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Although largely ignored by the news media, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's visit to San Francisco last September to speak to 2,000 enraptured followers gathered in a Hilton hotel ballroom near Union Square was of no little consequence to the self-proclaimed Messiah and founder of the Unification Church.
In town to promote his audacious goal to build a $200 billion Peace King Tunnel across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia (the Peace King being Moon), the 86-year-old spiritual patriarch spoke for nearly 45 minutes in what his followers portrayed as a rip-roaring success. There wasn't an empty seat in the house.
Prominently occupying one of those seats was none other than former San Francisco Supervisor Amos Brown, pastor of the landmark Third Baptist Church in the Western Addition and a member of the city's Housing Authority Commission. Brown was among the featured speakers, along with former Republican Congressman Matt Salmon, the current head of the Arizona GOP.
Brown, the outspoken Baptist minister and political gadfly, was even chosen by the event's Unification Church organizers to present the charismatic Moon (referred to by his followers as "True Father") and his wife (referred to as "True Mother") with a trophy commemorating the couple's worldwide speaking tour.
At first glance, the high-profile African-American preacher (who is president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP) and the Korean-born founder of a religious movement often derided as a cult would appear to have little in common. Moon, who claims to have met Jesus on a mountain in Korea in 1935, has openly proclaimed himself the Messiah commissioned to complete Jesus' mission to restore humankind. He professes to have spoken in the spirit world with all deceased U.S. presidents, as well as other past world leaders, including Hitler and Stalin, who he says have come to accept his Messianic mission.
And yet Brown is at the forefront of a little-known U.S. campaign by Moon, the megawealthy and ultraconservative benefactor of Republican candidates and causes, to make inroads among black American church leaders. Through the American Clergy Leadership Conference, an entity formed five years ago, Moon has opened an unexpected front in his decades-old struggle to win a broader audience for his professed Messiahship and a religion that blends elements of Christianity with mysticism.
Most notably, as a way to encourage involvement in the ACLC, Moon has lavished preachers and their wives with all-expenses-paid trips to such places as Israel, South Korea, and Hawaii, even paying for shopping.
More influential ministers, including Brown -- who is the ACLC's co-chairman for Northern California -- and the Rev. Walter R. Johnson, a prominent black Methodist clergyman in suburban Los Angeles, have not only traveled on Moon junkets abroad but have also turned up at banquets and other events in Moon's honor in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Last year, Brown gave a videotaped interview in praise of Moon that the Unification Church uses to promote Moon's credibility in the African-American religious community. He also helped arrange a private meeting between top Unification Church officials and former President Bill Clinton, with whom he has long had close ties.
Brown insists his involvement with Moon stems from a common interest in promoting world peace and assisting the poor and says it does not signal agreement with Moon's theology. "I see no reason to put Rev. Moon's teachings under a microscope ... I don't want to get into a skunk fight over what he believes. My interest is in world peace and helping others, and if you look around he's one of the few people out there who is actually doing something about those things."
But for all its pretensions as an interdenominational association to foster peace and harmony, the ACLC also has exhibited a distinctly Moon-ish theological agenda. According to a prominent Unification Church official, dozens of ministers across the country associated with the group have heeded Moon's call to take down the cross from their churches and replace it with the crown, the symbol adopted by Moon as the self-professed Peace King.
Some of those ministers, although apparently none in the Bay Area, have begun to teach Moon's sacred writings, known as the Divine Principle, from the pulpit. But the Rev. Levy Daugherty, a vice president of the Unification Church, disputes accusations by Moon's critics that the wealthy spiritual leader has given away gold watches and other gifts to ministers in return for their jettisoning the cross. "Those who appreciate Rev. Moon have acted on their own accord. They aren't being bought with jewelry or travel or anything else."
Regardless, the ACLC's efforts to exert influence in the clergy community are relentless.
"I'm constantly getting invitations to attend their events and go on their trips," says the Rev. Cordell Hawkins, an assistant pastor at Double Rock Baptist Church in the Bayview whose day job is as director of special programs for San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris. "They don't easily take no for an answer."
The ACLC's main man in San Francisco is no stranger to controversy. In 1984, the outspoken Brown -- whose church, founded in 1852, claims to be the oldest black Baptist church in the west -- was kicked out of a statewide group of Baptist ministers after he ordained a woman as an associate pastor. And both before and after his often bombastic four-year stint as a supervisor, he has been a political lightning rod, whether defending his former patron, ex-Mayor Willie Brown (no relation); railing against the Iraq War; or more recently tearing into critics of outgoing San Francisco school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.