The MAGA-loving religious sect that worships with AR-15s has purchased a 130-acre property on a mountain in eastern Tennessee to serve as a “training center” and holy ground for its devoted, gun-toting followers, VICE News has learned.
The latest property acquisition is more evidence that Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, a fervent conspiracy theorist and son of an accused cult leader, is determined to expand his reach into the American Heartland.
Moon’s congregation, Rod of Iron Ministries, also known as The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, is a gun-centric spinoff of the much larger Unification Church, founded by his late father, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and businessman whose followers were famously known as “Moonies.” The younger Moon, who also goes by “The Second King,” split from the main church amid a dramatic falling-out with his mother about who, between the two of them, was the rightful heir to his father’s empire.
In 2017, Moon founded his church in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, siphoning off hundreds of followers from the main congregation who were willing to make the seemingly radical leap of incorporating high-powered rifles into their spiritual life. He did this with the backing of his older brother, Kook-jin “Justin” Moon, the CEO of Kahr Arms, a gun manufacturing company headquartered nearby. In recent years, he’s made headlines for recreating the mass wedding ceremonies that his father’s church was famous for, with the addition of AR-15s.
Sean and Justin Moon, plus other senior church officials, were also at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and posted videos of themselves emerging from clouds of tear gas. Sean has also courted fringe MAGA-world figures; this weekend, the annual Rod of Iron Freedom Fest at the Kahr Arms headquarters in Greeley will include speakers such as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, ex–NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, far-right Proud Boy ally Joey Gibson, and GOP congressional candidate Teddy Daniels.
The goal of the Tennessee property, explained the younger Moon in a sermon streamed to the alternative video platform Rumble over the summer, is to recreate the Unification Church’s infamous spiritual retreat Cheongpyeong, located about 27 miles outside of Seoul, South Korea.
“As soon as I was in the vicinity of this property, I immediately felt Cheongpyeong,” said Moon in his regular broadcast, titled “The King’s Report,” which he often delivers wearing a crown of polished bullets. “As this spiritual download was happening, and we could feel the presence of Cheongpyeong, we just knew that of all the Tennessee lands that we’ve seen, this is the one that we must get to reclaim and have as a spiritual retreat.”
For decades, church officials from the main congregation have fended off accusations of psychological, physical, and financial abuse. In the late 1970s, three former members said the church had encouraged them to commit suicide rather than stray from the church’s belief system. The church has also been accused of using coercive tactics to draw in members, including brainwashing and sleep deprivation. But many other accusations have centered around the activities at Cheongpyeong.
Each year, tens of thousands of members make the pilgrimage to Cheongpyeong, where they shell out huge amounts of cash and submit to beatings with the goal of exorcising “evil spirits”—also known as “ancestor liberation.” At Cheongpyeong, ancestor liberation was done through a process called “ansu.”
Videos of ansu workshops at Cheongpyeong show hundreds of followers in identical outfits, sitting cross-legged, and vigorously slapping parts of their bodies in unison, on direction from a church leader at the front of the room. Sometimes they alternate and begin slapping the person in front of them. This practice is a fundamental tenet of belonging to the church. While many members make the trip to Cheongpyeong and undergo ansu as a routine cleansing, others are advised by church officials to travel there as treatment for “spiritual issues.” This is a catchall to describe mental illness, infertility, homosexuality, marriage woes, or even serious illnesses like cancer, say former members.
Elgen Strait, an ex-Moonie who hosts the podcast “Falling Out”, about “leaving the Moonies and other cults,” told VICE News that he went to Cheongpyeong twice: once when he was about 14 in the early 90s as part of a field trip while he was doing a year at a boarding school near Seoul, and later at age 17 when he was participating in a church-run summer program.
When he was there, he participated in ansu. “I remember the raw intensity of it,” said Strait. “You’re in this room, with a couple hundred people around you. People are leading songs and beating these drums—it creates an intense group environment. I feel like it whips people into an altered state of consciousness.” Ansu workshops often lasted for either 21 days or 40 days, and were often conducted several times in one day.
The open-hand slapping would go on for hours in each session, said Strait. And they were hard slaps. Over the years he heard many anecdotes about people emerging bruised and bleeding from ansu workshops.
A Tumblr account popular among ex-Moonies called “How Well Do You Know Your Moon?” has an entire section dedicated to compiling testimony about people’s time at Cheongpyeong. One woman recalls seeing another church member so overcome with emotion during an ansu session that she began beating her husband with a chair, and a teenage girl clearly in psychological crisis being repeatedly slapped in the crotch.
“I didn't recognize it at the time, but now—the idea of putting people in a situation where they have to beat themselves or others, to achieve some sort of nebulous spiritual goal, I don't see how that's not abuse,” said Strait. “Telling someone that it’s their job to save the world, and the way to do that is through beating themselves and beating other people. The physical aspect gets even more ropey when you think about the kids who were sent there for months, who had mental illness and didn’t know what was going on.”
