THIRD STREET PROMENADE — The way people treat them, you would think they were begging for loose change instead of trying to bring peace and love to the world.
These missionaries with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification have heard it all. Some they approach politely decline to participate, while others get angry and call their church a cult before storming off.
That’s how life is for these followers, who can be seen nearly every day on the Third Street Promenade with a small, laminated card in hand, approaching strangers to see if they believe in a higher power and are interested in spreading the mission of the Unification Church and its founder, The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who created the federation in 1996.
“It’s not so easy to approach people these days,” said Karina Chaves, a missionary and spokesperson for the federation’s Principle Study Center, located on the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway, where new recruits and staunch believers gather to watch videos and read Rev. Moon’s teachings.
“I feel that a lot of people have concepts about people who stand on the promenade, which is understandable these days,” Chaves, 31, added. “People are weary about religion, or about groups, so it’s sometimes difficult to get into a conversation.”
The fact that most people on the promenade are more concerned about finding the latest threads at H&M than unifying the world’s religions doesn’t help either. Neither do the other solicitors, some of whom can be very aggressive.
“People in general have harsh feelings toward organized religion and that’s understandable,” said Luna Gomez, a 27-year-old transplanted New Yorker who joined the federation six years ago after she was approached by a missionary on the promenade. “We don’t judge them. We try to be kind, positive, but it’s hard sometimes. You get a lot of rejection.”
One guy went so far as to take her card and throw it.
Gomez, a full-time missionary who receives a stipend from the federation, said she isn’t on the promenade to debate the meaning of life. Either people believe it or they don’t. If not, she moves on to someone else.
The strategy is simple. Missionaries hang out on the promenade and look for people who seem to be browsing and not running off to work. When they find a candidate, they approach and politely ask if the person is interested in a series of questions on a card. The questions are existential or spiritual in nature.
If the person seems interested, missionaries escort them to the study center to watch a few videos and learn more about the federation and the Unification Church, which is dedicated to restoring the family and traditional values, along with uniting religions in hopes of creating world peace, according to the federation’s Web site.
Some critics have labeled the church and the federation a cult, creating more skepticism.
“Some people say, ‘Are you going to jump me?’” said Gomez when asked about the reactions she gets when she leads people to the study center. Others ask if they are going to be brainwashed.
Volunteers with the study center, which has been located in Santa Monica since 1992, picked the promenade because it is a major attraction on the Westside.
“You have people from all over the world, different races, all ages, all lifestyles,” said Chaves, who joined the federation nearly seven years ago after meeting a missionary on her way to work at Johnny Rockets on the promenade. “It’s a good place to meet people and the weather is really nice, too.”
Chaves remembers the question that stuck with her and led her to check out the study center. It was, “How can we build lasting relations or have true love?”
“That question really got to me,” she said. “[The federation] changed my life and I’ve been working toward the goals ever since.”
While dealing with rejection can take a toll on one’s self esteem, Gomez said the emotional pounding is well worth it when she is able to reach someone.
“Now they are some of my closest friends,” said Gomez, who, along with other followers, gathers for Sunday service at the senior center in Palisades Park. “I get the chance to see them become better people.”