GAPYEONG, South Korea —The faithful gathering this week in a Unification Church complex outside Seoul may be dressed similarly — most men in dark suits with white ties, the women in cream-colored dresses or pantsuits — but they give different reasons for why they made the long pilgrimage to pay their final respects to Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
“I had to say goodbye,” said Pablo Iparraguirre of New Jersey, who came with his wife, Annie, and four daughters.
“Before Rev. Moon passed, he said, ‘Don’t be sad. Think about how from now on you’re going to be like me,’” recalled Mr. Iparraguirre, who was born in Peru.”To me, that means be somebody who really loves God, loves people and loves America.”
In the nine days leading up to Rev. Moon’s formal “seonghwa” or ascension ceremony Saturday, countless thousands of Unificationists and friends of the movement have come to the church’s complex in Cheongpyeong, about an hour northeast of Seoul.
From early morning until late evening, long lines of men and women have waited quietly to see videos of Rev. Moon’s life, pay their respects to the Moon family in a flower-festooned stadium and sign giant memorial boards.
“I couldn’t miss this important opportunity to see our founder of our church one more time,” said Kone Drissa, 33, who joined the Unification Church in the Ivory Coast and is now studying religion at the Unification Theological Seminary in New York.
Asked why he respected Rev. Moon so much, Mr. Drissa answered quickly: “He led me to understand why I’m alive. He led me to understand love.”
Atlanta Unification Church pastor Tom Cutts, 64, recalled how Rev. Moon taught him, a Southern Baptist, about “how God is so close to us.” His son, Atombo Cutts, 19, remembered Rev. Moon’s “closeness to nature,” and how much he loved going fishing and connecting to nature.
“He never gave up,” said Hyo Ja Hong-Moon of Miami, who joined the church in 1970 and said he lived through the years of difficulty and persecution.
To outsiders, the church’s practice of mass weddings conducted by the Unification Church founder was one of the most distinctive — and controversial — aspects of the young, growing movement. But many here recounted how the unions forged or strengthened in such ceremonies had played a key part in their lives.
Meeting Rev. Moon 12 years ago led to dramatic changes in their spiritual development, said Bishop Jesse Edwards and Archbishop George A. Stallings Jr., co-chairmen of the American Clergy Leadership Conference.
Mr. Edwards, who founded a Pentecostal church in Pennsylvania, had been married for 30 years, but experienced so much strife in his marriage that he and wife Tanya were talking about separating. They instead went through one of Rev. Moon’s marriage ceremonies, and “the last 12 years have been like a honeymoon,” Mr. Edwards said.
Mr. Stallings, a Catholic priest who founded Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation in Washington, D.C., never expected to marry. But instead he found himself being matched and married by Rev. Moon.
“I have a lineage now,” he said, referring to his two children with his wife.
Cliff Gaines, 44, of Georgia, who scrambled to renew his passport in time to come to Korea, was similarly grateful to Rev. Moon’s influence in his marriage.
“I was married to my wife, but we didn’t have a roadmap” for the relationship and it was starting to get tough, he said. Going to Rev. Moon’s blessing ceremony in 2005 “was the saving grace for our marriage,” he said, and after they head that Rev. Moon passed away in Korea on Monday Sept. 3, “our family felt that one of us needed to come” to the ceremony.
The estimated 1,500 Americans who have come to Korea for the ceremony include 200 members of the Generation Peace Academy, an international service and education group for young adults in the Unification Church.
August Lindsay, 20, is one of the many “second-generation” Unificationists and Generation Peace Academy members who flew in this week.
“I wouldn’t be alive without him,” said Mr. Lindsay, noting that his parents were introduced to each other and married by Rev. Moon 30 years ago. Attending the seonghwa service means “I can connect to him,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to joining the Air Force after he completes his current service project.
“I definitely wanted to come” to Korea, said Marisa Melchiorre, 18, who lives in Massachusetts with her Italian father and American mother, who were also matched and married by Rev. Moon.
“Yes, I met Rev. Moon,” Miss Melchiorre said shyly, as she sat in one of the crowded buildings reserved for overnight guests for the ceremony near the stadium.
“He’s a very earthly person, a real man,” she recalled. “And he has a heart so full of love — when you meet him, you can tell he wants to give to others. I think he’s a peace king.”