause that they believe in do this kind of thing. I mean like, I'm addicted to those hoarder shows, like animal hoarders, and there are people who start off with really good intentions where they're like, Oh no these dog needs help I'll adopted it. There's always gonna be another thing. And then you just can't catch up at some point.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:25:54] The church has also adapted to the times. Teruko's husband Johnny is not a second gen but now he's blessed. That is totally different from the plan we were told as children. But if every second gen who dated or married someone outside the church was thrown out, the church would have failed years ago. So now second gen can be blessed to non-Moonie Original Sin having people. My life totally fell apart as I tried to make sense of my childhood and I am still struggling to understand it. But Teruko she's found a kind of peace with her childhood, as strange as it was.

Teruko [00:26:40] Definitely the church has had a big impact on who I am and the direction my life has taken. And sometimes there were downs but followed by huge ups language is common for anybody in any religion or in any part of the world which makes me feel better. Which is very different from when I was a kid and I felt very different. But probably with a smaller world view you see the differences a little bit clearer. Seeing more people and how many different kinds of people, different upbringing just makes me realize that kind of depressingly I'm a drop in the bucket. But it's no good to know that I'm not a sore thumb sticking out too.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:27:44] Next time on Growing Up Moonie...

First Gen [00:27:47] Controversy is something you expect when you're a Unification Church member. A Moonie as we're lovingly known. We've grown up with controversy.

Hideo Higashibaba [00:27:56] That's next time on Growing Up Moonie. This episode of Growing Up Moonie was written by me, edited and produced by Quinn Myers with music by Podington Bear. If you want to help other people find these stories please leave us a rating or a review to help them find this podcast. Go to for more. I am Hideo Higashibaba. Thanks for listening.