BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala., Aug 8 (RNS)--Beneath the live oaks that shadow the streets of Bayou La Batre, it's hard to remember that 23 years ago, this sleepy town was a religious battleground aswirl with talk of cults and messiahs and the devil himself.

The nation watched on television as the tough, sea-going families of the Bayou rose up against a couple dozen clean-cut young men who worshipped at the feet of a short Korean man named Moon.

"I see in Reverend Moon the devil," former state Rep. Bob Glass told a cheering crowd at a 1977 Bayou rally. "Any Moonies here, go back and tell Reverend Moon he made a bad mistake coming to Bayou La Batre."

Today, devil or deity, Moon's face still smiles from photos hanging in Bayou homes, and his followers still bow before it worshipfully.

But the pickets, the threats and the controversy are gone.

Followers of the 80-year-old Rev. Sun Myung Moon--properly described as Unificationists, but popularly called "Moonies," a name they consider derogatory--say their once-radical movement, based on a belief that Moon was anointed by God to save mankind after Jesus Christ failed to finish the job, has changed.

It has, they say, matured and established an economic, political and spiritual foothold that will allow it to take its place as one of the world's major religions.

As evidence of the change they point to claims of a growing worldwide membership in the millions; church members elected to state legislatures in America; images of Moon sharing podiums with two U.S. presidents; and a global network of businesses, including hotels, newspapers, radio and TV stations, car plants, restaurants and major magazines like Golf Digest.

And one of the first examples of the church's new place in the world is here in Bayou La Batre, which, in 1995, a worldwide church publication described as "a model community, centered on True Parents tradition, to inspire our movement and restore America."

Unificationists run several of the town's largest and most successful businesses; their shipbuilding company does repair work for the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy; and they spearheaded a successful effort to get the government to dredge and deepen the bayou, bringing increased shipbuilding and repair work to the entire area.

They even started the town's soccer league.

"They've been good for Bayou La Batre," Mayor Warren Seaman said. "They've really cleaned this place up. They came in and fixed up their businesses, painted them, cleaned up the land. Everybody else had to do the same so they didn't look worse than the Moonies."

George Callahan, the Republican state senator for south Mobile County, said he, too, believes the Unificationists have been good for the Bayou.

"Their family values are probably the thing most Southern families remember," he said. "That's what turned things around in the Bayou."

Unificationists say they have been accepted in the Bayou because the locals realized they had nothing to fear. And church officials predict that the rest of the country will feel the same way about Moon's followers, just as soon as they meet the new, friendlier face of the Unification Church.

The Unificationists splashed into town in December of 1977, plunking down $2 million in the largest land purchase in the history of the small fishing village. They announced plans to build a shipbuilding and seafood processing empire on 722 acres of undeveloped waterfront property. They also bought two existing shipbuilding businesses and a seafood processing plant.

The town went nuts.

The City Council rezoned the church property from industrial use to residential. Local businessmen passed the word to quit doing business with the newcomers. Town leaders formed two groups, the Concerned Citizens of the South Inc. and the Concerned Mothers of the South, to fight what they feared were baby-snatching, brainwashing zombies.

The citizen groups rented offices, mailed letters, circulated petitions, had meetings and held a monster rally attended by much of the town's population. It was at that rally where Glass called Moon the devil.

Moon's Beverly Hills lawyer made short work of the resistance, suing the entire town council, the police chief and the town's four leading businessmen for deprivation of property rights, deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights and conspiracy in restraint of fair trade.

"They sued us individually and pretty well shut us up," said Russell Steiner, one of the businessmen named in the church's federal court suit. "If we agreed never to say anything about them, they agreed to drop the suit...Imagine if you lived in this little-bitty Alabama town back then and the Moonies suddenly came to town and started buying up property. Then they sue and shut everybody up.

"People were scared. All we knew about the Moonies was what we heard in the media and what we heard back then was bad."

So trepidation ruled in the Bayou when the first group of 40 bachelors turned a rundown motel into a commune and got down to the business of building ships and peeling shrimp. The locals feared they were going to lose their town, but the newcomers, defying all predictions but their own, slowly faded into the fabric of Bayou La Batre.

After Hurricane Frederic in 1979, the low-lying community was devastated. Mud boiled up out of the bayou, covering the town, and fallen trees knocked out power. Unificationists came to the rescue, thanks to a ready supply of ice from the ice factory attached to their shrimp processing plant. People still talk about the time "the Moonies brought ice to my momma."

Slowly, the townspeople began to view the Unificationists as neighbors instead of cult members. Many people around town said once it became apparent the newcomers weren't out to steal babies, they quit worrying.

Locals got jobs in the church-owned businesses, and eventually some of the Unificationists got jobs in non-church businesses.

"They are pretty normal to work with, good workers. Excellent businessmen," said Steiner, who owns one of the largest non-Unification shipyards in the Bayou. He has employed church members and counts several Unificationists as friends.

The Rev. Philip Schanker is one of the top officials in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Unification Church. His voice mail message sports New Age-sounding music and a silky-voiced blessing for all who call. Schanker bragged that Unificationists are buying houses all over the country.

"The movement has changed a lot, organizationally. For example, we've moved from communal-based living to single-family living. The movement has grown up," Schanker said. "In the '70s, most who joined were young. They didn't have bank accounts or families...Now, over 98 percent of our members live in their own houses and drive to church on Sunday. Just getting that info out would do a lot to dispel people's notions of our group."

Despite popularity gains made by the Unificationists, they've got a lot of bad publicity to overcome. Much has been written about the group since they first came to prominence in the '70s, and most of it was critical. Moon-related press clippings from the last 25 years give the impression that he was a Mafia kingpin rather than a world-famous holy man.

He spent a year in a U.S. federal prison for tax evasion. His organization was investigated by Congress, caught trying to illegally buy a controlling interest in a major Washington, D.C., bank and accused of trying to manipulate the American government on behalf of South Korea. It also owns several gun-making companies in the United States and South Korea.

"People are always knocking the Reverend Moon, but that man is so full of love, despite everything that's been done to him," said Steve Wilson, who joined the church in 1975 and manages its shrimp peeling factory, International Oceanic Enterprises. "And nobody has been through worse crap than Reverend Moon, except God himself."

Sociologists who study the church say there are probably fewer than 3,000 hard-core members like Wilson left in America. Church officials say there are more, but their visibility is down because the church is making so much money these days that the infamous roadside flower peddling of the '70s is pretty much over.

Wilson, like many of the older members, joined the church when he was in college. His story mirrors that of many of the Unificationists interviewed for this story in two ways: He said he joined the church when he was young because he had questions and Moon's teachings provided answers; and he said that when deprogrammers contacted his parents to rescue him from the church, his parents said, "Why would I want to rescue him? He's a better person since he joined."

The Unification Church is not guilty of brainwashing, according to David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I don't approve of the Moonies, but I don't think they are harmful," he said. "I mean, this isn't like they are Aum Shinriyko making sarin gas down in the Bayou. Moon preaches love."

Members say Moon and the church have been misunderstood for years. "Give me two years of telling people who we really are, instead of the isolation we've always practiced, and I'll change that impression," said Schanker, who has a graduate degree in sociology from Columbia University. "For a long time, I don't think we had given anything to Americans other than how to join the Unification Church and be full-time missionaries."

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