Daniel Ruth: Remembering the Moonies and Tampa's proliferation of cults

This seemed a pinch over the top. But there I was in the Tucson airport around 1975 waiting for my covert contact to approach me with a code phrase I was supposed to properly respond to.

Indeed, I had even flown to Arizona under an assumed name — remember, this was the pre-airport security era — all the more to heighten the surreptitious nature of my visit.

I suppose I wound up in this strange John le Carré moment because as a young reporter, I had found myself covering just about every religious cultist nutball who had decided to descend upon Tampa, regarding the city his own personal Garden of Grifting. And this was before the Scientologists had begun to really transform Clearwater into Kirstie Alleyville.

The death a few days ago of Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, brought back a stark reminder of Tampa's early days as the home of so many freaky-deaky disciples of delusion.

There were the Children of God types. Very weird. And then was the group, whose name long escapes me — Children of Stupidity, perhaps — whose young leader fractured his leg and refused to go to the hospital because he believed God would heal it. I recall visiting the Hyde Park home where this poor sap could be found resting on a stench-filled mattress, waiting (for quite a while, as it turned out) for the spiritual setting of his limb to occur. Let's just say he probably never qualified to become one of Madonna's backup dancers.

Over in St. Petersburg there was the Elmer Gantry of Central Avenue, John 3:16 Cook, who after you shook his hand you'd better count your fingers.

And there were the Moonies promising eternal salvation if the price was right.

Good grief, this Whitman's Sampler of Spiritual Shilling practically made L. Ron Hubbard look like the archbishop of Canterbury.

I'm not sure exactly what made Tampa such a popular destination for all these biblical buskers, but then again it was Florida, which always has taken its rightful place as the leader in attracting con men of both the coin and the clerical collar.

And there were plenty of young, impressionable people afoot. This was still the era of hippies and dropouts seeking personal … whatever.

That's how I wound up in Tucson muttering: "The kumquat flies at midnight," or some other bit of gibberish.

In the 1970s, Moon's Moonies were the New York Yankees of sects.

And thus for every ying, there must be a yang. Ergo the rise of various organizations that sprung up to "deprogram" the followers of these groups. At the behest of distraught families, cult members would be literally snatched off the street by trained deprogrammers who hied them away to isolated locations to be disabused of their beliefs.

I spent two or three days in a remote house in the mountains above Tucson with the deprogrammers and their charges, who weren't overtly held against their will but were closely monitored.

Did it work? I have no idea. Cults exploit their targets' insecurities, their doubts, their sense of guilt. By the time I left Tucson, the mostly Moonies in attendance at least were talking a good game about returning to their families.

But you never know. The religious three-card monte gurus are a competitive bunch. You could say that every fallen Moonie is merely a Scientologist-in-Waiting. If some other hallelujah huckster doesn't get there first.

Daniel Ruth: Remembering the Moonies and Tampa's proliferation of cults 09/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 8, 2012 4:30am]

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