There was also the financial aspect, Strait said. People would pay thousands to travel from all over the world to come to Cheongpyeong. Once they arrived, they’d have to cough up even more money, per workshop. The more generations of ancestors you wanted to “liberate,” the more money you’d have to pay. “People would just go over with thousands and thousands, often in cash, and just donate it,” said Strait. “These are people who don’t have that kind of money.”
A spokesperson for the Unification Church brushed off allegations made by Strait and others about abuse they endured or witnessed at Cheongpyeong. “All religious organizations have spiritual practices that have been mischaracterized at one point or another,” the church wrote in an email. “The alleged accusations made in this story go against the founding principles of our organization."
When Strait went to Cheongpyeong in the early 90s, it was a far cry from how it looks now. Back then, the entire complex was a series of cheaply constructed temporary buildings used for ansu workshops and dining halls. Visitors crammed into a temporary structure, where they had to jostle for floor space. In 2006, an opulent marble palace was erected on the property, as well as other marble structures. These days, the Cheongpyeong complex, also called “The HJ Heaven and Earth Spiritual Training Center,” also contains a burger restaurant, a cafe shaped like a giant ship, and a department store that sells a limited range of goods including an FM radio, gold blessing rings, sandals, ice cream, and eco-friendly laundry detergent.
The younger Moon has touted the new Tennessee property as getting back to the basics of the church, advertising it as being uncorrupted by the “satanic” rule of his mother (he doesn’t mince words when speaking about his mother during his sermons).
“This is going to be a very, very important mission,” said Moon in a recent sermon. “And the right person has to be there to be the overseer manager there.” Ideally, he said, that person would have experience from the main Unification Church. “Many, many, many busloads of people are going to come to pray there,” Moon said in reference to Tennessee, “and do ancestor liberation there.”
A spokesperson for Rod of Iron Ministries told VICE News that Pastor Moon doesn’t conduct ancestor liberation via ansu but rather through written requests for spiritual cleansing that are presented to him in boxes and later burned. “There will be no ‘ansu’ activity,” Timothy Elder, director of world missions, wrote in an email. “We have no intention of repeating these excesses at the Tennessee property.”
Anyone who wants to undergo an ancestor liberation by Moon must fill out a form that’s available on the church’s website. On the form, members are asked to stipulate how many generations of ancestors they’d like to liberate, “1-70 generations, 70-140 generations, 140-210 generations.” Under the original church, members were required to pay a specific amount for every generation they hoped to liberate. Moon’s form has a donation section where people can choose how much they want to give for ancestor liberation and whether they’d prefer to pay via PayPal, check, wire, or cash.
Moon also asserts that any ancestor liberations conducted under the Unification Church after 2012 (which was when Rev. Moon died and his mother took over) are invalid due to consumption of “desecrated” holy wine.
Currently, the Tennessee property features just two buildings: a barn and a small residence.
VICE News was able to locate the Tennessee property, which sold for $460,000, on the online real estate marketplace Zillow by matching up clues relayed by Moon in his sermons and social media to key features on the listing.
For example, Moon talked about the property’s approximate acreage, the elevation of the mountain, and its proximity to cities like Knoxville and Sevierville, as well as Tail of the Dragon, a popular meeting place for bikers, and Dollywood (which Moon describes as “Disneyland for conservatives”).
Moon also shared photos and videos to Instagram that pointed toward the property. For example, we learned that the property had a pond, at least one run-down building with a green roof, and graves of Confederate and Union soldiers. Historical records for one of the soldiers buried there helped us narrow down the counties where the property could be located. He also shared a photo showing the view from the top of the property, and we were able to match that view from a popular nearby lookout, which Moon had also visited while he was touring properties.
Property records in Grainger County, Tennessee, indicate that in July the parcel was sold to a company called CIG Properties Inc., which has the same PO box address as Moon’s Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania. (CIG also happens to be an acronym that the Unification Church has long used to refer to Cheong Il-Guk, which means “One Heavenly Kingdom.)
Moon said in a sermon that he hopes to construct a divinity school on the property, along with an elementary school and a middle school, and “training centers.” He made a separate video in Korean about the property, painting a utopian vision of what he planned to do with it.
He talked about constructing separate cabins for men and women, and digging a well in the center of the compound to provide a source of water to the cabins. The well, he said, would symbolize Christ’s Second Coming. He hopes to plant roses and lilies around the well; roses symbolize men, he said, and lilies symbolize women’s virginity. He also wants to plant fruit trees and a vegetable garden, and he told viewers that the land was suitable for growing ginseng (which can fetch a high price in the U.S., as much as $600 per pound.)
