A religious sect known for worshipping with AR-15s and its MAGA politics has purchased a sprawling, 40-acre compound in central Texas, which it hopes will offer a safe-haven for “patriots” from what they believe is an imminent war brought by the “deep state,” VICE News has learned.
The property, located in the small community of Thornton, 40 miles from Waco, was listed at just under $1 million. It’s been dubbed “Liberty Rock'' by its new owners, the Sanctuary Church aka Rod of Iron Ministries, led by Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon. Members of the congregation often refer to him as “King.”
While Moon’s congregation, estimated to number in the hundreds, is relatively fringe, it’s a direct descendant of the much larger Unification Church, founded by his father, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and accused cult leader whose adoring followers became known to outsiders as “Moonies.”
The younger Moon, who set up shop in 2017 in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, follows the doctrine of his late father—with a twist. Moon says he was inspired by a biblical passage in the Book of Revelation that talked about Jesus using a “rod of iron” to protect himself and others. He concluded this was a reference to AR-15s, and integrated high-powered firearms into regular church services, including wedding ceremonies. He founded the church with the support of his brother, Kook-jin “Justin” Moon, the CEO of Kahr Arms, a gun manufacturing company headquartered nearby.
From its beginning, the church wholeheartedly embraced former President Donald Trump and incorporated Trumpian culture war and conspiracies into its rhetoric. Moon told VICE News in late 2019 that he believed God was working through Trump to rid the world of “political satanism” (for example, the “deep state” and “the swamp”) and restore Eden. Through his gun-centric, MAGA-friendly outlook, Moon has been able to establish some fringe political alliances. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon spoke at a recent event hosted by the church. Pennsylvania state senator and “Stop the Steal” organizer Doug Mastriano was also recently billed as a special guest at another church event.
As Moon’s church has expanded, bought additional property, and incorporated in at least two more states (Delaware and Florida), his teachings and rhetoric have grown even more radical and militaristic. His sermons contain a wide range of topics, from the weather, to why he hates ski resorts (too many “leftist lunatics”), to how to prepare for the coming “false flag” deep-state war.
The new property, known locally as “Running Branch Camp and Marina,” came equipped with a general store, fishing equipment, an industrial kitchen, RV hook-ups, cabins, and camping sites.
The purpose of the property, according to a GoFundMe seeking $21,000 for renovations, is to “expand God’s Kingdom to the Western and Southern regions of the United States.”
After renovations, the church hopes that Liberty Rock will be “home to over 100 sites that will serve our community and Patriots from Texas and around the country.” The Rod of Iron Instagram account features photos from the site, including their ribbon-cutting and blessing ceremony, held on April 20. At least one family from the church appears to be living there full-time while renovations are going on.
“It's a dangerous time, and this is a place of refuge and retreat if our community needs it.”
“It's a dangerous time, and this is a place of refuge and retreat if our community needs it,” Moon said in one of his recent sermons, titled “The King’s Report,” which he typically delivers wearing a crown made of bullets and a golden AR-15 displayed before him. “Of course, in worst-case scenarios.”
Leaders of a local community association contacted by VICE News did not seem to be aware that they had new neighbors. “Is this going to be a problem?” asked one concerned resident.
Still from Google Maps showing Running Branch Marina in Thornton, Texas, which has now been dubbed "Liberty Rock" by its new owners, the Sanctuary Church.
The new property acquisition has been a recurring topic in Moon’s King’s Reports, which are now broadcast via the gaming platform Twitch or the streaming site Rumble since they were booted off YouTube for violating community guidelines. Their videos are often accompanied by a slew of hashtags, including #MAGA, #Trump, #QAnon, #Q and #bluelivesmatter.
“The internationalist Marxist globalists are trying to start a civil war here, so that they can bring in the U.N. troops and Chi-Com Chinese military to come in and destroy and kill all gun owners, Christians, and any opposition, i.e., Trump supporters,” Moon said matter-of-factly in a recent sermon. “We are in the death of America right now, and that’s why, of course, God is allowing for our expansion.”
On January 3, his church sent out a notice to members. “Some federal agents operate as a criminal cartel and are in the process of stealing this presidential election,” the notice read. “We need to prepare and train for the fight.”
“It's obviously better if we can use our rights to freedom of speech, assembly, to seek redress of grievances,” it continued. “Otherwise we will have to fight physically, with many dying.”
