The Words of the Stephens Family

A New Generation Of Arranged Marriage - Jim and Hiromi Stephens

Joseph Burris
June 18, 2009
Baltimore Sun,0,5712422.story

Children of couples matched in mass Unification Church ceremony decades ago are pairing up, sometimes sight unseen.

Jim Stephens and his wife Hiromi Stephens were wedded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Jim Stephens attended a matchmaking ceremony held by what was then the Unification Church 30 years ago, convinced that he could not find a bride on his own. Upon being paired with Hiromi Ishida of Japan, who had recently arrived in the United States and spoke little English, he said that he was ready to get married right away. "Me too," she replied. "But what's your name..."

The couple, who now live in Columbia, were wedded by church founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon three years later, joining 2,075 couples in the church's mass marriage blessing ceremony at New York's Madison Square Garden. Now their son, Miilhan, has followed in their footsteps; he and Sayaka Inokuchi of Japan were among 270 second-generation church couples whose unions were blessed at New York's Manhattan Center in January.

The latest blessing comes amid the 40th anniversary of the first marriages arranged by Moon in the United States. His worldwide church, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), believes in arranging marriages to help create communities that are rooted in its tenets.

The church's approach to matrimony is similar to that of countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In the United States, it has endured where so-called love marriages are the norm.

The church recently held its ninth annual Parent's Matching Convocation in Barrytown, N.Y., where parents of marriage prospects took part in the matching process. Stephens, who offered presentations and testimonials, said about 170 people attended.

"We believe that this is the original way it should have been done," said Stephens about marriages in the church. "With God's guidance, parents will find a spouse for their children, with their children's cooperation, of course. It's not a forced marriage. It's an arranged marriage."

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, an economics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology who has studied arranged marriages in Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States, said he believes about 15 to 20 percent of arranged marriages around the world end in divorce. He said he knows of no comprehensive data on the subject, however. Batabyal's estimate is consistent with a 2000 FFWPU-sponsored survey that revealed that 17 percent of couples who participated in the 1982 blessing ceremony are no longer married to each other.

By contrast, a 2005 National Center for Health Statistics report showed that 35 percent of women and 31 percent of men in the U.S. had ended their first marriages after 10 years.

"We go into marriage as a calling," said Stephens. "It makes it more difficult to divorce because you would have to be rejecting your relationship with God in a way, as well as your church and all your friends in the church. It's not just you and the other person."

Jim and Hiromi Stephens were legally married four months after they met in 1979, in part so Hiromi could immediately obtain green card status for work. But Jim Stephens said that a matrimony in the church requires a blessing as well as a legal marriage.

For that reason, the two did not live together until after their church blessing three years later. They corresponded through letters, which was tough for Hiromi, since she spoke little English.

"It would take an entire day to write a letter," Hiromi said.

"Even though I could read the words," Jim added, "I wasn't sure what she was trying to say."

To see how affectionate the two are today, it's hard to believe that Jim once worried that he looked like a "typical American" to Hiromi and wondered if she would ever distinguish him in a crowd.

"Obviously, it worked out," said Jim. "I can't point to a specific date in time when I fell in love with her. I don't think in those kinds of terms. But I can say that I find myself falling more and more in love with her all the time. That to me is amazing because we started out as strangers and look where we are now. Many couples get married at the height of passion and it's all downhill from there."

Their son Miilhan and bride Inokuchi, both 21, had never met when they were matched about two weeks before their blessing. They are not legally married yet, and therefore live apart. Sayaka (whose parents were wed in a 1975 marriage blessing) is living in Korea doing missionary work. The two have not seen each other since the January ceremony. They've been communicating via e-mail and Skype.

"We talk once a week, make future plans and laugh here and there. We plan to see each other this summer,¨ said Miilhan Stephens, who first learned he had been matched with Inokuchi in an e-mail from the church. "Rev. Moon matched our photos together on a board based on his inspiration and whatever he sees. Both our parents went through it, so we weren't too uncomfortable."

Miilhan Stephens is among a few area residents whose matches were blessed in the January ceremony. Esther Lykes, 19, a freshman at Loyola College, married Charles McDougald, 21, a junior at Ohio State University. Each of the couple's parents was wedded in the 1982 ceremony.

"It has been wonderful, fantastic actually," said Lykes. She said she met McDougald eight years ago when the two worked on a church-related project, but never envisioned marrying him. She had never had a boyfriend and said that initially she was "scared¨ about the union. Yet meeting and discussing marriage with McDougald calmed her fears.

"I feel that our relationship started with friendship, which is more important than physical attraction or lust," said Lykes. She added that some friends at Loyola scoff at the notion of arranged marriages and say that she's too young to make such a decision. Yet others are more accepting.

"One of my closest friends said, 'It must be nice being with someone and not having to search through the horrible dating pool," added Lykes.

Vanitha Dayananda, a sociology lecturer at Penn State and author of the 2006 book Sexuality and Love in Arranged Marriages in India: Why Arranged Marriages Last, said people who enter into arranged marriages have more realistic expectations that those in love marriages.

Many Westerners, she says, "believe that marriage is a continuation of dating, and that is not what it is. In India, people say, 'The reason for marriage is marriage.' Here, people get together, have fun and often think it may lead to marriage, but they're not sure. Some people are not sure even after they marry."

Yet Batabyal said that in many cultures, arranged marriages endure because divorce is frowned upon to the point where some individuals -- particularly women -- don't see it as an option.

"Divorce varies from place to place and it is dependent upon the extent to which women are empowered to speak their minds,¨ he said. "Divorce rates are lower in some countries because women who are unhappy don't want to or don't believe they have the ability to speak up."

Jim Stephens said he never wants his children to believe they can't speak up about such a decision. He and Hiromi helped their son Heungkook, who will be 20 on Sunday, find a bride, and he recently got engaged. Their other three children have asked for their parents' help as well. Yet Stephens added that if they decide not to marry the person he and Hiromi chose, he would respect their decisions.

"It's their life," he added. "I've seen it happen in the church where parents strongly suggest someone to marry and the children don't take internal ownership. It doesn't last." 

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