A spokesperson for the main Unification Church said that Moon and his congregation “do not represent the legacy of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.” They added that Cheongpyeong “can be likened to the Vatican; it is a place where members go to study, pray, and seek spiritual guidance. It can never be replicated by another organization because it is not founded nor consecrated by Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon.”
In addition to recreating the traditions that many devoted members of the church see as crucial to their sense of belonging and spirituality, Moon has an additional hope for the Tennessee property.
In that same English-language sermon from June about the new property, Moon indicated that he hoped it could become an incubator for future MAGA politicians.
“It's not enough that folks now just come to Sunday service and things like that and be part of evangelism that way,” Moon said in a sermon. “It's now critical that you take political office. It doesn't matter how old you are, because you are the patriots.” He adds that getting involved in politics was critical to defend the church and the U.S. from “globalists, satanists, and political satanists that want to take power and genocide like-minded communities, and of course, gun-owning communities.”
The main Unification Church and the late Rev. Moon were staunchly anti-Communist, and through this position were able to court prominent conservative leaders in the U.S. and beyond. The reputation of the main church as an ally to conservatism remains intact: Former President Donald Trump recently spoke at an event hosted by the Unification Church on the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “The inspiration that they have caused for the entire planet is unbelievable, and I congratulate you again and again,” Trump said of the Unification Church during his speech.
Meanwhile, the younger Moon is attempting to build support on the GOP fringes. He’s been a big proponent of the lie that Trump was the real winner of the 2020 election. Moon and other church officials use their regular broadcasts, streamed via Rumble, to sound off about antifa, vaccine mandates, the Biden administration, Critical Race Theory, or gun laws.
These issues, which he labels as examples of “political satanism,” are typically framed as struggles between good and evil. Moon’s rhetoric often contains overtones of “Christian nationalism,” a set of beliefs that have surged in popularity among some mainstream GOP figures in recent years. The core idea is that God destined the United States to be a fundamentally Christian nation, and anything that falls outside of those beliefs is an anathema..
Moon often rails against the results of the 2020 election (he maintains that Trump, whom he believes was sent by God to combat “political satanism” on earth, was “usurped” from power). The church was even recently raffling off a “Commander in Chief AR15,” a gun manufactured by Kahr Arms that has Trump’s name engraved on it.
(Kahr Arms’ parent company is Saileo Inc., which Rev. Moon founded and later signed over to his business-savvy son, Kook-jin Moon, in 1992. Kook-jin then re-registered Saileo in the Cayman Islands with Appleby, a leading offshore law firm. Soon after, he quietly founded Kahr Arms, his gun manufacturing company, under the umbrella of Saileo. Kook-jin and Saileo Inc. were featured in the “Paradise Papers,” a massive investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists into the offshore activities of “some of the world’s most powerful people and companies.” There were no allegations of wrongdoing against Kook-jin and Saileo Inc. related to the Paradise Papers.)
For the last three years, Moon has held an annual “Freedom Fest” at Kahr Arms’ headquarters that brings together a curious blend of church members who arrive en masse from Korea and Japan, MAGA-world culture warriors, and gun rights activists. While Moon often appears at public events like Freedom Fest with a gold AR-15 slung across his chest and a crown of bullets atop his head, Kook-jin typically wears a more relaxed ensemble, like a Kahr Arms baseball cap and a hunting vest.
It’s unclear whether Moon’s overtures to the MAGA crowd have resulted in more support for the church. (A spokesperson for the church insists that they only have “supporters,” not “members.”) However, his recent expansion into the American South suggests he sees fertile ground for his messaging in GOP strongholds.
In May, VICE News reported that the church had recently acquired a 40-acre property in Texas, a campground on a river, which they’d dubbed “Liberty Rock” and which was partially financed by Kook-jin, according to one of Moon’s sermons.
The campground in Texas, 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. Moon said the goal of the property, which cost $1 million, was to provide a sanctuary to the church’s “patriots” from the impending war with the “deep state.”
Operations there are now up and running, and it remains open to the general public. According to an Instagram account managed by two church members, they’ve recently
hoisted a giant Trump 2024 flag on the property, which they’ve dubbed “Trump Tower.”
Recreating a Cheongpyeong in the U.S., even without ansu, is an unsettling prospect for many in the ex-Moonie community who, from a distance, keep tabs on developments within the Unification Church and splinter congregations like the Rod of Iron Ministries. Some watch in horror as beloved family members and friends become even more entrenched in Pastor Moon’s conspiratorial, gun-centric rhetoric. And some worry that the political intensity, mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, and rampant disinformation in the U.S. makes Moon’s teachings and desire to recreate Cheongpyeong even more dangerous.
“Part of my worry is just the replication of the structure and system of abuse that I witnessed,” said Strait, “but also the fact it's happening with someone at the helm who is even more extreme.”
Additional reporting by Min Ji Koo
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Correction: A previous version of this story said Moon discussed the property in a July sermon. The sermon was, in fact, in June.