Three days later, when Trump fans gathered in Washington, D.C., Moon posted a video to Instagram from outside the Capitol, amid the insurrectionist mob, running from clouds of tear gas with his wife and brother.
“THEY TEAR GAS BOMBED US!” he wrote in the video’s caption. “THEY PROTECT ANTIFA BUT SHOOT AND TEAR GAS PATRIOTS!”
A spokesperson for the church said that as far as they’re aware, no one from their congregation went inside the Capitol that day, but that Moon likes to compare the events of January 6 to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. “Though initially controversial even among patriots, the Boston Tea Party came to be known as one of the seminal events leading to America’s independence from the tyranny of the British crown.”
Since January 6, Moon’s sermons have taken on a greater intensity and urgency. In a broadcast from February titled “Danger coming for Trump supporters,” Moon warned viewers that the Biden administration was plotting genocide against its political opponents–or planning to round up Trump supporters and put them in “reeducation camps.”
“We have to understand the enemy we are dealing with,” Moon said. “We have to be ready to pray very, very hard, move fast, and of course, to resist on many levels, all the evil that they are trying to perpetrate on the world.”
He’s also adopted a new biker-gang aesthetic, swapping out his camouflage blazers for biker jackets emblazoned with patches showing a crown and “Rod of Iron Ministries,” as well as the words “Black Robed Regiment” above an image of an AR-15.
All the while, a community of former “Moonies,” many of whom have family or friends who are deeply involved with the Sanctuary Church, are watching its slide into extremism with horror.
“It feels like I’m watching a school shooting or something in slow motion,” said Jane, whose parents are prominent members of the Sanctuary Church and asked that her real name be withheld for safety reasons. “These people are just getting crazier and crazier, and scaring everyone. And I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, head of the Sanctuary Church, in 2019. (Photo: Roberto Daza/VICE News)
Like many other “Moonie” families, Jane’s parents were matched and married through the church. She was raised living and breathing Unification Church doctrine, attending Unification Church summer camps, and taught that doubting any of its teachings meant that you were opening yourself up to satanic thought and temptation.
Guns were not a part of her life. She said she remembers hearing gossip from other kids at Sunday school that the church owned a gun company. “Then, as a kid, I would say things innocently, because I was confused, that would get me in trouble,” Jane said. “Like, ‘Why do we have a gun company? Aren’t we about peace? What’s so peaceful about guns?’”
Her parents didn’t own guns, but she’d heard that the Moon family enjoyed hunting. “I’ve personally never even held a gun in my life,” Jane said. “I think they had guns at camp one year, and some of the older people, who we call ‘uncles’, would take the kids out for target practice, like shooting a can off a wall or something.”
In 2000, Jane’s family moved to Seoul, where her dad was tasked with helping Sean Moon set up an English-language Unification Church service. A decade later, they returned to the U.S. and settled in Berkeley, California. That was around the same time, she said, that she noticed her parents, seemingly out of nowhere, start talking about guns. They were saying things like, “If everyone owned a gun, there would be no need for police.” Her father suggested that she get a gun for personal protection. “He was saying, like, what if you’re at McDonald’s, and you go to the bathroom, and you get raped?”
Around 2010, Jane left the church, started therapy, and severed ties with her parents.
“I cut them off as an attempt to not drown,” said Jane. “Then the longer I went without talking with them, the more I realized how abusive they’d been.”
Years later, she heard that her parents were moving to Pennsylvania. “They gave some bogus excuse, and told everyone in their lives they were moving to help out a family member, but really they were moving to be closer to the Sanctuary Church,” Jane said.
Then she saw the pictures of her parents holding AR-15s.
She takes pains to ensure her parents don’t find out where she lives—and she’s trying to determine whether they’ve relocated to Liberty Rock.
“It’s not that I believe they’re going to come here with guns and try to kill me. But I do think that they could come here with guns and be like, ‘Oh, we’re going to save you and bring you back to this workshop and take care of you’,” said Jane. “I don’t trust them. I don’t trust them with a fucking butter knife.”
A wedding ceremony at the Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, PA, 2019. (Photo: Tess Owen/VICE News)
The Sanctuary Church made headlines for the first time in 2018, when news outlets covered a mass wedding ceremony featuring AR-15s. To an outsider, the fact that so many people were willing to take the unusual—and radical—step of integrating high-powered firearms into their spiritual life was perplexing. It appeared a giant psychological leap to go from, as was the case for many “Moonie” families, not having much to do with guns to suddenly worshipping with them in church.
But self-described “ex-Moonies’ told VICE News that many who belonged to the original church were psychologically conditioned to make that leap.
“When the split happened, it wasn’t like enrolling a membership into the YMCA,” said Renee Martinez, an artist who works in a tattoo parlor, who left the church in 2012 after Rev. Moon died. “It was a slow roll, clinging onto a new belief system that was nearly identical to what you already believed.”
“The Unification Church has groomed generations for this,” Martinez added. “The church is now 60 years old, with three generations now. It’s not just some cult that hippies joined. People are programmed into it and know nothing else.” (The Unification Church did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment).
“When Sean started pushing guns and his brother started pushing his gun company, it was easily accepted because Rev. Moon himself said we had to prepare to protect peace,” said Martinez. “I think violence and supporting guns has always been part of the Unification Church.”
Former members of the Unification Church say that it operates on a buffet of cohesive and abusive tactics to foster enduring loyalty and blind trust.
For example, they create heightened anxiety and fear around a common enemy, former members said. They rely on “love-bombing,” where important church officials shower new members with love. “You get scared of that being taken away,” said Jane. “And you’d do anything to get it back.”
Martinez said that she was harassed by church officials after she broke from the Unification Church around 2012.
“The state leader came to my house and told me to go to a workshop, two day, then a three-day, then a 21-day workshop, to get re-indoctrinated, essentially,” said Martinez, who now works in a rural part of Texas. “It was terrifying. That’s why I moved out to the desert.” These kinds of allegations against the church have simmered for decades, and the church has repeatedly asserted that its critics are bitter or disaffected former members. There’s no current evidence to show that the younger Moon’s spinoff church relies on similar coercive tactics.
One of seven couples who were married in a joint wedding ceremony at the Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, PA, 2019. (Photo: Tess Owen/VICE News)
Martinez and Jane are part of a community of second-generation former Moonies who are connected via WhatsApp and increasingly speaking out against what they allege were psychological abuses inflicted by the church.
They say that a recent violent incident involving one of the church’s members, whom some of them knew, should be seen as a warning for what’s to come and the inevitable byproduct of years of psychological manipulation, mental health abuse, and increasingly radical rhetoric.
Nicholas Skulstad, 33, was also raised in the Unification Church, and after Rev. Moon's death, he joined the gun-centric spinoff, according to Martinez, who grew up a few houses away from him. Skulstad describes himself as a “follower of Hyung Jin Moon” and a “warrior for christ” in his Instagram bio. His Instagram is littered with hashtags referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory.
He was arrested last month after he allegedly repeatedly rammed his car into a New York Department of Transport vehicle in Westchester, New York, smashed its window, and attacked officers who arrived at the scene, screaming, “I’m Jesus Christ! You are going to die today! Are you ready to die?” according to federal charging documents. When police searched his vehicle, they discovered a shell casing and a notebook. Inside the notebook, there was a page titled “List-To Kill” that consisted of names of current and former public officials and other public figures, according to prosecutors. (Skulstad has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.)
Days before his arrest, Skulstad had contacted Martinez.
“He started saying some really crazy shit,” Martinez said. “He said everyone was going to die. He told me to start praying… I asked him what he meant. I thought he was going to shoot everyone.”
He began talking about how the vaccine was going to kill everyone, and that it was the “mark of the beast.” He also spouted conspiracies about the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds being part of “satanic lineages” who “run the banks and governments” around the world. He talked of a coming “purge” that would eradicate everyone who “commits evil, like pedophiles.”
A spokesperson for the Sanctuary Church confirmed that Skulstad was part of their community, but noted that he never held any leadership position and only attended services occasionally. “He was arrested based on charges made by law enforcement,” the spokesperson said. “Under America’s system of jurisprudence, he is innocent until proven guilty. The media does not have the authority to determine his guilt or innocence.”
“It was shocking but not unexpected,” said Martinez about Skulstad’s arrest. “It seemed like the natural evolution of things. I know how radical the church is. I know how it doesn’t believe in mental health. I know how it ruins people’s lives.”